On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive

By Jeremy Schmidt, Jacquelyn ArdamOctober 26, 2014

On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive


SUSAN SONTAG'S ESSAY “Against Interpretation” is best known for its concluding pocket-sized maxim: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” The setup for that declaration is a repetitive series of complaints about the “sheer multiplication,” “excess,” “overproduction,” “material plenitude,” and “sheer crowdedness” (whew!) of contemporary urban existence. For Sontag, writing in 1964, “the principle of redundancy […] is the principal affliction of modern life.” An erotics of art would counter that affliction by attending to the stylistic singularities of great works. The ideal critic would attend, lovingly and sensuously, to what stood out from the excess and redundancy. Her job would be “to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” Put simply, “more” was both Sontag’s problem and her proffered solution.

The recent making-available (in mid-2014) of Sontag’s entire digital life to researchers visiting UCLA Library Special Collections presents a new, quite literal window onto this double bind. Scholars and curious Sontagolytes can now check out a laptop that reproduces the basic folder structure of Sontag’s computers (a Power Mac G4, an iBook) from the 1990s and early 2000s. That laptop makes visible all of her digital files and presents the entirety of her email correspondence, thus making extraordinarily open and available the digital life of this most private of American public intellectuals. This born-digital archive preserves the important — drafts of Sontag’s essays, for example — alongside the considerably less so. Surely some scholar will find value in Sontag’s e-correspondence about Regarding the Pain of Others, but how much can we glean from her computer’s small music library (which, for the record, is heavy on the Édith Piaf and Jacques Brel)? Or, to pose this question more drastically: is there anything of value in the article on the “low carb craze” forwarded to Sontag by her son in August 2004? Was Sontag perhaps flirting with an Atkins diet? Does it matter? How much information is just too much information? What are we to do with this overmuchness, this “plenitude,” the “sheer crowdedness” that is Sontag’s digital life?



The question of what to do with this particular kind of excess takes on distinct contours for the UCLA archivists charged with handling the born-digital portion of the Sontag collection. They must balance the need to preserve hard drives and files in a manner that protects them from degradation, alteration, and theft with the goal of making them reasonably accessible to scholars. And at a moment when “digital” connotes connectivity and flux, the goal of “digital preservation” itself can seem something of a paradox.

At one level that paradox is nothing new. All archival labor negotiates the twin responsibilities of preservation and access. The UCLA archivists hope to provide researchers with an opportunity to encounter the old-school, non-digital portion of the Sontag collection in something close to its original order and form, but while processing that collection they remove paper clips (problem: rust) and rubber bands (problems: degradation, stickiness, stains) from Sontag’s stacks of papers, and add triangular plastic clips, manila folders, storage boxes, and metadata. They know that “original order” is something of a fantasy: in archival theory, that phrase generally signifies the state of the collection at the moment of donation, but that state itself is often open to interpretation.

Microsoft Word docs, emails, jpegs, and MP3s add a whole slew of new decisions to this delicate balancing act. The archivist must wrangle these sorts of files into usable formats by addressing problems of outdated hardware and software, proliferating versions of documents, and the ease with which such files change and update on their own. A key tool in the War on Flux sounds a bit like a comic-book villain: Deep Freeze. Through a combination of hardware and software interventions, the Deep Freeze program preserves (at the binary level of 0’s and 1’s) a particular “desired configuration” in order to maintain the authenticity and preservation of data.

In the case of the Sontag materials, the end result of Deep Freeze and a series of other processing procedures is a single IBM laptop, which researchers can request at the Special Collections desk at UCLA’s Research Library. That laptop has some funky features. You can’t read its content from home, even with a VPN, because the files aren’t online. You can’t live-Tweet your research progress from the laptop — or access the internet at all — because the machine’s connectivity features have been disabled. You can’t copy Annie Leibovitz’s first-ever email — “Mat and I just wanted to let you know we really are working at this. See you at dinner. xxxxxannie” (subject line: “My first Email”) — onto your thumb drive because the USB port is locked. And, clearly, you can’t save a new document, even if your desire to type yourself into recent intellectual history is formidable. Every time it logs out or reboots, the laptop goes back to ground zero. The folders you’ve opened slam shut. The files you’ve explored don’t change their “Last Accessed” dates. The notes you’ve typed disappear. It’s like you were never there.

