Richard Burt and Julian Yates


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Richard Burt and Julian Yates

The Unread –ability of the Archive as Self-Storage:

Reading the Not Yet Read Out of the Box1

[it would be good to get “media” in the title as well, or “technology” since we also be moving from or through readability to media recording / archiving devices]
[In the intro, we are effectively introducing the first chapter on WB as reader that then sets up your WBian reading of the missing briefcase.]2
Every book of value plays with its readers.

--Theodor Adorno, “Bibliogrpahical Musings,” (25)

What we’re doing is synthesizing Agambben’s state of exception as bare life, camp as nomos with Derrida’s arche-writng and Archive Fever.

The useful thing for us is Agaben’s critque of libral decmocarcy, of modern democaracyand its correspondence and difference fomr classical democracy. Thescandal of Agabbembe’s account of biopolitics is that his descaralization of homo sacer extends homo sacer so far that the it can no longer be identified with victims of crimes (against humanity). The here is no difference between a bare life in a hospital room or a detention center and a bare life in a concentration camp. Chow and Butler want to keep the sacred in place in order to protect the victim, to equate or identify homo sacer with the victim. We think Agamben is right. To preserve the victim by preserving the sacred is to remain within an athroplogy that cannot recognize the more crcial ambiguity of the biopolitical and hence can only labor for ateh extension of human rights discourse that , pragmatically speaking, wil never be achieved, but, more importantly, would only reinforce,as Agamben says about the writ of habeas corpus and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the grip of the State over the biopolitical if it succeeded.

By shifting from the camp to the archive as the paradigm of modernity, we mean to extend and radicalize his insight about biopolitics by exploring what it means that in modernity homo sacer includes not only the victim but the overcomatose or neomort in the same category, the accidental injury with the deliberate injury). Our problem with Agamben’s concept of the camp is that it takes the metaphysical form of an essential structure and a theological hermemeutic that reveals the veiled, secret, hidden space of the camp. The camp in his account is a political space indifferent to its various phenomenalizations, localizations, places. Agamben is a legal historical absolutist and philogist. He is not concerned with the physics, the materiality of the space. Nor is he concerned with whether the place is used to commit crimes or not. He is only concerned with the way a political space opens when the state of exception becomes the norm. By the same token, Agamben does not distinguish between instances of homo sacer and instance of virtual homo sacer: “We are all virtually homines sacri” (114). By “virtually,” he seems to mean potentially: we are all potentially homo sacri because it is possible we, even citizens, could all be sent to Gitmo or we could all get in a car accident and become “brain dead” like Karen Quinlan.

Agamben’s theological hermeneutic of the concealed camp blinds him to the virtuality of living life “virtually” (111, 114, 171, 174) as homo sacer. What is missing in his account in Agamben’s account of bare life as a potential fate of any “human” life is the mediatization of biopolitics across the globe (not just the West), the processing of bare life (for citizens and for foreigners) through various biometrics and invasive technologies (data mining and stored for an indeterminate period without a warrant, security cameras, and so on). To understand the virtuality of the virtual homo sacer, we deconstruct his metaphysical account of the camp as an essential hidden structure in order to overcome the political limitations of his metaphysical account of bare life. The default of bare life is not the camp as structure but the camp as a particular place of confinement and internment. Agamben is much more Foucauldian than he knows.3 The concept of a political space only has purchase when the essential, hidden structure of biopolitics / the camp is (to be) recognized as such among its various metamorphoses and transformations.

By turning to the archive, we are asking what it means to live a bare life virtually, what it means for biopolitics to be mediatized. The storage unit in particular as a figure of the archive is our way of thinking through mediatization by turning first to Derrida’s notions of arche-writing and the substrate. Derrida’s distinction bears a superficial similarity to Agamben and one might mistakenly think that Derrida is indifferent to the materiality of the substrate in the same way Agamben is indifferent to the materialization of the camp’s essence. The important differences between Agamben and Derrida are first that arche-writing is not an essence and second that the substrate of arche-writing is rather is medium specific. We then connect his medium specific account of writing (not empirical sense of materiality, but of formal materiality as in impression, a contact zone that can only be traced and retraced) to the mediatization of the archive in Archive Fever, in turn putting pressure on Derrida’s concept of the archive and media by posing the archive as an uncanny space not only of living and dead, of bios and thanatos, of bios and zoe, but of the human and inhuman, media capable of being figured, disfigured, configured as human, and in turn capable of being humans figured, disfigured, configured as a machines. The self-storage unit includes victims, as the units may be used by people who have become homeless, victims of bad loans made during the administration of President George W. Bush, for example. But it is also a shelter, even an illegal one, for all kinds of refugees and internal exiles, the camp itself taking a wide variety of forms, as Charlie Hailey has demonstrated.4 By not taking the medium specificity of the camp into account, Agamben’s call for a “new politics” (11) will be limited to a theological mission accomplished, mere pattern recognition of the latest materializations of the camp, and perhaps not even that since Agamben repeatedly says “we must learn to recognize (111, 123),” a task yet to be undertaken much less completed.

