totalizing in Medak, Mars & WHW 2015
titutionalized forms of equality that still reflect the
best in solidarity and universality that modernity
had to offer. Yet, this achievement is marked by
contradictions that beset modernity at its core. Libraries and archives can be viewed as an organon
through which modernity has reacted to the crises
unleashed by the growing production and fixation
of text, knowledge and information through a history of transformations that we will discuss below.
They have been an epistemic crucible for the totalizing formalizations that have propelled both the
advances and pathologies of modernity.
Positioned at a slight monastic distance and indolence toward the forms of pastoral, sovereign or
economic domination that defined the surrounding world that sustained them, libraries could never
close the rift or between the universalist aspirations
of knowledge and their institutional compromise.
Hence, they could never avoid being the battlefield
where their own, and modernity’s, ambivalent epis-
temic and social character was constantly re-examined and ripped asunder. It is this ambivalent
character that has been a potent motor for critical theory, artistic and political subversion — from
Marx’s critique of political economy, psychoanalysis
and historic avant-gardes, to revolutionary politics.
Here we will examine the formation of the library
as an epistemic and social institution of modernity
and the forms of critical engagement that continue
to challenge the totalizing order of knowledge and
appropriation of culture in the present.
Here Comes the Flood02
Prior to the advent of print, the collections held in
monastic scriptoria, royal courts and private libraries
typically contained a limited number of canonical
manuscripts, scrolls and incunabula. In Medieval
and early Renaissance Europe the canonized knowledge considered necessary for the administration of
heavenly and worldly affairs was premised on reading and exegesis of biblical and classical texts. It is
06 For the social history of public library see Matthew Battles,
Library: An Unquiet History (Random House, 2014) chapter
5: “Books for all”.
The Future After the Library
of its classification and symbolic representation of
the archive in reference tools, they tried to provide
a formalization adequate to the passion for capturing historical or present events. Characteristic
of the ascendant positivism of the 19th century, the
archivists’ and librarians’ epistemologies harbored
a totalizing tendency that would become subject to
subversion and displacement in the first decades of
the 20th century.
The assumption that the classificatory form can
fully capture the archival content would become
destabilized over and over by the early avant-gardist
permutations of formal languages of classification:
dadaist montage of the contingent compositional
elements, surrealist insistence on the unconscious
surpluses produced by automatized formalized language, constructivist foregrounding of dyna
closed silos. Both the decommodification of access
and the overcoming of the reified construct of the
The Future After the Library
self-enclosed work in the form of a book come at
the cost of illegality.
Even the avant-gardes in all their inappropriable
and idiosyncratic recalcitrance fall no less under
the legally delimited space of copyrightable works.
As they shift format, new claims of ownership and
appropriation are built. Copyright is a normative
classification that is totalizing, regardless of the
effects of leaky networks speaking to the contrary.
Few efforts have insisted on the subverting of juridical classification by copyright more lastingly than
the UbuWeb archive. Espousing the avant-gardes’
ethos of appropriation, for almost 20 years it has
collected and made accessible the archives of the
unknown; outsider, rare and canonized avant-gardes and contemporary art that would otherwise remained reserved for the vaults and restricted access
channels of esoteric markets, selective museological
presentations and institutional archives. Knowing
that asking to publish would amount to aligning itself with the totalizing logic of copyright, UbuWeb
has shunned the permission culture. At the level of
poetical operation, as a gesture of displacing the cultural archive from a regime of limited, into a regime
of unlimited access, it has created provocations and
challenges directed at the classifying and ordering
arrangements of property over cultural production.
One can only assume that as such it has become a
mechanism for small acts of treason for the artists,
who, short of turning their back fully on the instituti
et. Hence, each object in the library, an index
in its own right, potentially allows one to initiate
the relational re-classification and re-organization
of all other works in the library through linkable
Fundamental to the works of the post-socialist
retro-avant-gardes of the last couple of decades has
been the re-writing of a history of art in reverse.
In the works of IRWIN, Laibach or Mladen Stilinović, or comparable work of Komar & Melamid,
The Future After the Library
totalizing modernity is detourned by re-appropriating the forms of visual representation and classification that the institutions of modernity used to
construct a linear historical narrative of evolutions
and breaks in the 19th and 20th century. Genealogical
tables, events, artifacts and discourses of the past
were re-enacted, over-affirmed and displaced to
open up the historic past relegated to the archives
to an understanding that transformed the present
into something radically uncertain. The efforts of
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