Archiving the Archive

Reviewed by Judith Goldman

It is uncanny—or is it?—the (pre)occupation with suicide that haunts Jill Magi’s remarkable LABOR. Perhaps not, given Derrida’s theorization of the archive as equivocating between conservation and destruction, archivization itself a form of archival self-violence.Which brings us to the black-and-white, metaphorically “archiviolithic” photograph the reader encounters at the almost-end of LABOR: a double-page spread of the interior of NYU’s Bobst Library, a brutalist building whose ten-story atrium  notoriously attracts student death.                                                                                                     


Just before the Epilogue, which closes LABOR (belatedly) with “love will pull you back” (80), Magi inserts this filmy image of the domicile of the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, such that on one hand, the reader may view by proxy the site where so much of the book is set, and on the other, she might also take up the perspective of a would-be suicide.

The reader installs herself, for instance, in the view had by the character Sadie, “formerly a historian now self-appointed inspector”—“Once she worked during the day until they wrote ‘due to’ ‘not able to renew your’ ‘we regret’”(19)—and named for the “real” Sadie of the “Israel and Sadie Amter Papers, 1 box .25 linear feet” (29), who, Magi explains in a separately published essay, wrote pro-labor didactic poems.Inhabiting by night the Bobst basement office of the character J., Magi’s reimagined Sadie collects labor grievances she at first deposits in a medical waste container at the edge of brackish water near the World Trade Center ruins and then instead begins to surreptitiously insert into the labor archive itself (44). At one point Sadie shares a scene with the character Miranda, an NYU-adjunct and artist who teaches in a classroom in Bobst and is sexually harassed by a male “dean”/“boss”: “Miranda finds Sadie at the edge of the plexiglass barrier standing at the fissure. She says ‘go ahead.’ [...] Miranda finds Sadie at the edge about to leap into the atrium and says ‘you must not.’ She takes hold of Sadie’s arm tightly” (52). The text that follows, italicized notes from Miranda’s artist notebook, describes people jumping from buildings, only to hover in the air clasping hands and fly away as though they have made an escape. Later, with a kind of shocking timing, Sadie does finally fling herself to her death (70); or not quite finally: in LABOR’s final apocalyptic moment, when “the archive is on fire,” “Sadie wakes up” (76).

If they are subjective correlatives of the archive’s death drive, LABOR’s main characters—women who circulate around and through the labor archive, all of whom transgress it—more obviously congeal the hopelessness of contemporary conditions of labor that Magi so incisively and inventively exfoliates. If mitigated in tiny gleams, such as the incorporation of an archival snippet from a labor activist and garment worker’s testimony: “‘We took no cut in pay, we took no cut in holidays, it’s not some dream, it did happen, it’s not some dream’” (14), the sense Magi imparts of both the eventful and slow violence of precarious work and joblessness, and really of any labor performed, for pay or not, “secure” or not, in a racist, sexist society that sets massively differential values on lives and types of work, is nonetheless exceedingly bleak. J., a black, female tenured archaeology professor, at all times wears a suit and carries her I.D. so as not to be waylaid by the various gatekeepers of Bobst and the archive; when, during an undergraduate lecture on Seneca Village, she catches a male student “his mouth slightly open and he is looking at her body,” she ends class early (41).

LABOR indeed continually labors to maximize the irony of being situated in and 
occasioned by a labor archive, open to the public and bearing a sign reading “Marxist
Study Center,” yet nonetheless riven by the institutional and other inequities that define and shape society at large.


I have been speaking of the details and episodes of this hybrid-genre work almost as though the book’s storyline or its archival matter were straightforwardly presented “facts.”As Magi states at the end of LABOR (below a photograph of what may be a classroom in Bobst), “LABOR is a fiction. Except for the real of the archive, the book’s people, places, and events are imagined” (n.p.). But Magi not only artfully throws into question precisely the “real” of the archive; she creates in LABOR an engaging, sophisticated postmodern novella whose form grapples searchingly with its content and whose content is thus both revealed and occulted in dimensions that would not otherwise be available.

LABOR begins with a gorgeous poem comprised of language appropriated from index entries on “work” and related terms from various books on labor, arranged in couplets. The book goes on to include lists of materials from the labor archive; Miranda’s artist notebook entries; text from the manuscript of J.’s “autobiography,” My Seneca Village; and sections from a handbook described by Magi as, “A fictional employee handbook for a fictional workplace,” containing mainly directions for producing artworks that interact with or somehow deface the archive (“Notes”). Magi has observed: “Through the use of numbered sections and headings before each paragraph, this handbook looks official, institutional, and may even suggest the sections and articles of the collective bargaining agreement” (“Notes”); thus, the book does more than weave together genres—it renders them anamorphic.

