Historical inquiry relies on the archive for its material in order to build narratives and explore connections between events. “The origin of the word ‘archive’… stems from the Greek and Latin words for ‘town hall, ruling office’, which, in turn, are derived from ‘beginning, origin, rule’. Order, efficiency, completeness, and objectivity are the principles of archival work.” (Marx et al., 2007, pp. 1-2). This definition is taken from the introduction to the book ‘Walter Benjamin’s Archive’ edited by Ursula Marx et al., and describes how Benjamin’s methods were akin to that of a collector, rather than an archivist, based on his on-going documentation of his own thoughts and observations. (Marx et al., 2007, p2).
Benjamin’s archives consist of photographs, picture postcards, objects, texts, and signs. His card indexes, diagrams and sketches suggest a particularly networked approach to writing, alongside a diligence to documentation. In their contents, they detail personality types, building structures, fashions, and commodities from his investigations of the Parisian arcades in the 19th century, among other interests. (Marx et al., 2007, p2)
Benjamin’s archival processes are laid bare in his written inventories which detail the contents of his collections and the ways in which they are collated and categorised. “Each of the archival containers… is precisely described by an indication of the brand… colour, size, provenance… as well as any material peculiarities… or breakages. These containers are aids in systematizing the material.” (Marx et al., 2007, p9) The contents of these containers are separated into thirty groups, and classified by types; including correspondence, manuscripts, and business documents, as well as written-formats defined as “printed”, “only in handwriting”, “type-written”. (Marx et al., 2007, p8)
The reason that Benjamin is described as a collector rather than a conventional archivist is due in part to his idiosyncratic classifications, which include “Letters from deceased people except for Fritz Heinle and Rika Seligson” and “Letters from all living male correspondents except for relatives and Gerhardi, Blumenthal, Sachs, Wolf Heinle…” (Marx et al., 2007, p8). According to his own writings (SW 2:2. p. 487), Benjamin’s approach to collecting was based on a personal relationship to information, rather than its functional value. (Marx et al., 2007, p5)
Benjamin’s writing was developed from techniques of archiving, collecting, and constructing. His projects utilised aspects of collage and montage as ways of organising knowledge. (Marx et al., 2007, p4) His texts were often constructed from ‘building blocks’ of quotes, observations, and annotations, which had been cut into sections from sheets of paper. These were then collated, arranged and colour-coded, in order to create a narrative that could be reconfigured in different ways, before typing up as a draft manuscript. (Marx et al., 2007, p199)
In conjunction with this ‘collaging’ of text’, Benjamin also structured his material through the use of graphic forms and diagrams described as ‘constellations’, “in which concepts or figures of thought exist in charged relationships with each other.” (Marx et al., 2007, p3) “Topographical relationships, spatial organization, optical alignments and divisions are not only apparent on the drafts and pages that include calligraphic elements. Countless scraps and sheets in the bequest are evidence of a sensibility attuned to graphic elements, spatial dimensions, and design.” (Marx et al., 2007, p231) These diagrams enabled the texts to remain fluid, and therefore open to further revision after publishing. Benjamin constructed mind-maps to layout his drafts, utilising keywords, descriptions and bibliographic references to draw out themes within the information. (Marx et al., 2007, pp. 197-198)
Benjamin’s interest in the effects of photography was established in his seminal work ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. As polychrome picture postcards had become available to the masses from three years after Benjamin’s birth, it is no surprise that these were to have a profound effect on his way of thinking and collecting. (Marx et al., 2007, p171) However, these democratised postcard images were to once again become ‘auratic’ objects, as they morphed back into collectable items. Benjamin often searched for particular postcards to add to his collection, which he described as “a form of practical memory” (AP, p.205) and a “primal phenomenon of study” (AP, p.210). (Marx et al., 2007, p171).
As well as his interest in photography in general, he also planned to write an essay on the “Aesthetics of the Picture Postcard” (compare GS VI, p. 694). However this never materialised. (Marx et al., 2007, p173). Despite this, his interest in postcards remained and his bequest includes eight postcard-sized art prints of Sibyls – mosaics from the cathedral at Siena, which he uses as a starting point for his ideas: “In the mythic image of the descendent with the Sibyl – the prophetess – Benjamin develops a formula which looks forwards and backwards, pointing back to the origin and forwards to new possibilities of understanding in the reformulation of the old.” The inclusion of these images in his collections reflects both his interests in the way that photography removes the ‘aura’ from artworks, as well as connections to his predecessor Aby Warburg in considering reworkings of Antiquity in the Renaissance. (Marx et al., 2007, pp. 303-304)
Links between the archive, the fragment and the postcard are reflected in one of Benjamin’s favourite ways of structuring knowledge; the card index. He writes: “The card index marks the conquest of three-dimensional writing, and so presents an astonishing counterpoint to the three-dimensionality of script in its original form as rune or knot notation. (And today the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems).” (SW I, p. 456) (Marx et al., 2007, p29)
Card indexes were developed in the Renaissance as the Modern drive towards archiving rendered bound catalogues impractical. As such, institutions including “the court library at Vienna introduced a card index catalog around 1780 [and] parish registers [were] entered onto slips or even card, in order to be able to deploy the individual entries independently of the place of their transmission, and to be able to order them according to different criteria. Transfer to individual scraps or cards [also made] possible lexical projects such as the Goethe-Dictionary”. (WBA, p29) Benjamin’s use of cut and paste techniques, keywords and networked card structures also suggests a prescience in light of the emergence of the Internet, similarly discussed in Freud’s ‘Mystic Writing-Pad’.