By shelf-life, we mean to explore the ways in which bare life is lived virtually as a question of reading and writing to death as a way of life, or what we call “unread –ability.” The self-storage unit is a site specific installation, as it were, in which we figure the archive as a topos, a topos that requires a metaphorology as a way of reading resistance to reading. Media are not reducible to electronic media any more than bare life is reducible to the concentration camp. We are not narrating an historical narrative of the imposition of technology on modern man, an imposition parallel to the state of exception becoming the norm. Low-tech “old” media such as paper are just as crucial to us as are high-tech media. Bare life is already lived virtually, through specific media. What it means to live virtually, then, requires that we engage media histories, and particularly the work of a writer also of interest to Agamben, namely, Walter Benjamin.

Theodor Adorno, “Bibliographical Musings,” in Notes to Literature, Volume Two, Trans Shierry Weber (New York: Columbia, UP1992), 20-31.

Through “streamlining,” the newest books become questionable, as though they had already passed away. (21)

Publishers are irrefutable when they point out to refractory authors, who after all must live too, that their books have less chance of success the less they fit in with that development. (23)

Books that have been lifelong companions resist the order imposed by assigned places and insist on finding their own; the person who grants them disorder is not being unloving to them but rather obeying their whims. He is often punished for it, for these are the books that are most likely to run off. (24)

Certainly the collector demonstrates that books say something without being read, and sometimes is not the least important thing. (25)

These unitary and too carefully prepared blocks of books [collected editions] give the impression of having come into being all at once” (24-25)

At many points Marx’ [sic] texts read as though they had been written hastily on the margins of the texts h was studying and in his theories of surplus value this becomes almost a literary form. Clearly his highly spontaneous mode of production resisted putting ideas where they belong in neat and tidy fashion—an expression of the antisystematic tendency in an author whose system is a critique of the existing one; ultimately, Marx was thereby practicing a conspiratorial technique unrecognized as such even by itself. The fact that for al the canonization of Marx there is no Marx lexicon available is fitting; the author, a number of whose statements are spouted like quotations form the Bible, defends himself against what is done to him by hiding anything that does not fall into that stock of quotations. . . . The relief the lexica afford is invaluable, but often the most important formulations fall through the cracks because they do not fit under any keyword or because the appropriate word occurs so infrequently that lexical logic would not consider it worth including: ‘”Progress” does not appear in the Hegel lexicon. (26)

In speaking of Marx practicing “a conspiratorial technique unrecognized as such even by itself ,”Adorno sounds surprisingly close to the mystical Walter Benjamin as well as Freud on the uncanny. In adorno’s account, the process of writing and printing involving a secret that is hidden even from the author himself (already described by Adorno earlier as estranged form his text when he reads the page proofs (“the authors look at them with a stranger’s eyes”, 23) “unrecognized as such even by itself.” Yet what is hidden (“hiding anything”) from cognition by the violence of reading for the pullable quotation is not reducible either to a secular Marxist account (book as commodity, reified means of production) nor to an actual agency (the book continues to be personified) nor to a particular theology but is detected through a series of metaphors, the last of which is “fall through the cracks” based on resemblance, a topic Adorno takes up most explicitly in the very last section of his essay, which begins “What books say from the outside, as a promise, is vague; in that lies their similarity with their contents” (29). Reading the book’s resistance to reading, understanding what says withoutits being read, is a question of mimesis. Although Adorno refers throughout the essay to the book’s external and internal form, his account of the true book as the damaged book does not yield an a analysis based on resemblance: he defines damage both as external and literal (what happens to books when they are shipped around the globe, when they are read and reread over time, when they are produced more cheaply) and also as external and metaphorical (the way external coercion and pressure gets interiorized by the author the damage internal to books (“The book[‘s] . . . own form . . . is attacked within the book itself” 21.) The (his)story of books, for Adorno, is the story of a dynamic and dialectical estrangement in which metaphors for the resistance to reading books is personified but not personalized. Adorno’s metaphors for reading a book focus on the paratext of the book—the vertical printing on the spine, the removal of the place and date pf publication of the title page, the book’s cover. This focus on the paratext transmutes the book from printed (para)text as the “most eccentric features” to the book as image, “imago” (30), “graphic image” (30) [kind of like WB’s “prismatic edges” metaphor in Unpacking]. Reading the book’s paratext is for Adorno a matter of attending to the book’s graphic design.

