From Singular to Plural

by Erika Balsom

The archive, the archive, the archive. Which archive? Sometimes it can feel as if the concept has been stripped of all specificity, mutating into an ideality from which all the material constraints that bear down on institutions of film culture have been magicked away. While specialist debates on audiovisual archiving have long moved past such an abstract idea of “the archive,” evocations of this notion markedly persist in the broader field of film and media studies. What do we lose when we refer to “the archive” in this way—in the singular and with a definite article, as more or less synonymous with the entirety of extant film production?

It is tempting to trace the prevalence of this usage to the influence of Michel Foucault, but if this is indeed the case it is founded on a misreading. Although he refers to “the archive” in The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault is emphatically clear on the point: “By this term I do not mean the sum of all the texts that a culture has kept upon its person as documents attesting to its own past, or as evidence of a continuing identity” (Foucault 1972, 128–29). And yet this is one notable way in which the term is often used today. An historical project might be framed as “returning to the archive”; one might speak of “exploring the archive of anti-colonial films,” for instance.

Talk of “the archive” in one sense names something real: a changed relationship to the films of the past. It evokes a dematerialized plenitude and mass accessibility, brought into being by the digitization of photochemical artefacts and their subsequent circulation online, whether sanctioned or not. Facilitated by the internet, this new availability feeds back into scholarship and theatrical exhibition. How many excellent repertory series of recent years would never have taken place were it not for encounters that first occurred online? It is hard now to imagine that renowned works of film history should be especially difficult to see. Things have changed. With the flood of files, a changed notion of “the archive” comes into being—a cinéma imaginaire, to revise André Malraux’s formulation.

The benefits of this situation are well established. So why quibble with the idea of the archive, singular definitive? For a start: because this cinéma imaginaire is indeed imaginary. Nestled within it is an implication that all of film history now stretches out before us as a flattened virtuality. Images cascade, all seemingly equally available to the curious gaze, all at the click of a mouse (provided, that is, one knows where to look). Present here is a dangerous element of fantasy, a fundamental misrecognition of the actual state of affairs. It suggests an abundance without gaps, unaffected by the ravages of time or the policies of rights holders, unmarked by hierarchies and exclusions that doggedly persist. “The archive” is an overwhelming presence; it has no beginning and no end, no relation to authority. When in fact, archives—tied as they are to commencement and commandment through the root arkhē—are the domain of absence as much as presence, places of purported origins, policed boundaries, and finite resources. With their claim on posterity, they are something other than collections, lists, repositories; something other than the experience—at once true and false, alluring and overwhelming—of digital abundance.

The abstraction at play in the notion of “the archive” risks eliding the complexities of real archives. To speak in the plural is to acknowledge the immense variations that exist across institutions and the very different lives lived by moving image artefacts in and outside them. These heterogeneities became forcefully apparent to me during the work that led to the project “No Master Territories: Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image,” an exhibition and film program of some one hundred works by more than eighty filmmakers and collectives that I co-curated with Hila Peleg for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in summer 2022. In researching nonfiction films and videos by women, primarily from the 1970s to 1990s and made all over the world, we engaged with national archives on six continents, private institutional archives, filmmakers’ personal archives, and collections of bootlegs. Most works we aspired to see were not available online, even on specialist private torrent sites. We encountered films easily available in wonderful copies, newly restored, and films that did not exist in any publicly exhibitable format, digital or photochemical. There were lost films, damaged films. There were films that had sat on shelves for decades, undigitized. There was a film we were denied permission to exhibit by the rights holder, a national television archive, because a man appearing within it had contacted them to assert his “right to be forgotten.” There were preview copies we received in hours; there were films we waited years to see; there were films we never managed to lay eyes on, even with the substantial resources, name recognition, and generous lead times of a well-funded German institution. We heard from archivists who had long wanted to restore particular works in their collections but who could not move forward until significant curatorial interest could be ascertained. In short, to comprehend the material conditions of archives is to understand something about the vast differences between them, as well as something about the diverse lives of these films, many of which have been underappreciated and underseen. Some of these works have been looked after very well due to the tireless and ongoing efforts of individuals and organizations, but others have heartbreakingly not received the care they deserve. When we speak of “the archive,” these specificities fade from view. As an academic who had scarcely engaged in these kinds of negotiations prior to undertaking this project, I found the process at once illuminating, dispiriting, and inspiring.

The archive, the archive, the archive. There is no archive; there are only archives and collections and lists and repositories. Policing terminology can be pedantic and boring. Yet at the same time, the words we use matter, for they shape how we comprehend the accumulated artefacts that comprise film heritage. How might scholarship be transformed through a better acquaintance with the functioning of archives in the plural? Too often these are separate worlds. Today, not despite but because of the digital plenitude of “the archive,” it feels urgent to fortify the existing points of contact between archivists and scholars, and to create new ones. Through building these alliances, another passage from singular to plural can be helped along its way: the urgent movement from a limited canon of “masterworks” to a more expansive and inclusive conceptualization of the many histories of cinema.


Foucault Michel. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith, New York: Pantheon Books.

Rosen, Jeffrey. 2012. “The Right to Be Forgotten.” Stanford Law Review Online 64 (88): 88–92.