Matthew Vaughn’s recent release, Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), is primarily a big-screen excuse for special effects. But in one rapidly narrated scene the film gestures to the founding of the Kingsman organization, or better put, the scene narrates the founding of an organization with a gesture that becomes its archive. In doing so, this rather forgettable film can serve to reveal the interconnections of myth, ritual, physical space, coded initiation practices, and forceful ascesis (technologies of self) that inhere in the production, sustenance, and use of any archive.
The words are simple: Harry Hart (Colin Firth) tells his working class charge, Eggsy Unwin (Taron Edgerton) that the Kingsman was begun by a generation of wealthy British industrialists who lost their sons in World War I. Not being able to archive their own lives through the ‘natural’ process of grandbabies and financial inheritance, these men decided to pool their great wealth to found an institution that would fight for global justice. The absurdity of this Hollywood story notwithstanding, the gesture is a salient reminder that archives require a bittersweet combination of social status and existential loss. Archives, first of all, require money, and such large or reliable flows of money arise either from a kind of quantitative social density or from a hard won social recognition. Second, it seems to me an archive coalesces only when the filaments of social regard come to thread around a loss or trauma that stands out of joint with that social status. In the silly example of the Kingsman, the hegemonic language of war-time sacrifice and national pride simply cannot seam over or redeem or lighten the particular tragedy born by each mother and father faced with the death of each particular son. Grief, loss, and tragedy: a set of affective markers out of step with the entitlement and ease usually enjoyed by the wealthy.
The Kingsman founding narrative is related when Harry takes Eggsy through the dressing room wall to the bowels of the Kingsman headquarters. It is an image that cites a thousand mythic portals, from Alice’s looking glass to the wardrobe entrance to Narnia, and from Aragorn entering the door of the dead to Harry Potter’s entrance to Diagon Alley. Here is a world that is both continuous and discontinuous from the everyday world: both here and not here, both tangible and askew. Archives, too, instantiate a space apart—what Foucault called heterotopias—and the simultaneously rich and casual textures, decor, smells, colors, and structures of access within archival spaces differentiate them affectively and phenomenologically from museum spaces. The point of an archive is not simply to collect and represent, but to mythically (perhaps nostalgically) instantiate the past in a way that makes it viable, still, again, for the present.
I have raised the bogeyman of nostalgia, but nostalgia does not have to be merely sentimental or reactive. In Kingsman, the agents each take on the code name of one of King Arthur’s knights. Harry Hart is, of course, Galahad, the knight of purity and gallantry. But the agents clearly are not “re-enacting” the Arthurian legends, nor do they think of themselves as somehow bringing the best of the “past” wholesale into the present. The nostalgic framing of Kingsman—its Arthurian tonality, its commitment to gentlemanly dress, diction, and manners—is instead a way of ritually weaving together what Cvetkovich calls “the structures of affect that constitute cultural experience” (An Archive of Feelings, 11). An active or generative nostalgia marks the subculture of Kingsman as distinctive, elite, and effective, and I’d submit it threads the affective economy (Ahmed) of all archives.
Cvetkovich notes in An Archive of Feelings that she attends to publics that “are hard to archive because they are lived experiences, and the cultural traces that they leave are frequently inadequate to the task of documentation” (AF, 9). But it does seem to me that these are always the sorts of publics that generate archives, so long as someone somewhere also generates the financial resources to build the architectural, spatial and ritual borders around the loves and losses that ache to be remembered through them.