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The Modernist Archive

Abstract and Keywords

This article presents different definitions of the modernist archive, and some reasons for its contestation and scrutiny. It discusses the role of the archive as a practical resource for scholarship and as a conceptual metaphor for critique. The article suggests that the suspicion and hostility towards the archive may be attributed to its conception as a symptom of modernity, and provides examples of instances within modernist texts where representations of archives indicate different modernist attitudes towards them.

Keywords: modernist archive, scholarship, conceptual metaphor, modernity, modernist texts

As with the term ‘modernism’, ‘archive’ is currently a highly contested term, and for a similar reason—that it has come under increasingly intense scrutiny in recent years. Archives, just like everything else, are used and talked about more than ever before. This chapter will present different definitions of the archive and reasons for its contestation and scrutiny. It will also outline two quite distinct roles ascribed to the archive, firstly, as a practical resource for scholarship and, secondly, as a conceptual metaphor for critique. Modernist studies use different kinds of archive in a variety of ways against a critical backdrop, I will suggest, of suspicion and hostility towards the archive, since, as a symptom of modernity, it is seen as a branch of state power. Finally, I will provide some instances within modernist texts where representations of archives indicate different ‘modernist’ attitudes towards them.

There are, then, on the one hand, narrow and specific definitions of ‘archives’, such as the following found on the Canada Archives website:

Libraries collect published material, also known as secondary sources. The holdings of one library may be duplicated in whole or in part by the holdings of another. If a book is lost or stolen it probably can be replaced.

Archives collect original unpublished material or primary sources. The records held by archives are unique and irreplaceable. By their very nature archival materials are fragile and vulnerable to improper handling. If an archival document is lost, stolen, or irreparably damaged, the information it contains is lost forever.1

(p. 46) On the other hand, there are definitions of ‘the archive’, something more broadly and vaguely conceived, as a gathering of all material (whether primary or secondary), that can be grouped under one specific name or topic. In such an archive you can, ideally, find everything that belongs to a certain ‘subject field’. Thus, Jerome McGann defines the archive relating to a given ‘work’: ‘It must be understood the archive includes not just original MSS, proofs, and editions, but all the subsequent textual constitutions which the work undergoes in its historical passages.’2 Similar uses of the term ‘archive’ abound. Here is Sean Latham's observation about the immense amount of Joyce criticism, enough to constitute an archive: ‘Novice Joyce scholars, in particular, must first confront the sheer volume of Joyce criticism to be searched and read—an archive now grown so substantial that it threatens to overwhelm even the most earnest scholar hoping to launch his or her own research into Joyce.’3 And beyond these textual conventions of the ‘archive’ lies a non‐textual realm which, as it becomes an object of study, becomes textualized: ‘The landscape is an object of memory, a mental map. Another way in which it acts is to serve as a source of knowledge, an archive of living and material things.’4

Following through with the metaphor might imply that the landscape has been sorted and categorized and requires preservation. The definitions spread: just as one sense of the term makes ‘the archive’ an emblem in itself of distension, the term too becomes bloated. The fixation on the archive comes from attempts to deal with an increasing accessibility to a field of information which swells before our eyes just as it swells beyond our field of perception.

These definitions produce a polarity in the kinds of their potential referents: minimal and maximal. So what ‘the Modernist Archive’ refers to could be either: primary documents belonging to anyone ever described as a ‘modernist’—mostly located in America—or everything that still exists from the period as it is marked by whichever dates are chosen for the modernist era (for instance, 1880–1968 or 1910–23)—and these could be located anywhere. What is common to the two definitions of ‘archives’ is the fact of a gathering together under a classifying name. The fact of gathering confers an authority on the material gathered, on the classifying name, and the institution which has gathered and named the contents. But the functions imagined for these archives vary: for the Canadian archivist, on one hand, the immediate purpose is to preserve primary materials that may be unique or vulnerable or both, from which follows a justification of restrictions on the handling of the material. For Jerome McGann, on the other, the purpose of the archive is rather to assist in a proliferation of narratives relating to a given ‘work’, from which follows a positive evaluation of indeterminacy: ‘The indeterminacy of the textual situation (p. 47) fluctuates in relation to the size and complexity of the surviving body of textual materials: the larger the archive, the greater the room for indeterminacy.’5

Such a positive evaluation of indeterminacy can, arguably, be traced back to a chapter in Foucault's The Archaeology of Knowledge where he proposes an ideal archive and a style of analysis for it that he calls ‘archaeology’. This emphasizes discontinuity over closure. It ‘deprives us of our continuities; it dissipates that temporal identity in which we are pleased to look at ourselves when we wish to exorcise the discontinuities of history; it breaks the thread of transcendental teleologies; and where anthropological thought once questioned man's being or subjectivity, it now bursts open the other, and the outside’.6

