“Shocking the Past into Attention,”
A Conversation on Archiveology with Catherine Russell
“The history of every art form has critical periods in which the particular form strains after effects which can be easily achieved only with a changed technical standard—that is to say, in a new art form.”1 Written in the context of early twentieth-century modernism, Walter Benjamin’s statement holds no less true of the film and video art of recent decades. For, much as the shock effects of Dada painting and literature were elicited more readily through film, the archival media practices that were once largely associated with the avant-garde have become a pervasive phenomenon in the age of digital technologies and video-sharing websites. In the process, one sees the birth of the YouTube mashup out of the spirit of Cabaret Voltaire.
As Catherine Russell observes in her new book, Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices, countless moving images are now easily accessible for recycling and remixing. No longer the primary domain of experimental artists, the retrieval and reassembling of audiovisual fragments have become widespread creative practices in contemporary media: “The death of ‘film’ and the rise of digital media,” she notes, “have effectively enabled and produced a new critical language that we are only really learning to speak” (28). In Russell’s view, this new language bears significant implications for the construction of history and cultural memory, carrying the promise of “shocking the past into attention” (50).
The principal term of Russell’s book is “archiveology,” which describes the collection, reconfiguration, and resignification of preexisting material. While this definition encompasses the homages, machinima, supercuts, and video essays made by fans and industry professionals, Russell focuses on independent moving-image art that has reused archival images in the tradition of found-footage filmmaking, often traversing the genres of documentary, essayistic, and experimental media. Troubling William C. Wees’s earlier distinction between compilation, collage, and appropriation in Recycled Images (1993), Russell argues that these analytical divisions are insufficient in the face of contemporary archive-based works, which generally employ all three methods.
For Russell, no thinker is better suited to teach us the new language of the archive than Benjamin, whose theoretical concepts and critical methods have gained legibility and relevance in digital image culture. In “Program for Literary Criticism,” an unpublished fragment from 1929–1930, Benjamin posited citation as a sine qua non of critique, even advocating the development of “a criticism consisting entirely of quotations.”2 Benjamin here drew inspiration from Karl Kraus, whose journal Die Fackel (The Torch, 1899–1936) quoted from newspapers as a strategy for exposing their empty phrases. Devoting an important essay to the Viennese satirist in 1931, Benjamin identified citation as Kraus’s “basic polemical procedure.”3
Techniques of citation and commentary are especially central to Benjamin’s unfinished manuscript, The Arcades Project (1927–40), the work that, in Russell’s words, “most comprehensively foreshadows the archival film practices that proliferate in the early twenty-first century” (41). Modeling himself after the nineteenth-century collector or rag-picker, Benjamin assembled his “Convolutes” from innumerable notes, reflections, and quotations. Though based in written materials, Benjamin’s methodology had strong affinities with film aesthetics: enacting the formal principle of montage, he sought to create “dialectical images” that shuttled between past and present, actualizing historical objects in a “now of recognizability.”4
Much as Benjamin excavated masses of sources in an effort to “wrest from primal history a portion of the nineteenth century,”5 archive-focused filmmakers have reconstructed and reimagined the twentieth century through the vast array of moving images that it produced. Most famous in this regard is Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988–98), which—like The Arcades Project—is an enormous collage of excerpts with the ultimate goal of awakening its audience from the phantasmagoria of commodity culture. Russell is not interested in positing Godard’s video series as the “exemplary model of archiveology” (52), however. Instead, she focuses on lesser-known figures, highlighting the wide range of formats, modes, and styles that their works have adopted.
One such work is Nicole Védrès’s Paris 1900 (1947), which represents the Belle Époque through snippets from over 700 films—“an image bank that was remarkably close to Benjamin’s own,” as Russell notes (78). In the chapter “The Cityscape in Pieces,” Russell places Paris 1900 in a trajectory of montage-based city films extending up to Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), a three-hour documentary portrait of Los Angeles assembled through clips from fiction films. The following chapter, “Collecting Images,” analyzes Morgan Fisher’s ( ) (a.k.a. Parentheses, 2003), Dominic Gagnon’s Hoax Canular (2013), and Gustav Deutsch’s World Mirror Cinema (2005), which sample often-unknown images from numerous sources (e.g., film archives, eBay, YouTube).
