Sunday, December 2, 2007

Haskins, "Between Archive and Participation: Public Memory in a Digital Age"

Haskins, Ekaterina. "Between Archive and Participation: Public Memory in a Digital Age." RSQ 37.4 (2007): 401-422.

Opening premise: public memory work must consider the digital archive. Haskins writes, "This article proposes to examine memorial functions of the internet in light of recent scholarly debates about virtues and drawbacks of modern 'archival memory' as well as the paradoxical link between the contemporary public obsession with memory and the acceleration of amnesia" (401).

Section I: Archival Memory and Its Discontents, 402-405
The curatorial quandary (who does the keeping, why, and who decides what is preserved) pervades institution-led archiving ventures. Public memory has throughout the twentieth century merged with monumentality and "narratives of victory and valor" (403). Digitization confuses the once-tidy roles of the removed observer-celebrant and the monolithic cast of official memory. Haskins identifies the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C. as an example of a participatory monument because "its polished black surface reflects the visitor's image and its modest scale allows one to reach out and touch the names inscribed on the wall" (404). Accessible, ongoing participation function to "guard against the tin dangers of ideological reification and amnesia," Haskins contends (405).

Section II: Promises and Problems of Digital Memory, 405-408
Haskins does not come down firmly in favor of or in doubt of digital memorial projects in this section, but instead she builds parallel accounts of the promises ("public engagement," "representational diversity," "collective authorship," and "interactivity") and problems ("rapid obsolescence," compromised "historical consciousness," impermanence). Haskins concludes this is a "mixed bag," that even while traditional keepers of official memory are watching as digitization attracts unprecedented energy and interest, digital archives are not without limitations. Haskins writes, "It is one thing to collect and digitize large quantities of memorial artifacts; it is quite another to display them in ways that stimulate not only spectatorship but also meaningful participation" (408). This is a point worth keying on, even if "meaningful participation" deserves more unpacking and elaboration.

A brief discussion of blogging as "self-memorialization" appears on 407-408. Tagging practices as an alternative to the narrowing effect (blogging as "sav[ing] the most trivial details of one's past" (407))?

"If archival preservation and retrieval are not balanced by mechanisms that stimulate participatory engagement, electronic memory may lead to self-congratulatory amnesia" (407). I am interested in pairing this word of caution from Haskins with a comment from North: "Composition's collective fund of knowledge is a very fragile entity" (2). What are the mechanisms that would stimulate participatory engagement in "composition's collective fund of knowledge"? Wikis? Forums? Tagging? We have systems of archival preservation and retrieval, but have they been properly balanced? If they have not, have we, then, experienced anything that could be described as "self-congratulatory amnesia"? And what are the symptoms of this "self-congratulatory" variety of amnesia? Too many questions to untangle right now, but one of the most useable threads (for me) in this article is counterpart to its discussion of digital archives of such prominent status as the September 11 Digital Archive (how much monumentality does it inherit from the affected structures themselves?): take similar propositions to the more mundane digital archives--those whose participation is not as *P*ublic or pulsatile.

Section III: Between Archive and Public Participation: The September 11 Digital Archive, 408-418
Memorial gestures moved from the streets to online spaces and consisted of an overabundance of "vernacular" fragments. Here Haskins details the multi-institution initiative to build the September 11 Digital Archive, a project that "epitomizes inclusiveness, which is made possible in no small degree by the interactive capacities of electronic media" (410). There is much description here of the archive, the various pieces assembled in it (personal narratives, political interchange, photographs, nostalgia, etc.).

Section IV: Conclusion, 418-419
"Online memorializing, thanks to technology's capacity for virtually unlimited storage and potential to engage many diverse audiences in content production, appears to mitigate against the ideological ossification associated with official memory practices and the fragility of vernacular memory gestures" (418).

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