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]


Notes
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 http://www.nyu.edu/classes/bkg/methods/archive-repertoire.html.
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 http://www.archimuse.com/publishing/archival_methods/#ch6. The excerpt here is used under Creative Commons as designated at the source.

Acts of Transfer


What is “performance,” and how can it inform and be understood better in the context of the historical expressive cultures of the Americas? These are questions at the heart of Diana Taylor’s book The Archive and the Repertoire (Duke U. Press, 2003).[] More fundamental, at least for the moment and for the archivist, is the distinction that she makes between archives and the “repertoire.” One might briefly understand this distinction as an epistemic separation between knowledge as fixed and knowledge is/as acted/done. In other words, a focus on performance, in Taylor’s terms, suggests a shift of focus in knowledge structures (epistemes) from written to embodied culture.

Taylor draws a contrast between embodied and disembodied ways of transmitting knowledge. Thus, performances become embodied “acts of transfer.” These are stories, songs, dances, habits, customs, and other bits that communicate and preserve ways of being. In other words, performances function to transmit “social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity through reiterated, or what Richard Schechner has called ‘twice-behaved behavior'” (2–3). We often use performance in ontological ways, for example in saying “That was a great performance!” after attending a concert. This essentially affirms and defines a portion of time just cowitnessed with others as a coherent and definite event. On the other hand, performance has come to be applied as a methodological lens that allows bits of behaviors to be analyzed as performances. Thus, gender, ethnicity, and identity come to be “performed” (as in Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everday Life [1959]).

Crucial to Taylor’s position is that performance constitutes a valid way of knowing. “We learn and transmit knowledge through embodied action, through cultural agency, and by making choices. Performance, for me, functions as an episteme, way of knowing, not simply an object of analysis” (xvi). This body of knowing, which Taylor describes as the repertoire, is inherently “nonarchival” (vxii). Pressuring this distinction, Taylor asks, “is performance that which disappears, or that which persists” (xvii)? This questions the warrant of written, “archival” knowledge, which is constructed as fixed and policed (by the writers and the archivists) as the more reliable. The importance of the question deals, in fact, with the construction and control of knowledge: “If performance did not transmit knowledge, only the literate and powerful could claim social memory and identity” (ibid).

Taylor pits fixed against fluid knowledges. I’d like to propose an alternative viewpoint. Rather than opposing the repertoire of performance with the contents of an archive, might we not join the two? In Taylor’s terms, might it not be possible to bring the archive within the “performatic space”—that is, a space that is not only constructed through discourse and logocentrism? At a presentation at the 2011 conference of the Association for Asian Studies, I suggested that one might define an archives as that which transmits knowledge across a timespan.[1] This line of thought expands on and stems from Jeannette Bastian’s suggestion that “cultural performances” (a term borrowed from Milton Singer) may be considered as archival records.[2] The goal is to pluralize the way that we think about what is “in” an archives and where we might draw the boundaries of an “archives.” Deep understandings of cultural “bits” (i.e., those strips of twice-behaved behavior, and likewise the sheets of paper in many archives) require multiple and varied understandings as well as interpretation by multiple individuals. Thus, by understanding archival as a function, we begin to see that many things, not just an organization’s or individual’s noncurrent papers, we might construct more culturally meaningful archives that speak to and empower communities.


Notes
Numbers in parentheses throughout this post refer to this book’s print edition.
1Museums, libraries, and schools also do this, but emphasize various areas such as display, access, and education respectively. In contrast, archives emphasize preservation. This is, of course, slightly different than the “official” definition put forth by the Society of American Archivists.
2Jeannette Bastian, “‘Play Mas’: Carnival in the Archives and the Archives in Carnival: Records and Community Identity in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Archival Science 9:113–125.