Tracing thoughts and the future of the archive
“Since nature has become the object of special studies it has been the universal aim of all naturalists to arrange the objects of their investigations in the most natural order possible.”
Louis Agassiz, Essay on Classification, 1869
“Every archive is at once institute and conservative, revolutionary and traditional… it keeps and puts in reserve, it saves, but in an unnatural fashion.”
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, 1995
“Nature is a language, can’t you read?”
The Smiths, Ask, 1986
From inside the Ferryman’s Cottage – separated from the RSPB nature reserve of Ailsa Craig by a neat little line of lawn, a hedgerow pin-pricked with vibrant floral bursts, a short stroll of shingle, fallen strata of yellowed lichen-spattered rock, and several miles of Kilbrannan Sound – the nightling sky glows indigo within white-painted window frames. Sprawled across the floor are open folders, reference books, notepads, a newly purchased OS Explorer Map (sheet 356 – Kintyre South), and pages of text printed out from the municipal library at Campbeltown and scrawled upon semi-legibly with near-inkless biro. Among other things – editing artist statements and biographies, writing this – I’m attempting to find out a little about a shore-line plant that, earlier in the day, was providing such a draw to a loose cluster of thrumming bumble bees as I sat nearby, half-snoozing in a stripy deckchair. The image of the flower seemed so clearly imprinted on my mind. But already it is fading under interrogation from the Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain (part of the Reader’s Digest Nature Lover’s Diary series) found among the rental cottage’s collection of place-specific books. “How many petals are there?” it wants to know. “And how are they attached?” Are the leaves in level pairs or clusters?” “Or are they scattered along the length of the stem?”
Why do I even want to know? The plant itself is just there, outside, free to study and examine, test or taste. The Guide itself posits one answer: “For most people,” it says, “the greatest satisfaction lies in being able to name the plant which they find.” Why? Because “a flower’s name is the key to all further information about it”. Without the name, the entire store of information and knowledge that has been accrued about the plant in question remains locked away, reserved just a little out of reach. The feeling therefore lingers that a nameless plant is a plant unknown.
Fifteen days earlier, I’m at University College London, inside the Wilkins Building on Gower Street, where the geology department is housed on the first floor. The research process for Nature Reserves – an exhibition conceived to explore how different methods of archiving might impact on the human-nature relationship – has taken me from coffee shops in Dalston to artist studios in Borough, a Victorian house in Tulse Hill, home to the South London Botanical Institute, and, now here, to UCL.
Walking up cold flights of stairs, along empty, blue-girdered corridors, we make our way to the Rock Room. Inside are display specimens in glass cabinets, hand specimens in drawers, and, amazingly, a ‘trace fossil’ dating back some 243 million years. Unlike, say, the imprint depicted in Theresa Moerman Ib’s I Like to Leave an Impression, one of two photographic works by the artist to be included in the exhibition, a trace fossil is not the mark left by the remains of a plant or animal, but the preserved impression of an individual action or event – in this case, the footprint of an early mammal-like reptile called Chirotherium. Surely they won’t let me borrow this?
Next door is a locked ‘common’ room with shelves bearing rows and rows of green and blue lever-arch files labelled ‘Year 2 Coursework’. Inside, behind another locked door, is a small side room, with barely space for two people inside. Against one wall are two small stacks of wooden drawers, organised by location – predominantly in Italy or the UK. This is part of the Johnston Lavis Collection, one of the most important components of UCL’s Geology Collections. It is this, or part of it, that will be included in Nature Reserves.
The opposite wall is filled with large metal cabinets, stretching some twelve feet up towards the ceiling. Each is labelled according to its contents – ‘Lizardite to Leucite’; ‘Outsize Specimens’; ‘Smithsonite’; or, simply, ‘Unclassified’. Containing samples of volcanic rock yet to be fully catalogued by the department’s curatorial staff, this latter cabinet is perhaps the most intriguing – not least for its proximity to the work of Liz Orton, whose series, Splitters and Lumpers, consists of photographs of unmounted plant specimens as they wait to be classified by taxonomists at the Herbarium at Kew Gardens. This series, documenting the sensitive creativity at the heart of such archiving projects, was a kind of kernel out of which grew my subsequent thinking about the exhibition.
