Theory Beyond the Codes: tbc052
Date Published: 4/30/2013
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors


wii 2 r ephemera: Archiving Eco-cultural Morphology

Anita Girvan

Might we have left some faint, enduring mark on the universe; some lasting glow or echo of Earthly humanity; some interplanetary sign that once we were here? [1]

The recent burgeoning interest in digital archives brings what may have been a somewhat limited grey and dusty enterprise to every facet of a culture coded with constantly shifting and proliferating information. In this epoch, the archive achieves a kind of immaterial liveliness that elevates it from the mouldy yellowing pages of crypt-like store rooms of historical societies and museums. Through promising re-animations of decaying archived matter, be they Shakespeare's manuscripts or personal photos, original primary material form becomes secondary to its digital dispersal. The digital archive thus promises new death-defying feats. Alongside this celebrated story of an ever-lively immaterial archive, however, is a hauntingly material story of unprecedentedly rapid bio-planetary change and proliferating reminders of a petroculture archiving its own decline. This ecological morphology of a quickening nature disrupts cultural imaginaries of Earth in balance in the service of human-progress time, and simultaneously feeds into the question of human legacies at the heart of the archive. Weisman's question above from the best-selling book The World Without Us (2007), hints at a certain kernel of trauma that conditions archival thought. What might remain of 'us,' [2] individually and collectively in the short and long term and how might 'our' own creations condition these legacies in unanticipated ways? The urgency of this question is intensified by the dual pressures of shortening generational iterations of technology produced within a capitalist logic of ephemera and relatedly, increasing material signs of civilizational detritus that is proving far from ephemeral as far as its effects on our own bodily cells and wider planetary ecologies. Thinking of the archives in a new digital or technological key must go beyond the application of digitality to conventional archives and engage with circuits of critical complexity involving contemporary material ecologies and stories. If one of the imperatives of archiving is to capture what is fleeting, then surely contemporary light-speed technological changes, coupled with the unprecedentedly rapid planetary changes create specific new forms of what Derrida called mal d'archive ("archive fever"). [3] What contemporary digital and technological engagements with the archive thus far offer is a productive disturbance of the taken-for-granted material substrates upon which archives have been based; an explicit engagement with these shifting materialities creates an opening for thinking about ecological materiality as conditioning archives (in more profound ways than the climate control of built archives as repositories). Yet there exists a competing tendency to conceive of digital archives in increasingly de-materialized terms. "Cloud"computing -- a nebulous seemingly-immaterial metaphorical rendering of networked (archival) mega data centres that rely on mined resources and proximity to hydro-electric dams, not to mention proliferating disposable prosthetic devices for end-users [4] -- is one such mechanism through which certain vital forms of materiality are distanced from the end-user/archivist. Archiving eco-cultural morphology situates an agenda within and against technological engagements with the archive for considering how larger-than-human ecologies and cultural stories entwine to produce contemporary forms of archive fever as an encounter with trauma. As the stories that follow illustrate, though such ecological concerns do not yet appear centrally in any agenda involving digital archiving, a public imagination is already engaged with these implicitly archival questions.

A Tale of Two Archives: Traumatic Encounters of the Post-human kind

Cultural production that emerges around trauma enables new practices and publics... trauma raises questions about what counts as an archive. [5]

Performing a careful cultural analysis in the tradition of Raymond Williams, Ann Cvetkovich collects and produces An Archive of Feelings (2003) surrounding trauma and lesbian public cultures as it appears in public artefacts. Eco-cultural meditations on her insights compel attention to two recent cultural productions that implicitly entail trauma and archival activities. These two best-selling and widely translated books, Slow Death by Rubber Duck (2009) and The World Without Us (2007), focus an archival imagination on questions concerning technology and shifting human and larger-than-human conditions. Though these books do not call themselves "archives," nor do they explicitly mention archiving, explicitly recognizing these stories as such enables a critical and timely engagement with archiving as a larger than human affair involving trauma. The first book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck tells the contemporary story of human cellular changes due to inevitable bio-chemical exchanges, most of which have been engineered by humans themselves. The second, The World Without Us, transcends human cellular modifications and speculatively narrates rapidly-changing planetary ecologies in the wake of human presence and its subsequent sudden disappearance. These two stories and their best-selling, award-winning status suggest cultural conditions that indeed take up questions concerning technology and archiving, but they are profoundly inflected with questions of ecological materiality that are often deferred in critical digital studies.

