Paper: “The Archive as Alibi”, (W)archives Conference, University of Copenhagen, 21-22 August, 2017

Prompted by factors such as globalization, digitization and mediatization, the role and impact of archives are currently undergoing decisive changes.The changing role of the archive as political technology has impacted the understanding and conduct of contemporary warfare. Whereas military and states used to control the production of information about – and thus also mainstream news’ media coverage of – warfare, different actors now leak, mass-produce, circulate, and mobilize information across various media platforms. Professor Downey will be presenting his paper “The Archive as Alibi”, an abstract of which is include below.

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Conference Paper Abstract

The Archive as Alibi

The photographic archive has been increasingly represented as an example of how visual “evidence” can be deployed for political, historical, ethical and economic ends. As a result, image-based archives have become associated with interrogative, critical, and juridical gestures: they are expected to do something, even if that is largely concerned with providing, to paraphrase Harun Farocki, a form of testimony against the archival image. In turn, there has been a critical and legal investment in the idea (if not ideal) of the photographic archive as an evidentiary form of witnessing that will in time answer to, if not ameliorate, present-day injustices. This is all the more evident in the wake of an unprecedented refugee crisis — one that now far exceeds the number of displaced refugees in Europe post-1945 — and revolutions across the Middle East. Images, in these contexts, are often positioned as proof of engagement and confirmation of responsibility; their archival potential apparently representing a bulwark against future forgetfulness. However, is it possible, this paper will ask, that the ongoing production and subsequent archiving of these images — specifically those of migrants and other displaced communities — are being submitted as compensation for the political and legal representation that is both withdrawn from, and thereafter denied to, refugees in the first place? Is it conceivable that photographic archives are not only becoming complicit in neutralizing political effect, but also in co-opting the political affect surrounding the figure of the refugee and the principle of justice? As models of visual representation, finally, what historical value will contemporary images of refugees — and their status as future-oriented archives — have as a tool for retrospectively enquiring into what occurred in an era defined by short-sighted protectionism, political exceptionalism and opportunistic extremism?