“Natural history is nothing more than the nomination of the visible.” So declares Michel Foucault in 1966’s The Order of Things, in which he discusses the eighteenth-century origins of the science. Is this the moment that marked a new divide between humans and nature? Certainly, it saw the foundation of a new discourse, as the likes of Carl Linnaeus; Michel Adanson; and George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon built on the work done by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. From these origins, and until the arrival of comparative anatomy thanks to George Cuvier, natural history was concerned, at least according to Foucault, entirely with what was visible. Linnaeus himself declared that “every note should be a product of number, or form, or proportion, of situation”. Anais Tondeur’s Mutation of the Visible demonstrates that such privileging of sight-based metaphors is not limited to the Enlightenment, nor indeed to science, but is at the heart of our understanding of the external world, especially when that world is (or was) so apparently out of reach. Today, botany – and natural history more broadly – is about far more than the merely visible. But it is still very much a science of names.
That little Scottish patch of shoreline flower (Sea Campion by the way) was formally named as Silene maritime, a species within the genus Silene, just one of those instituted by Linnaeus himself in 1754. The Genus name, Silene Linnaeus, bears the mark of its father and has subsequently been listed as nomen conservandum – a scientific designation which ensures the continuation of this specific nomenclature for the present and into the future. According to the catchily entitled 2012 International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN) it refers to either 1) “a name ruled as legitimate and with precedence over other specified names even though it may have been illegitimate when published or lack priority” or 2) “a name for which its type, orthography, or gender has been fixed by the conservation process.” Translation: the name is key, and botany involves not just a fixing of specimens but a fixing of language too.
While instituting itself as a nascent science, natural history also sought recourse to the authority of the past. Unsurprisingly, in what has since been dubbed the Classical Age, authority was associated with antiquity; in this case, Latin. Natural history is famous for its language of (largely) bi-partite Latinate descriptions that divided living beings into a capitalised Genus and a lower case species (Silene and maritime, in the case of the Sea Campion; Bombus impatiens, the bumble bees so besotted by it). These names (both newly conceived and drawing upon the authority of an ancient grammar) replaced, or rather overlaid, the old medieval terms. The aim was to overcome the apparent difficulties inherent in the Medieval dependence on use-function, superstition and regional and vernacular variation. Instead, the New Latin (or Neo-Latin) order overran regional boundaries to impose itself in the name of universal clarity – even, as the ICN above attests, when imposed without accuracy or relevance or even the appropriate authority.
This retrospectively self-legitimating imposition of Latin terminology has a certain proximity with religion and, in particular, the Catholic Church, which claims for itself in its very name (κατά + ὅλος) that which is ‘universal’ or agreed by all. There are also unavoidable parallels with the colonialism practised by the nations in which natural history was founded. The two are arguably indissociable, and not simply in terms of shared origins and history; both also share a desire for knowledge and control over the dominion of The Other, an instinct for the universal, and a passion for mapping.
Botany has benefitted greatly from the rise of colonialism, with notable examples including the Frenchman Adanson, who studied not only the flora and fauna but also, interestingly, the local languages of then French colony Senegal. Much later, Charles Darwin famously voyaged aboard the Royal Navy ship HMS Beagle under the command of Robert FitzRoy, himself later Governor of New Zealand at the time of the Flagstaff War between the British and the Maori.
Natural historians returned from such voyages laden with specimens with which to fill their newly founded botanical gardens and herbaria – to such an extent that species such as Pharotis imogene, a vesper bat from New Guinea, have been all but wiped out by the colonising impulses of scientific knowledge. This overlap between colonialism and species extinction is precisely the territory explored by Sally Ann McIntyre’s sound works, Huia Transcriptions and Collected Silences for Lord Rothschild, both of which demonstrate how even a past absence can continue to signify into the present. But this is not confined to the past: even today, as Tim Smit, creator of the Eden Project, wrote in the 2004 introduction to Maggie Campbell Culver’s The Origin of Plants, there is now “a greater range of species rhododendron in the UK than in Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim, their countries of origin”. And this is not down to the ‘invasiveness’ (oh, the irony) of the species: most of these examples are found not superseding the ‘native’ flora of the Welsh mountains but in sundry botanical gardens across the country.
