The Archive as a Storage Space of Foreign Sounds (2000)*

Burkhard Stangl

The Archive as a Storage Space of Foreign Sounds

Which memories are brought by phonographic archives and collections!
(Parzer-Mühlbacher 1902: 107)

So there is material collected in phonographic archives which, while increasing daily, would remain dead capital if not appropriately used.
(Hornbostel 1909 = 1986: 112)

Especially in the context of “auswertende Forschung” (Graf 1956: 123), saving is closely connected to archiving. Archiving means to file, to order systematically, and to map the collected items at a site of collection – be it a museum, a library or an audio archive. A society is fundamentally defined not only by its modes of communication but also by its possibilities for storing information (see Schläbitz 1997: 18). As Boris Groys (1997: 26) said in regard to ethnological collections and (especially) ethnographic audio archives: You always try to “view [an] art collection as a space of representation, in which different times, cultures, peoples, and everybody else is represented aesthetically”.

There is a difference, however, between the activity of an explorer who records and collects representative objects of the material culture, artefacts, photographies, works of art, or music of „ethnic“ peoples to bring them home, and the activities of western (art) collectors: ”autonomous“ art in our culture is produced by and large with the intent to be collected. In earlier times art was construed as part of a temple, church or palace – today it is designed for the isolated, “autonomous“ space of private or public collections. The production of fine arts today is significantly different from all other modes of production in the modern world. All other products in a capitalist economy are designed for consumption. Consumption, however, denotes destruction at the same time. A work of art, an object or an ethnographic phonogram is not consumed, but stored: It can neither be eaten (like bread), nor used (like a car), nor even be understood completely (like a text). But it is still a commodity, albeit one for collection, not consumption (see Groys 1997: 25). “Ethnic“ production of art and music that has not yet been exploited for economic gain – e.g., for tourism or as “ethno music“ – and western art production therefore differ in ways that can be explained by looking at the differences in the culturally defined concepts of collecting. The value of ethnographic artefacts or objects of art is, at first, mainly virtual, unless the objects are presented to the public directly through an exhibition. The collected items acquire their value only at the moment they are collected and – this is important – archived; storage over time adds interest (ibid.: 26). This causes ethnographic museums to pay bigger or smaller sums for ethnographica. For example, Heinrichs points out that Leo Frobenius brought approximately 8,000 ethnographic objects from his trip to Congo and was able to finance further trips through these spoils. According to Heinrichs, it is this practice, which is widely pursued even today, that has given rise to the image of the greedy and imperialist ethnologist (see Heinrichs 1998: 46).
The gathering of ethnographic phonograms does not seem to elicit such approaches. There is no information to suggest that the vast sums that were regularly payed for ethnographic realia or art have ever been offered for (original) phonograms, even though the old wax cylinders and archival discs can create an aura for the listener that was beginning to vanish in the „age of technical reproducability“ (Benjamin 1991). „The live – and well funded – research effort at the beginning of this century has succeeded in acquiring a multitude of ‘ethnophonica’ from all continents and in all disciplines, which have largely survived in the major sound and audio archives of the world until today“ (Schüller 1986: 173). Unlike the collections in ethnographic museums, the archives of ethnographic audio documents have hardly ever been accessible to the public, as this was not deemed their purpose. Commercial aspects have played almost no role so far. Still, there exist some parallels between western art production (and therefore concepts of collection) and the production of audio documents. The latter are collected as well; for the time being, however, these cultural manifestations mainly supply state-funded civilisation archives.

Virilio points to the enormous growth of available knowledge in the past centuries, and thereby formulates the paradox: “the more it is known, the more it is unknown too. Or, rather: the higher the pace with which information follows information, the more we realize how fragmentary and incomplete [the information] is“ (Virilio 1991: 169). Expanding on Virilios analysis, one could say that the past century has seen the greatest collecting, saving and archiving activity in human history, while at the same time there was never a time in which so much was forgotten and suppressed. Storing and releasing into archives can be seen as a symbol of oblivion, as a symbol for the ultimate loss of practical remembrance; in the most cynical form it can even symbolize death.

„A sad chapter in the history of museums is the story of the Jewish museum of Prag. With the example of the “Jüdisches Zentralmuseum” the historic narrative stops short, suddenly turning literal: Here numbers are the whole text. From 1942 on, while all the sacred treasures taken from Jewish communities were being stored and put to inventory there, the national socialists deported the living members of these communities into concentration camps. The exponential growth of the museums’ contents corresponds with the exponential intensification of the murders. The museum as a medium is always an end stop, just as the ramp of Auschwitz was one for the owners of the objects, and then for the employees of the museum themselves. The small group of Jewish returnees after the War found the depot of the former Jewish community almost completely intact, but was too frail to reclaim this heritage and decided to donate the museum to the state“ (Ernst 1991: 211 ff.).

Should storing and archiving in itself be a precondition for suppressing and forgetting? In the course of answering this question, the ambivalence of the archive becomes manifest.

