The Accumulation of Knowledge and/as Lightning

Considerations before entering the world of archives as we know it

When encountering the world of archives in more depth due to a course at Glasgow School of Arts, I met an intuitive response that at first-hand I was not able to put into words.
Consequently, I experimented by expressing vague ideas in a discussion and examined how things might fit together or what kind of more tangible information would emerge.
I worked with the feedback I received, just as I kept listening to information which further inquiry and exposure to my original sensations provided.
I came to the conclusion that it was not the archive per se that irritated me, on the contrary, I found it rather fascinating, but that the irritation was more caused by the way it seemed to be being regarded, approached and used.

One key in formulating my sensation was a story that Francis McKee, director of the Center for Contemporary Art Glasgow shared, and which he mentions in his essay ‘The strange vitality of wreckage’.

He stated that fires are major and significant incidents for archives and that the impact of the destruction at same time makes room for the new.
He quoted people feeling excitement and a sense of freedom after the Blitz in London which destroyed a big part of the National Archive.

This to me brought forth the notion of a forest, a mature and highly sophisticated ecosystem, that, once it has reached a certain complexity, while containing a wealth of stored information and patterns, is prone to being destroyed by a fire or some other incident supporting the notion of regeneration.

It was the part of the knowledge about the value of emptiness, that I had missed in the approach to archives and which sparked further inquiry and questioning.

The fascination with and the dedication to stories and research, or to the truthful reconstruction of history often seemed to obscure the fact that ‘not knowing’ is necessary for knowledge to appear, that it is intrinsically linked to the phenomenon of knowledge — an analogue and actual embodiment of this point can be found in deep sleep and being ‘unconscious’, constituting a vital and intrinsic part of human experience.

It is thus the awareness of the state in which there is no knowledge, no concrete data, no memory, that I felt inclined to point at and examine, its acknowledgement being as valuable as the stories and information that may be recorded.

In fact, the comprehension of it seems necessary for an integrated understanding of the wold, and a part of this understanding is the realization and acceptance of the ephemeral nature of all phenomena. All that appears has to disappear.

While further inquiring into various ways of passing on knowledge and preserving information, I stumbled upon the Diamond Sutra, one of the fundamental Buddhist sutras of the Mahayana branch, as the earliest complete survival of a dated, printed book.

I had already been familiar with this ancient text due to the profound poetics of its sutras, and it turned out that the frontispiece of the mentioned Chinese Diamond Sutra is stored in the British Library in London.
Consequently, next to the reason for a visit at the British Library, it became sort of a central piece of my reflections.

One of its most famous quotes reads as follows:

So I say to you –
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.

Another quote from the sutra would be:

In a place where there is something that can distinguished by signs, in that place there is deception.
If you can see the signless nature of signs, then you can see the Tathagata.

Apart from the radical and profound insight of these phrases, I was interested how they would relate to the notion of archiving and the institution of archives as we know them.
Obviously, terms like ‘information’ or ‘history’ may suddenly be understood as mere conventions that are being agreed upon.
The same thing happens with the notion of objectifying events or processes or perceived ‘entities’, namely the self and the other.

Again, in my understanding, the inquiry of these points may contribute significantly to an integrated understanding of the world, as well as to the comprehension of preserving and passing on of various types of knowledge.

My research on this project further brought up questions about the interrelations of anthropocentrism and what we call archives and archiveable material, as well as on adequate and sustainable ways of archiving in a cultural context.

Here the notion of information as resource, as something that can be acquired, stored, owned or traded, as something that will provide you with power and a higher, favorable position than others, seems to be the prevailing one.

The idea that knowledge may exist in non-perceivable or measurable ways, with a nature of its own and beyond our linear time measures, or that even once realized as experience only a certain form of it may be stored or transmitted, seems to have no place in a way of thinking that favors the perceivable and structures a seamless world of flux by overlaying it with a grid of expressions, one of which became man, and another, separate one, nature.

And so in this world…

We have no end of information to hand.
What we lack is a narrative, one that makes deep sense to us, that allows each one of us to sort the relevant from the irrelevant in our lives.
We need a metanarrative that will guide those who feel lost and those who want to work toward a future other than the bleak one now before us.

-Barry Lopez

Consequently, and due to a perceived urgency, while dwelling in the realm of Eastern philosophies at the beginning of this reflection, I would like to introduce three fundamental pillars that serve as guidelines and support in Buddhist teachings.

These are:

‘Right vision’ — describing an outlook on life achieved through personal inquiry into the nature of the self and phenomena, as well as into the concepts and philosophy of Buddhism.
‘Right practice’ — the inquiry into, the learning and application of meditation practices.
‘Right conduct’ — the putting in practice and application of insights, of Buddhist principles, virtues and understanding in everyday life and in relationship to what surrounds you.

A life lived by Buddhist teachings basically intends to serve the well-being of all beings (perceiveable or not), based on a knowledge of interconnectivity and interdependence. It also advocates gaining insight by direct experience through practice.

This leads me to the following questions:

What if the understanding and application of the three Buddhist principles would determine what is worth to be archived and in which way it would be archived?

What if the culture maintaining an archive had a biocentric or integrative approach to life?

What would that look like?

What would be found in and what would be the nature of such archives?

What would be the nature or different ways of knowledge transfer in such a culture?

Surely these are big and fundamental questions, but should not fundamental questions be asked in times of fundamental crisis?

I will close this commentary with a quote from a scientific paper on the role of forest fires by ecologist Rob Wiener from Michigan State University, leaving any further interpretations or associations to the reader.

(Note: This text has been conceived before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic)

‘…Fire is a natural part of many forest ecosystems, occurring in regular intervals that vary depending on the forest type, forest understory, climate, soil type, and other factors.
Natural forest fires are typically started by lightning during the warm and dry seasons, which range from the snowmelt period in spring through the fall.
Historically, since these lightning-caused fires occurred at regular intervals, they were successful in clearing out old, dead, and/or decaying vegetation bit by bit.
Old vegetation was continually being recycled into new growth.
When these types of fires are suppressed, the result is a build-up of fuel.
Over a period of years, more and more fuel accumulates, setting the stage for a catastrophic event …’

Glasgow, October 2019