The stakes of LABOR, however, involve her narration and how it relates to her subject of contingent work and its abuses. Julia Bryan-Wilson writes in “Occupational Realism,” an essay that considers the parameters of contemporary overlappings between art and labor: “Contingency—which was lauded in the 1990s as a potentially radical or productive mode of thinking about art and identity formation—has curdled into the grim uncertainties of precarity.”Magi’s narrative hurtles between third-person and first-person, uses a vertiginous “I” that morphs from an exponent of Magi herself as researcher in the archives to the pronoun of other characters, especially Miranda, the adjunct artist who is Magi’s double, and crafts, in the sense of C. Wright Mills’ “sociological imagination,” character-hopping motifs that emblematize their shared class predicament. Yet in doing so, it raises the stakes of these modes of postmodernist indeterminacy by forging a parallelism between the warping they induce through formal causal contingency and the various kinds of disfiguring pressures contingency exerts on work and the worker. That is to say, LABOR’s precarious fictive structures mirror, draw out, and ramify in scenes of precarious labor and their potentially mortal fallout.

One of Magi’s fortes in this novella is her use of multi-modal techniques.She layers the text with a ‘pataphoric, lyric magic realism that suspends the status of action and shifts the narrative focalization: 

           As a deer Miranda is fluid her transformation complete.
                                                                               My change swiftly into a leap.
               Tired of the planners the predators intersecting with the prey. Tired by the
               justice of plot the vote the legible— (74)

She also excels in pointedly and ingeniously short-circuiting her plot by elaborating
multiple non-hierarchized, and thus necessarily speculative or contingent, narrative
                                                                            I saw [Miranda’s] bag
               spill and helped her gather her books their spines broken. [...]
               Miranda would not hope or stand. [...] Disgusted I walked away.

               I stayed. Laid my body down. The tips of our fingers touched [...]. (36)

Here LABOR becomes meta-fiction as it foregrounds the instability of its account and of the solidarity depicted, refusing to close down, for better and worse, the scene’s 
possibilities. Relatedly, Magi-as-author obtrudes on the fiction to consider it in process:

             I inventory the range of narrative problems: 
                What does J. get from Sadie and what does Miranda get from J.?

Here narrative contingency is foregrounded, insofar as the author herself is mystified by the story’s motivation, which involves characters meeting their needs through
mechanisms of displacement or paralicit contact, since labor and its more straightforward relations are unfulfilling or damaging. 

Speaking of characterological circulation and spatial distribution in LABOR, Magi
underscores that contingent labor is perpetually in transit, in that the adjunct has no room of her own: “The adjunct, with no place to sit and no location to claim, though others like her proliferate despite their title, becomes attuned to movement. This is her strength: a contingent status, contingent text” (“Notes”). Magi likewise makes the vulnerability of contingency a strength in her compositional tactics. Here she describes taking the photograph in Bobst and using it to compose her fiction:

             I [...] stood back from the barriers to take a picture. What was imprinted was a
             grid formed by the shape of the windows [...]. Hard floor below with its grid of
             black, white, and gray tiles. Waiting outside the archive’s locked door, I stood
             inside this matrix of danger and possibility.

             My leap into matrices on paper: I created a grid of nine “activities” over which
             hovered two sheets of transparent plastic: one called “stories” and the other,
             “forms.” [...] I shifted the matrices around and wrote from whatever
             combination occurred, writing into the future. (“Notes”)


Unlike much other contemporary practice, Magi’s extended encounter with the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives has not yielded documentary poetry but poetry pertaining to a “general archivology” (Derrida), poetry that is also intensely ambivalent towards the archive. Which is to say, LABOR does not exploit an archive to make a poem as much as it sets its drama in NYU’s labor archive to comment on the politics of the archive and the politics of labor, spurred by (her imagination of) their intersection in that institution.

LABOR is obsessed with meta-archival documents, regulations, and protocols, from the indexes of labor texts, to the finding aid for the Wagner labor archives (an online resource that initially inspired LABOR), to the reader’s card and rules of use, to the measurements of archival materials (“Third: Nelson Rollin Burr Papers, 3 boxes 2 linear feet” (29)), to how one physically enters and exits the archive, etc. The archival researcher in LABOR orders up many boxes from the archive yet remains anxious librarians will perceive her use as illegitimate, that she has no research project proper. While the work contains fantasies of the archive flooding and burning—a sadistic consciousness of the archive’s susceptibility to material catastrophe—it seems most especially concerned with which documents achieve consignation to the archive and which don’t.

This concern with the casualties of history endemic to any archive, its inherent
exclusionary violence, along with her understanding of archival material not as raw but as pre-processed-and-assessed, leads Magi to narrate and invent endless tactics for adulterating and defacing the archive. If Miranda the teaching artist eats her file, Magi the researcher attempts to add a box of artifacts related to her real-life labor grievances—a settlement and gag order she received after being fired for organizing at work, a list of part-time jobs—and Sadie, as mentioned, tucks new unofficial grievances alphabetically into archival files. Perhaps, in a sense, LABOR dreams simply of a more capacious archive.

