The Film Archive Between Heritage and Inheritance
1) An archive scene: a researcher opens a file and discovers a document about the life of an actor she has just seen in a film on a Steenbeck. She is enthusiastic about her finding, digs deeper, puts together her own file. The deeper she digs, the more familiar the person she is researching becomes to her, the more alive the actor comes. Later, when she talks to the head of the archive, she is surprised to learn that not only does the head of the archive not know about the documents and the contents of that file. The head of the archive doesn’t even know about the actor. The researcher is surprised to learn that not everyone knows what she is finding in the archive, since the record is there for everyone to see. The head of the archive was supposed to know!
“L’autre supposé croire” is how a philosopher described, in the words of Lacan, the structure of ideology. Everyone believes that everyone else believes, without believing herself. “L’autre supposé savoir” is how we could describe the knowledge of the archive: We assume that everyone knows, even though we don’t know. In fact, nobody really knows. Or, more precisely: Only the archive knows. The ignorance of the head of the archive is surprising to the excited neophyte researcher, but it is not shameful. She is not the guardian of the knowledge inside the archive. She is the guardian of our ignorance about what is inside the archive.
2) Archives have an address. They are addressed to anyone in particular, and to everyone who enters them. The archive interpellates the researcher: It turns the researcher into the addressee of the archive. The archive bequeaths its knowledge to the researcher. Research, in that sense, is always a form of inheriting something for which one has no specific title, yet which is available for anyone’s asking. The archive bequeaths something to no one in particular, and to anyone.
3) “Heritage” is a cultural policy term, of “Kulturpolitik”, to use the German term, for after all, it was Bismarck who invented it. “Heritage” presupposes a collective “we”: a group with specific features, a shared origin, a shared future, which springs from a shared language or ethnicity, or from other identity traits. The term “heritage” creates a specific “we” which lays claim to the unspecific inheritance that the archive contains. It substantialises the addressee of the archive and combines the address of the archive with an operation of exclusion and inclusion. Once the contents of the archive become “heritage”, some people have a specific title to its contents, and others don’t. But there is the heritage of humanity! Das Kulturerbe der Menschheit! You will object. Of course. But that still excludes non-humans.
4) Turning the impersonal inheritance of the archive’s knowledge into the very personal entitlement to a “heritage” has political advantages – after all, it is a cultural policy operation. Once the archive has a substantial addressee, we can go and raise money to sustain the archive in the name of this specific, identifiable addressee. It’s easier to raise money for Das Deutsche Filmerbe than for an archive that just contains knowledge addressed to no one in particular. But we should remain aware of the fact that this is a political operation. We still need, not just a “politique des auteurs”, but a “politique des archives”. And we need archives which contain more than just heritage: Archives that bequeath knowledge to no one in particular, at anyone’s asking.