Archives at the End of the World


We meet the character Nigel early in Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece apocalyptic thriller Children of Men. Early enough that even a repeat viewer will forget them by the end of the first act, holding tightly as we do onto the protagonist Theo for dear life--white-knuckled, breathing short and fast, and ultimately shaken, somehow traumatized, and not entirely able to recall and come to terms with all that we experienced. More than a decade now since its release, Children of Men has rightly received an appreciative if anxious reappraisal in the context of environmental migration, Brexit, and state racism and violence. The most trenchant to my mind opened Mark Fisher’s brilliant Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009), in which the author introduced the Nigel character’s prescient model of ultimate impotence, completely incapable of even imagining any future, let alone a different, maybe brighter one. It’s excruciatingly poignant to see this point made so efficiently by making Nigel a curator--a self-servingly amoral collector and didact of human cultural heritage. In a society facing almost certain extinction, Nigel jealously lords the charge to preserve the remaining touchstones of human artistic achievement for...whom?  “I just don’t think about it,” is their perfunctory answer to that existential question. And to be sure, as the world burns and society howls, Nigel is only sustained by their own intellectual and aesthetic vanities. I think about Nigel a lot these days.

“A hundred years from now there won’t be one sad fuck to look at any of this.” Theo asks: “What keeps you going?” I have thought about it--I do think about it--but honestly I don’t know how different, effectively, my answer would be.

As Fisher was still writing his treatise ten years ago, I was making, studying, and teaching documentary films. Then as now, my primary impulse was to understand how and why human beings arrange, narrativize, and historicize fragments of evidence and their own memories in order to make sense and meaning of the immediate world. I trained on two filmmakers in particular who came increasingly to define the boundaries of my vision: Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. Morris, the consummate detective, always seeking to uncover the truth hidden among strewn fragments of decontextualized evidence; Herzog, the mystic, imploring us to know society by its collective unconscious desires and fears. In 2008, Morris released his Abu Ghraib documentary Standard Operating Procedure, the first in a series of investigations (along with The Unknown Known [2013] and Wormwood [2017]) that end in exasperated shrugs at the truths and deeper meanings originally sought. Herzog concurrently released Encounters at the End of the World, his journey to Antarctica to discover the dreams that human beings bring there with them and what they leave behind as a species. I always identified more with Morris epistemologically and I still read him into much of my current work as an archivist. But Herzog, or Encounters in particular, has always haunted me.

Morris frames the creation of an icon in   Standard Operating Procedure  .

Morris frames the creation of an icon in Standard Operating Procedure.

Scientists listen for the world under Antarctic ice in   Encounters at the End of the World

Scientists listen for the world under Antarctic ice in Encounters at the End of the World

I’d left filmmaking by 2009, resigned that I could read and reread until the end of time, but that I had no vision or novel methodology of my own to share. I retreated back to the archives, where I was empowered to chase my recondite questions about memory and knowledge while earning a steady paycheck at the bottom of the great recession. I have few answers of any merit today, but all the while I’d encouraged myself that I am engaged in the noble preservation of human achievement that could someday, as Herzog put it in his film, enlighten and educate the alien archaeologists who encounter our planet after the species expires. This satisfied my ego for a decade, but no longer. Useful if a bit silly as it was as an abstraction, this trite fantasy in fact provides no more motivation or even consolation to a very real life spent waiting for climate change to invalidate all of my hustling to make rent. It’s endemic to the reflexive impotence with which Fisher diagnoses us who came of age under late capitalism; transcending mere cynicism, it fills a void where my imagination should be and recycles my energy back into the same destructive system that I ostensibly reject. 

“Look, Karl,” she instructed me. By 2015 I was working to develop an architect’s archives into an online resource for her rapidly expanding practice. I obediently looked down to where she pointed, around at my feet. “Arcus!” she exclaimed, referring to a recently completed social justice leadership center building. Indeed, here on the shore of Lake Wandawega in Wisconsin we stood on an aged cordwood construction that resembled the new center’s unique facade. The project brief describes the old-fashioned wood masonry technique as an intentional, green intervention to reduce carbon pollution, “one of many environmental issues embraced by social justice movements.” I understood it as a designer’s aesthetic expression of nostalgia for an upscale wilderness retreat. I was hired to build a business development and process improvement tool like the one that I’d managed for a landscape architecture practice. If anything a legacy project to the founder, to his firm this was an opportunity to extract any remaining resources that could be monetized towards reducing labor spent on new development and construction. These were enjoyable opportunities to fetishize, curate, and control interesting traces of artistic vision and rigor, but in the for-profit sphere they exist only insofar as they are good for business.

The shrine of/to flowers, garlanded by popcorn and preserved in the ice under the magnetic south pole.

The shrine of/to flowers, garlanded by popcorn and preserved in the ice under the magnetic south pole.

Memory and the archives can be tools of reconciliation, emancipation, even indeed imagination and creativity. I desperately needed a living reminder of this when I got it and then some from “The Ferguson Effect on Local Activism and Community Memory” (video), the panel of activists and organizers at Documenting the Now’s December 2017 Digital Blackness in the Archive symposium. People with more facility to envision a future than I have right now, and themselves the subjects of naive attempts to record the Movement for Black Lives for posterity, explained what they had learned from the civil rights leaders who preceded them and demonstrated what they could teach the generations that follow. If we care at all about survival, then I think that this is in essence the mission that every memory worker must pursue: to empower the inheritors of memory to find meaning as they will and to apply what they learn to realizing the more just and equitable society that they deserve. Extraction and accumulation alienate us. Nostalgia and aesthetics commodify our birthrights to our peril. If there is to be a future then it demands new vision, so I don’t know if I have a place in it, but I’m thinking about it.