A Theory of the Total Archive:  Infinite Expansion, Infinite Compression, and Apparatuses of Control

19 March 2015, 18:00 - 19:00

CRASSH (SG1&2), Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, CB3 9DT

This public lecture is part of the conference The Total Archive: Dreams of Universal Knowledge from the Encyclopaedia to Big Data taking place at CRASSH on 19th and 20th March 2015.

Speaker: N. Katherine Hayles (Literature, Duke University)


A total archive is of course literally impossible, but in imaginative literature, there are two ways to achieve it, as Borges has taught us: infinite expansion (“The Library of Babel”), and infinite compression (“The Aleph”).   Apparent opposites, the two cycle continuously into and through one another, as do outside/inside in a Möbius strip or interior/exterior in a Klein bottle. The metaphor is not perfect, however, for while the transition from outside/inside/outside is seamless in these physical examples, with the Archive it is mediated by a hinge instantiated in apparatuses of control: institutions, governments, corporations, universities. Examples of the hinge’s operation include the microbiome project aiming to catalogue the DNA and to archive samples of all the microbial organisms that inhabit human bodies; Christian Bök’s project to encode his poetry into the DNA of a microscopic organism known as the extremophile; and the experimental print novel/project by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst known as S. This talk will explore the implications of the theory through the examples above and illustrate its operation in detail in S.