Archive Practice and Digital Humanities

Posted by Sara Morais at Jun 24, 2013 09:55 AM |
After trying to define the field of digital humanities in two prior blog entries, one mapping the field, the other defining its values, the third blog entry in the digital humanities series looks at a reoccurring keyword of digital humanities research, namely at the concept of the archive. The following article touches upon how it is being used within research of digital humanities and how that relates to traditional humanities archival work

Within the digital humanities readings, values and topics have been established, which are constantly discussed in different ways. Something that kept on coming up is the way the concept of the archive is included in digital humanities research. As digital humanities deal with building tools for knowledge distribution, it is interesting to look at what the archive did in traditional humanities research and how it is being implemented by digital humanities.

The process of archiving has been central to intellectual work and several political and cultural theorists have written on it since modernity. As Marlene Manoff notes in her essay titled Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines, theoretical formulations have emerged in trans-disciplinary work in the past decades, creating a large and diverse body of literature (Manoff 2004). The archive has been said to be central to political power and plausibility in the works of humanities. Yet, the archive is not simply a storage space for historical documents and artifacts. Archives have been known to form national consciousness and be used as a weapon in ethnic struggle, as well as many other political and scholarly realms (ibid.: 11).

According to Michel Foucault the archive is not a place where history is found and historical knowledge is preserved, but a lot more and exactly the opposite (Foucault 1969). For Foucault the archive represents the memory about a certain discourse (for more on Foucault's discourse theory (Foucault 1969). Foucault argues that the systems of thought and knowledge are governed by rules not only structurally, but operationally in the consciousness of individual subjects (see: Gutting 2013). This means that all knowledge is being produced with boundaries and constraints of thought which apply only to the period in which that knowledge is being produced. Returning to the archive, this means that what it stores is always subjective and mirrors only the concepts and knowledges of the time it was produced in. Archeological work was and is important, as it shows how societies have thought and acted in prior situations, which may differ from the knowledges about the same things that are perceived as 'truths' today. In this way, Foucault argues, a process of knowledge creation is made visible, which on the one hand cannot be thought as a separate from our contemporary knowledge production mechanisms, while at the same time it is isolated from them, as the archive only shows the memory of knowledges at that time for that time. Foucault goes on to create the method of what he calls a 'genealogy', which enables humanities and research in general to follow up on the process of changing knowledge repositories, discourse and norms (see Foucault 1969) . Genealogy is not just simply a critical look at history, but allows for several recounts of histories, discourses and norms which are felt to have no history, like for example sexuality or body issues, which are often portrayed as to have “always been that way”. Genealogy, therefore, is not a linear praxis, instead it seeks to show contradictions and pluralism within histories, hence deconstructing the term's supposed essentialism.

One of the main things one can derive from Foucault in this context is that he sees history not as a given, unchangeable thing, but accentuates its multiplicities, which is why this text mostly speaks of histories in a plural sense. At the same time, Foucault's goal was not to enforce the term history, but to go against supposedly rigid narratives of ideas and historical sciences, to explore the sociopolitical rules under which knowledge is generated, produced and revised.

It becomes quite clear that the political implementations of archival practice are essential to the way in which history is perceived, and even more so in which histories are being told, as it is always a selective process. One must remember that most archival work done in prior years and probably up until the present day is mostly done by people in the so-called 'West', first and foremost by white, middle class men. So it is no surprise that revising existing archives can be fruitful to changing the perspective on a certain discourse or analyzing its political power at the time. As Kate Eichhorn explains in an interview, reviewing even apparently empowering archives of political discourse and their documentation can modify the way a certain movement is portrayed. Her research on feminist archives and her documentation of feminist and queer activism brings new acknowledgement to the Riot Grrrl movement with an “intellectual and aesthetic lineage” it was not being associated with before (Eichhorn/Gwendolyn 2011). So, although the actual practice of archiving is merely a methodology, its technology influences the agency and the politics of the discourse it is serving as a memory for.

It has been argued that the archive is for humanities, what the laboratory is for the sciences (see Manoff 2004: 13). This analogy works well, as it describes the materiality of archives as a place of knowledge production. However, it implies a certain affirmative understanding of this process, as laboratories in sciences are used not to create discourse, but to affirm or deny a certain hypotheses, which could deny the social influences taken on archives. At the same time, research done in science, technology and society studies has made it very clear that even laboratory work underlies certain social constraints and is not an objective method of creating knowledges (see eg. Latour/Woolgar 1986, Hackett et. Al 2008). Nevertheless, it is true that the building of the archive is a technological process, as Jacques Derrida points out (Derrida 1994: 17). Therefore, it is important to remember that technology does not only incorporate the digital, but also analog mechanisms, like the mere act of inscription or documentation. Technologies should not and cannot be separated from the methodology of 'archiviation', as they are inherent to the way the documentation is taking place. Based on the example of Freud's psychoanalysis, Derrida argues that the access to technologies such as tape recorders or computers would have “transformed the history and development of psychoanalysis 'in its very events' (Manoff 2004: 12, emphasis in original).