Despite these measures, real limitations to our ability to harness digital archives remain. The born-digital portion of the Sontag collection was donated as a pair of external hard drives, and that portion is composed of documents that began their lives electronically and in most cases exist only in digital form. While preparing those digital files for use, UCLA archivists accidentally allowed certain dates to refresh while the materials were in “thaw” mode; the metadata then had to be painstakingly un-revised. More problematically, a significant number of files open as unreadable strings of symbols because the software with which they were created is long out of date. Even the fully accessible materials, meanwhile, exist in so many versions that the hapless researcher not trained in computer forensics is quickly overwhelmed.

Nevertheless, the changes for scholars are pretty thrilling. We can experience a born-digital collection as a whole: unlike a traditional print archive, composed of box after box of folder after folder, the Sontag digital materials all sit “in” a single machine right in front of us. At the same time, we have far more targeted ways to enter into a digital archive. We can try simple keyword searches across all of Sontag’s emails or explore more elaborate operations made possible by software programs like Gephi, Muse, and BitCurator.



Sontag is — serendipitously, it seems — an ideal subject for exploring the new horizon of the born-digital archive, for the tension between preservation and flux that the electronic archive renders visible is anticipated in Sontag’s own writing. Any Sontag lover knows that the author was an inveterate list-maker. Her journals (published in 2008 and 2012, with a third volume on the way) are filled with lists, her best-known essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), takes the form of a list, and now we know that her computer was filled with lists as well: of movies to see, chores to do, books to re-read. In 1967, the young Sontag explains what she calls her “compulsion to make lists” in her diary. She writes that by making lists, “I perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence.”

As reviewers are fond of noting, the list emerges from Sontag’s diaries as the author’s signature form. And it’s a strange form at that: the list is a potentially infinite structure made up of distilled, often epigrammatic parts. It’s a form that expands and contracts to meet the needs of its author; it may be brief or expansive, important or ephemeral, and, in Sontag’s hands, it takes on many roles: an argument or an organizer, an aide-mémoire or a way of conferring value. The result of her “compulsion” not just to inventory but to reduce the world to a collection of scrutable parts, the list, Sontag’s archive makes clear, is always unstable, always ready to be added to or subtracted from. The list is a form of flux.

The lists that populate Sontag’s digital archive range from the short to the wonderfully massive. In one, Sontag — always the connoisseur — lists not her favorite drinks, but the “best” ones. The best dry white wines, the best tequilas. (She includes a note that Patrón is pronounced “with a long o.”) More tantalizing is a folder labeled “Word Hoard,” which contains three long lists of single words with occasional annotations. “Adjectives” is 162 pages, “Nouns” is 54 pages, and “Verbs” is 31 pages. Here, Sontag would seem to be a connoisseur of language. But are these words to use in her writing? Words not to use? Fun words? Bad words? New words? What do “rufous,” “rubbery,” “ineluctable,” “horny,” “hoydenish,” and “zany” have in common, other than that they populate her 162-page list of adjectives?

Reading Sontag’s lists in their original e-environment brings the issues of the digital archive — with its constant push-and-pull between proliferation and deep freeze — to the surface, because they were not created in one fell swoop. We can see from file tags that they were created, accessed, and altered over the course of years. The digital archive isolates the fluctuating list at a few moments in time, and while it renders visible certain information that the traditional archive may not (the precise date and time of a document’s creation, for example), it also renders illegible other sorts of information. We cannot see when and where Sontag added to a list, or when or where she deleted from it. There are no cross-outs, no carets, no smudges. Certain kinds of traces, familiar in more traditional archives, are absent from the digital environment.

Instead we are faced with a proliferation of documents. An example: the Sontag laptop is filled with lists of movies in the form of similar but not identical documents with labels such as “150 Films,” “200 Films,” and “250 Films.” The titles are not quite accurate. “150 Films” contains only 110 entries, while “250 Films” is a list of 209. It appears that Sontag added to, deleted from, rearranged, and saved these lists under different titles over the course of a decade. Faced with multiple copies of similar lists, we’re tempted to read meaning into their differences: why does Sontag keep changing the place of Godard’s Passion? How should we read the mitosis of “250 Films” into subcategories (films by nationality, films of “moral transformation”)? We know that Sontag was a cinephile; what if anything do these ever-proliferating Word documents tell us about her that we didn’t already know?

The born-digital archive asks us to interpret not smudges and cross-outs but many, many copies of almost-the-same-thing. The lists on the laptop entreat and enthrall; they entice us with a promise of value — the best movies according to Susan Sontag, the best words according to Susan Sontag — but the array of versions negates the very promise of the “best of” list in the first place. A list’s value becomes unstable when we know that there are at least six versions of that list in existence with differences that range from the obviously trivial to the potentially revelatory. The proliferation of materials in the born-digital archive is counter to the work that the materials themselves would do. Sontag’s lists are both summary and sprawl, a moment of deep freeze and, in her own words, “sheer multiplication.”



