Logo Utrecht University

Transmission in Motion

Seminar Blogs

“The Politics of Categories: Navigating through archives as we navigate through the world” -Jose Hopkins Brocq

Archives, as we know them, are usually associated with academic fascinations as repositories and containers of the past, proving old materiality with an added value of originality and therefore, validity. According to Helen Freshwater, the ways of approaching the archives have changed after their consolidation as an accumulation of documentary evidence in the first decades of the 19th Century[1]. But one of their trans-historical characteristics which provide them with constant relevance and coherence is that they are created by an “expert hand”, a hand that assures the collection’s material and temporal integrity. Archives are compilations of objects, things, documents, videos and so on that are put together usually by one person or “curator” with one or several objectives[2]. These curators also control the way in which these voices are organized and can be materially accessed. In other words, they shape the space and the interfaces through which these voices are navigated.

“But if there’s a person in your car, and a gallon of blood in a person, it would be strange to conclude that there is a gallon of blood in your car” – Steven Pinker

Thus, these methods of compiling and categorizing surpass the limits of the curator’s body. These methods come from a body shaped by and with a particular environment. This way, archives are literal embodiments of the metaphors that surround knowledge, as knowledge is (in)formed by culturally distinct methods of storage, inscription, and access: images of the file, or snapshots, for example, allow us to grasp how our minds record the information they receive each day.[3] Archives are not only storages of knowledge, but they are co-products of the environment they come from and exist with. Their existence transcends the eyes of the curator, as they are a materialization of the effects of an environment on a body. But they also transcend the hands of the curator. Archives propose and perpetuate categories, logic, and hierarchies of knowledge production, access, and dissemination.

Archives are, arguably, a formulation and collection of categories which define and co-shape the objects they label and organize. This way, categories are “a set of objects or events that have similar features and are grouped together because of their similarity.”[4] It is impossible to treat every object and every event as a unique entity unlike anything else in the universe.  But, as Steven Pinker points out, “whenever one tries to program a set of criteria to capture the members of a category, the category disintegrates. Leaving behind slippery concepts[…]”[5] In other words, a straightforward definition will never capture our intuitions about how a category is constructed and who and what fits in it. Categories are then, a force of its own. By emancipating them from the archive, or by looking at perception as a way or archiving, categories become conceptual metaphors which also structure our experience of ourselves in the world. [6]

In this sense, the interfacing of and to an archive becomes more that deducing relevant implication and the grouping of the similarities of objects and events. It is a political construct that will determine not only the way knowledge is accessed and grouped, but it also provides the frame from which knowledge can be produced. It allows knowledge to cause and be caused. Accessing information through different configurations, through different interfaces allow and promote new ways of knowing. By diversifying these “similarities” and attaching new labels to knowledge, a new way of knowing could be performed.


[1] Freshwater, 2003: 730

[2] Freshwater: 734

[3] Ibid: 742

[4] Paradis, et al, 2012: 188

[5] Pinker, 1997: 12

[6] De Mul 2009: 101


  • Freshwater, Helen. “The Allure of the Archive.” Poetics Today 24, no. 4 (2003): 729-758.
  • Mul, Jos de. “The work of art in the age of digital recombination.” In Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology, by Marianne van den Boomen, Sybille Lammes, Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Joost Raessens and Mirko Tobias Shäfer, 95-106. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Uniersity Press, 2009.
  • Paradis, Rosemary D., Jinhing K. Guo, John Olden-Stahl, and Jack Moulton. “Cognitive Category Learning.” Procedia Computer Science, 2012: 188-193.
  • Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. London, NY, Ringwood, Toronto, Auckland: Penguin Books, 1997.