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Signata 12 / Semiotics of the archive

Deadline: 20th April 2019
Maria Giulia Dondero, Andreas Fickers, Gian Maria Tore et Matteo Treleani


The word archive, which used to evoke a 'dusty past' (Chabin, 1996), has recently made a comeback in the human and social sciences. 'Recordings' and 'footage', 'accounts' and 'memory' (collective memory as well as the memory of digital devices), 'data' and 'traces', 'references' and 'files', 'legacy' and 'heritage', are all favourite words of our present. Today, we say 'archive' and no longer 'delete' in our digital devices, since deleting has become more complicated than archiving (Manovich, 2001; Hoog, 2009; Paolucci, 2013). Indeed, 'the whole of society lives according to a conservative religion and archival productivism' (Nora, 1984). But can we say that archiving is now an imperative of the 'digital culture' (Doueihi, 2008; Ernst, 2013)? Does the affirmation of digital technology as a means to produce material reduction support a return of the archive, designed to stabilise and unify? Or, on the contrary, does the archive itself play a part in the re-editorialisation of the contents and, therefore, the production of new material (Stockinger, 2015)? In any event, it seems clear that, in the digital age, we are living in a 'recording society' (Ferraris, 2013): every digital production is automatically archived, and a good number of our daily practices are mapped in the form of digital data (Merzeau, 2009). Despite the uncertainty associated with the duration of storage media (digital technology being one of the less durable forms from a technical point of view, with the demagnetization of hard drives entailing the potential loss of data after a few years), our society still produces cultural heritage on a massive scale (Morozov, 2013). On another level, one of the raisons d'être of the very topical (cross-)discipline known as 'Digital Humanities' (Mounier, 2010) also seems to be based on the resources of the available documents, as well as on the calculations and visualisations that can be performed digitally.

Faced with such stakes, a semiotic reflection could indeed prove enlightening today. It is a matter of approaching a field with multiple materialities and pragmatics (devices and interfaces, formatting and reading practices, visualisations and benchmarking) and procedures for stabilisation and value creation (preserving and collecting on the one hand, and attachment to the 'original' and to our 'heritage' on the other). We know to what extent the archive is based on a paradoxical ('mythological') pair: preservation and access. We also know to what extent each of the operations inherent to it is a resemiotisation: selection and value creation on the one hand, re-framing and re-editorialisation on the other, i.e. inter-semiotic translation, re-mediation, re-enunciation (Day, 2014). We need only consider the fairly recent and relatively unquestioned cult of producing a film that has been restored and become part of our cultural heritage, and which is 'finally' available in its 'best version' often called the 'director's cut': the latter is indeed a 'myth' (Marie & Thomas, 2008), since the supposedly re-discovered, restored version returned to its original state is, in general, nothing more than a new version of the film. Preserving and making something accessible, means forever redefining, rethinking and redoing.

In semiotic terms, archiving means 're-enunciating' and, therefore, producing something new. In this respect, the archive may also be approached from the point of view of its semiotic performativity. Archiving is, in some ways, less of an observation of what was, and more of a production of what we want to do. In fact, it is as much destruction as it is preservation, because by selecting something, we automatically lose what we have filtered out (Landwehr, 2016). So, what are the felicity conditions of such a performativity?

On the other hand, if we consider the archive as the special link between a material question and a temporal one, we are led to two other questions which are very interesting for semiotics today. First of all, materiality ('substance of expression' in structural semiotics): how can we link material devices and meaningful forms in a relevant and rigorous way? Secondly, temporality ('diachrony'): how can we triangulate devices, forms and temporalities? But also: which requirements involve this type of triangulation? epistemic or deontological, or even political, or a complex knot of all these? In any case, it would appear that the keywords of archive range from 'reliable' (cf. the philological necessity, Rastier, 2013) to 'authentic' (cf. calling digitisation into question, Bachimont, 2017). Undoubtedly, we can also add 'persuasive', at a deeper level: shouldn't archiving be accompanied by a metanarration that helps us to believe in its own precision? And should we even go further and take into account the 'power' and the 'duty' of the archive, i.e. its fundamentally political and ethical reach (cf. 'archive fever' according to Derrida, 1995)? In any event, we cannot question the use of archives without questioning that of use, which represents the construction of any archive. This is a situation that is complicated by digital technology, once again, because, in the digital environment, 'doing' is already archiving.

This issue of Signata aims to question the archive from a semiotic or semio-pragmatic point of view - if, by 'semiotic', we mean not a single discipline, but a multiplicity of ways to question the 'meaning', the forms and the values within historical, sociological, philosophical, linguistic, media, and artistic fields, among others. The goal of this focus on the semiotics of the archive is to try to establish a map that embraces, for instance:

  • Terms and concepts: the numerous variants and constellations of the 'archive'; including its ideologies, such as authority or accessibility. We particularly encourage the pinpointing of the intersections between such terminological-conceptual constellations and semiotic theories, for instance, the idea of archiving as re-enunciation.

  • Practices: the critical and criticisable distinction between archiving and using archives; archiving as semiotisation (reading the 'past' and tactics for the present); Pomian's notion of 'semiophore'; scientific analysis or artistic creation through archives.

  • Devices: critical approach to the archive and the interface, its visualisation, editing (or editorialisations), contextualisations, solutions; the links between digital technology and the archive; digitising and archiving.

