Archivism

November 20, 2010

As a result of my Archives classes, it happens more and more that I find links and references and connections and suggestions to this field, no matter the subject, no matter the angle.  It would probably be the same if I studied medicine or business, or stenography.  In movies (from the B-movie docu-melodrama The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) or the David Mamet short internet video Lost Masterpieces of Pornography), in books, conversation, the newspaper, on TV.  When I moved this past summer, I viewed all my crap as an absolute organic archive that needed to be organized, indexed in boxes, and partly de-accessioned.  I am not so much an obsessive person, and didn’t grow up in an obsessive household, but I try make nods of justice to the things I spend time being interested in.

Couple weeks ago there was a big story in the NY Times about WikiLeaks, a rogue primary source website, which released over 300,000 classified documents about the Iraq War.  WikiLeaks is run by Julian Assange, who is posed in the news as a maverick, paranoid information scientist from Australia.  He looks like a character in the movie Inception.  The US government has condemned the leak, but claims the documents don’t report anything previously undisclosed.   Three months earlier, WikiLeaks let out 77,000 secret documents on the Afghan War.  As an archive student, this is about as close to the TV show 24 as the profession gets.  Julian Assange may not be Jack Baeur, but is he an archivist?

Assange has a certain amount of control over these documents, which he obtained through alleged contacts in the military and elsewhere, and then entered into an agreement with the Times, Der Spiegel and the London Guardian to publish the papers.  Assange had nothing to do with their original creation, but now claims them with a supreme authority, against the will of the U.S.

Assange recently spoke in Sweden with Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 outed 1,000 pages of  Pentagon documents with secret information about the Vietnam War. But Daniel Ellsberg was a political insider, an analyst for the RAND Corporation.  He was hired to do research on the war, collecting a body of documents, and make a report, the conclusions of which Congress ignored.  Julian Assange is a civilian with the pedigree of a computer hacker; he is a laymen agitator.  But he got the info before the news media did.  The Fourth Estate does not need yet another reminder of its decomposition, even in New York, the biggest newspaper city in the country.  History makes cataclysms, then repeats itself, like the river in the movie Deliverance.

Julian Assange is not without precedent, as neither are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Wars are conducted on grand scales by secret information, and the 20th century has been witness to both a geyser of awareness of human civil rights, and a staggering commitment of atrocities typically documented with painstaking archival detail. All in all, the average American is not so easily ticked off by the higher order of things, unless personal livelihood is going to be affected, either when the President goes “Socialist” on health care, or one’s relative is fighting in the war overseas.

. . . . New York, a port city, at the forward guard of civilization, urbane and smug, fiercely multi-ethnic, super-crowded, spewing wealth, is at an advancing stage of acting as its own curator.  San Francisco might have followed this sort of juncture of metropolitan self-awareness, but the technology industry has kept San Fran’s attention on the future, rather than the past. In The Social Network, that new Facebook movie, the money and the action is in Northern California, not New York, where old business paradigms are a stifle.

NYC, in the guise of curating its past, which thinks ahead to the uses of the future, also destroys it.  NYC established the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the late 1960s: it took 300 years for the city to recognize itself as a work of art, which is strange for a town so vainglorious.   And still, as social theorist and New York Intellectual Nathan Glazer says in From A Cause to a Style, “New York is not – not yet – a museum city,” that despite its low manufacturing base and high cost of living, its population increases each year (as does its volume of sightseeing tourists).

Every New Yorker has a moment when a favorite place closes for good. Sometimes I wish, as Chumley’s, McHale’s Pub, Carmine’s and Gino have lately disappeared, so would “Saturday Night Live.”

Gino, Lexington Avenue

Gino, Lexington Avenue, crowd, two days before closing

Charlie Sheen on the rampage at the Plaza isn’t exactly F. Scott and Zelda jumping into the Pomona fountain. And when people like Dick Miles, the table tennis champion, pass away, a piece of the city dies too.  And so I have been a tour guide for the last 6 years and am studying for work in Archives.

Dick Miles