Fear of the Archive
Matter in the sink.
I was discussing with Sam the “genre,” so to speak, of the Online Techno-Polymath Guy. You know this guy. He (and it’s usually a he) has his own website, probably hand-crafted in Kirby, Github, or Wordpress, as well as a well-regarded, personable Twitter presence.
He keeps track of everything he reads, writes pithy blog posts on esoteric subjects. His personal philosophy is progressive with a futurist bent. He has worked in a variety of fields, though you are unsure what he actually currently does for a living. He is knowledgeable, authoritative, but eccentric, which you can tell by the fun colors he’s used to design his fun little homepage.
You can have fun clicking around his carefully maintained archive, witnessing the dynamic interplay of his disparate areas of interest. You can ooh and ahh at his reading lists, his quirky, inventive stances on issues like quantum computing and social media moderation.
It’s all very inspirational.
A few years ago I tried to code & maintain my own personal blog. It was nice and pretty and purple. It was the latest attempt in a long series of attempts in the past decade to put forth a professional, public-facing Place Where I Put The Words, and lasted about 4 months before I gave the fuck up.
From Livejournal when I was 11 to the Substack page this very missive is sent from, the only thing constant about my modes of longform online self-expression has been their sheer inconstancy.
But Allegra! you ask. You’ve famously been on Tumblr for ten years! Does that not count as a consistent vector, much like that of which you speak?
The answer is of course it fucking doesn’t. Tumblr, maintained in the classic sense, requires the absolute bare minimum of active curation. I see, I like, I add keysmash tags (NOT organizational tags), I slam that add to queue button. SOMETIMES I will post something original, something that took a bit of effort, but it will be quickly lost to the fast-moving morass of gif sets and memes that make up the majority of my feed, which to be honest is a great comfort.
It is the opposite of longform, the opposite of professional. It is a direct expression of my id, whereas a hypothetical personal, permanent Allegra Web Presence, in the vein of your dime-a-dozen Online Techno-Polymath Guy (OTPG), would be a thoughtful altar to my ego.
To those that fall more on the OCD side of the OCD-ADHD Smart People spectrum, which I assume most OTPGs do, it might be a relief, a soothing companion, to have a place where all one’s throwaway ideas and uncategorizable sparks of genius can be arranged neatly.
But for me, out here waaaay on the opposite side, wholly unmedicated and completely, at this point in Apocalypse Time, unmoored from any structure, academic or otherwise, I’ve accepted that it’s inconceivable I could ever have the energy or wherewithal to maintain such a platform.
I can’t even stick to one personal bookmarking system, one centralized, private Archive Of The Self that would be the first step in the dance of keeping a public thought catalog. I jump, without pattern or sense, from one tool to another: a few months carefully curating my Google Keep here, another few months using Pinboard there, a long while flinging things into the black hole of my Chrome bookmarks and never giving them a second thought. Not to mention the long periods I spend doing no bookmarking at all, finding the whole endeavor to be utterly unappealing.
It was upon actively considering this phenomenon for the first time, and engaging in a little of what the lads like to call “self-reflection” that I understood some of the psychological underpinnings of all this.
The fact is, I fundamentally dislike being confronted with my own archive. It’s like that scene in Withnail & I, where they’re dealing with the horrible state of their kitchen sink. I think there may be something living in there. I think there may be something alive, Marwood says.
A few moments later he attests to having found unspecified “matter” in the sink, begs Withnail not to look, and Withnail, “surrendering to the situation” (in the words of the screenplay), recommends abdicating the situation entirely: I think we've been in here too long. I feel unusual. I think we should go outside.
That is generally, unhealthily, how I relate to the decayed pits of my own past that pock my digital properties. Scrolling months, years, back into my Keep archive brings up the bile: at any moment I might come across definitive proof that I was smarter years ago, that I have since then sundered my intellect with the twin weapons of idleness and vanity.
Better to be inconstant in one’s archiving (or forgo it completely) than to constantly be faced with the dirty dishes, the nauseating, living “matter” of one’s past interests, pasts opinions, past genius lying guilelessly buried under strata of increasing idiocy.
Clearly this is not a healthy approach— in the words of Joey Dosik, I keep on running away— and is something I need to work on. As my January start at NYU’s Experimental Humanities masters’ program approaches I expect I will try to figure out some new tricks, as I’m determined to Do School Right This Time and note-taking/organization will likely be a big part of that.
That is all to say, I like having this Substack because I can just throw shit up whenever I want, never mind how many months I’ve gone since the last one, never mind how there is absolutely no linking theme or genre. The very act of writing is stressful enough without having to worry about consistency or coherency, you know?
The prospect of maintaining a OTPG-style Professional Online Writingspace any more personalized than this one triggers the gut reaction of “organizing = stress = brain no likey,” as well as a deeper and more primal rejection of the idea that my thoughts are worth being formalized for public consumption in any way at all— which probably emerges directly from the phenomenon I believe we’re calling “imposter syndrome” these days.
Also, it would be work. I hate work. Fuck work.
(That said, someone please hire me. To do something. Anything. I’m not busy. At all. Thanks!)
book recommendation based on your post-- "no archive will restore you" by julietta singh. it's mostly memoir after the first chapter, but the first chapter lays out a really fascinating theoretical framework of "body as archive" and ever since reading it... i see archives everywhere. it's also a very short book, lol.