In “Phantasmagoria and Critical Cinephilia,” Russell examines the reworking of mainstream narrative cinema in Christian Marclay’s twenty-four-hour video-installation The Clock (2010), as well as in two films by Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, Kristall (2006) and Phoenix Tapes (1999). A final chapter, “Awakening from the Gendered Archive,” addresses issues of female stardom, the archive, and interactive spectatorship in two found-footage films: Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936) and The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Rania Stephan, 2011). Exploring the nexus of archiveology and women’s labor, Russell considers the possibilities of “awakening from the archive and détourning its gender politics” (34).
Throughout her book, Russell argues that works of contemporary media art—whether exhibited in cinemas, galleries, or on new media platforms—have unsettled the once-traditional divisions between creation and reception, artist and audience, thereby facilitating a more engaged, critical, and even collaborative mode of spectatorship. In thematizing major shifts in both aesthetic forms and social roles, Russell takes her cue from Benjamin’s essay, “The Author as Producer” (1934), in which he discerned “a mighty recasting of literary forms … [that] not only affects the conventional distinction between genres, between writer and poet, between scholar and popularizer, but also revises even the distinction between author and reader.”6
What was at stake for Benjamin in that text was the possibility of seizing the means of production and mobilizing “technical progress” in the service of “political progress.”7 For Benjamin, the dominant trend, however, was toward supplying rather than transforming the productive apparatus, as illustrated by the shift from Dada’s revolutionary collages and photomontages to the photography of New Objectivity, which beautified and ultimately affirmed the existing world. The legacy of Dada can nonetheless be seen today in media art that subjects moving images to critical remixing—an especially important practice, as Russell emphasizes, in our own moment of rapid technological change and acute political crisis.
Nicholas Baer: Toward the beginning of your book, you quote from a posthumously published fragment by Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory,” that recalls Sigmund Freud’s analogy between the human mind and the historic city of Rome in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Benjamin writes that memory is “the medium of that which is experienced, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried.”8 Digging through the depths of your own memory, how do you recall the experience of developing this new book? What were the various strata involved in the process?
Catherine Russell: That’s a pretty tough question, but a good one, because I discuss in the book the way that my own thinking about found footage has changed with new technologies. I’ve been interested in image recycling for a very long time. I wrote a long essay on the experimental filmmaker David Rimmer for CineAction! in 1989, when I was simply dealing with celluloid film, and this marked my first discussion of Benjamin and found-footage film. Then, in my book Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (1999), I wrote a chapter, “Archival Apocalypse: Found Footage as Ethnography.” However, the focus on the use and reuse of actual archives is much more recent and entered my thinking around 2008, when the PhD program at Concordia launched coincident with the proliferation of digital media. The variations and potential of remediation and appropriation arts became far more apparent to me. I realized that I was a lot closer than before to figuring out what archiveology might actually be.
The book that I originally proposed to Duke University Press was a collection of previously published essays on archival film practices, but I was persuaded to do more of a “remix” with additional material to hold it all together, which ultimately made it a far better project. I knew the essays had commonalities, but the challenge of thinking through those links was an important “stratum” for which I have Ken Wissoker at Duke to thank. I had also been thinking of writing a book about Walter Benjamin and film studies for some time, but because I am a compulsive critic, I couldn’t imagine writing a “theory” book. In sewing together the essays, I took the opportunity to develop the Benjaminian concepts that I have been systematically deploying. Bringing Benjamin into the foreground is another stratum that would not have been possible before the publication of his complete works in English, which began in 1999.
Baer: Much as your book is an expanded and sutured assemblage of your own writings over the years, the archive-based films you address have appropriated and repurposed preexisting material. In this regard, as you argue, the films lend new relevance to Benjamin’s theories and practices of collection, citation, and creative montage. Theodor W. Adorno once noted, “Benjamin’s thought is not creation ex nihilo.”9 I’d love to know more about your book’s own extensive engagement with the history of ideas and the critical traditions and scholarly debates in which you are intervening.
Russell: I guess there are a few different conversations woven through the book, as the concept of archiveology is deployed on a few different fronts. I have certainly drawn heavily on archive theory as it has developed from the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida through to Wolfgang Ernst. I feel strongly that media archeology should include a discourse on the image and should not be a techno-discourse in which sounds and images are sidelined. As in Experimental Ethnography, I am invested in thinking about experimental media as an engaged practice rather than a formalist one, and for that reason, archiveology tends to blend experimental film with the essayistic and other modes of creative nonfiction in which recombined images and sounds produce new ways of knowing the world and engaging with history.