The book has figured among the emblems of melancholy for centuries . . . there is something emblematic in the imago of all books, waiting for the profound gaze into their external aspect that will awaken its language, a language other than the internal, printed one. Only in the eccentric features of what is to be read does that resemblance survive, as in Proust’s stubborn and abyssal passion for writing without paragraphs” [Adorno does not use paragraphs in his essay, just chunks broken up by graphic markers and space] (30):

The eye, following the path of the lines of print, looks for such resemblances everywhere. While no one of them is conclusive, every graphic element, every characteristic of binding, paper, and print—anything, in other words, in which the reader stimulates the mimetic impulses in the book itself—can become the bearer of resemblance. (30)

By reading mimetically, Adorno becomes revelatory, a way into reading the history of the book and of historicizing the book:

At the same time, such resemblances are not mere subjective projections but find their objective legitimation in the irregularities, rips, holes, and footholds that history has made in the smooth walls of the graphic design system, the book’s material components, and its peripheral features. (30)

“What is revealed in this history” (30) is a totality the implosive dialectical tensions of which may be detected in Adorno’s adoption of metaphors or literal book damage to route the book’s materiality through a formal “graphic design system” (30)

Adorno’s essay ends with a series of breakdowns in mimetic reading until reading itself becomes impossible. First, a distinction between inside and outside gets collapsed as a consequence of Adorno’s having made “anything” in a book an occasion for mimetic reading:

The power history wields both over the appearance of the binding and its fate and over what has been written is much greater than any difference between what is inside and what is outside, between spirit and material, that it threatens to outstrip the work’s spirituality. This is the ultimate secret of the sadness off older books, and it follows how one should relate to them and, following their model, to books in general.

Reading a book through its graphic design is to encounter the book’s resistance to reading. Marx’s marginal notes (of Marx) are not analogous to musical notes, which may be heard by a reader:

Someone in whom the mimetic and the musical senses have become deeply enough interpenetrated will . . . be capable of judging a piece of music by the image formed by its notes, even before he completely transposed it into an auditory idea. Books resist this. But the ideal reader, whom the books do not tolerate, would know something of what is inside when he felt the cover in his hand and saw the layout of the title page and the overall quality of the pages, and would sense the book’s value without needing to read it first.” (31)

Adorno finishes his essay off by calling up an “ideal reader” rather than an existing one. In speaking of “the work’s spirituality” and “the ultimate secret,” Adorno ends by (re)tuning into a theological wavelength, a call from beyond the grave of the book’s life, as it were, but there is no religious station identification. On the one hand, a kind of Jewish mysticism may be heard in the metaphors of hiding the hidden (even the act of hiding) from the hider; on the other hand, a kind of Christian messianism may be heard as a “Passion of the Book” become work of art: “Damaged books, books that have been made to suffer, are the real books.” (24) “The bibliophile expects from books beauty without suffering . . . Suffering is the true beauty in books; without it, beauty is corrupt, a mere performance” (29). The books’ suffering is redeemed in aesthetic terms, as the books’ true beauty. And yet Adorno’s account of suffering is clearly to messianic nor eschatological in that he is not analyzing or narrating a linear history (of more and more degradation of books due to changes in the book publishing industry) nor is singling out a book in particular. His concern with damaged books is rather with the conditions of book publication and how those conditions make books both more accessible and more resistant. Adorno speaks at the end of “Bibliographical Musings” both of a singular type of books (older books) and of books in the plural, putting even more pressure on his personification of books by highlighting even more clearly the differences between the non “coterminus” (24) if analogous lives and deaths of books and the lives and deaths of writers and readers. Books preserve and defend their value by becoming inhuman. Reading a book whose value you cannot determine without reading it effectively reduces reading to information processing.

the ending fits our notion of the book as being about metaphorology since at the end books become metaphorical, stones for the building in which the collector dwells. The last lines enact a split in Benjamin implicit in his impossible narration (writing and unpacking at the same time, becoming only more clearly impossible at the en—how could he have been unpacking as he wrote the essay?), WB splits the collector into a third person and a first person. In the last sentence, about the collector disappearing, e WB becomes a displaced person through his collecting.

Although He and yet someone else dwell in the collection WB collects. WB does not himself live in his collection, like the collector. He builds the dwelling for the collector to dwell. The shift from “I to “he” in the last sentence is really quite awkward even as the disappearing act is elegantly performed.

