the Massive Archive (“I have forgotten my umbrella” & tweeted about it)

I have argued elsewhere against the futility of the Infinite Archive – as expressed through various projects, many of them by google (like the desire to scan and digitize every book ever). But the futility of the Infinite Archive is built into the dream: its being is its perpetually unfinished becoming. The problem is thus not with the Infinite Archive (that at least can be thought and conceived. The problem, rather is with the Massive Archive.

Human beings can think infinity. We can grasp the concept. Sure there are vagaries that escape some and nuances that escape others. We are not all mathemagicians. But the infinitesimal and the massively massive are much more difficult entering into impossible. There are not infinite grains of sand on a beach. Planck length can be grasped mathematically but conceptually? As numbers approach the massively huge and minusculely small, we humans lose the ability to fully grasp their meaning.

Why does this matter? How does this relate to the archival project? Consider, if you will, the process of collecting the libraries, works, letters, files, papers, and documents of the notable. Various libraries and universities pride themselves on the collections that they possess and the research potential of those archives can, indeed, be tremendous. But what will happen to the collected papers of a contemporary figure? For some, it may be little different. But what about those who maintain a significant digital and social media presence? Who conduct research, writing, & public speech, etc. through those various platforms and the platforms to come? Will their archives necessarily include their Twitter feeds? What about deleted tweets? Saved but unpublished blog post drafts? The value of these archives is that they often include personal documents but how will we decide which private messages and private feeds are to be archived? How many of the endless stream of digital photos saved in ever cheaper digital storage? What part of our search histories (even the ones on incognito?)? Ironic and/or informative hashtags? Location data? What portion of the cloud? Will the NSA contribute what they have gathered?

The personal archive of a contemporary individual is not infinite. But the process of archiving a digital life in order that it might be useful and meaningful for later generations is going to involve a whole new form of culling and curation. Because surely keeping everything would make the archive unwieldy, spoiled for riches and thus starving because of its own excess. How can Nietzsche’s laundry lists compare to Istagramming our meals? But who decides what is archived and what is left to the digital landfill? Who decides which fragments and feeds might be relevant in a century or two? And what would that deciding look like?

There remains hope that the metadata of the future might resolve this issue down the line (for those down the line) but since the process of attaching appropriate metadata to current archiving and digitization projects is so complex and time-consuming at present, one wonders if that will provide much help to the present. One can conceive of a search capable of “finding what we are looking for” but is there a practical way of implementing such a vision? Keywords and tags are useful but certainly flawed.

Perhaps the solution lies in curation, perhaps in improved metadata, maybe in some really cool thing that I don’t even know about, but the issue of the Massive Archive remains and remains to be solved. And now, this.

Aaron in the Desert: the Signature in the Wilderness

To come of age in a dry place… – The Doors, “To Come of Age”

As you drive through the Mojave Desert at night, the first thing you notice is the glow. A mirage almost, a vision in light playing across the sky. But no mirage, in truth, save The Mirage Resort Hotel & Casino. Las Vegas, the meadow, where I came of age, attended high school and spent somewhere between 7 and 11 years.

Aaron wandered through the desert of the Levant with the Israelites for forty years. Prophet, persuasive speaker, prototypical priest, bringer of the first plague, crafter of bovine idols. He was a man of contradiction, played off against his brother. He sides with Moses, then the people. He rebels, he ends rebellion. He stands as the barrier between the plagued rebels and the healthy obedient. Replaced by Joshua (the name of the man who generations later would claim to be the Messiah), he never made it to the Promised Land, dying on a mountain in the desert.

Las Vegas, postmodern dream writ large. Glittering promise never delivered. Bells and whistles, no clocks, hazy drunken empires, memories lost to the chasms with mortgage payments and alimony chasing that inevitable something. An endless chain of neon signifiers. But I remember the carpets. The same monotonous patterns in bright colors faded to nothing by a million footsteps. If Las Vegas is anything, it is those terrible casino carpets.

“‘Desert’ is the name of a problematic because the distinction between inside and outside (the issue of chora) is a founding distinction. It is cultural or institutional, political in a profound sense, involving the choral zone between fate and freedom, and irreducible zone of luck, chance, risk, and timing”(Ulmer 239-40).

“‘The sons of Protestant ministers and school teachers may be recognized by their naïve certainty when, as scholars, they consider their cause proved when they have merely stated it with vigor and warmth; they are used to being believed as that was part of their fathers’ job’”(Nietzsche in Ulmer 144).

I lived in the desert for seven years, son of two schoolteachers, grandson of a Protestant (Lutheran) missionary. Seven is a lucky number in America. Luck would get me out of the desert. Into the academy. From Joshua Trees (that name again, the replacement at the right hand of Moses, as another Aaron recedes into the landscape) to the Ivy. Following Ulmer, “American stories do not so much disguise a social cause as individual initiative, as many critics insist, as they openly declare a primary value of the culture – luck”(234). I spent four years away (four – 四, the number of death in Japan, the country in which I was born) in a new wilderness, a school bearing the Biblical motto Vox clamantis in deserto. Was I then to be like the spokesman for Moses (the man who’s rod was the biggest snake) or perhaps John the Baptist (“with wild staring eyes and a strong urge to fly”)? Was I to be a voice crying out in the wilderness? And what would I cry? Make straight the way? Let my people go? Tear down this wall? In total, I maintained a residence in the desert, in that “meadow” for 11 years. 11: another lucky number, on the craps table at least.

As a scholar, it would seem, I was pushed in a certain direction: leaving the desert as I did, for The City, for the Academy, for the torch that marks the seal of that next university. Moving towards scholarship, towards being believed as a matter of course, as a matter of the “vigor and warmth of my arguments,” or towards desiring as much, a voice crying out in ever new wildernesses. Am I then to be a prophet for and against the people, lead them from slavery but into the desert? Towards that passage that is chora, that slippage between the bound and the unknown, lost between an inside and an outside, never reaching the Promised Land. Upon leaving New York, I did seem to find myself again in the wilderness, this time a swamp, named for flowers but formerly bearing the motto Plus Ultra – Further Beyond.

In the desert you can remember your name cause their ain’t no one for to give you no pain. – America, “Horse with No Name”

Ulmer, Gregory L. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Print.