The Weisman quotation at the lead of this piece further confirms Cvetkovich's intuition; archives inevitably concern trauma that is, to varying degrees, psycho-emotional and/or bodily-material. Archives may anticipate a future trauma -- the demise of a certain archivable life, be it an individual human one, or that of a society or species. Data archives are no exception in their attempt to anticipate the trauma of hardware defects, software bugs and the inevitable obsolescence of platforms. Archives may also capture seemingly-private traumas after the fact as a public collection of shared traumas in an attempt to recover, as does Ann Cvetkovich's archive of feelings. Far from re-producing a clinically pathologized understanding of trauma, Cvetkovich rather recuperates the catalyzing force of trauma that produces political effects. In her accounts of trauma, she connects the everyday traumas of (lesbian) bodies with public traumas in a political register. Like Cvetkovitch, I am interested in "the way trauma digs itself in at the level of the everyday, and in the incommensurability of large scale events and the ongoing material details of experience." [6] The two stories that serve as tutor texts here unfurl through complex nodes of the bodily everyday, and the large scale cultural and planetary trauma archived both in cells and in imaginaries. The productivity of trauma and its capacity to trouble what counts as an archive are foundationally political lessons in these tales.

"Nous sommes tous devenus des archivistes"/ We are all archives?

Speaking of the recent phenomenon of lifelogging, the process whereby digital subjects assemble words and photographs to produce digital autobiographies, Guillaume Filion suggests "nous sommes tous devenus des archivistes"(we have all become archivists). [7] Indeed such novel technologies present whole new frontiers for archiving in which digital subjects get to select their own archived legacies, at least on this digital substrate. The notion that we are all archivists productively challenges a conventional take on a specialized archivist, endowed with certain skills, vocation or interest at the head of the selection and documentation process. A certain form of archival agency seems to appear in this process. The phrase we have all become archivists bears a more chilling connotation, however, when thought through the anthropogenic petro-chemical or nuclear technologies whose legacies are recorded in our own biologics. We are all archivists of new natures unfolding within and across the cells of our bodies as well as through cellular-digital environments. Indeed, as Filion has also noted in terms of digital technologies of geolocation which produce the body as track-able information, "nous sommes l'archive et l'archive nous entoure" (We are the archive and the archive surrounds us). [8] In the case of toxic pathogens which also trace and newly en-code the body, the notion of explicit human archival agency is highly troubled by the body itself as archive. The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, like its antecedents is one prescient case which charges the bodies of local residents (both human and non) with the task of storing nuclear waste. Though the radioactive iodine has dispersed, its effects are housed within the tissues of an unwitting archival community connected in toxic fellowship. Radioactive isotopes with longer half-lives than iodine will also insist on being recorded in unpredictable ways. Post-human bodies will archive this event for many decades and centuries to come.

Chemical exchanges that break the skin barrier are not new, but like everything else in this self-consciously post-human age, these exchanges have intensified. They also seem increasingly toxic and of 'our' own making. Slow Death by Rubber Duck is perhaps the most exemplary attempt to capture these morphologies. In collecting the data for this book, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie archive the changes in their own bodies during everyday practices that involve petrochemicals and one naturally-occurring, but humanly engineered toxin, mercury. Smith and Lourie record levels of these toxins in their bodies before and after normal short-term exposure to everyday items like non-stick cookware, plastic baby bottles, canned tuna and stain resistant fabrics. In all cases of two-three day normal exposure to these toxins, which are known carcinogens or endocrine system disruptors, levels reached well beyond what was considered safe in medical literature. Crucially, these two did not bathe themselves in raw forms of the chemical toxins in question, but used the seemingly innocuous items -- canned food, non-stick cookware, etc -- consumed in the supposedly nurturing and nourishing spaces of domestic life. Their accounts reveal newborns and infants to be receptacles of some of the most biologically-disruptive materials in recent years; everything from lead and phthalate-laced rubber ducks to bisphenol-A (BPA) lined baby bottles and formula containers are the stuff of the everyday on the home-front for these vulnerable beings. In attempting to reproduce normal infant exposure to BPA and its effects on cellular levels, over two days Smith ate canned food (generally lined with BPA), and drank warm drinks from plastic baby bottles, thereby simply reproducing an average exposure for babies whose mainstays may have been warm bottled milk and baby formula from BPA-lined tins. Smith's BPA levels skyrocketed. In the words of Dr. Fred Vom Saal, a biologist at the University of Missouri who studies the surprisingly potent low-dose effects of BPA: "The implications of you eating canned products and drinking out of polycarbonate the way a baby would do, and as an adult increasing the amount of BPA in your body more than sevenfold through this procedure, are very concerning...Babies are essentially doing all day, every day, what you did for one day." [9] The fact that babies are now helplessly immersed in toxins seems an unthinkable prospect, but as Smith and Lourie suggest, these chemicals are fairly recent in human history, many of them have arisen out of military engagements with the petrochemical industry in the past half century. [10] Unlike the visible forms of pollution that seemed to produce more immediate health effects and which led to the creation of many national "clean air" acts in the 1950s-1970's, these new largely invisible forms of pollution require new conceptions for archiving traumatic effects.