The disappearance of the collector is also posed in the oft-cited line about the collector being comprehended only in his extinction.
I do know that I am running out for the type that I am discussing here and have been representing before you a bit ex officio. But, as Hegel put, only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight. Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

The end of collecting is posed in terms of a metaphor of species extinction. But it’s a very dialectally tense sentence, traversed by acid irony that is really Schleglian rather than Hegelian—comprehension (knowledge of x when x has been completed but also over, lost, hence non-knowledge). This dialectical follows from the assertion that “collecting loses its meaning a it loses its personal owner.” The phrase seem to assert straightforward analogy, a corollary between collecting meaning, and personal ownership), when it really is about the self-negating temporality of collecting, its drive toward loss of meaning and depersonalization even as it becomes increasingly personal. The dialectical tension is made more explicit in the following sentence: “Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter.” Private collections have no use and no use value: objects (It’s interesting how WB shifts from books in particular to objects in general] get the way they do because they are totally private, without any exchange value either (though potentially it would seem they could be sold or traded). Ownership turns into a state of being: some things can be more deeply owned than others, and the more deeply they are owned, the less value they have, the more they tend to move toward disappearance.

It’s as if the entire essay were setting up the last lines starting with “O bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure!”

The final turn to books as stones involves a kind of escape hatch for the writer / collector—he displaces himself through metaphor and is thereby able to disappear into his books, or perhaps almost literally into the book in which his essay appears—perhaps we can now read the line differently because the essay is in a book; the essay has taken on a self-referential function being now part of a book series (complete works) on shelves in various libraries. In any case, the collector, WB, can disappear only by building and welling for another collector to disappear in—so WB remains outside the life and the collector lives in books. He lives barely outside the box, the dwelling, in a position of extimacy (to him own collection). In this sense, he survives, perhaps.

This kind of exteriorization and interiorization of the collector (WB and not WB, I and he, inside dwelling and outside the dwelling) operates as a kind of spectralization or virtualization of WB

1. Welcome to your Box

Perhaps you have one. Certainly, you’ve seen them as you drive your car from place to place. We refer to self-storage units that now litter on roads, around airports, or in the peripheral transit zones that constitute the spaces between cities. Some of you may have seen them from the bus or the train, but we do not advise visiting them using these modes of transport (assuming that there’s even a stop). Access to a truck or moving van is advised and it will be the pleasure of the staff at the higher end facilities to aid you in renting the vehicle that best suits your storage needs.

These uncanny spaces, faceless, nameless, but awaiting your personal, anonymous, or at least encrypted imprint, offer their users a neurotic compromise in the form of additional room to supplement their full up, no vacancy home and office spaces. You can use them to store things you don’t need or use anymore but that you just can’t sell, throwaway, or arrange to have whisked away by those who specialize in removal. This heavily secured compromise space is located in an indeterminate or yet to be determined zone between home and office, offering a halfway-house or loading zone between a home (residence) and office cubicle (work station). That said, these uneasy supplements, which seem to offer steady state storage, send you in the direction of home-lessness since they are rentals, and their contents subject to seizure in the event that you fail to meet your monthly obligation and void the contract you have signed to secure your stuff.5

Understandably, these units come in many different styles with sizes to fit the most modest or exorbitant of storage needs—appealing to consumers with any number of slogans drawn from the established scripts. “You deserve Extra Space,” opine the sympathetic folks at While offers you the certainty of “Another perfect fit”—their website pictures a rolling series of images of cut outs of everyday objects silhouetted against their units, this teletopical figure enabling you already to project your stuff into their otherwise faceless units, mentally freeing up space in your overcrowded home or office. And ecstasy of ecstasies, the instant you roll down that door on the unit, turn the key in the padlock or enter your code on the key pad, that mental cut out that you pictured on their screen will dissolve into the figure of a corrugated metal door and your stuff will be out of here but securely there—a post script to your busy life as the self-abbreviating folks at “PS” (the corporate logo of “,”) will simply box it all up.7

Aside from the security self-storage units offer and the democratization of warehousing space (live globally, store locally), the designers of the high end models, seem to have drunk deeply at the font of anthropologist Mary Douglas, mid-twentieth-century phenomenology, and taken as a rule of design that any indication of the presence of another, of dirt, or “matter out of place,” is simply unacceptable, unthinkable.8 This space is for you, their units say, for your stuff and for no one else’s. Indeed, the self storage unit offers itself as an overdeterminedly featureless box, an entirely forgettable container, or series of concentric boundaries (the unit, the corridor, the facility) each so secure, so anonymous, so unavailable to public access—no one will happen by your unit—so fundamentally boring, that you can forget about the permeability of boundaries, sink back in your arm or office chair, and get to work or doze off knowing that your stuff is secure.

Smaller and smaller technical devices that promise to store more and more data. Self-storage offers the same lure in brute low-tech, drive-to, box it up mode. Indeed, it is almost predictable that an online animated advertisement for a computer storage software program should take a hybrid image self-storage units, columbaria, filing boxes, and hotels as its model.