This point seems even more valid in a discipline which sees one of its main features in making knowledge accessible through archival work on the internet, as it is the case in the digital humanities according to many of the practitioners in the field (see eg. Svensson 2009). A large amount of work in the digital humanities has been going into making previously published work available online, as well as publishing new work in several languages or formats such as visualizations of data. The technological development of the last years has enabled not only text-based data to be visualized, but event podcasts to be uploaded and activist operations to be documented in virtual space. However, as Kate Eichhorn states in reference to the Occupy Movement, just because a discourse is occupying a space online, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is successful in promoting its cause or even granting access to it (see Eichhorn/Gwendolyn 2011), let alone helping it stand the test of time. Even more so in the digital humanities, where a shift has taken place, encouraging digital humanists to do less reading and more “doing” (see Ramsay 2011). Discussing this separation clarifies what might be one of the main problems within digital humanities, which is the attempt to separate technology from what is human, and thereby from what is social. “Doing” things translates into a purely technological activity, which implies that there is no theory to back up one's actions. This “Doing” can be translated into a positivistic understanding of knowledge construction, much like the ways laboratory experiments are used to affirm or deny a specific theory, as if it were knowledge being objectively created and has been criticized in the digital humanities to do exactly that (Cecire 2011). If that is the case, digital humanities that are concerned with making knowledge more accessible are actually providing a very restrictive type of access, as archival work is being done first and foremost on existing works that are considered to be important by the people doing the documentation, hence greatly influencing the shape of discourse around these topics, while suggesting objectivity in this building of infrastructures. The digital realm, especially the internet, very easily marginalizes this fact, as it hides the circumstances in which work is being published, just as it obscures censorship or the deletion of data, when content is simply removed from the internet or sites are taken offline. However, this “Doing” also translates into alternative understandings of authorship and archival work, as the archive itself is no longer necessarily text-based. Instead, as designers, coders etc. contribute to the shape of the work being done as co-authors, they also change the ways in which archives are produced. The internet is a legitimate option for archival work to take place, however, questions arise about the longevity of the resources that are produced online. It has been lamented that fruitful discussions in the digital humanities take place on microblogging platforms and are therefore lost in cyberspace after some time (see Spiro 2012). Documentation is vital to realizing and understanding historical processes in their relation to todays social development, so such a loss of information is very regrettable. However, literary archives can work as gatekeepers in traditional humanities work, as they not only establish literary canons, but also define what authors receive recognition. Archives in the digital humanities have become contemporary ways of storing a discourse, instead of being a long-term source for knowledge around that discourse. This deconstructs the importance of a literary canon, but also the possibility of tracing knowledge production and the process of social development. Hence, it is necessary to come up with archives that can accommodate the new modes of publishing and knowledge production that are arising through digital humanities. 

Also, it is important to remember that categories such as 'race' or 'gender' are intrinsic to narratives and histories. Tara McPherson exemplifies this point, by showing how technological organization of information in the 60s greatly responded to social struggles for racial justice and democracy in America (McPherson: 2012). These categories, just as any other social categories, are intertwined with any social development, including technological development. So their obscurity or absence reaffirms the narrative of a 'white', male and western norm. Alternative publishing projects are still mostly led by western 'white' men, even if it is collaborative work. Especially as these categories are privileged, it is important to remember ones own privilege when talking about a field that tries to be inclusive. More often than not, the subjectivity of one's knowledge around a discourse is not questioned in digital humanities, but taken for granted and alternative perspectives are neglected. The argument is therefore, that what is central in traditional humanities is being shirked in its supposed development to digital humanities. The digital humanities should therefore stop archiving just for the sake of it, but return to archival practice as a method of analyzing discourse and returning to the question of what it means to be human. It should discuss what it means to be a human not only born into a technological environment but being human as a technological being. This includes possibly stopping to distinguish digital humanities from traditional humanities work, as studying what is human will always include studying technology, which is becoming more and more digital. Only by overcoming this fraudulent separation between something being technological or digital and someone being human, can it truly fulfill the humanities cause. The way archiving is done in digital humanities is an indication that this process has not fully taken place.


continue reading: gatekeepers in digital humanities



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Foucault 1969 Foucault, Michel: “The Archeology of Knowledge” translated by Allan Sheridan, New York: Harper and Row, 1972

Foucault 1980 Foucault, Michel: Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 

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