The cellular archives recorded by Smith and Lourie do not disclose an entirely negative story of toxins in bodies. Thanks to a powerful lobby, in part attributed to Rachel Carson's courageous and widely disseminated Silent Spring (1962), [11] the practice of spraying the pesticide DDT has ceased with a consequential decrease in blood levels among those tested today. [12] Unfortunately however, new "hormone herbicides," such as 2, 4, dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2, 4-D), have arrived on the scene with a host of "suspected health effects [that] reads like an inventory of the worst possible things that could happen to a human." [13] Such iterative encounters with toxic chemicals suggest that we are indeed archives, storied accounts of technological engagements, most definitively of the petrochemical kind.

Recovering the political possibilities from such traumatic engagement with ourselves as archives allows two novel perspectives. The first situates archival agency as much larger than human. If the archive is in part lodged within our own cells, then no longer is it possible to conceive of an intentional human actor at the centre of archival processes. Though human archivists have no doubt always considered environmental conditions - including organisms who feed on the conventional material substrates of the archive -- there has been a tendency, even within the critical engagements of Derrida [14] to highlight human archival agency as the only game in town. To understand the toxic human body itself as an archive is to recognize that the archive is what Bruno Latour calls an "imbroglio", an entanglement that consists of humans, non-humans, 'reality', discourse and society as a kind of collective. [15] To take such a position is not to remove the responsibility of the human actor(s) in the generation of a toxic body or bodies, but to insist that archival processes exceed human control and often occur without human awareness. To return to Cvetkovich's insistence on the productive capacity of trauma, perhaps this traumatic encounter with the archive made public allows a perspective on "what counts as an archive" and "how publics are formed in and through archive." [16] The publics generated through these archives comprise elements beyond the human and those that fuse with humans in ways that demand a re-configuration of anthropocentric cultural stories. Although this notion of the human at the heart of the archive has been troubled somewhat by recent technologies that archive for us, even as we are in 'sleep' mode, there is still a sense in which 'we' humans (or at least some on behalf of all) have initiated the archival processes that our smart machines carry out for us. A post-human apprehension of archiving, however, entails understanding a network of agency that is larger than a human-cybernetic set of coordinates. We do not always explicitly choose the archive; it may choose us. While 'we' are configuring the cloud to archive our data for us, we would be wise to think of the ways in which increasing energy demands of the material components of the cloud require new pipelines and offshore rigs as actors carving new archival repositories. The traumas incurred from and to these bitumen or crude-infused arteries will compel the involvement of other human and non-human actors as public documentarians of this troubled petroculture.

Another productive effect of understanding the archived human through this story is to view the body in re-writable narrative terms that present a range of possible outcomes rather than a deterministic linear path. Archives never present a complete whole truth; official or national archives may attempt to streamline a story to form a cohesive cultural narrative but archival ephemera often arise to offer other possible narratives. As such, a network of archives always supplements a singular and definitive reading. The toxic body can be viewed in these terms. Smith and Lourie, two self-made guinea pigs, are both analyzing and producing an archive whose political power lies within their two main conclusions. Firstly, Smith and Lourie demonstrate that the quantities of toxins in the body are subject to quantities and duration of exposure to the seven chemicals for which they are testing. The quantity and duration of toxins can thus be somewhat manipulated by anyone at the household level; the archived body is re-writable in these terms. Though decreasing the amount of these seven toxins in one's daily life is not easy, it is possible, through educating oneself on the products to avoid and through making appropriate domestic and consumer choices. Their second conclusion, however, is that these actions alone will not de-toxify the body; a globalized 'we' are all subject to these toxins. Smith and Lourie's bodily readings before explicit exposure to these toxic everyday objects revealed already toxic bodies imprinted with the anthropogenic compounds in question. Even as health sciences evolve to find cures for some of the diseases that plague our bodies, bodies as labs themselves are burdened with the task of housing toxic by-products of progress. Though there are indeed important variations in toxicity across regions and populations that merit attention (for example northern First Nations are disproportionately affected by mercury poisoning in fish, their main traditional source of food), there is no one on Earth that wealth, privilege, nor even living in "pristine wilderness" will exempt from toxicity. These chemicals are simply too pervasive in everyday life and disperse too widely on currents of air, water, land and through our own cellular conduits; these eco-logics defy sovereign boundaries and skin barriers alike. We are all archivists of this morphology. In the words of Smith and Lourie, "humanity's ability to poison itself has changed from a local, highly visible phenomenon to a global, largely invisible and chronic threat." [17] Given the inability of these concerned, informed individuals to eradicate toxins from their bodies, of what use is this traumatic bodily archive? Once again, the power lies in the making public of these traumatic archives and collective responses that ensue. Accounting for these novel forms of pollution through cultural productions generates consciousness for the need to explicitly archive what is being invisibly recorded in the human (and larger-than-human) body. Smith and Lourie's body burden testing entails submitting their own private, domestic archived bodies as evidence of wider public traumatic encounters.