This ideal archive is not, as a rule, embodied in any traditional archive which he has defined, dismissively, a few pages before.7 Though Foucault's role in the ‘critique’ and re‐evaluation of the archive is well known, I will be returning to him later. For the moment what's necessary is an acknowledgement of his contribution to the ‘historical turn’ in criticism which helped bring about the intense scrutiny of the capacities and meanings of the archive. As James Knapp observed recently, ‘a new materialism in literary and cultural criticism has regrounded much scholarly debate in the archive as a corrective to ahistorical theorizing’.8 Knapp goes on to talk of a future when ‘cultural history moves into its next phase—beyond the return to the archive’.9 This prophecy is ambivalent: does ‘beyond the return’ mean there'll be further involutions in the very same direction, or rather a withdrawal from them? The idea of a withdrawal is surely unlikely, for archives and ‘the archive’ are under increased scrutiny not only because of historical and materialist turns, but also because of the technological revolution which is currently under way and gathering momentum through the digitization of knowledge and of archives in particular. Once clichéd associations with the archive—dustiness, sexlessness, unworldiness, bureaucracy—are being banished by the prospect of digitized textual utopias, of radiant research capacities, the liberation of potential truth into kinetic forms. The attention this brings to historical materials does make it appear as though historical approaches have become more prominent, but this apparent triumph may have had more to do with its being harnessed to and by the new technology than with its having shaped the forms the technology has taken. Digital technology has rather, I would suggest, given the warring factions more interesting things to do than snipe at each other and has even provided common ground on which they can meet. Indeed, in the context of modernist studies it is questionable whether there was ever much of a ‘historical turn’, since there had always been historical approaches within them and archives had been used to construct several bodies of knowledge, especially (p. 48) the biographical, before and during the rise of ‘theory’. But even if archives had always been a resource, a general ‘archival turn’ is nonetheless altering the shape of modernist studies.

In the broader field of cultural studies, the historical turn is combining with the digital revolution and several large‐scale archive‐digitization projects, to make the archive an object of fascination. Many are relevant to modernist studies if this is broadly conceived. One of the first of these was the Hulton Picture Library (now part of Getty Images), which, though impressive, is commercial and its meta‐data are not that well geared towards academic researchers. In the UK, sponsorship from the Joint Informations Systems Committee has been helping to digitize a First World War poetry archive, a British cartoon archive, various sound archives, the Fürer‐Haimendorf Archive (comprising inter‐war anthropological pictures), the British Library 19th Century Periodicals, and Cabinet Papers from 1914 to 1975.10 In the United States, material from several collections can now be seen online: the New York Public Library has digitized its Whitman manuscripts; the Beinecke at Yale has digitized the copy it has of Conrad's Heart of Darkness draft; Iowa has a superb ‘Dada’ website;11 in Europe there are digitization projects of archival material of writings by Nietzsche, Beckett, and Wittgenstein. Not to be overlooked is the digitization of rare material which Google Books makes available: J. W. Graham's monumental transcription of Woolf's The Waves holograph manuscripts, for instance, is now fully searchable online. Above all, catalogues are now available (see, for example, the Harry Ransom Center at Austin, Texas, or, at Cambridge, the King's College Library collection). Such activities and the prospect of others have raised expectations so that somewhat utopian visions can spring up: ‘The real boon of the digital archive is the multiplicity, the fact that it can amass all material archives and make them accessible to anyone at any time.’12

The reality is more prosaic, but how could it not be? This claim conjures up, unwittingly, an impossible ideal reader who could somehow consume or make use of everything in ‘all material archives…any time’ which not even an ideal insomniac could make use of. Though there is a shift going on, as a paradigm shift it is still unfolding. We are not ‘beyond an archival turn’, but within the force of its swerve, and so we shall be for some time. This is a condition we should not only get used to, but also one we should respond to by imagining, finding out, and testing different ways of making use of it.

Even though the digitization of ‘all material archives’ must be far away on a utopian horizon, the digitization of at least some of them draws attention to their general existence. This attention can result in two distinct roles imagined for archives or ‘the archive’. The first, obviously enough, is as a resource of new scholarship and (p. 49) research; the second is the analysis of the archive as a set of practices and procedures which can be treated metaphorically and which can, in turn, be examined critically and even ethically. This approach features in theoretical aspects of ‘archive studies’, itself a growth industry. Distinct approaches to these different roles are as distinct as ‘practice’ and ‘theory’, which means the two can meet but tend not to, or not as often as they should.

