11 Oct 2012

Archives: a temple and a cemetery

The Cape Archives Repository of South Africa 

I came across an interesting, quite poetic, description of archives from The Power of the Archive and its Limits” by Achille Mbembe in Re-figuring the Archive (2002). The volume consists of essays developed from papers given at a conference in South Africa and focuses on refiguring archives with particularly difficult political histories of preserving, remembering, repressing and forgetting. In line with Derrida's Archive Fever, the definition of the word 'archive' is related to the building as well as the documents. It is particularly fraught and interesting when considering that the building which houses the Cape Archives Repository (South Africa) was once a prison building.

Mbembe writes:
“The archive has neither status nor power without an architectural dimension, which encompasses the physical space of the site of the building, its motifs and columns, the arrangement of the rooms, the organisation of the ‘files’, the labyrinth of corridors, and that degree of discipline, half-light and austerity that gives the place something of the nature of a temple and a cemetery: a religious space because a set of rituals is constantly taking place there, rituals that [...] are of a quasi-magical nature, and a cemetery in the sense that fragments of lives and pieces of time are interred there, their shadows and footprints inscribed on paper and preserved like so many relics.”