In a recent elegy to the closing of the Blockbuster, film critic Dana Stevens points out that -- for all its faults -- the chain store was “a place of encounter with movies, a site where they’re physically arrayed as objects to handle, examine, discuss, and peruse.” It can be said that Netflix queue serves as a digital analog to this bygone high-touch practice. Developed by the company itself and by user-created hacks, the evolving queue is the tool through which we have managed, rearranged and organized our viewing habits in the last decade. In undertaking this personal film archive, we also articulate to ourselves, and others who we are as viewers and even as individuals.
In “Reading and Archive: Photography between Labor and Capital” Allan Sekula describes the visual archive as a “clearing house” of meaning in which the possibility of meaning is liberated from contingencies of use. “Clearly archives are not neutral,” Sekula notes “they embody the power inherent in accumulation, collection and hoarding.” Regardless of content, the creation and ongoing maintenance of an archive is a performance, a repetition and a ritual. Our personal archives allow us to imagine an (often non-existent) audience to whom we display our mastery of a lexicon and a body of knowledge. These archives function as our “tacit narratives,” notes scholar Eric Ketelaar. They are the stories we tell ourselves almost without realizing that a story has been constructed. It is abundantly clear that many of us have been using our Netflix queue as just such performative archives. There are the titles we watch….and then there are the titles that are simply queued. If we are honest, we may note that not only do we not get to some titles, but that their existence on the queue actually replaces our need for viewing at all. Queuing titles does evidence some of the power of archival accumulation, allowing us to “claim” the films. In building our queue we exert some small mastery over an endless media barrage, and the Sisyphean task of viewing. Within my queue, I perform an idealized version of myself (one who has watched both Into Great Silence and Shoah.) Sekula remarks “The specificity of original uses and meanings can be avoided, and even made invisible,” when an item finds its way to the archive. Archiving absolves us of the content, and our queues forgive us our viewing omissions.