Take charge. Get your move on. Be proactive. “Calculate your storage savings.” You are, like most subjects, a “capital fellow.” 9 Why not then prosecute your advantage and embark on a feel-good Foucauldian regime of self-optimizing rationality that will make possible more use values.10 You will be happy. You will have more funTM. The promise of self-storage is always a phantasmatic sort of extended shelf-life as self-archivalization: there will always be enough space to store your stuff, enough time to tidy everything up, even wrap it up. “Life” will go on—and your life in particular.

It’s easy to read this promise of calculation and optimization as a call to a Freudian death drive impulse, offering the user little more than an overcoat of protection against an anxiety disorder which is less about keeping your things from being stolen than whether or not there will exist a search engine sufficient to finding and retrieving the nearly useless things and data you cannot delete and that never reach an expiration date. And so, your home comes to be directed by a future outside it, life redefined or made readable as what we call “shelf-life,” as the ongoing process of sorting, categorizing, making cuts, decisions, hollowed out in advance, in anticipation of a future that may or may not come but for which it would be irresponsible not to prepare. So you must ask yourself: ‘Are you prepared?’

Renting a self-storage unit then, is like preparing for your death, the unit a placeholder for a vault, pyramid, crypt, or time capsule. The self-storage unit resembles other kinds of storage spaces, libraries and pawnshops, but differs from them in that, because the mail system no longer works as a relay because there is no address to deliver the mail, the renter selects the contents to be stored and exercises a kind of sovereignty over the contents, deciding what has value (sentimental, cash or both) and hence stored, and what can be thrown away, donated, or sold. The migratory aspects of self-storage add to its singularity in that decisions about its contents are not permanent. Unlike a library, the contents of which are at least imagined to endure forever, if eventually only in digital form, and to be replaced when lost, if possible, the duration of the lives of the things stored has no fixed or predetermined duration, no fixed “shelf-life.” New things may be taken out, new things may be added; a storage unit may be exhausted and closed or additional units may be rented. It all depends on how much stuff it takes to free your “life” from the stuff that threatens arrest.

That’s the theory anyway. But how exactly should we categorize the appearance of these uncanny boxes, which have sprung up like so many de-accessorized motels waiting neither for persons nor their pets but for their stuff? How should we understand or better yet model the “event” that “self-storage” constitutes within the infrastructure of home, work, and play, or the doling out of somatic and psychic “events” such as birth, aging, dying, death? In a world in which the citizen-people-consumers of the West are induced to accrete more and more stuff, the appearance of self-storage units in the post-World War Two landscape may be judged an inevitable result of the confusion or cross-cutting of boundaries that results from late Capitalist or always Capitalist stop and flow mechanisms.11 Surely then these units merely represent a bit of extra space, a bit of respite for those of us who are doing our level best to get “well” in the world (input equals output) and so “reduce, re-use, recycle,” but who nevertheless remain on the grid. Surely, self-storage manifests merely as a hub on the way to the landfill, enabling you to place your various “things” in purgatory; some of them will be redeemed, some damned. It all depends on whose prayers get sung longest or loudest in your inner chantry or the chantry that is your family unit.

For us “self-storage” resonates then with any number of critical projects to inventory or analyze the adumbrated spaces and temporalities that make up our built worlds—most obviously with Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but also with the cultural geography of David Harvey, Mike Davis, Edward Soja, Nicholas Entriken, and company, as well as the traveling theory of James Clifford, the monographs or singularity writings of Pierre Augé, and the exhaustive project to inventory France’s poetically named lieux de mémoire (places of memory) directed by Pierre Nora.12 That said, even as “self-storage” seems entirely congruent with theories of post-, super- or hyper-modernity, and so immediately readable, immediately available, at a reduced rate, if you like, and with negligible move in costs, for us to store or marshal our cultural studies “stuff,” we seek to maintain a critical uncertainty with regard to what exactly the “self-storage” event might be said to mean, might come to mean, or represent. Rather than taking the appearance of such units as a “matter of fact,” as one more thing to be noted and archived, we treat “self storage” as what Donna Haraway calls a “matter of concern,” a phenomenon that may (or may not) have the power to change the relationships between actors (persons, animals, tools, things) constituted in and by the various networks that constitute our common world.13