Using the Archive 1: As a Resource

As mentioned, modernist studies, since its inception, has always known of scholars turning to archives, whether for editions of letters, for biographical work, or for genetic studies. Modernist critics, like Hugh Kenner and Richard Ellmann, now even have archives organized under their names. There can, however, be hostility to the very industry of which the critics are a part. The nine volumes of Conrad's letters, for instance, published between 1983 and 2008, represent a high‐water mark of intensive archival work carried out in pursuit of fairly traditional philological goals. This edition is distinguished by its use of archival methods from social history, where there has always tended to be a greater familiarity with what archives can produce than in literary studies. A list of archives used in these letters, including personal and institutional collections, runs to a staggering fifty‐seven different resources. But a patronizing review by John Sutherland feared it represented ‘a genre of scholarship whose time…has passed’.13 Some of the kind of scholarship that Sutherland scorned—the triviality of the material, the elite minority interest the project would stir up beside its expensive, unremunerative nature—had, however, only five years before crucially informed one of the most influential books on modernism in the last ten years. Institutions of Modernism, Lawrence Rainey's 1998 study, drew on material from archives in Austin, Buffalo, Princeton, Rimini, and Yale, and produced provocative new narratives about classic modernist texts and contexts which, as Edward Bishop claimed in a review, made ‘the archives themselves a space of contention’.14 Rainey's materialist methodology also at times shaped a socially materialist agenda of resisting the systems of elite coteries and private patronage which Rainey presented as providing impulses for modernist practices. Seeking ‘counter‐narratives’, Rainey's exploitation of the archive proved at times to be contentious, and lacked, for some critics, the kind of scrupulous attitude to the archive, for the triviality of which Sutherland had censured the editors of Conrad's letters. A note of caution struck by Alexis Weedon, the historian of publishing, is relevant here: ‘Researchers may be put (p. 50) off looking at the economics of literary production because the skills of interpreting what are essentially business documents, and extracting from them data which can produce sound statistical analysis, are not common among literary critics.’15 Given an enduring nerdophobia and the hermeneutic challenges, the user of the archive seems to have the index cards stacked against them.

Weedon's remark cautions against the most powerful myth of the archive: that it contains exciting revelations about truth and identity, a myth fed by the TV genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? Narratives of suppression and repression, of secrets and codes, of exile and return, of institutions and power, and of keyholders or gatekeepers to the archive, which figures as a labyrinth concealing hoards of treasure within, are crucial in this mythic evaluation. The organizational and controlling principles of archives give a false impression of the organization of state power which is in fact always more chaotic than our paranoia allows our minds to imagine it as being. Archives, like that of the Stasi in the film The Lives of Others (2006), provide an image of totalization for organizations, which only have the appearance of an organization that the structure of their archives may have in reality. Documents are, after all, easier to pigeonhole than people.

But a complete knowledge of an archive is, as a rule, in excess of what users or custodians could ever realistically have. Archives also contain the threat of being used against those who have gone to the effort to file or conceal contents within them. The image which is supposed to conjure up awe at the machinery and the power of an institution ends up producing a distracted fear of the institutional desire for totalization. Resistance to archives can come from the insight that the proliferation of materials in them will subvert the expectations of revelation: the truth seen through the archive threatens to become complex but also flattened, fragmentary but in an undramatic way, a bit of a non‐story rather than a powerful counter‐narrative.

The proliferation of material can, however, be given a positive spin, because of the way it can contribute to indeterminacy, and unsettle anything definitive: as George Bornstein writes, ‘the literary work might be said to exist not in any one version, but in all versions put together’.16 So theories of textual indeterminacy within editorial practice have prompted burrowing into archives in particular to see early drafts of poems as well as subsequent revised versions. This kind of archival material, as Genetic Criticism has repeatedly shown, can provide narratives about the making of a work, tell us things about the meaning of process, a writer's sources, contribute to the destabilization of a text, and also contribute to our sense of a life. The well‐earned if clichéd association linking modernism to formal experimentation leads inevitably in the direction of formation itself. Publication of The Waste Land drafts were an early instance of this and are open‐ended enough to keep fuelling debate. Difficulties of form and of reading conjure up a sense of struggle in the processes of (p. 51) composition, and indeed textual archives reveal many such narratives of conflict between a writer and the material of language: this is emerging through recent studies that examine and compare the manuscripts and notebooks of Eliot, Joyce, Conrad, Woolf, Hopkins, Yeats, Beckett, Proust, Mann, and Henry James, many of which have been or are being made available.17 The ephemeral fugitive processes of writing are gradually being uncovered from within the folds of archived manuscripts. Moreover, the textual archive and the biographical archive are being brought together in exciting ways. Several recent biographies (of Yeats and Woolf, for instance) return to the drafts of a work to show the meaning of its making within the life of the subject, the draft being closer to the life which is their context than its form at publication.