While the secondary literature on Walter Benjamin is vast, I have been particularly inspired by Miriam Hansen, Margaret Cohen, Rainer Rochlitz, and Christine Buci-Glucksmann; and in film studies I would add Paula Amad and Erika Balsom, both of whom have drawn on Benjamin extensively for projects that run parallel to my own.
The only real “debate” in which I think the book engages is the discussion of cinephilia as a “subjective” approach to film texts, as promoted by Christian Keathley. Following the late Paul Willemen, I prefer to think of cinephilia as a productive and critical methodology through which film and media texts can be reframed to produce new meanings and sensory access to history. Media history in this sense is not mediated history, but history itself.
Finally, I am inspired in the last chapter of the book by seminal feminist work by Laura Mulvey, Domietta Torlasco, and Homay King in my discussion of the awakening of women from the patriarchive of film history. Breaking out of their narrative homes, images of women in archiveology become images of women working. Quite a number of feminist film theorists have been thinking along the same lines for some time, and I have arguably borrowed extensively from their work.
Baer: In your last chapter, “Awakening from the Gendered Archive,” you write that Benjamin “was by no means an advocate for women’s rights” (191) and “seemed more or less oblivious to racial, ethnic, and gender identities (with the important exception of Jewish identity)” (184). Could you elaborate on Benjamin’s limitations? I wonder whether these are primarily blind spots with regard to feminism and the politics of race, ethnicity, and gender, or whether there are other aspects of his writings that only take us so far in addressing archival film practices and the contemporary media and political environment more generally.
Russell: Definitely, these are blind spots in Benjamin’s thinking rather than criticisms. He lived in a very different world, and it is not surprising that tropes of colonialist and patriarchal views seeped into his writing. Even so, his study of the Paris Arcades was somewhat forward-thinking in the degree to which he recognized the role of women in public spaces and incorporated that presence into his account of modernity. That may be one of the reasons why his work has inspired so many feminist film scholars. Thinkers such as Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Rey Chow have in fact argued that Benjamin articulates a relationship between gender and the gaze in urban modernity that is significantly different from the conventional psychoanalytic models of film studies. In my study of archiveology, I look at different ways that fragmented narrative film has the potential to isolate gesture and the gaze in such a way that gender is foregrounded as a function of film language in classical cinema. Cultural critique thus rests in the afterlives of texts appropriated by a feminist gaze.
In terms of his Jewishness, I should add the caveat that “identity politics” was not necessarily within the scope of Benjamin’s theory—although he was most definitely interested in the Jewish contexts of writers such as Karl Kraus and Franz Kafka, about whom he wrote so eloquently. Raised in an assimilated bourgeois household, he was neither a practicing Jew nor a committed Zionist. Still, he embraced Jewish Messianism as a theological concept, particularly through his friendship with Gershom Scholem, and it has been argued in various ways that his theory of allegory is grounded in a conception of the Jewish form of lament.
In terms of media and political culture, Benjamin only takes us so far in providing tools with which to better understand the critical relations between media, political culture, and the avant-garde. While I believe that the contemporary culture of digital media and interactivity renders Benjamin’s thought more legible, it remains true that his “horizon of expectations” was at once specific to interwar Europe and focused on the technologies of reproduction that were available at that time. Nevertheless, as he himself advocated, the critical appreciation of the afterlives of texts is a means of recognizing their incompletion—and that is true of Benjamin’s own work as much as anyone else’s.
Baer: You note that “a small cottage industry has developed around Benjamin’s corpus” (35), and I wonder how you perceive his prominent status in a cultural moment when his ideas are being invoked at Dior and Gucci fashion shows.10 There’s an irony in the fact that a Marxist critic has become a commodified or even cult figure; that a radical and largely marginalized intellectual has entered our cultural mainstream and educational canon; that a theorist who was concerned with forms of vanquishment and historical effacement has had his writings so thoroughly mined from the archive.