None of this is to denigrate natural history. The science – and its Latin names – generated a wealth of new and valuable knowledge, and helped ring the death knell for such dubious theologically justified concepts as the doctrine of the signatures, an ancient belief that herbs resembling parts of the (human) body could be used to treat ailments of that part. According to Andrew Dickson White, “It was reasoned that the Almighty must have set his sign upon the various means of curing disease which he provided.” The tradition lingers in such folk names as lungwort, bloodroot and toothwort, and is preserved, strangely, in one small area of the South London Botanical Institute: the Gerard’s Border is named after John Gerard of Holborn, who listed many of these plants and their ‘uses’ in his Herball of 1596.
No, the point is rather to examine, if there is indeed a divide between Humanity and Nature, at what moment it might have been opened up. Might this divide be tangled up somehow with the violence that accompanies the imposition of a name? Or, with the very origin of identity – consciousness itself? In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida notes in parentheses the “violence of communal dissymmetry” inherent in any notion of the ‘we’. The grouping together that is required in any use of ‘we’ involves an often-concealed process of exclusion and a bifurcating approach to difference – overlooking the internal while overstating the external. It is, Derrida says, at once extraordinary and “most common”, and takes place “each time we address ourselves to someone, each time we call them while supposing, that is to say while imposing a ‘we’, and thus while inscribing the other person in this situation of an at once spectral and patriarchic nursling.”
When we therefore speak of humanity as we, as defined in opposition to nature or the environment, we are making just these suppositions and inscriptions. This is unavoidable. But in the case of Nature – the non-human animal, plant or planet or particle or the networks and ecosystems that bind ‘them’ and ‘us’ together – such violence is all the more evident and so all the more easy to overlook on account of the perceived voicelessness of the other. The very term ‘nature’ – so often, as here, capitalised and placed in sharp opposition with the communal ‘we’ of humanity – is frequently an unwilling perpetrator of this violent imposition.
Just across the street from the UCL Geology Collections stands the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. Over the years since its inception in 1828, the collection has been added to, edited, adjusted, reorganised and relocated. Today it is both a publicly visited repository of curiosity and a valuable tool of knowledge and learning. Excitingly, in the context of this exhibition, Curator Mark Carnall tells me that “The Grant is also a museum of changing systems of documentation.” Inside, this becomes clear: a pig’s skull is presented with -Z173 written in ink on its jawbone. Attached is a paper tag reading SUI FORMES SUS SP. (PIG). “Domestic pig,” reads the most recent, more visitor-focused designation. Round the corner a two stick strongfish was once known as Perciformes. This has been crossed out and renamed Scorpaeniformes. Unfortunately, any meaning once associated with the accompanying code (o. ao. f. V.151) is withheld.
Similar changes in the ordering of knowledge and nature are also in evidence in another of the books lying on the cottage floor up in Scotland. In particular, a small booklet entitled Birds of Kintyre, published by Eddie Macguire in 1996. Macguire is the warden at Machrihanish Bird Observatory, where he spends most days watching birds through binoculars and taking photographs using a small digital camera attached to the lens of a high-powered telescope. Some of the resulting images are quite incredible, depicting rare migrating visitors such as Sabine’s Gull, Whiskered Tern and Bean Goose that visitors would be unlikely to see with their own eyes during a short visit to the observatory. Nonetheless a certain flattening of the image acts as a trace of this multi-mediated perspective.
In Macguire’s booklet, by the entry for the Mediterranean Shearwater, is a small asterisk. Neat little handwriting at the bottom of the page alerts us to the division of the species in 1996 into two subspecies: the Balearic (or Western) Shearwater – Puffinus mauretanicus; and the Yelkouan (Eastern) Shearwater – Puffinus yelkouan. A note in passing: Puffinus puffinus is the Latin name for the Manx Shearwater. The Common Puffin, recently breeding again on Ailsa Craig following the eradication of the island’s imported rat population, and from whom this duplicating New Latin name has been taken, is actually a species of auk: Fratercula arctica.