The inspiration behind Smith and Lourie's account and the origin of the term "body burden" more widely, Environmental Working Group (EWG) has taken the somewhat neutrally conceived pre-existing science of bio-monitoring and discursively inflected it with the politics of bodies bearing the loads of anthropogenic toxins. In the tradition of the film Super Size Me (2004), [18] which archived the startlingly drastic morphology of the body consuming McDonald's fast food for a mere thirty days, body burden testing has become a way of tracing the effects of encounters with supposedly benign entities. This form of documentation is a potent display of the effects of hazardous material interactions for a public that is historically accustomed to seeing pollution as billowy clouds of smoke 'out there'. Since the early 2000s, EWG has used body burden testing to begin the work of "mapping the pollution in people" in its Human Toxome Project (HTP). [19] Supplementing the ecstatically celebratory tone of the Human Genome Project, the Human Toxome Project [20] strikes a more melancholic tone of archiving the shared public trauma of toxic bodies; but importantly, trauma here recovers an agenda for political change. This project in conjunction with other consciousness-generating cultural productions has had immense political effects. Though body burden testing certainly demonstrates a network of archival agents beyond human control, paradoxically, it also facilitates the re-appropriation of partial human agency, newly understood as a form of networked agency. Amidst widespread industry refusal to admit to hazards of exposure to their products, this imaginative new form of archiving cellular changes has become a form of self-experimentation with profound impacts on public practices and policy through information campaigns and lobbying.

Perhaps one of the most successful stories of the effects of this kind of archiving is the BPA story. This hormone-disrupting toxin found in in polycarbonate containers and in the linings of canned food has been linked to early puberty in girls, birth defects among boys and girls, and increased breast and prostate cancer among other ailments. Smith and Lourie describe the coming together of a Canadian BPA lobby through a string of events that they organized in the province of Ontario. [21] On a particular day in November 2007, a large group of parents, and children arrived at the legislature in Toronto for an anti-BPA rally that garnered enormous attention and public support. Following the rally, Smith and some of the parents and children met with Premier Dalton McGuinty, who subsequently started the process of provincially banning BPA in baby bottles. Ontario's leadership in turn influenced the federal government's pioneering decision in 2008 to ban the sale and importation of polycarbonate baby bottles. A key player in this series of political movements was the "Toxic Nation Project", which must be considered another key archive of the toxic traumas of petrochemicals on bodies. A subset of the Canadian Environmental Defence charitable organization and trusted advisor to Health Canada, Toxic Nation has, since 2006 recorded the levels of pollutants in Canadians across the country. [22] Their body burden tests of health ministers, politicians from all parties, and average citizens of different ages connects the consumable items of everyday life with the health concerns of Canadians who are apparently bioaccumulating toxic by-products of petrochemical life. The amount of media attention surrounding the data of Toxic Nation has been credited with a public awareness and a non-partisan political will to change that mobilizes such bans on pollutants. [23] Although BPA is notably still found in the linings of most canned goods, industry standards have changed with regard to children's food containers and water bottles and the Environmental Defence continues to campaign for a wider ban of BPA from all food containers. Archiving the toxic body has proved powerful against Goliath-like industries who have invested millions in toxic products and their own lobby of defense against their removal from the market.

A certain degree of controversy surrounding body-burden testing testifies to its value-ladenness. Debate around body burden testing seems polarized between industry proponents who insist with some degree of truth that there is no way of making a direct link between the presence of industry-created toxins and illness, and "environmentalists" who insist on what might be considered a progress-stymying precautionary principle. As David Caudill suggests, de-notating the body as a toxic waste dump also presents a narrative that entails notoriously nebulous legal ramifications. [24] Both sides in these debates claim to have science on their side. Body burden testing reveals that contemporary bio-chemical exchanges and public responses intersect in narratives that are part cultural "values" and part scientific "fact"; though as Bruno Latour suggests, these have always been mutually implicated in political ecologies. [25] With these insights, archival thought no longer presents "the archive" conceived as a complete empirical form (if it ever was), but archiving as a process of tracing and interpreting changes that are simultaneously ecological and cultural. At this historical moment, the sixth massive extinction event of the planet [26] this process involves synthesizing rapidly changing cultural-material topologies of bodily and/or psychic traumas. In short, archiving eco-cultural morphology is as much poetics as it is science.

