Dennis Yi Tenen Ø about notes projects publications service talks teaching


What are the minimal requirements to build an archive? How does a pile of haphazardly arranged papers differ from an archive? Look around you and notice the furniture; navigate through your mobile device where you keep your notes and your photos. Think of your social media usage, your habits of correspondence, the way you keep in touch with your family and friends, the habits of keeping a journal, taking notes, finding basic facts about the world. All of these involve an archive of some kind. We are surrounded by archives; we live in them and through them. Archives mediate. Like water for fish, they form the medium of our knowledge gathering and finding activity. If, as the headlines tell us, we live in an information age, archives are a way of making sense of that information. More than making sense, they help keep information at hand. An archive is a way of ordering things. It is a site of mental as a well as physical activity.

Think of the archive as an interface between internal mental states—what I know now—and the external, physical representation of that knowledge—what I could know at any time. The book on my bookshelf is not just a book, it is a part of my mental furnishings. I may not remember the contents of that book for long, but I know where it is and how to find it. I know I could get to it if needed. It is not as close to me as a memory, accessible immediately and at once, but also not as far as an obscure fact with which I have never had any contact. The book on my shelf, the notebook in a pile on my desk, occupies a space somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, between my rather limited ability to remember a few ideas presently and the unlimited amount of ideas out there. My documents, the ones that belong to me, the ones I organized neatly on my desk and on my virtual desktop, are ideas that I used to have. They are also a part of me, but just slightly farther away and outside of myself than my thoughts. I feel safe knowing where they are and how to find them.

Read the rest of the essay in Literature: An Introduction to Theory and Analysis, edited by Mads Thomsen, Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

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