Walter Benjamin archive

Walter Benjamin’s Archive

A new icon, with the appearance of a little piece of torn paper, appeared mysteriously on my PC Desktop last week, enigmatically labelled ‘scrap’.

The three rambling lines of prose that my computer had thoughtfully saved for me in this file will probably not be worth saving for posterity, but its appearance did coincide with the arrival by post of Walter Benjamin’s Archive, a book dedicated to the preservation of scraps – indeed the second chapter is rather endearingly entitled ‘scrappy paperwork’. And this coincidence served to remind me of how our move to a world dominated by digital networks and media has brought in its train a corresponding compensatory preoccupation with archival materials and processes. The archive as a symbol for the storage of knowledge is perhaps more appropriate than the library of books for an internet generation. It suggests more heterogeneity, more materiality, more stored potential for the researcher. Knowledge in the archive has not yet been processed and turned into discourse; its classificatory procedures are provisional; they may throw up eccentricities, new connections and surprises; and things can be lost in the archive… and then be re-found.

Benjamin’s model of knowledge was figured on the model of the archive, albeit an improper one that eschewed careful filing and that privileged chance connections. He presciently foresaw the obsolescence of the book as the foundation of scholarly activity.

‘And today’ he wrote ‘the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems. For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index.’

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Published in Photoworks issue 10, 2008
Commissioned by Photoworks

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