Poet Adam Dickinson at Brock University situates the agenda of body burden testing in this mutually troubling productive space of science and poetics. His project, Anatomic: Semiotic Bodies, Chemical Environments reads the body and its environment through both the conventional positivist science of anatomies and bio-monitoring and through the constructivist lens of semiotics. Dickinson's body burden testing will measure pollutants and what he calls "symbiotic organisms". He plans to test for 68 anthropogenic compounds that are found in most people. This part of his project closely relates to parts of the Smith and Lourie experiment; what he will do with these tests, however, is nothing less than expanding the repertoire of disciplinary and creative interest in these tests, revealing their importance in eco-critical inquiry and popular imaginaries:

By making a map of the toxicological and symbiotic circumstances of my body, I want to then use this information to create methodologies for producing poems. As a kind of unconventional science project, the poems will take their cue from the structures, histories and behaviours of the chemicals and organisms involved in order to re-write a body being rewritten by its environment. Ultimately, in addition to raising questions about pollution, part of what I am interested in doing is reframing distinctions between the natural and the unnatural as well as between the human and the nonhuman. [27]

Though this project is in its infancy, it is suggestive of how a fusion of such approaches can have profound effects by re-configuring present bodies and worlds. Just as bodies are re-writable in terms of "environments", so are cultural imaginaries capable of being re-written in less anthropocentric terms. What Warren Cariou calls a "poetics of porosity" [28] in terms of the material and cultural seepage of oil into all manner of twenty-first century life, suggests a founding principle of cultural imaginaries in this new key. Archiving eco-cultural morphology engages with these imaginaries, even and especially when they gesture at humans 'ourselves' as ephemera.

Archiving the world without us...

The popular appeal of Alan Weisman's 2007 book, The World Without Us, hints at a pressing societally-shared [29] imaginary of archiving our own human species at a time of its future uncertainty. Weisman's thought experiment posits a kind of future archive that begins with the sudden disappearance of humans from the Earth. How exactly humans disappeared (virus, alien abduction?) is not the crux of the story; rather, the story centres on the speculative archive that occurs in the wake of the anthropocene. Using a combined paradigm of archaeology, geology, biochemistry, social history and story-telling, this future archive hypothesizes the lively encounters of ecosystems at once devoid of humans, but still embroiled in legacies of human built environments. In this imagined world, a proliferating mosquito population no longer subject to human-created pesticides would provide the sustenance to an increase in fish and floral life. Gas wells burning without human intervention may create a nuclear winter. Fresco art hidden from the elements on caves in present-day Turkey, already 10, 000 years old would continue to flourish. Cities such as New York, poised precariously with dikes at the edge of waterways will fairly swiftly succumb to the dual pressures of water-logged foundations and hurricane winds. Old-growth forests like those that covered the island of Manhattan in the 1600s will re-emerge within four hundred years of the disappearance of humans. Such thought experiments based on existing evidence but speculative in nature launch a critical host of questions at the heart of the archive. What will be 'our' human legacies over space and time? How can we control these legacies and in what sense are they beyond our control? Much as our ecologically networked cells and bodily systems demonstrate their active participation in archiving, narratives of the archivists of the world without us also reveal a kind of dispersed agency that challenges perceptions of archiving as a kind of human intellectual labour.

To speculate on some of our future legacies, Weisman seeks present-day material legacies of technological engagements in the recent past. In the chapter entitled "Polymers are Forever", Weisman explores the dispersion of plastics whose material history dates back little more than a half century since post-war plastic production took off. Scores of "nurdles" -- plastic resin pellets used to make myriad plastic products -- litter beaches the world over and find their way in increasingly greater concentrations throughout planetary ecosystems. Of the 250 billion pounds of nurdles being manufactured annually, a significant number have been eaten by seabirds and jellyfish, who mistake them for fish eggs or krill. [30] The oceans have become the repositories of most of this and other forms of plastic; spillages, storm drains and waterways close to landfills all stream these plastics to the ocean. Many of the particles of plastic, broken down, but not biodegraded disperse as largely invisible plastic powder that outweighs the plankton on many parts of the ocean's surface by a factor of six. [31] These plastics are being eaten by all of the ocean's filter feeders who in turn feed those higher on the food chain.