Beyond the textual evidence of the work, there are biographical archives which are invoked in battles over writers' reputations, sullying or cleansing them. One paradox here is that, on occasion, the more control a literary estate wields over the materials relating to an artist's archive, the longer the reputation remains in question, the stains of rumour remain unerased. Thus, for example, issues such as T. S. Eliot's supposed homosexuality or anti‐Semitism or the relations between the children in the Joyce family might all have their record straightened, to a degree, if the estates interfered less and let biographers use archival material more.18 On the other hand, material from the archives can still provide the prurient thrill of bringing to light ‘bad behaviour’, as Terry Castle called it, in her review of Janet Malcolm's detective work on Stein and Toklas which in part attempted to uncover what the pair knew about the collaborationist background of their protector during the war.19

So much for literary archives. But modernist studies, since at least Michael North's Reading 1922, has branched out to reach over a broader cultural field.20 Rita Felski noted that ‘new work on the culture of modernity is clearly indebted to two key ideas of cultural studies that are often ignored or misunderstood: an expanded notion of the aesthetic field and a theory of articulation’.21 At the same time modernist scholarship has, she claims, steered ‘clear of its…indifference to the archive’.22 Latham argues that the ‘availability’ provided by digital archives is ‘the condition of possibility for cultural studies itself’.23 Latham's illustration is from the modernist (p. 52) journal the New Age. The archive resources for cultural studies devoted to the contemporary, being histories of the present, could comprise the High Street, YouTube, recycling centres. The archive for modernist material cultural studies is meanwhile distributed among such special collections as the Bakken Library and Museum in Minnesota;24 the as yet unmined John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library in Oxford (currently undergoing a process of digitization);25 the Pinkerton Archive (relating to the detective agency) at the Library of Congress; or the pre‐war BBC archives.26 And this is to name only a tiny selection, for while there are updated and exhaustive literary research guides, with whole chapters devoted to archives and information gateways, such guides for cultural studies trail behind.27 This is understandable, since cultural studies, in theory, comprises all of culture and therefore might potentially wish to draw on every kind of archive—whether it visits collections devoted to board games, ballroom dancing, the illicit production of alcohol, travelling circuses, early cinema, rotarian societies, or papers of psychiatric hospitals. But such archives, in so far as they contain cultural ephemera, can provide critical context, especially when so many modernist works deal in and with such ephemera: whether in advertisements for soap, obscure ragtime songs, the price of tea at a Lyons tea shop, the construction of shopping arcades, or reports commissioned on trade in Central Africa or education in India.

The last two of these allows us to make a distinction within cultural studies, however temporary such a distinction ought to be, between purely ‘cultural’ documents, on one hand, and ‘political’ documents, on the other.28 An instance of the use of political documents from the archives occurred after an ‘Open Government’ policy in Britain in 1998 made available material which wasn't supposed to come out until 2037. Alan Travis, in Bound and Gagged, trawled through several Home Office files and uncovered official material relating to D. H. Lawrence, Isadora Duncan, Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness, and F. R. Leavis's plan in 1926 to teach Ulysses at Cambridge. The Home Office bundle numbered 144/20071 shows that Leavis was considered a ‘dangerous crank’, and that Sir Archibald Bodkin, the Director of Public Prosecutions, sought to find out from the police ‘who and what’ Leavis was and tried to bring pressure to bear on the vice‐chancellor at the time to (p. 53) stop Ulysses appearing on the Tripos.29 The relation between government education policy and the teaching of literature, especially ‘modernist’ literature, at the time when it was contemporary, is a topic, still relatively untouched, which could be enriched by looking through the ‘political’ archives at the Home Office or the BBC.

Using the Archive 2: As Metaphor

A function that is distinct from these various practical applications comes from its metaphoric possibilities: its structure and construction, its principles of arrangement, order, and organization, and its relation to institutions of power are all key in these approaches. Recently the archive, despite its atmosphere of tidiness and calm, is often drawn on as the structure which underlies and underpins aggressive modernities. This opens it up as an object for critique within postmodernism and poststructuralism. This is relevant to modernism in so far as such critiques of modernity can be thought of as having originated within certain modernist practices and representations, and I will briefly refer to some of these in my final section. My arguments at this point are simple enough: firstly, the critique of the archive and of modernity draws on gothic and fantastical constructions of an illimitable power, which form the nightmare flipside of modernity's always foiled fantasies of omnipotence. Secondly, any tracing back of such attitudes to within modernism misses the extent to which many modernist artworks consistently show that they can capture imaginatively, and even protect, a subjective dimension of life, which archives can never catch. Modernist artworks gather primary material of subjectivity haphazardly into an incomplete archive. Postmodernism is predominantly frightened of the capacities of archives, whereas modernism, not only showing a greater variety of attitudes, is predominantly dismissive of their contents. If both views are equally justified, then there has perhaps been a shift in how the state has managed representations of the effectiveness of its archives. But aside from their relative accuracy, modernism's dismissal is a more empowering critique or attitude.

