Safe in Our Archives

The idea of the subject as an archive, or subjectivity as documentation (rather than something that is documented after the fact), seems to be cropping up a lot recently. I've been pushing the idea of an archive-based "data self" for a while now, so I'm excited to see this. Though there can be all sorts of theories about it, it seems to me that ubiquitous surveillance will be the fundamental fact about subjectivity from here on out. There will no sense of self that doesn't take into account how the self has been or will be recorded, how that self will turn up as an artifact of online searches.

In other words, we are all life-loggers, whether we want to be or not. Yuk Hui's "Archivist Manifesto" starts from the premise that "we are archivists, since we have to be. We don't have choice. This decision is already made, or determined by the contemporary technological condition." Hui links the everyday tending of personal archives with Foucault's notion of the care of the self and Simondon's ideas about "technological humanism." Since "the development of archival tools embeds a large extent of deskilling," this process must be actively resisted to preserve the semblance of individual autonomy — Hui proposes we take a more active approach to constructing the metadata about ourselves, managing how search engines represent our archives.

This is perhaps what selfhood, subjectivity, now consists of, a consciousness of metadata. We project into the future of how we might be found out through various search terms and play to them; the metadata categories are imposed on us, and we embrace them as truth, as a new dimension of what makes our experiences "real." We don't know what or who we are until our data is properly tagged.

Hui wants us to resist "crowdsourcing" of archives, in which metadata is built by atomized individuals who are ignorant of how their contributions fit into the larger picture, how they help dictate how others are revealed. Instead Hui proposes an ethic of care, which I take as an echo of surveillance scholar David Lyon's Levinasian hope that visibility will foster relations of care between lateral surveillants. One way this might surface is that we will make an effort to make the most favorable sorts of metadata more salient for our loved ones — we will make their virtues more searchable.

This seems like it could complement danah boyd and Alice Marwick's suggestion that we are all becoming "social steganographers" — using codes to baffle unwanted audiences and achieve affective privacy — as a way to accommodate the loss of privacy as something we could passively take for granted. Now we need our social groups to actively help us build privacy for ourselves — establishing obscurity by co-operating on establishing the terms by which we will be seen by outsiders, protecting one another from  their search-engine-driven invasions of the social-media archive.

A new e-flux essay by Boris Groys on "art workers" takes a different approach to personal archives, focusing on the intentional archive artists make through their work rather than the not entirely intentional one created for us through documentary surveillance. Somewhat dubiously equating art making with identity construction and self-expression, Groys argues that artists have pursued the same utopian dream about identity in their work: "the desire of the subject to break out of its own historically defined identity." But the way artists have tried to realize this utopian aspiration have shifted over time. Modernism sought a "true self" that was different from the given, contingent identity; postmodernismhoped to dissolve identity into deterritorialized flows and free play and escape the limitations of bourgeois individualism. It wanted to supplant imputed identity not with some inner true self — rejected as ideological mystification — but an open-ended no-self assembled provisionally from decontextualized signifiers, copies of copies, that evades stable ideological interpellation.

Now in the Internet era, in which everything is traceable and deterritorialization is impossible — "on the internet, every free-floating signifier has an address," Groys notes, "the circulation of digital data produces not copies, but new originals" — the utopian aspiration is for a hermeneutically impermeable subjectivity: "It is the dream of an unbreakable code word that can forever protect our subjectivity. We want to define ourselves as a secret that would be even more secretive than the ontological secret — the secret that even God cannot discover." Groys basically thinks subjectivity has become a password: "the contemporary subject is defined as an owner of a set of passwords that he or she knows—and that other people do not know. The contemporary subject is primarily a keeper of a secret."

I'm not sure, but it seems as though Groys is suggesting that the task for the artist today is to make the aesthetic equivalent of uncrackable passwords; uninterpretable objects that can house subjectivity safely, protect it from the internet's archiving and algorithmic processing and endless recirculation and potentially hostile repurposing.

That idea of the subject as essentially secret doesn't really follow to me; that our "real self" is only in what can't be traced to the influence of others doesn't seem so utopian or compelling to me. It seems lonely, empty. I'm more persuaded by Foucault's proposition that the subject is shaped through confessing secrets, and that subjectivity is organized around disclosure, not concealment. I also think boyd and Marwick's "social steganography" idea is more persuasive. If we are always reshaping our intimate comunicative codes, then the manufacture of our master password for the self is actually a social process that never ends; people don't see identity as a static secret to be locked in an impregnable digital cave, but as a fluid thing defined by trusted peers who get updates on (or co-construct) the changing codes being used to express it.

Some of what Groys writes reminds me a lot of Brad Troemel's New Inquiry essay about Athletic Aesthetics, but where Groys seems to lament that artists no longer have the luxury of a studio space in which to nurture "true-self" creativity, Troemel seems to celebrate this. Groys frets that artists have become bloggers and that art's aura has been lost, artists are in Internet "hell," he writes. Troemel, by contrast, seems much more optimistic about the artist's productivity becoming the masterpiece, championing  the continual public reassertion of creativity over a mystified private summoning of the cosmic muse. This builds a more direct link with audiences, whereas the old ideal of the artist genius working in private was built on the untenable notion that great artists don't even think about their audiences, don't need them.

I think Groys's comments about the impact of an inevitable personal archive are more reasonable:

In a certain sense, the archive gives to the subject the hope of surviving one’s own contemporaneity and revealing one’s true self in the future because the archive promises to sustain and make accessible this subject’s texts or artworks after his or her death. This utopian or, at least, heterotopian promise is crucial to the subject’s ability to develop a distance from and critical attitude towards its own time and its own immediate audience.

The archive doesn't merely capture the past, it extends the ephemeral into the future, offering people the fantasy of rediscovery, or favorable reinterpretation. (My version of this is that the self is actually deferred to the future; it's a product of how the archive is received.) To honor the utopian promise of archives, we should embrace "decontextualization and reenactment of individual phenomena from the past" rather than faithful "historical recontextualization." That may be one way of fulfilling of Hui's demand for an ethics of care with respect to archives. We shouldn't use another person's archive to try to reconstruct some version of the truth about them without their cooperation. We shouldn't pretend the truth sits in archives waiting for discovery, waiting to be unearthed. We are always building truths about people from their archives, and that process is never absolute, never final, anymore than a critic ever has the final say on what an artist's work has meant or what their reputation should forever be.