Landing : Athabascau University

Ouch, My Brain: Foucault and Agamben on "Archive" and "Testimony"

The good thing about this post is that next to these readings, anything at all that considers the archive a tangible collection of artifacts or records, any literary theory that deals with testimony as a genre or document, will be a breeze, no matter how thoroughly it problematizes "artifact," "record," or "witness," which are all proving to be very fishy terms. But even at my most esoteric, what I mean when I say "archive" and "testimony" are not what these two mean.

The AU library doesn't have the Agamben book Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, but I found it online, and I have a copy of the Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, on hand, which is good because the library's two copies are out till next March (how come I don't get loans that long...). 

It starts with what Foucault means by "archive." This is, BTW, a really. hard. book. But I think the most workable definition, especially in light of the doubling already happening in the project between CLGA's collection of OOB as an artifact and OOB's collection of cultural productions as documents, is this:

The archive is first the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events. But the archive is also that which deter-mines that all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in  an amorphous mass, nor are they inscribed in an unbroken linearity, nordo they disappear at the mercy of chance external accidents; but they are grouped together in distinct figures, composed together in accordance with multiple relations, maintained or blurred in accordance with specific regularities [...] . It is that which defines the mode of occurrence of the statement-thing; it is the system of its functioning. Far from being that which unifies every-thing that has been said in the great confused murmur of a discourse, far from being only that which ensures that we exist in the midst of preserved discourse, it is that which differentiates discourses in their multiple existence and specifies them in their own duration. (145-46)

You know that feeling when something makes sense to you as you read it, but that doesn't mean you understand it, it just means whoever wrote it understood it? That. But earlier in Archaeology of Knowledge Foucault writes about discursive formations in almost exactly the same way, except he says they "imply" the capacity to set rules. Unless I'm missing the mark here (I might be), this is a really helpful and relatively tangible clarification of the "archive" that can be readily applied to both the CLGA and OOB -- especially OOB, if the individual stories can be understood as uncovering and mobilizing statements that had previously been repressed, opening new subject-positions to be assigned. Here is what he says about implying capacity to order things:

Now, what has been described as discursive formations are, strictly speaking, groups of statements. That is, groups of verbal performances that are not linked to one another at the sentence level by grammatical (syntactical or semantic) links; which are not linked to one another at the proposition level by logical links (links of formal coherence or conceptual connexion); and which are not linked either at the formulation level by psychological links (either the identity of the forms of consciousness, the constancy of the mentalities, or the repetition of a project); but which are linked at the statement level. That which implies that one can define the general set of rules that govern their objects, the form of dispersion that regularly divides up what they say, the system of their referentials; that which implies that one defines the general set of rules that govern the different modes of enunciation, the possible distribution of the subjective positions, and the system that defines and prescribes them; that which implies that one defines the set of rules common to all their associated domains, the forms of succession, of simultaneity, of the repetition of which they are capable, and the system that links all these fields of co-existence together; lastly, that which implies that one can define the general set of rules that govern the status of these statements, the way in which they are institutionalized, received, used, re-used., combined together, the mode according to which they become objects of appropriation, instruments for desire or interest, elements for a strategy. (129)

I think I would like to come back to whether and how OOB implies that "one can define the general set of rules that govern the status of [its] statements." This is an exciting idea: one that makes sense of why OOB 'had to' be a periodical, and why it 'had to' include the content it did, in the order it did, why the CLGA's database records (and doesn't record) information about the magazine in particular ways. If I'm reading Foucault right, the archive both promises agency (the archive tells you that you can bring order to it, you can examine it and find out its order...) and denies it (but it also tells you that the rules by which you do so are pre-existing, historically contingent...). 


Agamben picks up Foucault's archive, and runs with it until he has a similarly thick, brain-melting definition of "testimony." First, Agamben very helpfully explains what the fuck Foucault was talking about:

As the set of rules that define the events of discourse, the archive is situated between langue, as the system of construction of possible sentences -- that is, of possibilities of speaking -- and the corpus that unites the set of what has been said, the things actualy uttered or written," or "the system of relations between the unsaid and the said. (144)

Oh, well, obviously it's the system of relations between sayable and said. 

OK, so unpacking that, maybe I do understand it. The "unsaid" includes everything that it is possible to say which has not yet been said (but as you think of it and document it, it would cease to be "unsaid"), and the "said" is everything that is is possible to say which has been said, but which can only be referred to through documentation of the event of speech: the act of saying itself cannot be reproduced. In Agamben's prose, the act of saying, or enunciation, is "nothing other than language's pure reference to itself as actual discourse" (138). The archive is not the statements, said or unsaid (though they are about to become important), and nor is it any particular relation or set of relations between them. Rather, it is the system that orders the relations, what Foucault describes above as "law" and "rules." The feeling is still one of trying to remember something I never quite knew to begin with, but we're getting there. 

Following Foucault, Agamben says that the "author" is not a person, but a subject-position that gets "assigned" to people who enunciate statements from the predetermined collection of those that are possible. In having a subject-position assigned to her, the individual is forced to acknowledge that she is not a stable, permanent subject herself. So the process of becoming a subject (in this case, the author) is also a process of desubjectification that Agamben thinks it is impossible to testify to: "what does it mean to be subject to desubjectification? How can a subject give an account of its own ruin?" (142) But there is more to the said and unsaid than just that: there are also those things that cannot be said. In my rudimentary Foucauldian terms, I think that means the things that are beyond the boundaries of discourse, that historical contingency has not made possible the way it has made possible all the sayable things. 

For Agamben, if the archive is the system of relations between unsaid and said, then testimony is

the system of relations between the inside and outside of langue [unsaid], between the sayable and the unsayable n every language---that is, between a potentiality of speech and its existence, between a possibility and an impossibility of speech. [...] In the relation between what is said and its taking place, it was possible to bracket the subject of enunciation [author, she who enunciates] since speech [object, that which is enunciated] had already taken place. But the relation between language and its existence, between langue and the archive, demands subjectivity as that which, in its very possibility of speech, bears witness to an impossibility of speech. [...] Testimony is a potentiality that becomes actual through an impotentiality of speech; it is, moreover, an impossibility that gives itself existence through a possibility of speaking. These two movements cannot be identified with either a subject or with a consciousness; yet they cannot be divided into two incommunicable substances. Their inseparable intimacy is testimony. (145-46)

Erm, so what is testimony? Do I still want to claim that pornography can be taken as testimony on its producers' and consumers' political statuses? I think what I've read means that testimony is the possibility of speech exerting itself as possibility, similar to how a statement was language exerting itself just as pure language, as discourse. And it does that in two ways, not separately, but bother at the same time: the testimony is something that can't be said (something "indescribable") that makes itself real through the possibility that it is real and could or might or should be the object of enunciation; and it is something that is spoken but is recognizable as "potential" because it stood a chance of being repressed, of not being spoken. Desubjectification, and dehumanization are reasons people might not be able to speak to their experiences, whether because the people have lost the ability to speak or because the experiences are indescribable. 

I think I will stop here because things will get twisted up in my brain even more if I start to try to apply them to my archive content. Definitely a better idea to check in and see how much I understood before moving on.