Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Sprach- und literaturwissenschaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Slawistik und Hungarologie

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Archives of the Arctic. Ice, Entropy and Memory


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Compared to other natural archives, the Arctic is a very special ground, because its main memory medium is not simply earth or stone, but ice. Depending principally on temperatures under zero, ice seems to be the most vulnerable, the most unstable memory medium of the three; a fact that causes concern nowadays, in times of climate change. Since the beginning of the 19th century the Arctic ice and permafrost soil served as an archive for earth-history and climate history. During the same period the Arctic and its very center, the North Pole, became the playground of international competition. Narratives of arctic conquest, victory and surrender inscribed themselves into both the memory medium of ice and the new communication media of industrial society. For GULAG-writers like Varlam Šalamov Siberian permafrost ice in its function as an archive remained the last hope for evidence about the crimes of the NKWD.

For reasons that remain disputed, Claude Shannon drew the terminology of information science from thermodynamics. Strangely the practical language of the media is also very much a language of temperature. Thus, for example, the technique of the “freeze frame” is important to cinema’s negotiation with time. In media archives around the globe, the film rolls themselves are frozen down in order to withstand time. Robert Scott and his men succumbed in the snow of the Antarctic, but the films they made survived.  Unlike analogue communication, the digital always leaves traces, and is inherently archival.  Yet with multimedia and the internet the digital is transgressing the traditional notion of the archive by developing a culture of permanently recycling data, rather than fixed memories. The archive is everywhere, but also on the verge of becoming intrinsically metaphorical. In this age of “archive fever” (Jacques Derrida) one sees a fascination with ice as an archival medium in literature, science fiction and popular culture.

Against this background contributions will elaborate on questions like: How and in what different ways has ice been (implicitly or explicitly) conceptualized as a memory medium? What is the symbolical potential of the “natural archive”? And how is it developed in different historical periods and different discourses and genres (science, historiography, fiction, documentary)? If ice is a preferred metaphor for the archival “freezing” of time, the melting of the ice may supply a metaphor for an ongoing metaphorization of the archive or encroaching entropy of memory. Finally: In what sense may the notion of the natural archive help reframe the man/culture nexus?