We begin, then, by reserving judgment in order to stay with “self-storage” and inhabit the phenomenon. We do so because beyond questions of physical storage and the sociology or demographics of place, these units make available a language of shelving or re-shelving, of storage and retrieval, whose tropic or tropologogical operations—as the folks at “PS” or make clear—play with the linearity and so temporality of things as they are successively used, stored, in motion, left to rest. Our purpose is to historicize work the recent sovereignty of the archive as a dominant figure in the humanities and social sciences in relation to self-storage units which constitute a vernacular or popular self-archiving, premised as they are on the prospect, at least, of future retrieval. We make no claim about the newness or radicality of “self-storage” but begin instead by remarking the fact that it’s being constitutes the arrival of an as yet unrecognized “material-semiotic” and “rhetorical” actor, which may, by turns, induce yawns, horror, surprise, outrage, humor, and hope. Here, again, we take our cue from Haraway whose interest in the tropic dimensions or linguistic materiality of language systems is a crucial factor in her coining of the “cyborg,” “companion species,” and “multispecies,” as she bids to rewire the archives of our present to produce modes of description less troubled by the ontological slide between animal, human, and machine than the usual scripts on offer.14

[ introduce unread –ability here—that our delay is not a matter only of our will but of an interpretive problem involving the archive that the self-storage unit makes visible.15 Develop the conept of linearization as a certain of historicism, construction of a timeline, a connect the dots, understand cause and effect—it’s also a juridical notion and detective fiction notion of reading (Ginzburg on Holmes,Moretti, and Freud). But we are pausing over the reistance to linearization the self-storage unit generates—not a symptomatic rading—just a gap , spaces between the dots not filed in. But unreading is alsoa problem of narrative and historicism, narratives that do not take linear form but are produced thorugh a linearization that is itself a kind of resistance]

The affective hit provided by “self-storage” in these kinds of stories derives not simply from their soon-to-be-dated but not yet worn off novelty, their “schein”, as Walter Benjamin might have put it, but from the way they introduce impermeable, unreadable holes into otherwise linear plots, gaps in the code that serve as receptacles for the variously abject or unwanted remains of linearized “life”—dead bodies, dead stuff—that goes but which does not necessarily stay away. For what concerns us in this book is reading, the fate of reading, and of reading especially as a response to the resistance of texts and things to meaning production. We are eager to discover what kinds of resistance to the established scripts that “self-storage” may offer, for reading or being read, having one’s biometrics auto-read off a chip in your passport (as we saw in our Preface), is increasingly the experience of citizen-subjects in the West.

that the appearance of “self-storage” constitutes an event with the possibility of altering or introducing variables into the programs of what, a while ago now, in Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida called “the history of writing [that] is erected on the base of the history of the grammè” that takes the form of “an adventure of relationships between the face and the hand.”16 It may be useful, at this point, to re-shelve our Derrida, recalling that his staging of “the history of life—of what,” he writes, “I have called differrance—as the history of the grammè” aims to make visible modes of cognition, historical consciousness, and forms of personhood that do not respect the ratio of the line or the linearization of the world that occurs in a phonetic writing system. The story, as you remember or summon it up from cold storage, begins with the observation lethal to any metaphysics of presence that, “life” begins with the writing event of “‘genetic inscription’ and ‘short programmatic chains’ regulating the behavior of the amoeba or the annelid up to the passage beyond alphabetic writing to the orders of the logos and of a certain homo sapiens” (84). The project of metaphysics has been to construct a shelter from the technologizing of being as writing and being written by boxing up this program or inscription as an untranslatable origin—call it Nature—forgetting, if you like, or holding at bay the insight that there exists a history of technology, of the machine and the animal, that is simultaneously, necessarily a history of human life.

Against this installed forgetting, Derrida offers what he calls “graphology” or “cultural graphology” as an alternate historical practice that aims to think the “pluri-dimensionality” of other “level[s] of historical experience” precisely by thinking the “problems of the articulation of graphic forms and of diverse substances, of the diverse forms of graphic substances (materials: wood, wax, skin, stone, ink, metal, vegetable) or instruments (point, brush, etc, etc)” (87)—to which we add boxes or the project of self-storage. Here it is important to recall that a potentiality exists for Derrida within the figures of storage and retrieval, for, as he writes, “one could speak of a ‘liberation of memory,’ of an exteriorization always already begun but always larger than the trace which, beginning from the elementary programs of so-called ‘instinctive’ behavior up to the constitution of electronic card-indexes and reading machines, enlarges differance and the possibility of putting in reserve” (84).17 Notably, this activity also “at one and in the same movement constitutes and effaces so-called conscious subjectivity, its logos, and its theological attributes.” When we describe “self-storage” as an “event” or “phenomenon,” then, we ask you to hear these terms accordingly, granting that there remains the project makes possible or thinkable an altered set of relations to the writing machine or auto-archiving of phenomena that characterizes our collective present.18

Staged within the larger project of a “cultural graphology,” “self-storage” augurs in more ways than as a bit of extra space—making visible the process of arrangement and ordering, and of a retrieval that “permits,” as Derrida observes, “a different organization of space” (86) than that which is premised on linearity. What interests us in “self-storage,” then, is the way this archiving that does not yet know that it produces an archive can produce patterns or rhythms within or between the lines of conventional reading and writing, and so make visible to its readers orders of sense other than those authorized by the usual scripts. To the extent that these patterns produce meanings without reference to a human subject or that they are remarked by a person only after the fact, they constitute a set of phenomena we call “shelf life” and on occasion offer their human beneficiaries a form of what we will come to call “s/h/elf-help.”