Even names change. As Helen Pynor’s photographic series, The Life Raft, so deftly demonstrates, the archive exists in time, and is subject to decay, disorder and destruction. It is not the lifeless, passive, permanent principle that the theorist, the natural historian, or even the archivist herself might wish for, but a living body – an organising organism of sorts, that expands, contracts and develops over time. In part this is simply due to its components. As Richard Weedon writes in the catalogue to the Johnston Lavis exhibition of 2006: “all materials have a natural lifespan”.
But this is also due to the changing linguistic mechanisms by which an archive might be ordered. The Herbarium at the South London Botanical Institute, for example, is organised along two different systems after an update to correspond to the Flora Europaea of 1976 proved too time-consuming and so was only administered to the British specimens in the collection. Language too is a material: as we’ve seen from the puffin and the shearwater, despite the anchoring in time of the nomen conservandum, nomenclature moves on. Neither nature, then, nor language, can ultimately be fixed. This is helpful…
If the archive may be seen to be alive, so too does life enact its own process of archiving. This has been an important point in the conception of the exhibition, its title also functioning as a statement. Nature, too, reserves. Information from the past is stored for the future in potash mines (in the works of Pauline Woolley), tree trunks (Amy Cutler punning PINE) and symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeast known as kombucha (Microbial Familiars by Hestia Peppe) – each contributing to complex networks of signs analogous (at the very least) to human language. Evolution itself is a kind of “biological archive” according to Derrida.
Signification, of course, is not unique to humans, whatever the fast-fading mechanistic hegemony might have argued since Descartes. As David E Cooper writes: ” the droppings at the entrance to the tunnel indicate a fox, which signifies a threat to the badger’s young, whose squealing expresses hunger, which refers the badger to the berries behind that tree, the scent on which means the recent presence of a fox, which indicates…etc.” And these signs are just as open to interpretation or misinterpretation, subterfuge and exploitation, pastiche, pretence, and play as any other language. The playful bite of the young bear; the careful camouflage of the flower mantis; the scarlet toxicity warning of the Cinnabar moth; the duplicitous lure of the tropical pitcher plant: even without getting embroiled in a discussion about non-human consciousness, it nonetheless seems difficult to disagree with Cooper when he argues that “animals, too, dwell in a field of significance”.
But the archive institutes a kind of signification that operates beyond that of the immediate present – “the so-called live or spontaneous memory” as Derrida terms it – in a manner that is apparently divided, supplementary, somehow unnatural. Using some memorably clunky phrasing, Derrida contrasts this with a notion of the archive as “a certain hypomnesic and prosthetic experience of the technical substrate”. Or perhaps it is his translator, Eric Prenowitz, whose choice of strongly Graeco-Latinate vocabulary seems here to emphasise a kind of human or arguably post-human, mechanical (certainly not ‘natural’) understanding of the archive.
Derrida is quick to link the archive with the technologies that produce it – printing in particular, but also email – but to read him as arguing for a concept of the archive that is limited to the human or the mechanical would, I think, be problematic. Throughout Derrida’s work, and in Limited Inc specifically, is repeated reference to the “iterability of the mark” – the structural repeatability that enables language to function, but that also enables quotation and pastiche, misunderstanding, the non-serious etc.
The reason that this is relevant here is the use of the word ‘mark’ – which does not confine Derrida’s theories of language to the (human) word or letter, less still to the title or proper noun. Instead, it may be seen to apply to any sign that operates within a network of signification. Incidentally, the Proto-Germanic etymology of the word ‘mark’ has to do with the delineation of boundaries, and so any sign that may be drawn on paper or scratched or urinated on post or tree may be understood in the same terms – structurally repeatable, signifying apart from its own materiality, and archivable beyond the singularity of its event.