Russell: Seeing Benjamin cited in the context of fashion discourse is indeed rather ironic, and yet he was one of the first cultural critics to recognize the role of fashion in the conceptualization of history as lived on the streets. No doubt he is frequently taught in that context and then borrowed for the sake of cultural capital, and for pundits searching for weighty names in an era of perpetual catastrophe, Benjamin definitely fits. Moreover, the rise of interdisciplinary studies and “research-creation” in the academic setting has provided the stage on which his work can finally be accommodated institutionally. Scholars in philosophy, literature, arts, sociology, anthropology, media studies, and political science have provided a wide-ranging critical spectrum of analyses of Benjamin, and yet they don’t always speak the same language, given their different disciplinary agendas. Benjamin is one name that crosses a variety of fields and also speaks directly to a historical moment of crisis and catastrophe.
So many of his tropes are metaphoric and poetic that he is a theorist who tends to be popular among artists in addition to cultural theorists. Although it may appear as if a cult of Benjamin is emerging, I like to think that the inherent ambiguities, the variety, and the historical contingency of his work are in some ways resistant to such deification. And yet there is a shop in Philadelphia called Art in the Age, which specializes in Walter Benjamin paraphernalia! Benjamin himself derided “cult value” as an outmoded bourgeois phenomenon, so the irony runs deep, and I hope I have not inadvertently contributed to it.
Baer: One of the key tenets of the Frankfurt School, posited by Max Horkheimer in “Traditional and Critical Theory” (1937), is the existence of a chasm between radical theory and effectual praxis in advanced capitalist societies—a chasm that frustrates Karl Marx’s ideal of an emancipatory unification of philosophy and the proletariat. As a highly eclectic, nonsystematic, and opaque thinker, Benjamin presents particular difficulties in this regard, as you observe. Can you elaborate on some of the challenges or tensions involved in making Benjamin’s ideas “useful as critical practice” (24)?
Russell: Among the Frankfurt School theorists, Benjamin probably pushed the convergence of theory and practice most critically, from his early radio broadcasts to his embrace of surrealist method in One-Way Street (1928) and The Arcades Project (1927–40). As mentioned previously, Benjamin is a poet. His play with language may render his thought frustratingly opaque—and yet this has also helped him to bridge the chasm between theory and practice. In essays such as “The Author as Producer” (1934), he encouraged activist scholars to engage with techniques of production and industry; throughout his work he links images with thought, and the senses with knowledge. In all of these ways, his work opens a critical space in which knowledge is produced through the collection, compilation, and remix of images with sound and text. If the mediated world in which we have come to live, for better or worse, is also a world (a history) that is subject to continual revision, then archiveology is a critical strategy for making that revision a form of cultural engagement and critique.
Although I touch only a little bit in my book on videographic criticism, or video essays, I do believe that Benjamin’s work and archiveology as a concept have something to offer the practice of video essays as a scholarly and critical tool. In 1929/1930, Benjamin advocated for “a criticism consisting entirely of quotations,”11 and this is in fact possible in film and media studies, but obviously there is much more to be said about the usefulness and efficacy of such a form of criticism. The way in which such work acquires a critical edge—and a critical voice—is something that I hope my book can help better underscore.
Baer: You note that the practice of compiling and reassembling preexisting material extends at least as far back as Esfir Shub, who repurposed newsreel footage into The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), and it also characterizes later techniques such as the détournement associated with Guy Debord and the Lettrist International. Have archival film practices always accompanied the history of film and avant-garde movements? Do you see a qualitative or quantitative shift in the age of video-sharing websites and abundant mashups and remixes?
Russell: The most recent shifts in the nature of the archive have certainly precipitated a dramatic increase in the proliferation of archiveological work, due to the increased amount of accessible material and the tools to produce and remix those materials. The last twenty years have entailed a more nuanced understanding of the historical implications and potentials of archiveology, as sounds and images from hitherto-buried histories are brought into the mix. The preoccupation with apocalypse that dominated the practice from the 1960s to the 1980s has definitely given way to a more engaged relationship with moving image histories. At the same time, any chronology will have outliers and idiosyncratic works that buck the dominant trends of their time, such as Rose Hobart and Paris 1900.
Baer: Recent years have seen increasing attention devoted to the essay film and found-footage film in books such as Timothy Corrigan’s The Essay Film (2011), Jaimie Baron’s The Archive Effect (2013), Corrigan and Nora M. Alter’s Essays on the Essay Film (2017), and Alter’s The Essay Film After Fact and Fiction (2018), as well as in annual events like the Festival of (In)appropriation, curated by Baron, Greg Cohen, and Lauren Berliner. How does the concept of archiveology differ from the categories of essay film, found-footage film, etc.? How do you feel about these established generic categories?
