Informal Archives of the Dead

comments on elisabeth lach-quinn’s comments on nick paumgarten’s comments on the grateful dead’s live concert archive’s comments on history. feel free to add comments.

Reposted from comments section of Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, “Dead but Not Forgotten,” US Intellectual History: The Blog of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH),

Paumgarten’s portrait fuels meditations on the very activities that define us–as both creatures and creators of the past, whether through our collecting, connoisseurship, research, scholarship, or mere inhabiting or enduring of moments, whether of the original-feeling kind or those seemingly once, twice, or thrice removed but perhaps in fact just as originating–in their own story. — Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, “Dead but Not Forgotten”

What marvelous reflections here. Thanks. I take the main theme to be the meaning and power of creating what might be called informal archives—constellations of artifacts assembled outside official channels, constellations that continually regenerate memories and meanings in endlessly reshaped reconfigurations. Paumgarten reaches to express something like this theme, and in a way he demonstrates it in the loving details of his and others’ obsessive listening habits, which even they themselves are somewhat sheepish and embarrassed about admitting. But he does not quite get there at the theoretical level. Well it is a New Yorker piece, not something for History and Theory, so we should give him a break. But I take your point to be that in the obsession by Paumgarten and others with the archive of live Grateful Dead recordings there is not an aim for fidelity in the empirical sense but rather in the emotional sense. And shifting to that register of fidelity entails raising extremely important and difficult questions about what history is exactly, how we determine it, and what it means to draw upon sources to make it. What does it mean to study moments when people were trying to live in the now, as it were. How does living in the now always involve an effort to live in (with?) the past? How do archives enable this strange pursuit?

My question is this: is there something particularly “sixties-ish” about this story? In that the Grateful Dead’s musical ethos features a kind of twin movement toward blasting memory away and, at the same time, preserving it? They wanted to “live in the moment, man,” but, in doing so, in the band and their audience’s shared goal of reaching states of pure improvisational collective musical creation, they also wanted to “make history,” which is to say they dreamed of imprinting the suffused authenticity of the immediate moment on their minds and bodies forever and even, perhaps, of using the energy of that shared effort to alter the future and possibly change the world around them for the better. That dream was so awfully subverted, or at least obscured, by the aimless, decadent, upper-class hedonism that became the element of the band and the Deadheads by the late 1970s (and maybe was already there in that the band arose within the Cold War suburban defense industry technoworld of Palo Alto/Stanford in the mid-60s). Which is why Paumgarten turns to describing what at many levels was the tragicomic failure of the Dead milieu when it came to social change. Yet always lurking in the music, even through the 80s and 90s, was this spirit—magical, phantasmagorical, probably deluded—of somehow seizing history by its sensorial horns through musical communion, of losing oneself to the moment in order to pull away from it to some greater transformation. That’s religious in its roots, but also profoundly modern, even postmodern, in that it partly included the feeling of joining, of making, of being, of becoming part of a living archive comprised, paradoxically, of fleeting moments and psychedelically-infused flashes of powerful feeling. Did something about the pressures and possibilities of the 60s moment create this kind of historical sensibility? Pardon the awkwardness of the term, but is this mode of historical consciousness itself historicizable? Perhaps it explains the oft-repeated reflection among participants in the more tumultuous events of the 1960s that they felt as if history had suddenly come alive, unhinged, that they were “living in history,” that history was suddenly swirling all around them, that they were even “making history.” The period in which the Dead forged their musical style was shaped by a strange mix of dreamlike surreality and the feeling of lifting the veil off a kind of canned experience. The war, the fraying of Cold War consensus, the radical energies that the nuclear age unleashed, the continued struggles among many for equality before the law and beyond it, these rendered a particular vision of history, of what counted as part of its archive of the past, and how this archive and its history might be made and unmade and remade again. The Dead’s music always, even as it changed into something far more formulaic, a brokedown palace of sound, retained the stamp of its origins in that 60s moment.

Grateful Dead with American flag, late 1960s.

So what then does it mean exactly, this living sonic (and if you go on youtube visual) archive of the dead, this historical monument to a thing that sought, at its essence, to breakthrough from history and yet also seemed, from the get-go, to have an eye on itself from a perspective of the beyond, of historical legacy itself (they were the Grateful Dead after all)? There’s certainly a lot of pointless philosophical noodling to do here, as befits the music and its stoned vibes I suppose, but the topic also raises up to consciousness the very deep levels at which history emerges, levels at which aimless noodling suddenly becomes a psycho-social spaghetti of tingling nerve endings.

Finally, isn’t it funny—and is it important—that so many of the key “texts” of this masculinist world of archival and Talmudic Grateful Dead study were created and compiled by a woman? And that this woman, Betty Cantor-Jackson, was among the first to perceive the historical consciousness in play through what she experienced as the beauty of the Grateful Dead’s concert experience. It certainly makes one think about gender in all of this collective history and memory stuff. Listen to how Cantor-Jackson talks about these matters so eloquently and provocatively to Paumgarten:

She mixed to her own taste. ‘It has my tonalities. My sound is beefy. My recordings are very stereo, very open, with a lot of air in them. You feel like you’re standing in the middle of the music. My feeling is everyone wants to play in the band.’

The goal here is at once to make an archive of the self (“my tonalities” “my sound”) and create a space of collective sharing (“very open, with a lot of air in them” “you’re standing in the middle of the music” “everyone wants to play in the band”). So not only does this music and social experience pivot on simultaneously exploding and preserving history, it also turns on the creation of a kind of subtle, barely discernible filter between the individual and the collective. How do I, how do we all, fit in, both temporally and spatially? That seems to be the motivational calling card for those drawn to the Dead’s informal archive. It is the continual cataloging and recataloging of possible answers to this question that makes it significant.

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