Weisman describes another remarkable archival network that includes humans, their polymer waste and ocean currents; the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, commonly known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" is a swirling heap of industrial waste from the Pacific Rim that spans 10 million square miles, an area almost as big as the continent of Africa, and composed ninety percent of plastic. [32] This inconceivably large oceanic patch is just one among seven such gyres of excrement from the petrocultural anthropocence. Metaphorically summarizing the surprisingly short, but imminently potent story of plastic, Weisman suggests: "It was as if plastic exploded upon the world from a tiny seed after World War II and, like the Big Bang, was still expanding. Even if all production suddenly ceased, an astounding amount of the astoundingly durable stuff [is] already out there." [33] The question of how long plastic will last in the environment is an open one since plastic has such a short history on Earth. As of today, of the one billion tons of plastic produced in 50 years, all remains in the environment, except a tiny portion that has been incinerated. [34] Polymers, as the chapter title goes, remain polymers and do not biodegrade within any time scale now conceivable. Given that the marine environment in which they most often rest provides cooling protection from the sun's UV rays by which they may photodegrade, polymers it is speculated, will have archival security for millions of years to come. [35]

Weisman's stories of unanticipated legacies of humans describe archives of trauma. While the occasional neutral or celebratory tale of human artistry appears in this book, the overall tone is of violent wounds on bodies, be they microscopic, geological, aquatic or terrestrial. The wounds seem violent in terms of geological time for two reasons. First, when thought through the billions of years of planetary life, the onslaught of these wounds is remarkably sudden. In the case of plastic production occurring in the petrocultural anthropocene, these ecological game-changers have appeared in less than the blink of an eye. Second, these wounds, though sudden are also long-term chronic wounds whose impacts will be felt for tens of thousands of years or more. Humans have become, in the theorizations of Naomi Oreskes [36] and Dipesh Chakrabarty [37] "geological agents" with enough power to disturb the very boundary conditions of life on Earth. Whereas conventional environmental frames recognize humans as biological agents, creating impacts on a bodily and localized geographical scale, the notion of geological agency represents a fundamental shift in thinking:

To call human beings geological agents is to scale up our imagination of the human. Humans are biological agents, both collectively and as individuals. They have always been so. There was no point in history when humans were not biological agents. But we can become geological agents only historically and collectively, that is, when we have reached numbers and invented technologies that are on a scale large enough to have an impact on the planet itself. [38]

Chakrabarty reads this intensified and scaled-up species agency through the climate impacts of 'civilizing' forces enabled by fossil fuels. Whereas, atmospheric results of fossil fuels tend to be given more attention due to the felt rapidity of effects on climate, Weisman's account of oceanic effects of the petrochemical plastic industry also merits attention. Given the amount of planetary space covered by oceans, these archives of plastic also confirm human geological agency. This is, once again a paradoxical situation in which humans are recognized both as geological agents, and as part of a greater network of agents that are disturbing an idealized kind of agency that centres on human intentionality. While intentional human technological engagements focus on progressive improvements in everything from human health to extra-planetary knowledge, a larger than human archive situates these materially embodied traumas as part and parcel of the celebrated story of human ingenuity.

Weisman's account suggests the traumas of this archive are not only embodied and material, but also psychic or emotional and shared at a societal level. The World Without Us is among other things, a cultural repository of archival feelings of trauma, both present and anticipated. Ann Cvetkovich suggestively evokes an "archive of feelings" as "an exploration of cultural texts as repositories of feelings and emotions not only in the content of the texts themselves but in the practices that surround their production and reception." [39] The popular reception of the Weisman book, its translations, multi-media and a proposed science fiction film based on its premise alludes to a widely-shared sense of human ephemerality. A History Channel documentary series entitled Life After People (2009) follows a similar trajectory of thought beginning with the vanishing human species. [40] This sense of ephemerality enables an imaginary space of archiving the human species itself. While this might seem a melancholic state of affairs, describing a debilitating form of "species anxiety," [41] a public archive of anticipated trauma such as this may also inform a political call to act on potential other futures that do not follow the paths of what is currently present. This is not to suggest that humans reject their own individual and collective finitude, but rather to evoke a longitudinal form of speculation that has implications on present ways of living. Weisman's account especially brings into view this speculative nature at the heart of any archive. Archives anticipate a future community who will likely read the "facts" in various ways. Even at the outset of collecting what is to become an archive, a certain narrative is created. Selections are made, certain things are memorialized, others forgotten. Archives are thus empirically unstable, part fact part fiction, always a synthesis of the two. As Weisman's account is based on careful research of his own and of the many experts integral to the book, it is on the one hand, a kind of archival documentary of past and present material states and transformations; on the other hand, its future projections are avowedly speculative. Weisman shows that archives can be made and re-made, and that they are not dependent entirely on human actors, but are part of a larger network.

