Thursday, 1 January 2009

Lives in the Infinite Archive

A contribution to the opening panel for the annual conference of the British Society for Eighteenth-century Studies, in Oxford, January 2009. The conference theme is 'Lives'.

The theme of this conference seems the most secure possible. A life is a quantum of raw biology about which we can all agree. Its pus and blood, piss and sputum, its tragic arc from shitting infancy to incontinent old age, are the raw ingredients and very stuff of human consciousness.
And yet, our understanding of past lives – and our own - is essentially a product of a series of intellectual technologies. The biography, the portrait, the novel, the memoir, the biographical dictionary, the census, and tax record, as well as history writing in all its forms, make up a series of inherited technologies that structure our knowledge about lives. And these technologies are themselves underpinned by basic systems for organising information – of indexes and concordances, of the Dewey Decimal system, and that of the Library of Congress – forms of intellectual organisation that would have been as intelligible to Samuel Johnson and Casanova as they are to us. We are here at BSECS, because at some level, the eighteenth century invented much of this technology, and we think it is worth pursuing and perfecting.
My problem, and I think it is a wonderful problem, is that I believe the technological underpinnings of our world have shifted. As of the day before yesterday, pretty much every printed word produced in English in the eighteenth century can be electronically searched and found. By the day after tomorrow, the same will be true of the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Every journal article you write, and soon, every book, will be found using keyword and structured searching, online and with scant regard for where it appears on a library shelf. The distance between how the eighteenth century explored the universe, and how we perform the same task, has grown exponentially in just the last decade. We are confronted by what is already an ‘infinite archive’, whose very structures (what is a novel, vs what is a volume of history) have largely dissolved in the face of keyword searching.
And where, in the last ten years, print started – in EEBO and ECCO, the Times Online, and the Old Bailey Online – manuscripts are rapidly following. Many of the manuscript collections of eighteenth century American figures are now available on line, as are the papers of Hartlib, Newton and Darwin. Soon, 40 million words of everyday manuscripts from eighteenth-century London - hospital and workhouse records, parish and voting records - will be available online in a keyword searchable form. And of course, you can add to this all those representations of artefacts and images – tied perhaps less securely to our finding aids, but newly accessible in a new way, through museum websites and commercial image galleries.
In other words, what is being created is an entirely new and comprehensive library of the textual and artefactual leavings of the dead. And the question I find myself continually asking is what do we do with it?
To a large degree we can simply continue doing what we have been doing for two hundred years. The discipline of textual analysis and comparison – the heart of what most of us do - does not change just because we suddenly have the power to compare more and more diverse, texts. And yet, we are also suddenly able to do weird new things. To take just a single example, with just a little technical nous, you can trace a single phrase, or a set of ideas as expressed in a set of phrases, across 40 billion words of text – to chart the borrowings and adaptations, to test the roles of context and structure.
But as a historian, I believe this creation of an ‘infinite archive’ challenges us to look even further, at our basic object of study – the dead and their leavings. And for myself, I believe that ‘lives’, in the broadest possible sense, can form an organising principal that allows us to make new and better use of this new way of searching and ordering the past.
The textual archive of the eighteenth century – the tons of rotting paper and parchment that fill our record offices - was created for the most part as a coherent system for the management of information about money, and institutions, people, and places. It worked as a fragmented set of intellectual technologies that force us to think in the grooves of an eighteenth-century mind. Historians, for instance, constantly find themselves reproducing the perspectives of the archival clerk, newspaper editor, and politician. And they do so not because they want to, but because it is only by understanding the perspectives of those who created the archives, that those archives could up till now be effectively used.
But, quite suddenly it is possible to do something different. Imagine for a moment, the ability to extract every reference to an individual from the broader archive of the century. For almost every pauper and criminal, worker and dying child, you would find lines in an account book, payments made, a birth registered, a trial recorded – brief traces of quiet lives. For others, for the privileged and the prideful, the sheaves and reams of textual artefact would pile ever higher. But for both, you would find enough to begin the process of reconfiguring how we analyse the past.
Imagine for a moment that you are a historian of medicine, interested in the history of venereal disease. You could trace the evolution of institutional provision for the care of the pox through the hospital records, through lists of supplies, and architectural plans. You could create a coherent narrative of the evolution of care and institutions. But you could not effectively assess the impact of those changes or that care. Because you could not know how the treatment meted out impacted on the lives of patients, the basic role of the hospital remains opaque.
But now, it is increasingly possible to start from the other end – from either a collection of lives that define a local community, with a subset that ends up within the hospital records; or else, from the collection of lives that end up on a particular ward, in the care of a particular doctor, or whatever, and to then trace them back to their communities. You could then assess the role of the hospital in the lives of its patients, and demonstrate and reconceptualise the function of this particular institution in the patterning of social change.
In the process, what is created is a counter-point to the stark history of institutions. A new narrative of collected lives, to set against and compare to that narrative found in the structures of eighteenth century record keeping.
At some level, we have been here before, in the aspirations of the authors of micro-histories, in the empathetic personal narratives of the history from below tradition, in the collective political biographies of the Namierites. But, what is new is the ability to use these techniques and approaches on the infinite archive itself.
To return to the theme of this conference, and for myself, I believe that the technologies of knowing that have evolved in the last few years, mean that for the first time in generations, it is possible to put ‘lives’ at the centre of our analysis. To move beyond the ‘text’ as the object of study, to society, to lived experience, to the individual, and the collective – to lives.


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