The key historical dates in the establishment of British archives show stepping stones through modernity: His Majesty's Stationery Office (1786), the Public Record Office (1838), the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (1869), all brought together in 2002 under one name, the National Archive. As a symptom and an engine of modernity, what the archive as a metaphor gathers together includes inscription and architecture, governance and centralization, and a surplus of wealth that an institution considers sufficient for investing in the storage of information. The information can cover not only records of laws, regulations, values, and judgements, etc., but the processes by which decisions were reached about all these. Archives hope to ensure (p. 54) their protection and endurance, creating a mirror of permanence for the institution and its values. They come to be seen as the source of truths, knowledge, power, but may also contain records of elements that have been repressed. For Foucault the importance of the archive was in its classificatory function. ‘The archive…determines that all these things…are grouped together in distinct figures, composed together in accordance with multiple relations, maintained or blurred in accordance with specific regularities.’30 This means the archive is at the origin of the order of things. Lyotard, in The Inhuman, writes of how ‘the political city…provides residences for the presidents of families, the domini, it bends them to egalitarian citizenship, to the workforce and to another memory, the public archive, which is written, mechanographically operated, electronic’.31 Derrida investigates the archive as ‘an origin’ and the way archives, he says, take place in a ‘house arrest’.32 This blurs the line between the asylum (said to be designed to protect what exists within) and the prison (said to be designed to protect what exists without), a similar blurring that Foucault enacted in Histoire de la folie. Those who guard the documents ‘do not only ensure the physical security of what is deposited and of the substrate. They are also accorded the hermeneutic right and competence. They have the power to interpret the archives.’33 But the roles of the archivist do not necessarily stretch this far beyond protection to interpretation. In general, interpretation for an archivist is limited to the classification of the documents—their ‘tagging’, as the process is now described and agonized over within theories of the archive. The hermeneutic right is given to anyone who is allowed to read and interpret the documents. The restrictions on who is allowed to look at and interpret them may be based on the vulnerability of the material as much as the sensitivity of the document. When Derrida adds that ‘there is no political power without power over the archive’, the archive is put on a level with weaponry.34 The archivist stands at the door of an arsenal.

Such criticisms from three main whetstones of theory have shaped recent critical views within an emerging ‘archive theory’. Literary scholars and cultural historians see themselves as offering resistance to the presumptions of the archive and of archivists. Gary Radford argued that the outdated ‘positivist epistemology’ implicit in the archive could be replaced by literary perspectives. As he writes: ‘The usefulness of considering the library experience from the perspective of literary criticism lies in its ability to provide an alternative perspective from which the rationalistic assumptions of a positivist epistemology can be foregrounded, transcended, and critiqued along with the conception of the library it supports.’35

(p. 55) Helen Freshwater contends that the ‘allure of the archive…obscures the contingency of its construction, its destructive powers, and the way in which its contents remain vulnerable to interpretative violence’, a violence which Freshwater, it seems, knows how to avoid.36 More recently Will Slocombe, in a suggestive article co‐authored with an archivist, strategically emphasized an ‘us’ and ‘them’ split: ‘Literary scholars’, he writes, ‘would be concerned at archivists’ claims that archives are “true” (re‐)presentations of the past, although this is traditionally thought of as the cornerstone of archival practice.'37

But this claim is not especially a ‘cornerstone’ of archival practice. Archivists know as well as their archive users—probably better—the inadequacies and contingencies of the archive and, in particular, problems related to claims of provenance. But are archivists aware that they are maintaining and determining the power relations of a society? Slocombe writes: ‘Archives clearly both maintain the current power relations of a society (determined by the archivist's act of appraisal) and allow us, through the inclusion of materials emblematic of particular social trends, to recapture those spectral figures made invisible and voiceless by a dominant canon.’38

In Slocombe's reading, those who work for archives, unlike those independent souls who work for universities and recapture voiceless figures, are in part servants of repression. But doesn't this make archivists themselves invisible and voiceless here? This construction of archives as repressive equipment of the state enables pious reflections on the righteousness of a seemingly radical ethics. When the archive is figured as a symptom of power and modernity, such a narrow figuring may itself be a symptom of a political posturing.

Archives in Modernism

Similar visions that connect archives to power, tradition, and repression, but which lead to pessimism rather than pious injunctions of redemptive resistance, can be found in late modernism: in Orwell's 1984 and, before that, in Auden's ‘The Unknown Citizen’. Both raise spectres of an awesome machinery of state power underpinned by state knowledge:

  • (To JS/07/M/378
  • This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)
  • He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
  • One against whom there was no official complaint.39

(p. 56) Auden and Orwell, part of the generation which succeeded the modernists, differentiate themselves partly through such characterizations of the state as something which destroys the individual in so far as it amasses knowledge about it. Objectifying official archives become a means of displaying a politicized commitment. While pitching the individual against established institutions is hardly rare in modernist texts (Stephen Dedalus against the Catholic Church; Septimus Smith against Harley Street psychiatry), the archive is not demonized in the same way. Perhaps the difference can be explained through invoking the eruption of an official and normative language, as it was being developed, emitted, and stored by the BBC. Rather than being demonized, the archive is critiqued within modernism through its failures, its deadness, and its rigidity: art offers alternative archives, as we can see in a selection of allusions to the archive, though there isn't the time to make this thorough or organized along the lines provided by the supreme model of a well‐organized working archive.

