Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Walter Benjamin and Archives

It is difficult these days to read anything about literary and cultural texts without finding a citation to Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Despite the loss of a quantity of his papers, Benjamin left behind enough publications and working documents to ensure the continuing influence of his ideas. With the publication of Ursula Mark Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, and Erdmut Wizisla, eds., Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs, translated by Esther Leslie (New York: Verso, 2007), we understand something of how Benjamin worked to ensure that his personal papers would survive. This book was originally published in German in 2006 as part of an exhibition at the Berlin Academy of Arts.

This beautifully illustrated book brings to life the creation of the personal archives of an important twentieth-century scholar. The editors discuss – with the aid of illustrated examples and ample quotations from Benjamin’s writings – Benjamin’s own “strategic calculation” in preserving his archives through “which he deposited his manuscripts, notebooks, and printed papers in the custody of friends and acquaintances in various countries. His archives landed in the hands of others, so that their documents might be delivered to posterity. Those who received his work accepted the obligatory nature of their roles and faithfully conserved the papers.” Benjamin, it seems, possessed the “ethos of an archivist” (p. 1). And what we see in this book about Benjamin is how an individual, working before the advent of the computer, might create, organize, use, manage, and preserve his personal papers.

Although Benjamin had the sense of the archivist in his work, it is still quite different from the traditional or “institutionalized archives”: “Order, efficiency, completeness, and objectivity are the principles of archival work. In contrast to this, Benjamin’s archives reveal the passions of the collector” (pp. 1-2). The editors of this volume examine many of the various features of his archives, including the personal catalogs he developed, the photographs he took and maintained of his collections (such as his toys), the evolution of the language development of his son, how he utilized notebooks, his collecting of photographic postcards, the collection of games and riddles, and so forth. “Benjamin’s mode of working is marked by the techniques of archiving, collecting, and constructing,” the editors conclude. “Excerpts, transpositions, cuttings-out, montaging, sticking, cataloguing and sorting appear to be true activities of an author” (p. 4). This is a wonderful glimpse into how an individual, albeit from an ordinary person, conceived and executed a plan for his personal archives.