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Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom

by Abigail De Kosnik
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2016
440 pp., illus. 38 b & w illus. Trade: $45.00; eBook, $32.00
ISBN: 9780262034661; ISBN: 9780262336758.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

The archive has been at the center of a tremendous amount of scholarly, critical, and political reflection since more than four decades. In 1969 Foucault published the book that triggered the renewed interest in archives: The Archeology of Knowledge, and a sudden outburst of new publications, such as for instance those by Alan Sekula and John Tagg, appeared in the early 1980s. Within this field, the focus has increasingly shifted toward the medial infrastructure of the archive, both by opening the research to non–print or non–paper archives and, even more generally, by addressing the importance of the digital turn. The book by Abigail De Kosnik is a stimulating and innovative intervention in the field. Its originality is not only derived from the particular corpus that she examines (mainly fan fiction archives created and managed by minority groups–in this case female, feminist, global–South and queer groups), but also from the theoretical framework that she develops for the study of what she calls "rogue" archives–a type of archive that is much more than just a digital or a digitized archive, but that exemplifies and implements several of the new opportunities disclosed by the digital turn.

For De Kosnik, whose book is based on an oral history project at Berkeley and interviews with some fifty "rogue" archivists in the domain of fan fic archives, a "rogue archive" (the metaphor is borrowed from the work by Jacques Derrida, who establishes a strong link between the figure of the rogue and radical democracy) is very different from a traditional archive, where the preservation, organization, and presentation of a certain type of documents of the past produces an official interpretation for present use that also aims at maintaining itself in the future. Rogue archives are created bottom–up, by sometimes untrained and generally unpaid amateurs and volunteers sharing a special interest in a certain, often marginal or marginalized field, and whose ambition is less to transmit a certain idea of things past to future generations in a well–structured and tightly controlled way than to make possible the very survival of ignored or censored experiences as well as to generate a community life around an archive where all roles and functions become and remain blurred. Rogue archivists are almost always activists, and the driving force of their work is passion and commitment. Rogue archivists are in many cases not interested at all in technical or scientific standards and reliability and ignore or willfully break the current rules of copyright and intellectual property rights (examples of rogue archives are therefore not YouTube channels or Facebook groups, even if a lot of rogue archiving work can be done in these digital environments, but the commercial interests of these platforms are in direct contradiction with the basic "no rules, no restrictions" spirit of the real rogue archive).

De Kosnik's book, which does not hide its sympathy for the anticanonical and politically inspired approach of rogue archivists, is an important contribution to a better understanding of the stakes of digital culture in general. First of all, the book offers a clear and well–informed state of the art of many smaller and larger debates that surround the issue of digital archives (in that sense, it is almost tailor–made for class room use–after all, the oral history project was executed with the help of MA students and one feels throughout the whole book the strong commitment of the author to the intertwining of teaching and research). Second, and this is of course what stands out most, Rogue Archives is also an attempt to sketch a theoretical framework for the study of the countless grassroots initiatives that represent a huge percentage of the archival work that is being done online (the final chapter of the book proposes a big data analysis of the production as well as the reception of these online archives, and the quantitative figures are absolutely dizzying). De Kosnik does so by emphasizing the notion of archival "style" (a notion also fruitfully explored, yet in a very different context, that of the photo archive, by Robin Kelsey in an eponymous study, Archive Style, California UP, 2007). Three types come here to the fore: 1) the universal archive (some rogue archives want to digitize theoretically everything –at least in a given field– and De Kosnik analyzes the consequences of the refusal to distinguish between what is worth keeping and what is, according to non–rogues, not worth keeping at all); 2) the community archive (many rogue archives are made by minority groups or communities of affinity, and the long–term preservation of material that would otherwise be lost is here an absolute priority); 3) alternative archives, which may overlap with the second category (here the idea of user–generated content is taken in a much more radical sense than usually known: the ambition is not to complete information that is incomplete or missing in official archives, for instance with the help of crowdsourcing mechanisms, but to generate "different" content and stories, that is content and stories that are not allowed to appear in traditional archives or that are simply ignored or discarded elsewhere.

De Kosnik rightfully insists on the necessity to think the relationship between both archival categories, the canonical ones, and the rogue ones in terms of creative interaction, not of a priori antagonism. After all, it may occur that rogue archives are integrated into canonical archives, while the latter should also understand that the only way to have a real future is to adopt certain aspects of the formers' creativity and dynamism. De Kosnik's book is an invitation to rethink the meaning of an understudied but key cultural practice, while making us aware of the dangers of its smooth institutionalization, which would involve the inevitable loss of what makes rogues archive essential to an open and democratic society.

Last Updated 2nd January 2017

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