So, in place of announcing the “new” or the advent of this or that, we content ourselves with describing the contours of the project of self-storage—starting each time from scratch, as each unit teaches us, all over again, how to read it. When, for example, journalistic features, T.V. police procedurals, film documentaries and features have deployed “self storage,” offering its uncanny (literally Heimlich / Unheimlich) presence as a staging ground for stories of human interest (what to do with grandma’s stuff?), horror shows of serial murder (Prime Suspect), time-travel mischief (Primer), action movies (Max Payne) or pop phenomenological documentaries (Steel Homes), their assimilation of self storage units to the attic, wardrobe, or dark alley of children’s literature, boy’s own fiction, or film noir, constitutes for us a double gesture.19 On the one hand, these performances of “self-storage” subordinate the units to existing species of space, domesticating them, trading on the newness generated by their shock value in order to recycle stories as old as sin. It is tempting then simply to suggest that such representations of “self-storage” constitute the semiotic fine edge of the way the existing modes of production at a given historical moment scramble or interrupt a technological innovation or “event” by rerouting it to ensure that nothing “new” or unscripted occurs by installing existing social hierarchies, scripts, and labor relations.20 On the other, the cultural texts generated by “self-storage” constitute also a set of meaningful symptomatic responses that disclose the imaginative or phantasmatic lure of the box as an object which is never content with being merely a container, and so which interferes with the linearity of time, meaning, and so also with the linearization of beings that passes as human “life.”

2. From Bare Life to Shelf-Life

As our deployment of various narratives and vocabularies thus far signals, the emergence and proliferation of self-storage units in the later twentieth century and their recent representation in documentary and mainstreams films generate the central concerns and questions of the present book. More precisely, we are concerned with what the event that is “self-storage” may have to teach us about the problem identified by Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt, namely, that when “the state of exception” and “state of emergency” that allows for the suspension of law in liberal democracies paradoxically becomes the norm such that all life is thereby politicized.21

In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Giorgio Agamben responds to Schmitt’s challenge, taking the Nazi concentration camps to be an aberrant but hidden figure of modernity. Sovereignty in the modern state is defined not by its care-taking role over the lives of its populace, when politics becomes bio-politics, but by the constant need to define what counts as life worthy of being cared for and what does not, to decide, that is, what is the norm, sacred life, and what is the exception, homo sacer (“bare life”) being life that may not be sacrificed by the sovereign or murdered but may nevertheless be left to die or determined to be dead. Furthermore, bare life does not mark a limit of the sovereign’s power but actually expresses the totality of even sacred life’s subjection to a power over death and life. Agamben arrives at a deeply troubling conclusion, namely, that the transformation of classic politics into bio-politics (or the revelation that politics was always a bio-politics) means that “traditional distinctions (such as between Right and Left, liberalism and totalitarianism, private and public) lose their clarity and intelligibility and enter into a zone of indistinction” (122). He adds that the modern “democratico-capitalist project of eliminating the poorer classes . . . transforms the entire Third World population into bare life” in a way that is “different yet still analogous” to the Nazis’ program of infinitely purifying the German body “through the elimination of the mentally ill and the bearers of hereditary diseases” (1980).22 Moreover, as Agamben points out, biopolitics becomes thanatopolitics, as death, along with life, are politicized: the sovereign decides not only who lives and who dies but what counts as homo sacer, the bare life that does not deserve to live yet that may not be sacrificed or executed.

As a resistance to encroachments of biopower, a universal human rights discourse remains of value, but its adequacy as a response to the challenge of bio/thanato/politics is always severely compromised both because the rule of law in parliamentary democracies already depends on a supplement of (hidden and forgotten revolutionary) violence from the start and because a Rights discourse takes for granted the definition of the human.23 Bio/thanatopolitics puts the ontology of the human into question, replacing the citizen with a subject. The same problem occurs when extending a human rights discourse to include animal rights since homo sacer is defined not only in relation to sacred life (bios) but to animal life (zoë).24 The promise of “more life,” even after death in the form of cyrogenics, is similarly limited.25 Homo sacer represents an indeterminate zone in which the borders between life and bare life, the human and the animal, the human and the inhuman have to be continually drawn and redrawn.

