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  • Counter-Archive: Film, the Everyday, and Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète
  • Jan Baetens (bio)
Paula Amad. Counter-Archive: Film, the Everyday, and Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. 480 pp., 38 illus. ISBN 978-0231135016, £24/$34.50.

Paula Amad’s study of Albert Kahn’s (1860–1940) photo-cinematographic world memory as seen through the lens of everyday life, called the Archives de la planète (1908–1931), is not a biography in the traditional sense of the word. Although it contains an overview of all known biographical data of its sponsor, promoter, and exclusive owner, these data are, to put it mildly, scarce. Kahn, a Jewish-Alsatian merchant and later banker who came to Paris after the Franco-German War of 1870 and the annexation of the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, was notably shy, and his desire to embrace the secular-humanist and universalist ideals of the Third Republic was as strong as his endeavor to stay out of sight in public life.

Amad does not conceive her biography of Kahn as the unearthing of the secrecies of his life. Instead, she focuses on Kahn’s work, more especially on that aspect of his work (for he was also a very successful banker, till his bankruptcy in the aftermath of the 1929 financial crisis) that summarizes and discloses it much better than any reconstruction, no matter how faithful, of his biographical data could do. The work she concentrates on is what Kahn himself considered his major contribution to mankind: his “archives,” an astonishing multimedia collection of chromophotographs and black and white as well as hand-colored films aimed at representing man’s everyday life across various cultures and civilizations. Thanks to his immense fortune, Kahn had the ability to hire professional photographers and filmmakers to record all over the world examples of daily life not just as it was but also as it was disappearing under the influence of modern technology and globalization (a conflict well visible in the shift from elite travel practices to mass tourism in that period). Hardly known even by specialists in film and photography studies, who overlooked Kahn’s work when redefining the scope of film studies after the rediscovery of primitive cinema in the late 1970s; more or less hidden to the public, which was not allowed to see it (all screenings were private, until the archives were sold to the French State after Kahn’s bankruptcy); and [End Page 366] definitely enigmatic, since the archive’s content is so different from what one may expect today from this kind of collection, the Archives de la planète are for Paula Amad an opportunity to rethink dramatically two major issues of the last decades’ cultural scholarship: the archive and the everyday.

On either subject, the scholarly literature can now no longer be overlooked, but the most important theorist to help bring together the archive and the everyday remains without a doubt Michel Foucault. His critique of the nineteenth-century archive as a collection of national treasures or monuments has produced a line of anti-dogmatic or anti-archival thinking (for Foucault, the archive is the “law” of what can or cannot be said, and therefore the key to all discourse analysis), as well as a disclosure of the everyday as censored and streamlined by the power structure of the archive. Foucault’s analysis of the archive as exemplifying the power-knowledge paradigm has for many years provided the basis and background of all serious critical thinking in the field.

Within this model, the work of Paula Amad proposes an important transformation, with tremendous relevance. Indeed, the author innovates our vision of the archive in at least two remarkable ways, bringing to the fore a more complex and multilayered idea of the making but also the use of an archive such as the one invented by Albert Kahn.

The first innovation is that of a stronger sense of medium-specificity. Contrary to what happens in Foucault’s work, the archive is no longer monomedial—text-based as in the case of Foucault, photographic as in the case of critics inspired by...