The Heretical Archive. Digital memory at the end of Film
by Domietta Torlasco
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2013
160 pp. illus. 25 b/w. Trade, $ 67.50; paper, $22.50
ISBN: 978-0-8166-8109-9; ISBN: 978-0-8166-8110-5.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
This is a very ambitious, very inspiring, but also very difficult book, which has to be situated at the crossroads of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and film studies - although the basic stance of the author, professor of French and Italian at Northwestern, is of course not to juxtapose these three domains, but interweave them in new and complex ways.
The starting point of this study is a reflection on the archive, more precisely on the seminal rethinking of the archive as an intersection of "law" and "place" as put forward by Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever. This reflection combines and defends three different although strongly interrelated theses: 1) Derrida's reworking of the archive and his strong emphasis on the interaction between transmission and death leave aside a number of possibilities that it is now possible to tackle more directly; 2) the critical rereading of Derrida, which the author presents as a kind of supplement to Archive Fever, not as its substitute or alternative, can take benefit from certain strands of psychoanalysis that have been "repressed" in Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalysis (and for Torlasco Derrida remains to a certain extent a representative of such repression) as well as from certain forms of phenomenology (and here the major reference is the later Merleau-Ponty); 3) this reinterpretation of the philosophical and psychoanalytical interpretation of the archive is both made possible and performed by contemporary visual art, more particularly contemporary post-cinematic video art, where several key artists are exploring new ways of working and playing with the (filmic) archive through digital means.
In this regard, the key word is "creation", a dimension of the archive that the current modern and postmodern interpretation of the archival work and institution do not fully pay justice to. By "creation", Domietta Torlasco means in the very first place the possibility to reappropriate the archival material in such a way that the archive becomes the opportunity to invent (and hence to project into the future as well as to experience in the present) certain unrealized and perhaps totally unforeseen, if not unthinkable possibilities of the past. This approach supposes a twofold transformation of the archive's economy, for it criticizes the dominant position of "montage" (in the sense of montage as technique of reordering a set of "movement images", to use the Deleuzian terminology) while at the same time rejecting the overall organizational principles an archive is supposed to obey (Torlasco will emphasize instead, through the examples of the contemporary video and digital works that she is analyzing, the active role of the individual and subjective, often very subjective re-user of the filmic images).
The Heretical Archive is a multilayered work, whose various parts are not treated in an analogous way. After an excellent theoretical introduction, in which the author exposes her intellectual and critical reading program, the book has four chapters, which contain always two parts.
First, they discuss a major aspect of Archive Fever, mainly to problematize the heritage of what Torlasco calls the "domestico-familial" (i.e. the overrepresentation in psychoanalytically oriented interpretations of the Oedipean, parent-child relationships in our thinking and practice of the archive, even in the work of those who, like Derrida, are very critical of the classic archive). The discussion with Derrida remains rather concise and the same applies to the other sources and authors Torlasco is drawing on. These theoretical openings are often very challenging, as demonstrated for instance in the critical debate with Hal Foster and Merleau-Ponty, but the reader should be warned that a serious previous knowledge of some cutting discussions at the intersection of philosophy and media art are a prerequisite to take full profit of this book.
Second the various chapters confront the fundamental theoretical perspectives of the author with an in-depth reading of five contemporary works, which all exemplify the possibility to use the archive in order to invent new futures: "Destroy She Said" by Monica Bonvicini; "The Gleaners and I" by Agnès Varda; "L'Ellipse" by Pierre Huyghe; "The Desert Room" by Marco Poloni; and Chris Marker's "Immemory" (the only work that, for copyright reasons one supposes, is absent from the iconography of the book). Here as well, Torlasco's approach is extremely focused. She concentrates on the artworks rather than on a general presentation of the artists, and all readings are close-readings of extremely precise techniques, fragments, and procedures of the work. Easier to follow and always extremely convincing, these close-readings represent more or less 80% of the whole book. At the same time, however, the phenomenological framing of the work is always very present, hence the systematic references to the personal, bodily experience of the works as seen, seen again, and remembered by the author.