The Mystery of the Archive and the Performance of the Open Future

This is the second in our current series of short essays by participants in the Open Knowledge Fellowship coordinated by the Mina Rees Library, these from Fellows in the Spring 2022 cohort. Fellows share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY.

Cen Liu is a Ph.D. student in Theatre and Performance at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her research focuses on collecting practices, the history of science and technology, and theatrical culture in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Through their convergence, she investigates the epistemologies about local urban orders and the global cultural landscape of the period. She is also interested in how the archives as both repositories of memories and palimpsests of forgetting sway the narratives of history, and how theatre and performance as a site and a methodology can offer new ways of producing knowledge at the interstices. She is currently a Graduate Teaching Fellow in the Department of Theatre and Speech at City College of New York. She has previously worked at the Morgan Library & Museum as a research fellow.

In 1530, Viglius Zuichemus, a Dutch jurist, wrote to Erasmus about a Theatre that arrested curiosity in all of Italy and France: “a work of wonderful skill, into which whoever is admitted as spectator will be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero.”[1] This work was Giulio Camillo’s Theatre of Memory, an enclosed architecture inspired by the Roman theatre that rises in seven grades and is divided by seven gangways, where Camillo lays out the images that encompass the totality of knowledge of the terrestrial sphere and beyond. Despite testimonies like that of Vigilius and Camillo’s own account in L’Idea Del Theatro, debates remain whether Theatre of Memory is built as a physical space or a mnemonic technique that retains information through spatializing knowledge. In either case, the deliberate obscurity of how it works is aimed at shielding knowledge from the public and making it available to eclectic individuals.

“The Temple of Time,” created by American educator, women’s rights activist, and cartographer Emma Willard in 1846, is a similar project that spatializes time in order to help students develop a synchronic framework of history. Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

I start with this brief recounting of Theatre of Memory as it illustrates the long history of the limit for access that the Open Knowledge Fellowship brings under scrutiny. Knowledge, as Peter Suber contends, has always belonged to the public and its society.[2] It is rather the material objects—paper, skin, clay, or stone—that render the access to knowledge a depletion and an exclusion. While digital technologies have revolutionized the nature of this access, the traditional publishing industry and cultural institutions such as museums and archives continue to sidestep new possibilities of distribution in order to maintain their financial, legal, political and cultural privilege to knowledge. While the Open Access movement is an explicit response to the increasingly redundant barriers that copyright protection puts to knowledge in the digital age, the political issue that it surfaces is an entrenched mechanism of enclosure, from Camillo’s Theatre of Memory to innumerable encyclopedic projects during the Enlightenment, to colonial archives that effectively produced epistemological oppression, social exclusion, and cultural hierarchy. 

I came to the Fellowship with an interest in the archive and was excited for the possibilities that the focus of the Fellowship about Open Education Resources (OER) will bring to my classroom. Arlette Farge describes the experience in the archive as getting to the heart of a mystery—as “tearing away a veil, of crossing through the opaqueness of knowledge and, as if after a long and uncertain voyage, finally gaining access to the essence of beings and things.”[3] But this romanticization is predicated on the same mechanism of enclosure that upholds the archive as a solitary and sacred temple replete with traces of the past and objects of aura—the fetish that Derrida calls “the archive fever” that is not so much about the utility of the archive, but the possession of it. Therefore, an open access to archives is an integral part of the blueprint of knowledge in an open world. Crucially, counter to the encyclopedic impulse, we should recognize that knowledge is never timeless and never complete. The archive is not an entity, but rather an encounter, a network, and a force towards its rebirth.

Engraving from Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale (1599), an early pictorial representation of a natural history cabinet. In the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, cabinets of curiosities functioned as epistemological frameworks for relocating non-Western objects and technologies in the European imagination. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Open Knowledge Fellowship maintains a sophisticated balance between the local concern with openly licensed educational resources and the general critique of the politics of enclosure. It provided me with the context for articulating the concern in the classroom and the tools for translating the critique into praxis. In the workshops, we investigated the infrastructure and the politics of knowledge in the context of higher education: the tensions among different publishing models, the pricing and permission crisis that traditional publishers raise to combat the development of digital technologies, the principles of creative commons licenses, increasing access to digital archives, and above all, the theoretical and political importance of Open Educational Resources (OER). We also learned about best practices of copyright credits, strategies of locating OER, and options of open course platforms. Furthermore, we had informative discussions about how to relate our pedagogical intentions to students, sharing experiences from foregrounding the OER choices on the front page of CUNY Academic Commons site to making space for reflections in the classroom. The extensive discussion resonates with my existing doubts about the myths around archives and archival research and affirms the necessity to create greater visibility and access to archival materials. 

In my class Introduction to Theatre Arts, I frequently face the hard decision of leaving out the critical discussion of the politics of archive—the colonial power in the archive, the contingency of historical narratives, and the erasure of performances as expressions of worldviews and modes of existence—while trying to meet other traditionally expected learning goals. During the Fellowship, I worked on gathering resources of open-accessed, digitized collections of museums, libraries, and archives. The dismantling of colonial epistemology and the authority of archives can start in the classroom if we give students the opportunity to examine, evaluate, challenge, and re-write what we know about archives and histories. By providing students the access to OER, in particular digitized archival materials and the digital tools for archival research, we can enable them to be co-creators of the past and the future of cultural memories, and to shape the public knowledge commons of which they are a part.

Commons is a general term that refers to a resource shared by a group of people. As Hess and Ostrom contend in their book, the age of digital information has rendered knowledge as “a shared resource, a complex ecosystem that is a common—a resource shared by a group of people that is subject to social dilemmas.”[4] Meanwhile, Elizabeth M. Dillon has demonstrated that the concept of commons materializes through performatively inhabiting such a position: in theatre, the audience do not silently watch what occurs on the stage, but rather seek to display and represent themselves both in public and as a public.[5] As a teacher, I am inclined to see my own classroom as a similarly performative space for the commons: given the condition to engage with the expansive network of an emerging knowledge commons, students can start to exercise their identities as public knowledge makers. Through this work, they will undoubtedly take us into, and towards, a more open future.

[1] Francis Yates, The Art of Memory (New York: Routledge, 1966), 132.

[2] Peter Suber, “Knowledge as a public good,” SPARC Open Access Newsletter, November 2, 2009.

[3] Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 8.

[4] Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom, “Introduction: An Overview of the Knowledge Commons,” in Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice (Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2006), 3.

[5] Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World: 1649-1849 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014), 5.

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.