  • Indexation: can we archive any type of document through the same standard metadata (author, date, place of production, etc.) or must we compile archives organised in a different way, through visual descriptors, for instance, in the case of images, according to Manovich's proposition? This is an avenue that joins the disciplines of the archive and semiotics in a different way, with the instruments of plastic analysis that this avenue may offer the latter.

  • Disciplines: different, convergent, polemical, diplomatic approaches; critiques of the Digital Humanities; dialectics between qualitative (deep readings, like Ginzburg) and quantitative (distant readings, like Moretti) approaches, concerning the size of the collections of objects and the stances of the research subjects. It is a question of investigating the way in which semiotics, as the science of mediation, can play a part in this debate of disciplines.

Important dates

Papers must be submitted by November 20th April 2019 to the following addresses: mariagiulia.dondero[at]; andreas.fickers[at]; matteo.treleani[at]; gm.tore[at]
Online publication: by the end of 2019.

Editorial rules

Consignes aux auteurs :


Badir, S. et Baetens, J. (2004), Dossier « L’archivage numérique : conditions, enjeux, effets », Protée, vol. 32, n. 2.

Bachimont, B. (2017), Patrimoine et numérique, Ina Editions.

Chabin, M-A. (2000), Le Management de l’archive, Hermès.

Davallon, J. (2006), Le Don du patrimoine, Hermès Science.

Day, R. (2014), Indexing it all. The subject in the age of documentation, information and data, MIT Press.

Derrida, J. (1995), Mal d’archive, Gallimard.

Doueihi, M. (2011), Digital Cultures, Harvard University Press.

Ernst, W. (2012), Digital Memory and the Archive, University of Minnesota Press.

Farge, A. (1989), Le Goût de l’archive, Le Seuil.

Ferraris, M. (2013), Âme et iPad, Coll. Parcours numériques, Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal.

Fickers, A. (2012), « Towards A New Digital Historicism? Doing History in The Age of Abundance », in VIEW. Journal of European Television History and Culture.

Fickers, A. (2013), « Experimental Media Archaeology: A Plea for New Directions », in Van den Oever, A., Techné/Technology Researching Cinema and Media Technologies, their Development, their Impact, Amsterdam University Press, pp. 272-278.

Foucault, M. (1969), L’Archéologie du savoir, Gallimard.

Heinich, N. (2011), La Fabrique du patrimoine. De la cathédrale à la petite cuillère, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.

Galloway, A. (2012), The Interface Effect, Polity Press.

Gefen, A. (ed.) (2015), « Des chiffres et des lettres : les humanités numériques », Critique n° 819-820.

Ginzburg, C. (1989), Mythes, emblèmes, traces. Morphologie et histoire, Flammarion.

Hoog, E. (2009), Mémoire Année Zéro, Le Seuil.

Jeanneret, Y. (2014), Critique de la trivialité. Les médiations de la communication, enjeu de pouvoir, Editions Non Standard.

Landwehr, A. (2016), Die anwesende Abwesenheit der Vergangenheit: Essay zur Geschichtstheorie, Frankfurt a.M. Fischer.

Manovich, L. (2001), The Language of New Media, MIT Press.

Manovich, L. (2015), « Data Science and Digital Art History », International Journal for Digital Art History, 1, 13–35.

Mayer-Schonberg, V. (2011), Delete. The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Princeton University Press.

Merzeau, L. (2009), « Du signe à la trace. L’information sur mesure », Hermès, n° 53, p. 21-29.

Moretti, F. (2013), Distant Reading, Verso.

Mounier, P. (2010), « Manifeste des Digital Humanities », Journal des anthropologues, 122-123, p. 447-452.

Morozov, E. (2013), To Save Everything Click Here, Public Affairs.

Nora, P. (1997), Les Lieux de mémoire, Gallimard.

Paolucci, C. (2013), « Archives, patrimoine et mémoire. Un regard sémiotique sur la tiers-mondialisation du savoir à l’ère de la numérisation », in V. Frey & M. Treleani (eds), Vers un nouvel archiviste numérique, L’Harmattan/INA, 75-103.

Pomian, K. (1990), « Musée et patrimoine », in H-P. Jeudy (eds), Patrimoines en folie. Editions de la Maision des Sciences de l’Homme.

Rastier, F. (2011), La Mesure et le Grain. Sémantique du corpus, Honoré Champion.

Rastier, F. (2013), « La sémiotique des textes du document à l’œuvre », in V. Frey & M. Treleani (eds), Vers un nouvel archiviste numérique, L’Harmattan/INA.

Saemmer, A. (2015), Rhétorique du texte numérique. Figures de la lecture, anticipation de pratiques, Presses de l’ENSSIB.

Schnapp, J. (2017), « The Intimate Lives of Cultural Objects » in J. Sayers (ed.), Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities, Routledge.

Stockinger, P., (2015), « The semiotic turn in digital archives and libraries », Cahiers du numérique 11, 1.

Stockinger, P. (2011), Les archives audiovisuelles. Indexation description et publication. Hermès.

Sinatra M., Vitali-Rosati M. (2014), « Histoire des humanités numériques », in M. Sinatra & M. Vitali-Rosati (eds), Pratiques de l’édition numérique, Coll. Parcours Numériques, Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, p. 49-60,

Treleani, M. (2014), Mémoires audiovisuelles, Coll. Parcours Numériques, Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal.

Treleani, M. (2017), Qu’est-ce que le patrimoine numérique ? Une sémiologie de la circulation des archives, Le Bord de l’Eau.

Yates, F. (1966), The Art of Memory. Routledge.

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