Archiving Agrippa

On Friday, I attended the faculty membership talk by Dr. Siraj Ahmed. To summarize a portion of his thesis, (and, those of you who were also there, please pitch in and tell me what I’ve missed, because honestly, I felt a bit out of my depth!), Dr. Ahmed argues that our Western insistence on reducing and confining all literate practice into the medium of a “cohesive,” historicized text is a colonial impulse that has forced us to erase the richer, non-textual, non-recordable (or not as easily recorded) set of practices that have accompanied a text over the course of time. So, as one example of what he means, he talks about the idea of hafiz, which is not so much the text of the Koran, but rather, the act of memorization and the identity of a person who has completely memorized all of the verses in all of the various versions of it. As Jennifer brought up in last week’s class, the Western academy’s dominant ways of knowing and validating knowledge tend to overlook ways of producing it that are not, in some way, textual. I think this is what Dr. Ahmed was acknowledging in his talk: there are literacy practices that resist textual codification, but that are still “valid” ways of making sense of the world. And there are also ways of interacting with or experiencing a text that are not for the purpose of “knowing” it or “decoding” it, but rather (as we’ve been discussing in Kandice Chuh’s class today), for the purpose of changing our own subjectivity as a result of having been exposed to it. The boundaries of our ontological positions shift because we read things — not (only) because we use them as evidence to make larger arguments. This feels true to my experience, anyway.

So, what does this have to do with Agrippa? For me, Agrippa enacts a resistance of codified reading practices by allowing us to see the text, and then refusing the option to return to it. As a type of performance, the text invokes an experience and, potentially, it frustrates our normative reading practices. However, there’s also this impulse to document the project — to videotape the scrolling poem transforming into code, to create this archival website dedicated to explaining its materiality, and to craft a digital emulation. For me, then, “hacks” described in Kirschenbaum’s article were somewhat complicated (and potentially problematic). What does it mean that people at this conference wanted to record the performance, to disseminate it, and to make the text of the poem available to a wider public? What does it mean that the response to this project is to copy it, to share it, to “preserve” it as a historical artifact? I’m not saying that these are bad or good outcomes, but I do think that considering what this process affords and prevents. On one hand, archiving Agrippa resignifies it, and archiving this text specifically through the process of emulation potentially changes the original, if we’re thinking of the copies as the Lyotardian concept of simulacra (where what is real gets replaced by a copy so that everything becomes either a copy or a copy of a copy). On the other hand, digital archiving helps us to share the poem and the performance with others, and to (more cynically) make a commodifiable product that we can write / think / publish on. Archiving resists what seems like a will to self-destruct, but then again, maybe this is Barthes death of the author at work….we can’t know, and it doesn’t matter, what the authors of Agrippa originally intended, so attempting to document it is just as valid a response as letting it “disappear” forever. And, yet again, Kirschenbaum mentions, at one point, that the museums “expected to receive copies of the disk that would not self-destruct, but [the collaborators] ‘stuck to their guns’” by not producing copies that wouldn’t eventually encrypt, suggesting (to me, anyway), that the original collaborators felt that there was something potentially important or worthwhile about allowing for that self-destruction to happen. I obviously have very conflicted feelings about this project! I know we have a visitor in class today, so we might not have time to raise some of these questions, but I’d love to hear your thoughts about your experience of the archival project.

1 thought on “Archiving Agrippa

  1. Elissa Myers

    Lindsay, your discussion of the simulacra reminds me of the bit in the bibliographic description about how there is now some confusion about how many copies of the work exist, and how many different editions there are. For instance, the Victoria and Albert Museum says they have a “deluxe artist’s proof edition,” though the artists themselves never set out to make such an edition. Though the renaming suggests a desire to make the text sound more impressive, its redundancy actually removes the ability of the designation to communicate any important information about the text.

    I also think your point about the desire to film this ephemeral event is interesting. It seems interesting to me that the folks who filmed the poetry event were not only preserving the event for posterity, but also preserving a record of that event’s ephemeral meaning for those who were watching that night. People who watch the filmed run now can also view what that audience believed was a one-time thing. I am also not sure how I feel about this! It is certainly interesting to be privy to this moment of technological transition, but also feels a bit voyeuristic (and perhaps somehow appropriative or colonial too)!

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