Trauma and the Politics of Eco-cultural archviving

Both the cells within our bodies and a range of other dispersed actors are currently archiving eco-cultural morphologies beyond human control and yet as Ann Cvetkovich recognizes, such cultural artefacts that give witness to trauma are also sites of political intervention. "Cultural production that emerges around trauma enables new practices and publics...Trauma raises questions about what counts as an archive." The traumas encountered in these best-selling cultural artefacts, each of which implicitly archives eco-cultural morphology, function to extend the notions of what counts as an archive. In the first case, the human body is revealed as an embedded ecological repository of dominant technological engagements, while in the second, the material world as it speculatively unfolds over time in our absence becomes the archive. Both creatively initiate the need for 'us' to consider ourselves as what archivists call "ephemera", not simply in an autobiographical sense of individual closure to our lives, but from a planetary ecological perspective where species themselves ephemerally enjoy turns at centre stage. Far from serving a passive fatalism, these archival accounts yield the potential for a politics of archival care in the here and now. When our cells are poisoned, the archival minutiae of individuals burdening their bodies do matter in profound ways. Toxins like DDT in the human body are now mostly recognized as ephemera, thanks in part to the culturally-archived birds who inspired Rachel Carson's call to change. By extending the archive to include non-humans, 'we' will not only have better understandings of how present-day eco-cultural transformations impact humans as embedded in larger ecologies, we will go beyond to think of the legacies that outlast us and create lingering impacts.

Archives of trauma are political in that they potentially reconfigure the present and the future. The recent politics surrounding proposed oil or bitumen pipelines in North America demonstrate how a public imaginary is mobilizing productively around archives of trauma to re-think progressive oil-dependent paths that formerly seemed determined. Images of catastrophic oil spills and the many ecological (human and non-human) repositories of this trauma fuel a speculative politics of public refusal to buy into a pipeline path that will archive further ecological disaster. Much more complex than can be evoked by a reductive-sounding "precautionary principle," a grassroots network of opposition to projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline brings together new publics who, based on archives of past oil spills, and the everyday traumatic archives of those on the frontlines of projects like the Alberta oil sands, boldly speculate future paths that do not include such pipelines. [42] Cultural approaches to such traumas, including documentary films like Warren Cariou and Neil McArthur's Land of Oil and Water [43] admit to the complex politics of the everyday in its entanglement with the large scale ecological morphologies of planetary dimensions at a time of homo petrolicus. As Cvetkovich suggests, "trauma can be a foundation for creating counterpublic spheres rather than evacuating them."[44]

Part of an agenda for critically thinking about digital archiving then involves engaging with questions of materiality that are often deferred and with the myriad cultural and material conditions of possibility that lead to a heightened interest in archives in contemporary culture. Archiving eco-cultural morphology is thus a preliminary call for critically thinking about material and imaginary loops in a petro-chemically enabled digital culture. In these terms, archiving serves as a potentially productive endeavour of accounting for harmful eco-cultural changes in order to do something different and as a fraught traumatic cultural endeavour haunted by thoughts of our own species obsolescence. The promise of the archive may be that it gestures toward a kind of suspension between life and death, reminding that these two are necessarily conjoined at all times. wii 2 r ephemera and yet something of us remains for those that follow; the question of what remains is not entirely ours to answer, but it may nonetheless animate a longitudinal view of care for the future. Archiving here serves as a means of grappling with our own eventual finitude (individual and collective) while paradoxically tracing cellular and cultural disturbances that orient principles for how to live in the time we have recognizing that 'our' legacies -- some chosen, others not -- remain.


[1] Alan Weisman. The World Without Us. (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2007), 6.

[2] I use the universalizing pronouns "us" and "we" here and in other parts of this piece tentatively to suggest a global "we" attempting to grapple with ecological changes, not least of which are climatic and therefore global. I also wish to flag the troubled nature of the use of these universal subject positions when responsibilities and impacts of these changes tell very particular stories that disturb such globalizing tendencies. And yet there is some collectivity that must be tenuously evoked at times. As posthumanities scholar Carey Wolfe suggests when thinking about climate change, "there is no 'we', and yet there is nothing but 'we'" (personal communication, May 26, 2010). Similarly, the stories featured in this essay demonstrate the universalizing effects of petrochemical pollutants. It is these universalisms that I wish to highlight when I use a far less-than-perfectly universal 'we' but one in which I myself am implicated in a fraught petrochemical relationship.

[3] Jacques Derrida. "Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression," Diacritics 25, no. 2 (1995): 9-63.

[4] The following article describes just one of the many mega data centres that Google has built to deliver its seemingly immaterial search results. This one is the size of 2 football fields and has two four-storey cooling plants on the Columbia river, a cheap source of hydro-electric power. John Markoff and Saul Hansell. "Hiding in Plain Sight, Google Seeks More Power." New York Times. June 14, 2006. (accessed on 1 August 1 2012).