Russell: I am a big fan of these studies and of the Festival of (In)appropriation, and I hope my book serves to complement that work. Archiveology as a critical concept is not about forming boundaries or creating categories of practice. Like “experimental ethnography,” the point is to provide a critical-theoretical framework within which to think about how the avant-garde and moving image arts can contribute to the humanities, and are part of the humanities. I prefer definitions of the essay film that downplay the subjective elements and think about how media arts produce knowledge through the interplay of sound, image, and text. To the extent that archiveology defines the critical language of images, it will apply to many different kinds of films, videos, and other media including essayistic, found footage, and collage works. However, I have resisted the tendency to say which films can be included and which cannot, even if other people may be interested in taking that up as a critical strategy.
The other generic term that archiveology rubs up against is “documentary,” which I barely touch on in the book, except to explore the nature of the image as (unreliable) document. In general, I would admit that films in which the images serve to illustrate a narrative would not count, in my view, as instances of archiveology. For example, the many well-known and prolific film series created by Ken Burns exploit the resources of the archive and are grounded in substantial and, I would even say, important research. However, the role of the images to serve a narrative of “facts” tends to rob the materials of their mystery, their detail, and their contingency, and in this sense they have none of the potential of archiveology to really prick the veil of the phantasmagoria or détourne the society of the spectacle. They simply create more layers of phantasmagoria and spectacle.
Baer: In the Epilogue to Archiveology, you make an explicit reference to the media logics of contemporary politics: “If this book can offer any way out of the reality TV show that appears to have engulfed the political scene, it is by making this image language legible. Détournement is a more urgent critical practice than ever before, as the wreckage builds ever higher and ‘the media’ has clearly become a conflict zone” (218). Could you say more on how your book speaks to the age of Trump? How can archival film practices serve to jolt viewers out of the Joycean nightmare from which they are trying to awake?
Russell: Everyone can recycle images and everyone does. Fake news can be made by anyone for any reason. However, I would say that late-night talk shows such as The Colbert Report (2005–14) and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014–), both of which were inspired by The Daily Show (1996–) and its fifteen-year run with Jon Stewart, are actually using archiveological techniques for critical ends. Satire is a mode of allegory, and the researchers on those programs frequently dig deep to correct the historical amnesia that has affected the current administration. It may not be the avant-garde, but that’s one of the reasons why I do not want to limit the concept of archiveology to any particular medium or form.
At the same time, experimental media artists are needed to continually reveal, engage with, and display the many histories of the twentieth century that have remained invisible. At a time when the image has become so untrustworthy and truth is treated with such disdain, I think it takes a creative edge to render image history believable and valid. Benjamin’s concept of allegory was established on the decline of sovereignty and is at its heart a discourse of lament, so it is appropriate to an age of perpetual catastrophe. Interruption, shock, and discontinuity are Benjamin’s keys for awakening, and in this sense the uncertainty of the contemporary political scene carries with it the potential for a surprising future.
Baer: Speaking of the future, can you tell us about your next project(s)?
Russell: Well, I remain interested in visual anthropology and the various directions it has taken and continues to move, although I can’t say I have a full-fledged project developed in this area. At the same time, I have been collecting materials for a project on “Stanwyck studies.” Barbara Stanwyck is a fascinating and central figure in the historical arc of “classical” Hollywood, with one of the longest careers of anyone in the business. I’d like to find a way to write about her acting style alongside the contours of her biography and the dozens of strange and wonderful films in which she starred.
1. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version,” trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn, in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 38.2. Walter Benjamin, “Program for Literary Criticism,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, in Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 1, 1927–1930, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 290, 294.
3. Walter Benjamin, “Karl Kraus,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2, 1931–1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 453.
4. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 464, 486, 867.
5. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 393.
6. Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2, 771–772.
7. Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” 775.
8. Walter Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, in Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2, 576.
9. Theodor W. Adorno, “A Portrait of Walter Benjamin,” in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 230.
10. Lauren Cochrane, “Why It’s Fashionable to Quote Walter Benjamin,” Guardian, February 5, 2017, www.theguardian.com/fashion/shortcuts/2017/feb/05/why-its-fashionable-to-quote-walter-benjamin.
11. Benjamin, “Program for Literary Criticism,” 290.