Skip to main content Start of main content

The Archive and Time. Leaving the Fear of Oblivion

‘Society and marginality’ panel at RAW Material Company, Dakar, 2018 © Anna Karima Wane
In this essay commissioned in collaboration with RAW Material Company, centre for art, knowledge and society in Dakar, writer, translator and artist Youssoupha Féhé Sarr reconsiders the notion of the archive from the perspective of African philosophy. Drawing from Mamoussé Diagne’s notion of oral reason, especially, Sarr articulates a concept of the archive that goes beyond what he calls the fear of oblivion, based on a cyclical conception of time.

Archiving is a human response to the implacable nature of time. An attempt to go beyond its finitude through the memory of its posterity. The most conventional notion of the archive is interesting in that it articulates the three axes of a certain conception of time simultaneously. It is the place where past, present and future come together; the terrain of memory, as well as that of the chronicle and projection. However, this conception is the outcome of a linear vision of time which speaks of nothing more than the fact that a part of humanity does not really look at what it has named ‘time’, all the while looking at itself through this ‘time’ and attributing its own limits to it. Such an idea of time is conditioned by a detachment and a form of separation that allows us to see. This approach is fundamentally ‘graphic’ in the sense of anthropologist Jack Goody; there is a supposed clear separation between subject and object. I see in this phenomenon a need for domestication and a projection in which the sign reigns supreme. That is to say, the sign, commonly considered as a receptacle and vitrine for meaning, ends up becoming meaning itself. It seems important to me to stress that the sign, even when it does not exceed its function, does not contain the totality of meaning. It is only one trace among many others. Meaning is not subject to the sign.01

Other kinds of relationships to time exist, and therefore to the archive and to the practice of archiving itself. The relationship that speaks to me here is the one that does not conceive of time from a given place but which is inscribed in its movement, an approach that is with time and thereby fulfils its circularity and inclusiveness. This way of being in and with time opens us up to its cyclical, repetitive, non-monotonous character and, to some extent, breaks with the fear of forgetting and the irrepressible need to freeze time. This way of being in and with the movement of time responds to an oral logic in the sense of philosopher Mamoussé Diagne.02

The aim of this text is to articulate what the creation of archives of contemporary artistic practices, and the knowledge born from them, is the expression of. It will then develop a vision that brings archiving into a relationship to time based on an oral logic, before exploring the possibilities of using translation and various expressions of orality for the metabolisation and circulation of these practices and forms of knowledge.

The archive is historically linked to scripturality and the institutionalisation of knowledge: whether it designates a set of documents no longer in common use compiled in the service of collective or individual memory, or whether it refers to the very place where this memory is preserved by metonymic effect. A semantic shift has led to this notion also being associated with manuscripts and writing. Its most widespread meaning since the 20th century implies that writing, which allows stories to be recorded and frozen, would make it possible to safeguard the different cultural expressions of the life of a society over time. It thus offers the possibility for future generations, based on these archives, to get to know, recreate or complete their heritage. It is in this sense that the very enterprise of archiving expresses a need to freeze and immobilise that is symbolised by the materialisation of institutions of knowledge and art such as museums, universities and the like. These institutions and the places that represent them are like tattoos on the skin of time, but that are not indelible. They are constructed in the same way that texts attempting to capture an elusive experience are written. The events that take place there are like pillars that allow the buildings to stand, which will eventually respond to the call of the dust, which is itself far from static.

During an exhibition, for example, an experience that is still in progress is taken out of its natural environment to be seen and contemplated. The meaning it takes on once it has been transported to another place changes, but the reality that we are trying to show to the audience is still in the process of being made and is certainly by the time of exhibition at a different stage of its development. It is no longer what is shown in the museum or art centre hosting the exhibition. At this point, what the audience sees is a sign that no longer says what it is supposed to represent. Thus, the illusion is created that an important fact is recorded in the memory, while the knowledge that unfolds there is incipient. In fact, a space such as the museum constructs knowledge on signs at the very moment when it professes the conservation of an experience that it is important to be able to see and question. It is for the most part the place where we ‘think of the arts, cultures, eras, things of nature, ways of life and people in coherent systems, capable of being put into series and compared’ while being ‘a space for instruction and the production of knowledge’, to quote Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr’s work on the meaning of the museum in Europe.03

The question of vision is crucial as we are in a configuration that consecrates art as an object, to be exposed, offered to the gaze of the subject who is able to observe, analyse and criticise it. This is yet another expression of this relationship of control over time and of this vision of oneself as master. Attempting to domesticate time in various ways and in the same movement, to preserve memory and save it from oblivion, which is here synonymous with death. Although the need to fix, preserve and conserve may be natural and legitimate, it is the way in which this profound impulse – faced with a real whose vitality cannot be immobile or immobilised – is deployed that creates tension. To attempt to fix would be to hasten the very death and oblivion we are trying to ward off. It should be noted that this way of approaching the question of forgetting and time in relation to human endeavours, is fortunately partial, even if it is authoritative to date. Oral reason conceives of time as cyclical. Forgetfulness is not a loss, and when faced with the latter, one feels no fear since everything returns, each return bringing something new. The illusion of immutability is non-existent and the desire to be one with the movement of time is more pronounced than the ambition to control it. In such a context, the mediums of meaning are not destined to remain, because the awareness of meaning’s fluctuating character is sharp. Thus, the establishment of archival apparatuses is characterised by a flexibility and fluidity that allows one to remain in motion. One does not fight against oblivion. Cunning is sometimes called for. But above all, it is accepted; for it is indeed oblivion itself that makes it possible to have, individually and collectively, sufficient space to welcome irreversible renewal.

