The Archive of Absence


From Congestorium artificiose memorie…omnium de memoria preceptiones aggregatim complectens, Johann Romberch, 1533

by Joel Gn

The Missing Pieces,
by Henri Lefebvre, Translated by David L. Sweet,
Semiotext(e), 88pp.

How may we speak of that which goes off the record in an age of digital colonisation? We can begin by scrutinising the claim that all writing assumes remembrance, for it is concerned with repeatable traces that one may capture, either on paper or as a program. Still, this remembrance remains a conjecture, which is to say that it draws upon and takes reference from a ‘perhaps’ that lies outside memory. This externality thus carries the implication that one is not actually recalling an exact certainty, for the latter is foreclosed as an irretrievable singularity; rather, the proliferation of records, digital or otherwise, becomes a telling symptom of an accelerating absence. We rely on the prostheses of memory, because we are fast forgetting.

This fixation with memory also shows that we are living in the age of the archive, for although we once deposited our experiences (or at least, our memories of them) on papyrus and paper, today we have come to rely on the ubiquity of information technologies to record our moods and movements in real time. We may not always be aware that our inputs in the interface are analogous to the marks left on paper, but they are no less accounts of our lives ceded to and recoded by search engines and social networking sites. As the production of presence reaches near instantaneity, we are less compelled to struggle with the ambiguity of delay, and more inclined to validate the time stamp of our most recent online post.

But it should be noted that the writing of a diary was first and foremost, an act of delay, where partiality was coterminous with interpretation. As such, it was not uncommon for one to adhere to the phrase, ‘If my memory has not failed me…’ as a tacit assumption, not simply because one is uncertain, but also for an affirmation of difference, since the words that followed and took the place of the ellipsis would render another view of what happened before. To reminisce is to be caught in this fictional knot otherwise known as history, in which an unravelling would only reveal an irretrievable loss. Quite unlike the immediacy of digital media, this lapse or delay anticipates the condition of loss and absence; a condition that ostensibly demands to be recorded and recovered, but also opens the possibility for the synthesis of difference. The overwriting of this absence constitutes the archival imperative, for it not only implicates the recovery of the work, but also the production of presence along a given set of terms.

So it is with respect to the loss of records, that Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces brings us into territory of the strangest texture, for it does not enunciate a substantial presence, but a catalogue of absences. It remembers what is not and perhaps can never be remembered, for it puts together a deluge of works that have in effect escaped the structure of the archive itself. Lefebvre’s enigmatic archive is no testament after the fact, but a witness to the spaces that haunt the histories contained within. And it is only via the archive of space that one may also see an etymological reversal, for if the archive — as the Greek arkheion [1] tells us — is the dwelling of the ones who hold and interpret the work, what then becomes of a place that keeps nothing other than the loss of the works themselves? Would not the ones who interpret be left silent, if the property of the work is lost?

Hence one can regard Lefebvre’s work as a sketch of an archive laid bare, where it not only denudes the forgotten, but also makes visible the a priori structure of the archive that is forgotten unto itself. By alluding to objects in absentia, The Missing Pieces becomes an archive in vain, which is not to say it has fallen short of the archival imperative; rather it is now an archive unto itself, for the recording of this loss bears witness to the irrecoverable that not only haunts the works cited by Lefebvre, but to a more significant extent, inhabits all writing.

This meditation of loss evoked by The Missing Pieces may yet help us to consider the limits of preservation, especially in a time when the practice of archiving is directed towards the erasure of its own limits and the absolute belief in its own transparency. The apparent inability to forget may persist unabated across digital spaces, but are not memories made, because they can be forgotten? Of course, we will never know if any of the ‘forgotten’ works in Lefebvre’s archive will be recovered, but they are nonetheless whispers of a non-archival absence, to which any recollection is not simply an expression of memory, but finds its loss as the condition for a different view, a different reading.

Cover image by Michel Royon.


[1] The archive is also recognised as the ‘residence of the superior magistrates, the archons’, who as the custodians of the work are ‘accorded the hermeneutic right’. In other words, the right to interpret is in effect, an authorial position that permits the work to be represented as such. See Jacques Derrida, ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression’, Diacritics 25:2, 9-10

About the Author:


Joel Gn is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore. His dissertation will critique the aesthetic of cuteness and its relationship to the configuration of desire within a technological space.