In the modern civilization archives – those “warehouses of remembrance“ (Nestroy, as quoted by Freud 1982: 82) or “monasteries of salvation“, as Eco (1996) calls their hybrid forms – ethnographic documents rest as evidence of a ‘magical’ past, which can be mobilized repeatedly and in unforeseeable ways, even in future times, to unlock new contexts of meaning. “Civilization archives mark certain time contiguousness – regions and ideas that are set apart from everyday life, that can be actualized repeatedly and independent of historic processes“ (Egger 1992: 18). This is alluded to in the works of Foucault, who used archived materials from the time of the Enlightenment to convey new systems of interpretation for that era (f.e. Foucault 1976, 1979). His research was conducted against the background of large amounts of statistical information (about social milieus, climate, epidemics, death rate, etc.) to produce an analysis in contrast with historicist modes of interpretation. In the 19th century, the significance of documents was rising, while the authority of books and tradition was weakened (see Foucault 1997: 77). He voices the suspicion that all power originates from archives and always finds his way back to them (see Kittler 1986: 13). Depending on the socio-political situation and power constellations, access to archives is given or taken. Even the old Chinese thought that the “barbarians from the South“ would at some point rise to the cultural height of the Chinese centre. To save them the cumbersome ascent, they were denied access to state archives (see Marschall 1990: 11).
The opening of archives constitutes a magic word even in personal areas: In the end no one can be sure what information (about oneself) is recorded by powerful institutions, documented, and kept in restricted archives. All stored data of knowledge is in that sense an “apparatus [dispositif] of power“ (Foucault 1978), whose contents usually tell you more than was intended during storage.

Alongside, however, there are instances in which the technique of ethnographic audio documentation and archiving are used specifically for military planning. The decoding of cultures as an avenue to exercising control is demonstrated by the report „War on the Mind“, which presents the Pentagon’s psychological strategies. Kittler points to the military experts and historians Don E. Gordon (Electronic Warfare, 1978) and Peter Watson (Psycho-Krieg, 1982) and claims that there are already lists of dates that bode ill in the cultures of different peoples. The US Air Force can thereby “’attune’ the dates of air raids to fit the prophecies of any deity“; even voice recordings of these deities are stored and can be mounted from helicopters in order to “frighten primitive native guerillas and hold them back in their villages“ (Kittler 1986: 24 f.). (The Pentagon has had special film projectors developed that can project images of tribal deities unto low cloud covers [ibid.])
It is well known that military strategy mostly eludes public scrutiny, access, or control. With scientific audio recordings, however, this should not be the case. Unfortunately, the recordings of live oral traditions from remote areas were often times neither published nor released to the public, so that a lot of opportunities have been lost and are still lost today. “The role of the commissioning scientific institutes, as they themselves define it, did and does not include making those recordings accessible to the public through neo-oral media (radio, records). Rather, [those institutions] are exclusively concerned with transferring their collections into written media (transcriptions into European normal notation or into especially designed ‘descriptive’ notations, scientific literature)“ (Lug 1998: 258). The selection and administration of information, the transparency of the archives, and the resulting accessibility of information is not just the task of archive management and not solely their responsibility. Clifford’s argument about the development of ethnographic science is just as valid for archives and (especially) ethnographic archives, be it a museum or an audio archive; it cannot be understood without taking the general political-epistemological discourse about the representation of the other into account (see Clifford 1995: 113). What will become an object of scientific examination in the future is determined solely by our respective conduct today.


Manfred Schneider (1987) gives an account of an – in Novalis’ sense – strange and forward-looking suggestion made by the American semiologist Thomas A. Sebeok. Commissioned by the “Human Interference Task Force” of the Bechtel company, which was employed with securing geological deposits, Sebeok had to develop a permanent system of signs and transmissions that could convey messages about the stored radioactive materials and their physical characteristics, unadulterated over an assumed period of ten thousand years. Sebeok suggested forming an “atomic priesthood“ [Atompriesterschaft], a dynasty, consisting of physicists, linguists, radiation experts and semiologists, whose task would be to newly encode the message again and again over generations, thereby ensuring the stability and secure transmission of the information. Apparently, Sebeok didn’t trust modern storage technology when left to its own devices. His idea of an “atomic priesthood“ utilizes ancient cultic practices in order to transmit and store complex physical knowledge safely. “Plainly speaking, that means to disarm the side effects of modern technology, a society that has developed storage and transmission technologies of almost unlimited capacity has to recommit itself to a system of information and warranty that this society itself has rendered obsolete in the course of the technical-industrial formation of modernity“ (Schneider 1987: 676). Sebeoks use of a priestly conservation system that is millennia old leads us ”right into the middle of the present-day problem of memory building. Religious societies are dedicated to the task of testifying to original acts of creation, to entertaining notary’s offices for divine messages, or to enshrining holy documents of immutable design. In that way, religions preserve the inner unity of cultures, whose geographical space or inner milieu is undergoing change“ (ibid.). Religious endowments usually result from divine acts of speech, and “due to the fact, that Gods and Gods’ sons usually don’t write, but let it be written at best“, the pristine preservation of primordial holy words depends on the techniques and skills of the priests themselves (ibid. 677). According to Schneider, Sebeok’s proposal alludes to principal questions that challenge the old notion of memory and remembrance in the light of exploding data and the new problems for archiving. The effects of the “thermo-nuclear revolution“, as Darcy Ribeiro (1971: 178 ff.) calls the last striking incision in the process of civilisation, and of the enormous amount of data that are produced and stored every day, could already be felt at the time when Sebeok developed his model of “atomic priesthood“. This example shows the complexities of knowledge transfer and storage, which will effect the future role of the archive and especially of sound archives that store ethnographic audio documents.

(translation by Lea Rennert; all direct quotations as translated by ourselfs)


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[The Archive as a Storage Space of Foreign Sounds in german orig.: Das Archiv als Lagerort der fremden Klänge. In: Burkhard Stangl: Ethnologie im Ohr. Die Wirkungsgeschichte des Phonographen. WUV (Facultas) Wiener Universitätsverlag 2000, p. 164 ff.]