Scenarios of Cultural Memory

Last month, I posted a few notes on Diana Taylor’s book The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Duke U. Press, 2003).[] I’m not sure that I completely outlined what Taylor is getting at with the “acts of transfer” concept.

The idea of “the repertoire” is very much grounded in action. As Taylor describes the investment in performance studies, it derives “less from what it is than what it allows us to do” (16). The goal is to shift the focus in studies about the transfer of knowledge to the embodied and performed: “instead of focusing on patterns of cultural expression in terms of texts and narratives, we might think about them as scenarios that do not reduce gestures and embodied practices to narrative description” (ibid). Taylor’s theory is based on an epistemic distinction between embodied and disembodied knowledge. In Taylor’s words, the rift “does not lie between written and spoken word, but between the archive of supposedly enduring materials (i.e., texts, documents, buildings, bones) and the so-called ephemeral repertoire of embodied practice/knowledge (i.e., spoken language, dance, sports, ritual)” (19).[1]

My interest here is what Taylor says about the archival perspective. What is “archival memory” if there is a distinction of the archive and the repertoire? Taylor describes archival memory as that which “works across distance, over time and space.” Archival memory “suceeds in separating the source of ‘knowledge’ from the knower—in time and/or space.” Finally, what changes over time is the “value, relevance, or meaning of the archive, how the items it contains get interpreted, even embodied” (19). The key acts (it is not, after all, just the repertoire that is subject to “acts”) of designating objects archival are selection, classification, and presentation for analysis. Just think about the elaborate acts of cultural performance that keep archives going—the time and space that are taken to select, prepare, preserve, and keep materials is staggering—and you will notice that archives are also based on acts of transfer, albeit highly formalized and ceremonial. Archival objects are not, as popular mythology would have it (and also preservationists), static; they change as interpretations change, politics change, individual acts remove or place objects within the archives.

The two spheres of knowledge—archive and repertoire—at least in the ways that Taylor discusses them, entail different modes of transmission (embodied or archival), levels of materiality (intangible or tangible), mode of expression (oral or written) and all of these layers intertwine dynamically. They work in tandem with other flows of knowledge transmission. From an archival point of view, what I find interesting in Taylor’s viewpoint is the suggestion that archival memory works in tandem with other memories, and these relationships need not be binary or polarized (22). To an archivist, this suggests letting in other sources of knowledge, as well as letting go of the ideal of the archive as indelible and impermeable.

This also reminds me of David Bearman’s assertion that archives should, of course, be concerned about transferring information across time spans, in various forms: “we need to better understand the nature of the cultural document itself and its connections to social action. We need to explore its internal structure and its use. We need to design systems for its retrieval which provide access by a variety of perspectives and allow users to move between views in the conduct of research.” In short, archivists should adopt a more inclusive and open rhetoric. In Bearman’s words, “we need to revisit our rhetoric, removing the unconvincing references to our role in preserving evidence for posterity, and replacing them with our role in focussing and connecting the past and the present.” Archives, then, are embedded in complex cultural systems and should be seen as such.[2]

Numbers in parentheses throughout this post refer to this book’s print edition. You can read most of the first chapter of Taylor’s book in an electronic version, if you’re so inclined, at
1The distinction of the embodied and disembodied also links to the Cartesian mind/body split, or Cartesian dualism. Read more on dualism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
2Bearman’s essay, “Recorded Memory and Cultural Continuity,” can be read in full at The excerpt here is used under Creative Commons as designated at the source.


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