The modernist archive begins with The Aspern Papers. There Henry James aimed a powerful and sharp critique at the biographical drive towards archival material. This drive was shaped by a growing cult of literary celebrity, itself shaped by the growth of a literary marketplace in the nineteenth century. Everyone in the story is punished for attempting to trade sexuality and textuality for each other. The marketplace in which James's unnamed narrator fails spectacularly will develop into the marketplace of celebrity in which modernist artists would have to negotiate a position that would resist while it exploited the forces of the market that had shaped the biographical ‘Aspern’ project. Such a character then becomes a figure within modernism, resurfacing as an enemy in Finnegans Wake (where he is the ‘biografiend’ or one of the ‘nazi priers’, the nosy, prying, nasty control freaks) or toyed with by Virginia Woolf's comical counter‐biographies, like Orlando and Flush (though she did a serious biographical study of the painter Roger Fry).

But this hostility to the commodification of elements which related to a writer's life rather than a writer's work encounters a pacifying impulse flowing in an opposite direction. Mallarmé's declaration that ‘Tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre,’ that ‘Everything in the world only exists so it can end up in a book,’ suggests the allure of a textual totality, of a turn away from selective exclusion on any principles including prudery or privacy.40 Such an ultimate book will be a utopian archive recording reality in its entirety, public and private, social and subjective, an ark to protect its contents from the world which it documents. The allure of totality had already been a feature of nineteenth‐century realist fiction (and as such is perhaps being mocked by Mallarmé) in novels attempting to be a mirror, not just walking down a main road, as Stendhal had described them to be, but trained on all of society, inserting their beams into every domestic corner, however dark they might be. Tolstoy's War and Peace, Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Hugo's Les Misérables, Balzac's Comédie humaine, Zola's Rougon‐Macquart series, George Eliot's (p. 57) Middlemarch, Dickens's Bleak House, in their incorporation of details from the widest possible social spectrum, feed off a desire to contain a totality of things and people arranged into the invisible taxonomy of narrative. They are, to reuse Jacques Neefs's phrase in a slightly different sense, ‘romans d'archives’—archival novels.41

This sublime and inclusive ideal will be flirted with by Pound in his massive Cantos, containing all of history, and by Joyce in his last two colossal encyclopedic works, brought analytically down to earth by the sharp brevity of two of Borges's stories, mocked by Wyndham Lewis, shown to be in ruins by Eliot, pathologized by Walter Benjamin.

Pound's one allusion to ‘the archives’ in The Cantos sees them as an official rubbish bin in which damning social reports are thrown to be forgotten. In Canto XXXIII he refers to Marx's angry citation of a report about child labour. For a surprising moment, Marx is, ideologically, a father for Pound's generation.

  • (Das Kapital) denounced in 1842 still continue
  • (today 1864) report of '42 was merely chucked into the
  • archives and remained there while these boys were ruined
  • and became fathers of this generation.42

The archive is a bin, but Pound has projected his work as an alternative archive, as a wide‐ranging collection studying documents that examine the relation between culture and money, a resource through which the significance of such painful and shaming details hidden in the archive can be reappraised. Art can thus redeem the contents of the archive by bringing its contents to the surface. But this would not have been possible without the archive as a resource which protects the material in the first place. Such redemptive roles for documents, that are initially chucked out like so much waste but then rescued through archival acts of art, are mocked as a form of fetishization in Finnegans Wake, as it moves between valuations of itself as a highly significant letter or totally insignificant litter. Joyce knew also the associations between the archive and power, alluding in the ‘filest archives’43 to the fact that an archive's files can hold the vilest secrets, and that such material, though filed away, can ‘file’ (in the sense of ‘defile’). Elsewhere Shaun, the hypocritical priest, condemns his brother Shem, the exiled artist, for, among other things, gleefully prophesying ‘the dynamitisation of colleagues, the reducing of records to ashes, the levelling of all customs by blazes’.44 One allusion here is to the Dublin Customs House, where vast quantities of primary materials were archived, burnt down by Republicans in 1921 during the Anglo‐Irish War. Shem, the artist, is akin to an anarchist republican threatening the knowledge base that underpins power. But this myth of the artist is Shaun's construction and perhaps the state he hopes to protect from such an artist is too.

(p. 58) The flirtation with the power of a total text is mocked by Borges's thought experiments in both ‘The Library of Babel’ and ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’. In the former the universe is a library of every conceivable text—a place where any promise of meaningfulness, such as that held forth mythically by the archive, is eternally unfulfillable. The latter is a satire not aimed strictly at archives, but at those processes of classification and taxonomy without which archives cannot be formed.