[5] Ann Cvetkovich. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 10.

[6] Ibid, 20.

[7] Guillaume Filion, "Round table Session on the Archive" Pacific Centre for Culture and Technology (PACTAC), University of Victoria, January 27, 2012.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie. Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. (Toronto: Vintage, 2009). 248.

[10] Ibid, "Chapter 7, Risky Business: 2, 4-D and the Sound of Science" p 187 -- 215. This chapter provides a well-researched overview of pesticides that emerged with military interventions of World War II.

[11] Rachel Carson. Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

[12] Though forty years after its ban, DDT is still responsible for new cancers, Smith and Lourie, 190.

[13] Smith and Lourie, 192.

[14] Even in Derrida's challenge in "Archive Fever: a Freudian Impression" to Freud's formulation of psychoanalysis, a certain internalization of the archive is still connected with the human enterprise of memory and forgetting.

[15] Bruno Latour. The Politics of Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 10, 23, 231; Bruno Latour. We Have Never Been Modern (Boston: Harvard 1993), 6.

[16] Cvetkovich, 9-10.

[17] Smith and Lourie, 4.

[18] Morgan Spurlock. Super size me (film). (New York, N.Y.: Hart Sharp Video, 2004).

[19] (accessed on 20 August 2012).

[20] See (accessed on 20 August 2012).

[21] Smith and Lourie "Mothers Know Best" (216-244) describes the events leading up to the ban on BPA in children's baby bottles in Canada.

[22] (accessed on 20 August 2012).

[23] As Smith and Lourie highlight in this chapter, Premier David McGuinty himself credits Toxic Nation with having raised this issue to enough public attention to the matter that he was able to initiate a BPA ban in baby bottles.

[24] David S. Caudill, "Legal Responses to Body Burdens: Discourses on Low-Dose Toxicity." Griffith Law Review 18, no. 2: 259-268, (2009).

[25] Bruno Latour. Politics of Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004): 95-109. Here Latour troubles the dichotomy of fact vs. values; facts seems to speak for themselves in the language of objective science, while values always "arrive too late" to impose an independent-seeming morality. The two seem to operate in different worlds disallowing productive conversation. Instead he proposes "matter of concern" to describe the issues of political ecology which always involve traffic between facts and values from the outset.

[26] Andrew Weaver. Keeping our Cool: Canada in a Warming World (Toronto: Viking, 2008).

[27] "Chemical Bard" Interview with Tyler Irving Canadian Chemical News. January 2012 (accessed on April18 2012).

[28] Warren Cariou "Tarhands: A Messy Manifesto" Key-note address Petrocultures Conference, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta. September 8, 2012

[29] I claim this story to be societally-shared, but certainly not universal. A diversity of cultural stories, and religious beliefs challenge its singularity; however, this is a certain secularly prevalent perspective in Western civilization.

[30] Weisman, 155.

[31] Ibid, 155.

[32] Ibid, 152-157.

[33] Ibid, 157.

[34] Ibid, 159.

[35] Ibid, 158-159.

[36] Naomi Oreskes, "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How Do We Know We're Not Wrong?" in Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren, ed. Joseph F. C. Dimento and Pamela Doughman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 73-74.

[37] Dipesh Chakrabarty , "The Climate of History: Four Theses," Critical Inquiry Winter (2009).

[38] Ibid, 206-207.

[39] Cvetkovich, 7.

[40] (accessed on August 28 2012)

[41] Like Dipesh Chakrabarty, I use 'species' as a placeholder here. Critical scholarly attention to the essentialist and colonial tendencies and histories caught up with this category appropriately warns against its unproblematic usage, but despite these problems, it must be acknowledged that the species category is central to the discourse of the narrative of The World Without Us.

[42] These websites feature two of the more prominent organizations in Canada; (accessed on August 18 2012)

[43] Warren Cariou and Neil McArthur The Land of Oil and Water(film) (2009) (accessed on August 15 2012)

[44] Cvetkovich, 15.


Anita Girvan is a PhD Candidate in Cultural, Social and Political Thought (CSPT) on the traditional Lekwungan territory of the University of Victoria. Her PhD dissertation critically traces the mediating effects of carbon footprint metaphors in the cultural politics of climate change and her broader interests are in discourse, aesthetics and political ecologies. Anita is currently a Centre for Global Studies Fellow and SSHRC Canada Graduate Scholar. Her research on archives in an ecological key has been generously funded by a SSHRC project," Archives in the Digital Epoch", a grant provided by the Pacific Centre for Technology and Culture, University of Victoria, and the Centre de recherche sur l'intermédialité, Université de Montréal.

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