We take World War II as our point of departure not only because of the central role the concentration camp plays in Agamben’s work but, more crucially, because what now remains of the camps, razed by the Nazis when they abandoned them in 1945, has since become above all a question of the camps’ archivalization, preservation of documents, reconstruction or ruination of the remnants, and exhibition.26 Is self-storage, we ask, a supplementary technique or prosthetic for the experience of bare life, for the modeling of all spaces, finally, as potential camps, or camps in abeyance? While it may appear jarring, upsetting, or worse still to ask readers to entertain a comparison between two such apparently different objects, the self-storage unit and the concentration camp, we do so, because we wish to understand better the relationship between “bare life” and archivalization and render visible the ways in which questions of “life” and “sovereignty” play out or are determined by the protocols of archiving. As the subtitle to this section signals, we seek to know the relation between “bare life” and “shelf life” through the archive, to understand the relation between the articulation of human persons as citizen-subjects, the auto-archiving of their lives by the state, and the advent of self-storage as a supplement to this articulation, as a writing while being written, or a “putting into reserve,” to borrow Derrida’s phrasing from Of Grammatology.
Here it is crucial to understand that, for Agamben, what characterizes the camp, what constitutes its modus operandi is not any ideology or technics of rationalization, but the production of a zone in which, as Hannah Arendt put it, “’everything is possible” (HS 170). In an extended discussion of “the paradoxical status of the camp,” Agamben writes:

What is included in the camp according to the etymological sense of the term “exception” (ex-capere), taken outside, included through its own exclusion. But what is first of all taken into the juridical order is the state of exception itself. Insofar as the state of exception is ‘willed,’ it inaugurates a new juridico-political paradigm in which the norm becomes indistinguishable from the exception. The camp is thus the structure in which the state of exception—the possibility of deciding on which founds sovereign power—is realized normally. The sovereign no longer limits himself, as he did in the spirit of the Weimar constitution, to deciding on the exception on the basis of recognizing a given factual situation (danger to public safety): laying bare the inner structure of the ban that characterizes his power, he now de facto produces the situation as a consequence of his decision on the exception. This is why in the camp the quaestio iuris is, if we look carefully, no longer strictly distinguishable from the quaestio facti, and in this sense every question concerning the legality or illegality of what happened there simply makes no sense. The camp is a hybrid of law and fact in which the two terms have become indistinguishable (HS 170).

This confusion of fact and law is the mechanism that makes possible the demonic fairy tale space that was and is the camp—a space in which quite literally, as Arendt makes clear, “everything had truly become possible” (HS 171). In this sense, as Agamben notes, the camp “was also the most absolute bio-political space ever to have been realized, in which power confronts nothing but pure life, without any mediation.” “This is why,” he adds, “the camp is the very paradigm of political space at the point at which politics becomes bio-politics and homo sacer is virtually confused with the citizen.”

Elsewhere, Agamben has, on occasion, been given to making explicit his own structuralist leanings, by drawing analogies between the systems of thought and legality which make possible the production of such spaces as the camp, and so we think it useful here to make clear that his modeling of the camp as an imminently achievable site takes as a given what Jack Derrida named “arche-writing” or the general or generative text. 27 We do so because we wish to make clear that such events as the “camp” draw their power from the fact that what becomes possible within their confines is a set of translations otherwise and elsewhere deemed impossible or unthinkable. By a series of protocols, the camp subjects those deemed “bare life” or merely living to transformations governed by no rule or law than that of total possibility. In terms we have already used, the camp operates as a zone in which your “present” is actualized by the futural desires and whims of those persons who are constituted as bearers of state violence. If the world is constituted by a series of routinized tropic operations that are housed in a variety of institutions or sites (family, home, school, police, etc,) with rules governing their application, access, and occasion, the camp phenomenalizes the figure of an included exception, making physical the included but entailed away zone of total tropic, which is to say material, physical, semiotic, and rhetorical conversions that the state reserves to itself but does not ordinarily deploy.28

For Agamben, this way of modeling the camp provides an important rubric for future work on the holocaust. As he writes, “The correct question to pose concerning the horrors committed in the camps is, therefore, not the hypocritical one of how crimes of atrocity could be committed against human beings. It would be more honest and, above all, more useful to investigate carefully the juridical procedures and deployments of power by which human beings could be so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer as a crime” (171).

Yet to Be Read: Exhuming the Camp as the Arche-Archive to Come

We must continually remind ourselves that some part of responsibility insinuates itself wherever one demands responsibility without sufficiently conceptualizing and thematizing what “responsibility” means.

--Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death 25-26.

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