The exhaustive pursuit of the undiscovered life and the augmentations of its significance, aspects of the realist project out of which and beyond which Joyce grew, are resisted by writers like Wyndham Lewis, as Ella Ophir points out. In the late work Self Condemned, Lewis's protagonist Harding, while crossing the Atlantic by boat, loses patience with Middlemarch, concluding that ‘the historic illusion, the scenes depicted…could be preserved in some suitable archive; but should not be handed down as a living document. It is a part of history…swinging his arm back [he] hurled the heavy book out to sea.’45 Harding opposes fiction (as living documents) with archives (as dead documents).

The accumulative constructions of modernist encyclopedism, of books as alternative archives in Pound and Joyce, fleetingly but nevertheless insistently include fragmentation as part of the ‘everything in the world’ that is destined to end up in one book. The Waste Land, by contrast, foregrounds this process, showing us the textual fragments of a blasted archive. In ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ the streets of the city are full of dead documents. Eliot's criticism replies to this sense of ruination, suggesting a need to reconstruct an archive whose documents will be renewed through their recontextualization within reinvigorated canons of world literature. Unlike Eliot, Walter Benjamin's interests in collection, which found paradigms in Baudelaire's attention to ephemera, are seduced by the city space of the street as an archive, which are just as alive with evidence as the textual archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale, where he gathered material for his ‘arcades’ project.46 The archive of the streets lies waiting for detectives to uncover its ‘records of barbarity’: ‘No matter what trail the flâneur may follow, every one of them will lead him to a crime.’47 The flâneur is an archive user who is compelled to become a detective investigating the crimes of capital.

I will conclude with one final and brilliant constellation of issues about archives, and the relation between them and the artwork, which shines forth in that high‐modernist classic of the silver screen Citizen Kane. There the attempt of journalists to commodify the significance of the intimate detail by uncovering it as the ultimate sign—who or what did ‘Rosebud’ mean—draws the archive into its strategies. In two brief scenes, on either side of an internal narrative, the archive appears as a place of (p. 59) pompous power, of protection, and policed limits, of meandering digressive narratives that reveal everything except the thing that is sought, a place of disappointment, sexlessness, and futile transgression. Here is an excerpt from the first of these scenes:

bertha [the archivist] (hangs up and looks at Thompson). The directors of the Thatcher Library have asked me to remind you again of the condition under which you may inspect certain portions of Mr. Thatcher's unpublished memoirs. Under no circumstances are direct quotations from his manuscript to be used by you.…(To the guard) Pages eighty‐three to one hundred and forty‐two, Jennings.…(To Thompson) You will confine yourself, it is our understanding, to the chapter dealing with Mr. Kane.48

Here is the second, which follows on from the sequence that has concretized Thompson's reading of Thatcher's memoirs:

(Thompson—at the desk. With a gesture of annoyance, he is closing the manuscript.)

bertha. You have enjoyed a very rare privilege, young man. Did you find what you were looking for?

thompson. No. Tell me something, Miss Anderson. You're not Rosebud, are you?49

Over the course of the film, Thompson of course visits several people, but never finds what he is looking for. But what the researching journalist cannot find, art can always know and choose to reveal, if it so wishes, concealing its potential smugness behind its actual sense of the tragic. ‘Rosebud’ turns out to be the name of the sledge which the 6‐year‐old Kane had been playing with when Thatcher came to take him from his mother. As it burns in the final scene of the film, the meaning is repressed for ever from the world of the film, but gained for the world of the audience—a very rare privilege.

A knowing modernist confidence in art's superiority to any archive is able to construct the possibility of knowing an ultimate truth about a human being. For Welles it is a modernist Freudian truth, since the sledge is an object of pleasure and a weapon he uses to turn on Thatcher—the bad, strong father. The surveillant inner eye of the modernist artist is an alternative researcher and archivist, turned on the archive of a subject's all but lost subjectivity. This eye—and ear—collects and gathers detritus from reality, both internal and external, and organizes it in a discrete system of its own devising. It reflects, sometimes sceptically, on its power to imagine what it cannot know. Art has arrived at the epistemological crisis long before the researcher who is distressed at the point of arrival: ‘The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties…Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best.’50 Art has found time to become comfortable with this situation and with the possibilities it creates for open‐ended narratives, and can even relax in the feeling that, because it has the simple power of imaginative reconstruction, it never needs to (p. 60) look beyond impassable limits of knowledge. Modernism could thus always refer to the archive without always having to refer back to a fear of the archive's relation to a power which only ever claims to know without finally knowing. And this, I suggest, is the proper spirit—sceptical, fearless, rational, imaginative—with which modernist studies should enter into the expanding, searchable, and radiating labyrinth of modernist archives.


(1) Library and Archives Canada, ‘Archives and Libraries: The Fundamental Difference’, in Using Archives, 〈〉.

(2) Jerome McGann, ‘What Is Critical Editing?’, Text, 5 (1991), 24.

(3) Sean Latham, ‘Hating Joyce Properly’, Journal of Modern Literature, 26/1 (Fall 2002), 119–31, Literature Online, 〈〉.