Moreover, the certainty of encountering before us what has been left behind is established. This does not however mean that the memory is not preserved or transmitted, but that it is taken over in its own way and without the temptation to capture what is alive. It is an approach that results from a kind of literacy of the language of the living of which we are a part. The Ndut, commonly translated from the Serer language as ‘Sacred Wood’ (in French Bois Sacré), is an example of an institution without a building or fixed location. However, it remains present in the collective memory of the groups that practice this type of initiation. This is an example of an institution that recognises the dynamic nature of knowledge and the forms it takes. So much so that it makes itself nomadic and fluctuating, and the sign follows the meaning without claiming to contain it. What is to be retained is inscribed in the living itself, and a set of visible and legible codes enable memory to be activated and updated for those who know how to decipher them.

In such a configuration, the memorable produced by processes Diagne calls dramatisation and theatricalisation is marked by a plasticity which allows it to embrace perpetual change. The challenge is not to create archives which by definition are static and devitalised, but to produce something memorable that abolishes a rigid segmentation into three temporalities (past-present-future) and opens up a wide field of possible actualisations. It is certainly through the production of what is memorable in this sense that we can experience what could be described as a living and moving ‘archive’, linked to the present and to the knowledge created by artistic practices themselves. Beyond the cultural journal, beyond written criticism and categorisation in libraries and museums, or rather beyond the dream of immobilising these institutions and buildings. For it is possible to reorient them towards fluidity and itinerancy. The practice of performance that traverses various artistic fields, as an experiment, informs the collective consciousness of a need to be in movement to continue to carry life into art. Focusing on this practice gives direct access to a more complex and richer whole. Indeed, performance is a constitutive element of the staging of knowledge practiced in a regime of orality. In other words, performance is an integral part of the process of dramatisation of knowledge as exposed by Mamoussé Diagne in his Critique of Oral Reason. It concerns the creation of a story with all its constituent elements and during the narration of which the ideas carried by the characters are put on stage. According to Diagne, this process leads to theatricalisation which, in short, refers to ‘the expression of an idea through its “representation”, in other words, through the intermediary of a dramatised story using the various resources of staging’.04 This strategy, the main mechanism for the transmission of knowledge in the oral regime, is characterised by a fluidity that facilitates tuning in to the movement of the real, remarkably embellished to impress the mind. It would be a matter of appropriating this notion of dramatisation and realising that, beyond its verbal manifestation, it is a logic that can be applied via other media, once the understanding is acquired that orality is different from verbalism (the verb being an instrument/support among many others of this episteme in the same way as the image and movement).

Translation then comes into play. To dramatise is to translate and interpret at the same time. In the same process, possibilities are offered to disseminate, but also to produce knowledge. Furthermore, undertaking this process of translating the visual into the verbal, writing into dance, the physical into the sonic, etc., allows us to leave our edifices and integrate into the public space without settling there. It is not a question of relocating an exhibition to an open space, for instance. It is rather a question of going to the places of experience of which the exhibition is a sample, and of giving more than simply something to see. Trying to recognise the language of each space and embracing it. Itinerancy thus becomes a key notion and the translation from one form of expression to another becomes a space for the production of a link and a non-limiting discourse favourable to mutation; the enunciation of an integral speech. The conservation of practices here would be nothing more than a trick in the face of the fear of oblivion; in any case, artistic practices are called upon to perpetually renew themselves. This approach focuses on re-creation rather than conservation, while taking on forms that bear traces of the memorable.

The reintegration of these practices into motion through translation and dramatisation processes thus opens a breach and reduces ­– if not cancels – language and class barriers that have consigned forms of expression such as contemporary arts to an elitist sphere. Better still, a space for the circulation of knowledge and diverse forms of expression opens up on the inclusive and cyclical model of the sphere described by novelist Ayi Kwei Armah in KMT: In the House of Life: an Epistemic Novel, in contrast to the dialectic based on the pyramid model.05 It would be a matter of opening our eyes to the fact that in the oral regime, the aesthetic distinction between object and subject is functional, rather than antonymic. The intelligibility of what constitutes our reality in this context does not require separation and sampling.‘Crisis’ in the sense of poet and linguist Henri Meschonnic is fruitful, and rhythm becomes the reference point allowing us to leave the fear of oblivion and trust the cycle.06


  • Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
  • Mamoussé Diagne, Critique de la raison orale. Les pratiques discursives en Afrique noire (foreword Bonaventure Mvé-Ondo), Niamey, Dakar and Paris, CELHTO, IFAN and Karthala, 2005.
  • Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, Restituer le Patrimoine Africain, Paris, Phillipe Rey and Seuil, 2018, pp. 64–65.
  • M. Diagne, Critique de la raison oraleop. cit., p. 27.
  • Ayi Kwei Armah, KMT : In the House of Life: an Epistemic Novel, Popenguine, Senegal, Per Ankh, 2002.
  • For Henri Meschonnic, ‘Crisis is the condition itself, and the history, of concepts, of strategies. The conceptual makes itself by unmaking itself. Inchoative. As soon as it installs itself, it becomes power, it becomes an obstacle to itself. One must break to think.’ (La crise est la condition même, et l’histoire, des concepts, des stratégies. Le conceptuel ne se fait que de se défaire. Inchoatif. Dès qu’il s’installe, il devient du pouvoir, il devient un obstacle à lui-même. Il faut le casser pour penser). Henri Meschonnic, ‘Qu’entendez-vous par oralité ?’, Langue française, no. 56, 1982. pp. 6–23.