Yet Magi also more radically rebels against the empiricism or positivism an archive can seem to prompt: “If the archive is evidence, then why do I play with veils” (16). As she remarks in her notes to the volume, she takes to heart the directive from Robin D. G. Kelley’s Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, which “implores scholars to look ‘deeper beyond the veil, beyond the public transcript of accommodation and traditional protest...” (83). A section of the handbook in turn suggests ensconcing every square foot of archival material in diaphanous fabric (21). (We might also keep in mind that the perforated aluminum guards installed in Bobst since Magi composed LABOR are called “suicide veils.”)

A much more complex engagement with both the lacunae of the archive and the
imagination of historical losses the archive’s disjecta membra might support, however,
involves Magi’s character J., who studies Seneca Village, a short-lived nineteenth-century settlement of freed blacks that was demolished to build Central Park. J. creates a “shadow archive” of Bobst in part by removing with her trowel and collecting all of the signs in the library, essentially dismantling her institution archaeologically in order to gather it into her basement office as an archive or museum. J.’s defacement in fact repeats an initial act of protest detailed in her manuscript My Seneca Village: the New York Parks Department confiscated a sign marking Seneca Village, to replace it with one bearing its logo; J. in turn confiscates their sign to “un-brand” the site (24). (Indeed, the Parks sign she eliminates is grotesquely insensitive, not to say ironic.) Through J.’s My Seneca Village, which is based in part on the New York Historical Society’s online resource and archive Seneca Village: A Teacher’s Guide to Using Primary Sources in the Classroom but also brushes its
interpretive imperatives against the grain, Magi attempts to register the trauma of the loss of Seneca Village and the racial biopolitics surrounding its life and its destruction. And the loss of its loss.


Finally, Magi’s sense of archival crisis or archival failure extends to the archive as a means for valorizing artistic labor. Theorizing approaches to compensating artists, Caroline Woolard has recently written, “The labor involved in the production of any work of art is integral to the meaning of the piece.”5

LABOR the book harbors within it traces of its existence as an art installation Magi has
exhibited in New York, Chicago, and Denver; this installation is composed of videos,
tapestries, drawings, framed documents, and hand-written texts. In LABOR the book, Magi quotes Bartleby, The Scrivener, but it is only by studying the full distribution of LABOR that one understands the importance of copying to Magi’s practice. By hand recopying to newsprint the online finding aid to the labor archives, for instance, Magi deals in a digital-to-analog medium-translation through which she no longer moves through the archive: instead, the archive moves through her body (“Notes”). Indeed, she works within a medium that archives this labored embodiment, as each mark on the paper indexes the literal movement of her hand. She notes, “I calculate that it will take me thirty hours to copy.” Yet despite the unmistakably massive (unpaid) labor legible in this text, whose point is precisely to evidence the body’s hard, manual work, Magi insists on also video-documenting her labor process: “On July 10 I realize that I will probably never have the mechanism to transfer 30 hours of videotape to a digital file. The archival problem of excess, storage, presentation. So I am making 30 mini videotapes to arrange in an archive box, probably never to be viewed” (“Notes”).

What does it mean to authorize and valorize one’s art through such an archive? What does it mean to consign one’s archive to certain kind of oblivion before the fact? Is this another instance of the archive’s death drive?

Yet I would venture to say that Magi shouldn’t worry: whether we consider LABOR as book or installation—both, in a sense, meta-archives or archives of archives of archives—we need no further documentation. For both bespeak extraordinary labor and thought, in need of no further finding aids.


1 See the first two sections, “Exergue” and “Preamble” of Jacques Derrida, Archive
Fever: A Freudian Impression 
[Mal d’Archive: une impression freudienne]. Trans. Eric
Prenowitz. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1996.
2Jill Magi, “Notes on LABOR: A Fiction and Installation.” Originally published in
Rattapallax 21 (2012). Accessed: 5/26/15.
3Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Occupational Realism.” The Drama Review 56:4 (Winter 2012). 39.
4I thank my colleague Christina Milletti, scholar and writer of postmodern fiction, for the narratological term “multi-modal.”
Caroline Woolard, “How many uncompensated people labor on the piece?” March 13, 2014. Accessed: 5/25/15.

Judith Goldman

Judith Goldman is the author of Vocoder (Roof 2001), DeathStar/rico-chet (O Books 2006), and l.b.; or, catenaries (Krupskaya 2011). She teaches in the Poetics Program at SUNY, Buffalo and is at work on ______ Mt. [blank mount], a project that writes through Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” in the context of past futures and future histories of ecological catastrophe.