My dissertation, titled “The Past as Utopia: Alexander Kluge and the Archive,” investigates the use of historical and archival material in Alexander Kluge’s literary and theoretical works, films, television programs, and his interactive media website. I argue that Kluge’s work is indicative of a shift from the traditional notion of the archive as a concrete, physical site to a new notion of the archive that has grown in our multimedia world. In Kluge’s work the archive becomes a condition and practice of knowledge in the digital age. Like Walter Benjamin, Kluge emphasizes the utopian potential of the detritus of history. Kluge’s strategy is to unearth the unfinished, utopian projects of the past that are present but lie dormant in the archive. One of the major impulses behind Kluge’s activation of the archive is to identify the contingencies and alternate futures that are preserved in the remnants of the past, and to show how things could have been otherwise—how German history might have turned out differently. His citation of archival materials seeks to dispel our preconceived notions or narratives about the past.
My project is in dialogue with current theories of the archive and the changing conception of the archive after the advent of digital technology. As is well known, the archive is a recurring concern in German thought. While the formulation of state archives originally represented a means to construct a national German story for German historicists like Leopold von Ranke and Johann Gustav Droysen, Kluge uses the same material to unsettle these longstanding teleological narratives. Like Benjamin’s Arcades Project and art historian Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, Kluge calls into question the notion that the archive can produce logical systems and clear narratives. Kluge, Benjamin and Warburg’s media archaeological projects all search in the archive and in the ruins of modernity for the organizing principles of historical experience. They show how the archive is not necessarily a site of restrictions, but one of creative possibilities.