Beyond the Democratic “Experience” of an Archive

Plato’s critique of writing is still widely known. He worried that the “technologizing of the word,” to use Walter Ong’s phrase, would lead to the erosion of the soul’s memory, and therefore to the end of true learning, which for Plato was but a form of remembering. One can only imagine Plato’s horror at our contemporary data society, where the word has been even more radically technologized. Digital computing entails the reduction of meaning to the stark logic of ones and zeroes, positive and negative, off and on. Far from representing a return to the “primitive,” this reductionism represents the technological perfection of writing, at least according to demands of efficiency: vast amounts of data can be stored on small devices for recall only when prompted.

But it is obvious that to live in a data society is not necessarily to live in a society that remembers, that actively recalls and engages the past in the present. Indeed, one legitimate worry about data is that it is only  “stored to forget” (as my colleague Kevin Hamilton once said in an atypical Platonic moment). Hitting “save” is like hitting “forget.” How provocative it would be if some programmer would create an add-on that would change every instance of “save” or “save as” on a machine to “forget” or “forget as”!

Given the fraught status of memory in a data society, it is little surprise that archives have become intensified sites of anxiety, energy, creativity, and labor. The library sciences are overwhelmed at present with the question of “archiving” the digital. The digital humanities have spurred manifold archival projects, each trying to re-imagine the archive in a digital world. Various humanistic disciplines—from art history to literature to history—have devoted volumes recently to the question of the archives. Since these are intentional sites of memory in a society typified by automated memory, it is little wonder they are particularly meaningful social, political, and cultural sites.

But what are the archives? It is a question not all that different from one I asked earlier on this site about metadata. Indeed, it is a question not far off from the one my colleague at The Infernal Machine, Chad Wellmon, recently posed, “What is literature?” Chad’s answer was essentially, “it depends.” It depends on time, place, circumstances, and all those other things that go into the making of what we call “culture.”  No doubt, we could say the same thing about the archives.

I am struck, therefore, by a contrast in democratic cultures between two national security archives I recently visited, one virtually and the other in person. Both have large holdings from the Cold War. Both are run independently of the government. And both directly address the ends of democracy in their mission. And yet the meaning of these two archives could not be more different, especially with respect to what they assume about the nature of democracy.

The first, George Washington University’s impressive National Security Archive, plausibly claims to be the world’s largest nongovernmental archive. I visit it online regularly. Founded some thirty years ago “by journalists and scholars to check rising government secrecy,” the archive has a team of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawyers among its staff. One of its several claims of “extraordinary, quantifiable success over the past 25 years” is “40,000 FOIA and declassification requests to more than 200 offices and agencies of the U.S. government that have opened more than 10 million pages of previously secret U.S. government documents.”

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Archivists at the Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional. Photo courtesy of Human Rights Data Analysis Group.

The other archive I visited in person two months ago. The Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional in Guatemala City, which I introduced to readers of The Infernal Machine in my last post, consists of the 80 million documents and photographs that formed the records of the Guatemalan National Police. The National Police, as I discussed, were responsible for a prolonged reign of terror in Guatemala City during the Cold War, all part of the state’s relentless efforts to “disappear” from political existence anything and anyone that might challenge its legitimacy, power, or authority.

What are the “archives” in these two places, and what does their meaning have to do with the nature of democracy? To walk into the Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional is to walk into a justice factory. It is to see groups of gowned and gloved workers organizing, processing, and digitizing documents and photos. Their goal is to take the archives dumped by the National Police as piles of trash in an abandoned building and to reconstruct, as nearly as possible, the structure and contents of the police records. Building archival structures that replicate the original institutional structures of the archived agency is standard archival practice. But here the mission is different from any North American archive I know of.

Archivists at work in the Archivo. Photo courtesy of Eric Sandeen.

Archivists at work in the Archivo. Photo courtesy of Eric Sandeen.