This is not to deny the artificiality of the archive, the manner in which it grafts itself (as “prosthetic experience”) onto the moment or event – like the synthetic latex and metallic paint layered over soil in Charlie Franklin’s Relic. Rather it is to argue that it is inscribed in advance within the structure of the ‘natural’ event – always archivable in another form of “technical substrate”, as fossil or ripple or tree trauma, flowers cast in resin (Laura O’Neill’s clumsily delicate Somewhere) or imprinted in the mud that turns to stone. This grafted artificiality might therefore be seen not in opposition to ‘nature’ but a constituent component of it.
“What is required of environmental ethics?” wonders Robert Briggs in Wild Thoughts: A Deconstructive Environmental Ethics. If Nature Reserves is underpinned by anything, it is an interest in environmental ethics: what ought we to do? This is one question touched upon by Victoria Browne, whose Caught the Wild Wind Home depicts a coppiced Sweet Chestnut tree in the highly managed forest of Norsey Wood, Essex. Does the bright red of the cut signify alarm or danger? Or the violence implemented by the forces of management?
Briggs’ own answer draws upon the earlier writings of Jim Cheney and Anthony Weston: What is needed, “is a certain – perhaps impossible – ‘universal’ (re)consideration: ‘an open-ended, nonexclusive consideration of everything: people, bacteria, rocks, animals, everything, – including epistemology-based ethics and anthropocentrized culture – ‘insofar as we can’.” What does this mean? What might this look like?
What might help here is to return to the title of the exhibition, Nature Reserves. We have seen how this functions in a straightforward sense: Nature reserved; named and set aside in more or less fixed, more or less accessible herbaria and botanical gardens. We have seen how Nature enacts its own kind of reservation – a storage of information through a multiplicity of diverse signs, each signifying differently to different individuals and species in different contexts. But there is also another supplementary interpretation available: nature reserves, not only in the sense of storing information to be used in the future; Nature also reserves in the sense of withholding or keeping back. Nature refrains from full and final comprehension, translation, subjection within the confines of science (or any other discourse).
Such a perspective should entail a certain humility in the face of the irreducible (but re-presentable) other – as evidenced in the quietly painstaking paper sculptures of Laura Culham. Her work is scrupulously produced, ordered and presented, whilst the weeds themselves remain unnamed. But this is not (only) to underscore Nature as mysterious other (that has been done too much already); rather to recognise that, ultimately, there are things we can’t understand, whatever neatly organised names we give them.
What, finally, in this context, will the archive achieve? Archiving is a process inseparable from a relationship to the future. The assembled archive can always (only?) be understood retrospectively, and functions even when no longer tethered to the ideology that instituted it. Even with the current erosion of the mechanistic worldview (by the likes of Mary Midgley, Rupert Sheldrake and others) herbaria such as that at the South London Botanical Institute are still invaluable resources of so many different kinds of knowledge (phytogeographical, anatomical, morphological etc) now and tomorrow. The archive therefore entails a sense of responsibility – both for the future and to it.
But the future of the archive itself is in question. Digitisation looms as a kind of spectre over the academy and elsewhere – a tempting project in a global age, one that can increase accessibility in democratic fashion, speed up the dissemination of knowledge, and even help to preserve an existing object collection by limiting the frequency with which it need be handled. Herbaria@home, to which the South London Botanical Institute is contributing, is an instructive example here.
But the digitising drive does not freeze time any more than photography or the nomen conservandum. The digitised archive is just that: an archive, that is not ‘virtual’ (airless, non-real, fixed in time) but real – tied to an individual technological platform, powered by vast servers (consuming vast amounts of energy and belching out CO2 emissions) and subject to far likelier and more rapid redundancy than any number of hand-written labels and dusty old cabinets. The specific experience of the individual archive is indissociable from the medium in which it exists, each with its own unique life-span and limitations. Digitisation of the archive is never transcendental.
That much should be self-evident. When Nature Reserves is over – works sold or packed away, specimens and labels returned, the gallery cleared and rehung for another exhibition – all that remains beyond the memory of the individual, is this. Some files saved somewhere, countless drafts on a laptop – emailed back and forth – and a document, available to the public, for an uncertain time to come.
Tom Jeffreys, London
Download the complete Nature Reserves catalogue.