(4) Pierre Nora, Rethinking France, ii: Space, trans. David P. Jordan and Mary Seidman Trouille (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 343.

(5) Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 62.

(6) Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (London: Routledge, 2002), 147.

(7) Ibid. 142.

(8) James A. Knapp, ‘“Ocular Proof”: Archival Revelations and Aesthetic Response’, Poetics Today, 24/4 (Winter 2003), 695.

(9) Ibid.

(10) See JISC, Digitisation and e‐Content, 〈〉.

(11) See University of Iowa Libraries, International Dada Archive, 〈〉.

(12) Stephen J. Mexal, ‘Material Knowledge: Democracy and the Digital Archive’, English Language Notes, 45/1 (Spring–Summer 2007), 129.

(13) John Sutherland, ‘Doughy’, London Review of Books (4 Dec. 2003), 14–15.

(14) Edward Bishop, Review of Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture, Modern Philology, 99/3 (Feb. 2002), 489.

(15) See Alexis Weedon, Victorian Publishing: The Economics of Book Production for a Mass Market 1836–1916 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 5–30, 〈〉.

(16) George Bornstein, Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 6.

(17) See Dirk van Hulle, Textual Awareness: A Genetic Study of Late Manuscripts by Joyce, Proust, and Mann (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003); Matthew Feldman, Samuel Beckett: The Inter‐War Notebooks (London: Continuum, 2006); and Finn Fordham, I do, I undo, I redo: The Textual Genesis of Modernist Selves (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

(18) See e.g. Ranen Omer‐Sherman, ‘Rethinking Eliot, Jewish Identity and Cultural Pluralism’, Modernism/Modernity, 10/3 (Sept. 2003), 439–45.

(19) Terry Castle, ‘Husbands and Wives’, London Review of Books (13 Dec. 2007), 11–16.

(20) Michael North, Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

(21) Rita Felski, ‘Modernist Studies and Cultural Studies: Reflections on Method’, Modernism/Modernity, 10/3 (Sept. 2003), 501.

(22) Ibid. 504.

(23) Sean Latham, ‘New Age Scholarship: The Work of Criticism in the Age of Digital Reproduction’, New Literary History, 35/3 (Summer 2004), 413.

(24) See 〈〈. Several important works using this archive have influenced concepts of modernism, such as Tim Armstrong's Modernism, Technology and the Body: A Cultural Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

(25) See Bodleian Library, John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, 〈〉.

(26) See Todd Avery, Radio Modernism: Literature, Ethics, and the BBC, 1922–1938 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

(27) See James L. Harner (ed.), ‘Guides to Manuscripts and Archives’, in MLA Literary Research Guide, 5th edn (New York: MLA, 2008), 33–42.

(28) To some extent this split maps onto a useful archival distinction: ‘Archivists distinguish between record groups and manuscript groups. A record group would include the various media created as part of its activities by a business, government or other institution. A manuscript group refers to the papers of an individual or private agency.’ See Library and Archives Canada, Using Archives, 〈〉.

(29) Alan Travis, Bound and Gagged: A Secret History of Obscenity in Britain (London: Profile Books, 2000), 18–45, 319.

(30) Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 128.

(31) Jean‐François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991), 193–4.

(32) Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 2.

(34) Ibid. 4 n. 1.

(35) Gary P. Radford, ‘Flaubert, Foucault and the Bibliothèque Fantastique: Toward a Postmodern Epistemology for Library Science’, Library Trends (Spring 1998), 616.

(36) Helen Freshwater, ‘The Allure of the Archive’, Poetics Today, 24/4 (2003), 729.

(37) Will Slocombe and Jennie Hill, ‘Archive‐Text: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue’, English Language Notes, 45/1 (2007), 27.

(38) Ibid. 23.

(39) W. H. Auden, Collected Poems (London: Faber, 1976), 252.

(40) Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘Le Livre, instrument spirituel’, in Œuvres complètes, ii (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2003), 224.

(41) Jacques Neefs and Raymonde Debray‐Genette, Romans d'archives (Lille: Universitaires Presses, 1989).

(42) Ezra Pound, Canto XXXIII, in Cantos (New York: New Directions, 1987), 162.

(43) James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber, 1973), 398.12.

(44) Ibid. 189.35–6.

(45) Quoted in Ella Zohar Ophir, ‘Toward a Pitiless Fiction: Abstraction, Comedy, and Modernist Antihumanism’, Modern Fiction Studies, 52/1 (2006), 111.

(46) See Ursula Marx et al. (eds), Walter Benjamin's Archive: Images, Texts, Signs, trans. Esther Leslie (London: Verso, 2007).

(47) Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Verso, 1997), 41.

(48) Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, Citizen Kane: The Complete Screenplay (London: Methuen, 2002), 178.

(49) Ibid. 192.

(50) Castle, ‘Husbands and Wives’, 16.