Sontag would be happy to know that there is an undeniable erotics to working with her born-digital archive. The very idea of having this level of voyeuristic access to someone’s digital life is both exciting and a little dangerous, even if sanctioned by UCLA’s Special Collections Library and by Sontag herself. (You can read her email correspondence about the UCLA archive in the archive.) Sontag’s imperative in “Against Interpretation” “to see more, to hear more, to feel more” seems especially relevant when we are faced with so much Sontagian “more.” And though it doesn’t offer the haptic pleasures of the traditional archive, the born-digital collection offers its own sort of sensual experience, an experience that resonates more and more as our everyday experiences become increasingly virtual. Sontag died a decade ago, but there is something compelling about knowing that she was on Sephora’s mailing list. Susan Sontag: she’s just like us.

And because she’s just like us, her digital trail preserved much more than just her intellectual life. The mundane and the momentous converge in all archives, but born-digital archives make that convergence particularly visible. For example, in February 2003 Sontag was forthrightly denying her relationship with Annie Leibovitz to a reporter via email while her computer was quietly preserving a long record of that very relationship in Word documents and other emails. We also now know that Leibovitz was the witness to Sontag’s will, and that Sontag’s hard drives contain sensitive documents regarding Leibovitz’s surrogate pregnancy. A simple keyword search for “Annie” on the UCLA laptop is illuminating, whether we’re mongering for gossip or just trying to create an accurate portrait of Sontag’s digital life. And the more time we spend with the archive, the less clear these distinctions become. Sontag was committed to protecting her privacy during her lifetime, especially with regard to her sexuality, and thus it’s surprising that she should choose to open her digital life to the public at all. Opening that life to a potentially broad audience, though, raises more questions than it answers, and complicates rather than simplifies our understanding of her as a thinker.

In Sontag’s own terms, then, what we need is both an erotics and a hermeneutics of the digital archive. The materials on the Sontag laptop at UCLA offer proof that the affectual voyeurism of the traditional archive is alive and thriving in its digital form; now we must learn what to do with that energy and information. We need to find ways to describe and interpret what it means to encounter the archive seemingly all at once, to visualize the emotional fluctuations of Sontag’s emails using the Muse application, to discover which words she used most frequently. What’s perhaps most clear to us after spending hours with Sontag’s born-digital archive, however, is that we need to direct our energies, both sensuous and interpretive, toward the search function. If the overmuchness of the digital archive feels familiar — if in some basic sense it really is just more than its paper counterpart — then what feels genuinely new is the digital archive’s searchability.

Searching allows users to make tiny, precise incursions upon the excess and flux of the digital archive, and it provides an illusory sense of comprehensiveness. A keyword search for “Regarding the Pain of Others,” for example, alerts us to every instance of that phrase, but it doesn’t account for the times that Sontag may have referred to it by an abbreviated title, or simply as “the book.” When we search, we may feel as if we can finally, totally, and quickly find everything we want to know about a particular aspect of Sontag’s work or life, but the very ease of that process makes our misguidedness plain. What we are “finding” is, of course, nothing more or less than particular words in a particular order.

Sontag’s excess-related worries in “Against Interpretation” — her notion that “the principle of redundancy […] is the principal affliction of modern life” — seem particularly apposite in this new age of the born-digital archive. And like Sontag’s use of lists as a home remedy for that very modern affliction, the search function mediates our relation to the excess and flow of the expanding archive. Listing and searching both provide us with ways, however flawed, to cut through redundancy, to make meaning out of chaos, to, in Sontag’s vocabulary, confer and create “value,” even “existence.” This impulse to list, to search, or, in other words, to reduce — an impulse researchers necessarily share with Sontag herself — takes on a peculiar resonance in the context of the guarded writer’s archive: what does it mean that we can now search Susan Sontag’s entire digital life for “Annie”?


Jacquelyn Ardam is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at UCLA.

Jeremy Schmidt is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at UCLA.

LARB Contributors

Jeremy Schmidt is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at UCLA. His dissertation explores questions of skill and effort in contemporary American poetry, and his writing has appeared in The Believer, the Boston Review, and Lana Turner.

Jacquelyn Ardam is the author of Avidly Reads Poetry (NYU Press, 2022) and the assistant director of the Undergraduate Research Center for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at UCLA. Her writing on literature, art, and culture has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, LitHub, HyperallergicPublic Books, and The Toast, as well as in academic journals. 


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