Storymaking in the Digital Archive

Digital archives transform the notion of archival space as well as practices of storymaking by providing readers and writers with opportunities for recombining and renarrativizing around time, space, gaps, epistemology, and affective response.  My particular interest resides in the possibilities for narrativization of intimate lives through the digital archive, and the implications for the narratological study of life writing.   How might we (re)consider life writing and the digital archive through narratology?

This might be considered a new permutation of what Pedro Ponce referred to earlier in this cluster as the “malleability” of digital space.   First, digital archives radically transform the archival space.  That space is no longer one which reifies the arkhē, or origin, and it is no longer one constituted solely by authority.  Rather, the user is granted authority over the materials, and the authority of author to make of the materials the narrative he or she will.  The originary moment is brought into the now, remediated through shifting temporalities, causalities, and progressions.  Let it be noted that I am not thinking here of the ways that digitization has changed the material nature of the archive via specifics of hardware and platform (see Kirschenbaum 2013).  What I’d like to suggest is that the reader’s work in the digital archive alters her relationship to the materiality of the artifact, its existence in space, place and time, thereby activating the potential for other forms of storymaking.

As the user becomes imbricated in the nexus of materials that make the archive, she herself becomes a maker.  Much thinking about life writing in the digital age has focused on social media (Podnieks 2009), but digital archives have the potential to alter the ways we narrativize lives in other, serendipitous ways.  Take a basic narratological function:  progression.  One might read the letters of, say, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, in chronological order, observing causality and the web of emotional and intimate life as it was constructed through private exchange.  The narrative progresses through stages shaped by the publication in print, or inventory, arranging, and cataloging in the archive.  But perhaps I want to construct my own version of the story of the Carlyles’ marriage.  I do a variety of searches, I make my own judgments, I order the material to make the story that needs to be made. 

The digital alters our experience of access, and of materiality.  In the archive, we gain access to the physical object, perhaps a holograph letter, which might also give us access to the corporeality of its maker. Take, again, the Carlyle archive; a snippet of a letter from 21 May 1834 is shown here. 


In the case of this particular example, the text of the letter is reproduced without the corporeal presence of the hand (except the rather ghostly presence haunting the page background:  might we not also theorize design as we do space [Freshwater 2003]?).  The bodily presence made possible by letters which are themselves the effect of absence is here transformed by the digital space.  Daniel Punday has called for a “corporeal narratology” (2003).  If we rethink through the digital the materiality of the archive and the stories it makes possible, how might we rethink the materiality of those who made it?  And how do we rethink the origin of those stories:  does it begin with them, or us?


Freshwater, Helen.  “The Allure of the Archive.”  Poetics Today 24, no. 4 (2003).  729-758.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew.  “The .txtual Condition:  Digital Humanities, Born-Digital Archives, and the Future Literary.”  DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 7, no. 1 (2013)

Podnieks, Elizabeth.  “‘New Biography for a New Millenium.”  a/b:  Auto/Biography Studies 24, no. 1 (2009).  1-14.

Punday, Daniel.  Narrative Bodies:  Toward a Corporeal Narratology.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.


There is a lot of power in digital archives and individuals have more power over their public image than every before, but what do you think of the fact that this agency is folds hand-in-hand with consumption? For instance, Facebook offers us a plethora of easy to use tools to archive ourselves, but what it is hoping we do is create the best possible profile with which to sell us things. In one sense, this is the price we pay to use the tools, because nothing comes for free. Likewise, our attempts to maneuver around the consumptive nature of Facebook (like installing adblockers) force the company to, well, become more annoying and drop ads into our Facebook feed disguised as friend's posts. 

A question I keep coming back to about materiality is what we hope to capture in the process as well. Your example of the Carlyle letter serves as a great example. Access to the archive seems blissfully open access. Yet, when their letters are typed out and translated within text, what do we lose in the process. I did not see a way to see a scanned image of the original letter. I already have the desire to see the original letter, to see if the handwriting changes at any point, if there are any notes are anything included with the letter. While I am sure this is more readable than the handwritten letters, I wonder how to get access to the original. I am not sure that I am properly describing what I mean, but ultimately, digital archives have a narrative of their own, that they are better and more accessible than geographical archives, but I wonder what the rubric for that statement is. 

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