For at the end of one hallway at the Archivo sits the bare office of the human-rights prosecutor. No computer sits on a desk. Rather, the Archivo is itself the prosecutor’s “data” storage machine, his file system, his memory bank, his evidence repository. The reconstruction of the police archives, a massive and multiyear project, is being meticulously carried out so that the perpetrators of the “disappearances” might not only be identified but brought to justice. The democratic ethos of the Archivo is oriented toward political justice, a change in the state of affairs in Guatemala. In crucial respects, the Archivo “ends” in the prosecutor’s office.

I have never been in the National Security Archive, so I cannot attest to what its facilities look like. (I imagine office cubicles, computer screens, water coolers, and so on.) While the National Security Archives has collaborated in lawsuits and even prosecutions (including the prosecution of retired army general and former president Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala, ultimately stymied by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala), it is apparent that the National Security Archive is an information factory first, a judgment factory second, and a justice factory only remotely.

The democratic ethos of the National Security Archive is strongly informed by the idea of “freedom of information.” In the 1950s the lawyer Harold Cross and American Society of Newspaper Editors launched the “freedom of information” movement as a way to counter the growing secrecy of the federal government in the context of the cold war. This movement would eventually help bring about the Freedom of Information Act, signed in 1966 by President Johnson, and used widely by the National Security Archive. Cross wrote in his 1953 The People’s Right To Know: Legal Access to Public Records and Proceedings:

Citizens of a self-governing society must have the legal right to examine and investigate the conduct of its affairs subject only to those limitations imposed by the most urgent public necessity. To that end they must have the right to simple, speedy enforcement procedure geared to cope with the dynamic expansion of government activity.

In most respects, Cross approached his work in a forensic spirit: “information” was needed for journalistic investigations and, more broadly, to make the government accountable to the people. Yet, underlying Cross’s efforts and those of the editors of the newspapers that he represented, was a faith in the stand-alone democratic virtue of “openness.” Exposure, closely related to exposé, was itself a kind of democratic good. The National Security Archives today continues this faith: most of its work ends in well-timed publicity statements like this, this, or this.

Exposure, to be sure, is a democratic good. But is it therefore a democratic end? Are archives that expose government secrets inherently democratic? Is the opening of archives itself a democratic accomplishment?

Of course, democratic societies need information, but the democratic culture of the United States is too prone not just to the rather crass assumption that more information is always better but to the more sophisticated Whitmanian and Deweyan assumption, more recently championed by Richard Rorty, that democracy is ultimately a matter of “experience.” “Information,” especially freedom of information, fits nicely with such a notion of democracy. “Information” is synonymous with exposure and exposure itself a kind of democratic good. Archives in this Deweyan cultural context become potential sites of exposé, disclosure, revelation, and so on—all aiming ideally toward a broadly distributed culture of critical judgment. Justice, in this Deweyan world, would seem to be a spontaneous outgrowth of the proliferation of democratic experience, rather than a particular end to be achieved through concerted and focused effort.

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At work in a justice factory. Photo by Ned O’Gorman.

To be sure, judgment is both the beginning and end of justice. We move toward justice through acts of judgment, and justice is enacted in an authoritative act of judgment. But in Deweyan culture, judgment reigns so supreme that it can take the place of justice. If “experience” is at the heart of democracy, democratic experiences can proliferate quite apart from substantive changes in the state of affairs. [Indeed, a curious connection can be drawn between Deweyan democratic culture and the activities of the NSA and other surveillance agencies. Both “archives as information for critical judgment” and “data as information for analysis” can and do operate quite apart from immediate concerns with justice.]

The Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional challenges these Deweyian assumptions as it insists that exposure is not enough. The democratic culture of the Archivo is one where history, condensed in the archives, is proactively oriented toward justice through acts of exposure, yes, but moreso through the construction of structures of accountability, of justice, even in a political context where those structures are regularly frustrated by corruption, cronyism, and fear. Still, the people of the Archivo persist in their factory-like work, working toward a country not yet achieved. The goal of democratic politics, they attest, is not ultimately a broad realization of critical judgment and widespread forms of democratic “experience,” but justice, an objective order, a state of affairs, indeed a state. Richard Rorty offers no categories for understanding the methodical labors of the Archivo.

[Thanks to Paul McKean for teaching me about Harold Cross.]