Some time yesterday afternoon, the six-story Cologne Archives, housing documents dating as far back as the tenth century, as well as the private papers of writers such as Karl Marx, Hegel, and Heinrich Böll, and also all of the minutes taken at Cologne town council meetings since 1376, collapsed as if hit by a missile, only there was no missile, but rather, some sort of structural flaw that caused the building to start cracking and tumbling down. Most visitors, plus some construction workers on the roof, were able to get out in time, although two or three persons may be buried underneath the rubble. Ironically, the Archives contained many documents that had been recuperated from library buildings destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War, and a small nuclear bomb-proof room that had been constructed in the basement to house the most rare materials was, at the time of the building's collapse, only being used to store cleaning materials [you can read more about the story in the UK Times Online here].
Given that medievalists already always work with archives and records that are partial, damaged, and full of contextual aporia [the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, published by Columbia University Press in the early decades of the 20th century, could never be a complete record of the poetry of Anglo-Saxon England--indeed, it is quite spotty--and so many non-poetic documents that could have shed light on the social, cultural, and other circumstances of the writing of this poetry are also lost to us], the sudden disappearance, as it were, of the Cologne Archives only adds to what is already an immense loss. But what, also, of the two or three missing persons, who were likely readers in the archives that day and who lie somewhere, crushed, underneath the fractured concrete and steel and thousands and thousands of pulverized pages? One day, they were in the Archives, concerned with the frail, textual remains of the past, and in an instant, they joined those remains and even disappeared with them.
This question--or rather, this sort of question--has been much on my mind of late as I find myself lodged in a kind of hellish crevice between my struggles to finish two writing projects: one, a review essay on the status of the human for GLQ: A Journal of Gay & Lesbian Studies, in the course of which I have learned that human beings may be nothing more than the dreams and hosts of bacteria and bacterial sex [pace books by Luciani Parisi and Myra J. Hird], and yet, at the same time, if there is any hope for humanism or human rights, it will be through the recognition of shared modes of dispossession occasioned by vulnerability and grief [pace Judith Butler's Precarious Life], and the other, an abstract and detailed outline for my keynote address for Blackwell Compass's Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference in October, "Reading Beowulf in the Rubble of Grozny: Pre/modern, Post/human, and the Question of Being-Together," where, just yesterday, I was re-reading portions of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya's book about the wars in Chechnya from 1994 through 2000 and their aftermath, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya [Politkovskaya was shot to death in her apartment building's elevator in Moscow in October 2006, likely by killers hired by the Russian government, but no one has or likely will be convicted of her murder]. More specifically, I was thinking of the city of Grozny and how, after several massive air and ground bombing campaigns by the Russians in the mid-1990s and again in 1999, the city just kind of disappeared:
Ever since about 1999, when I first discovered what had been going in Chechnya, I have been kind of obsessed with the city of Grozny and its "disappearance," so to speak, as well as with the ways in which Grozny's destruction has not registered as more than a "blip" on the consciousness of the international media [ask most people, even educated people, if they know what happened in Grozny and they will look at you, like, huh?; show them the photographs, especially the ones in black and white, and ask them to guess where they are, and most answer "Dresden"], and I have returned often to this site as one way of thinking through certain questions that have to do with ruins, traumatic history, and memory. The Russian government purposefully refused to re-build the city for almost a decade as a "lesson" to the Chechen rebels and yet many Chechens [not counting the 500,000 or so displaced by the bombings who chose to migrate elsewhere, such as Georgia] continued living there in pretty much post-apocalyptic living conditions [a perfect breeding ground, too, for the suicide terrorism that soon flourished there]. More recently, Russia has rebuilt the city but at such lightning speed that the whole place looks like one of those towns that spring up overnight near Disney World in Florida:
Whether as belated doppelganger of Dresden or as postmodern manufactured metropolis-out-of-a-box, the problem of historical memory obtains, especially as lodged in all those materials objects [including buildings and sculptures, documents and corpses, human and nonhuman] buried somewhere underneath this glittering faux-topia, which nevertheless, in my mind has impressed upon it the image of its former, smashed buildings and piles of broken concrete. The question is also raised as to whose needs have more pressing precedence in such a scenario: the living, who want to get on with their lives, and in surroundings that do not beg them to mourn continually, but allow them to start over? Or the dead, once huddled together in basements during the winter siege of 1999, who left so suddenly and with no chance to leave behind the papers that would dictate their remembrance? Can human rights ever really be possible as a site of interventionist address for the living [such that, those huddled, freezing, in basements, will not be bombed], or is it only ever a form of philosophy, or history, that always arrives belatedly [much like Butler's writing on 9/11 and its immediate political aftermath], and works in the rubble? And this recalls me as well to these lines of Bruno Schulz:
"Ordinary facts are arranged within time, strung along its length as on a thread. There they have their antecedents and their consequences, which crowd tightly together and press hard one upon the other without any pause. This has its importance for any narrative, of which continuity and successiveness are the soul. Yet what is to be done with events that have no place of their own in time; events that have occurred too late, after the whole of time has been distributed, divided, allotted; events that have been left in the cold, unregistered, hanging in the air, homeless and errant? Could it be that time is too narrow for all events?" [Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourlgass]