Archive Theory: Knowledge, Power, and Photography

Instructor: Rotem Rozental
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

The archive, so Michel Foucault claims, is the “law of what can be said.” It’s the system of records that serves as proof for claims, the documentation that legitimizes, credentializes, visualizes, and authorizes historical knowledge. It’s no wonder the archive has proved a recurring focus of philosophical and art-historical theory, standing as it does at the center of profound questions of collective knowledge-making and national identity formation. For Foucault, the archive was not a physical place, but a set of relations and institutions that “govern the appearance of statements.” For Jacques Derrida, the archive, connected etymologically to the Greek arkheion, is the “domicilization” of the law and bound up, at its roots, with political power. For the photographic theorist John Tagg, the apparently realistic character of the photographic image made it ripe for archival appropriation, implicating photographic practice in repressive systems of social management and rationalization. What, exactly, is an archivea physical space? A dislocated system of knowledge? And, what can a study of the archive teach us about the formation of modern civic consciousness and civic space?

In this course, we will explore foundational theories of the archive, including works by Foucault and Derrida, as a basis for thinking particularly about the role of photographic archives in forging and defining national landscapes and collective identities. As we read works of photographic theory by Tagg, Allan Sekulla, Ariella Azoulay, Robin Kelsey, and Ann Laura Stoler, among others, we’ll examine, too, artistic responses to the shadowy presence of the archive in the nation-state. We will ask: How do archives maintain the language that defines national images and collective memories? How do photographic archival systems define national territories, and determine who is given access to them? What are the possible connections between the archive, the body of the nation, and the individuated bodies of citizens and non-citizens alike? What are the connections between institutional archives and domestic repositories, such as the family album? How do archival systems connect to social media, as well as more recent devices of authorial control? Can we imagine a discourse that goes beyond the archive?

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 7:00-10:00pm ET
June 08 — June 29, 2022
4 weeks


Registration Open

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