Prison archivists and the prisons of archives

Interior view of a C-141 Starlifter aircraft en route to Clark Air Base, Republic of the Philippines with recently released prisoners of war camp. via NARA, ARC#6365629

Interior view of a C-141 Starlifter aircraft en route to Clark Air Base, Republic of the Philippines with recently released prisoners of war camp. via NARA, ARC#6365629

Just for kicks, I was reading John W. Roberts’ cantankerous “Archival theory : much ado about shelving,” (The American Archivist 50:1, 66-74 (Winter 1987); SAA members can see it here) and wondered about this guy, head of the archives of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who couldn’t have failed to notice the similarities between being a warden of inmates and being a steward of collections — every item gets a number; don’t overcrowd your containers; items can leave the building only on work-release; after fifty years, penitent records can be released to the public — and since he would have been astute enough to recognize the passing similarities, and since he had the time to read every issue of Archivaria ever published, surely couldn’t have helped but ruminate on the relationship between these two superficially distinct regimes of control. Right?

Plus it was the 1980s, just after Foucault’s death, and maybe the burgeoning wave of pseudo-Foucauldians who could — according to a source I can’t remember and don’t feel like tracking down — “spot a panopticon at 50 paces” hadn’t yet crested, but surely, SURELY John W. Roberts could have seen the relationships between, again just picked at random, biopolitical control and personnel records, or the panopticon and the catalog, or technologies of the self, infrapower, and arrangement. Right?

It’s not so much that there isn’t an autochthonous wellspring of archival theory out there for us to all bathe in — even inasmuch as there’s a similar wellspring for, and we’re all leaping off the intellectual deep end here, and I will be the first to drown, any and all human endeavor since the boundaries of inquiry of our sciences and liberal arts are as subject to prevailing ideology as anything else, and if you don’t believe me, recall that phrenology was once a thing. Of course there isn’t. What there is is a practice which gains self-consciousness. We start, and arguably end, with criticality.

All of which Roberts had to know, since he posited a path of inquiry, his second of three, and the “most compelling,” which would “[involve] appraising the validity of the historiographical strain of archival theory and [would lead] to questions concerning the profession’s existence,” which I don’t know what it sounds like to you but to me sounds an awful lot like heavy, Kantian intellectual maturity. I even like his third path, which is entirely to shred the “numerous bromides that are too often taken for granted in archival work.” But never mind all that, says Roberts: archival clinicianship is blind, and archival-theory-cum-historiography is empty.

All of which is by way of saying why does the archivist of the Federal Bureau of Prisons insist on putting archival theory in a box? And didn’t he get that that’s hilarious? He’s a funny guy: “Myth or banality?” Super funny. And in an overarching sense, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t agree — archivists spend a lot of time on intellectual turf that doesn’t require a lot of time to traverse, and virtually none on fundamental questions. This means that on the one hand, when we have to defend our discipline against the ideology of austerity, we have nothing more than bromides and Babbitry (pace Roberts) to whack people with, and on the other hand it leaves professors of history and cultural studies and everything else, who wouldn’t know archival records from their own ass, to define the discipline — even to the point of OH HOLY SHIT YOU DID NOT “Theorizing the archive,” which is to say, to the point of making yourself look like an asshole by using the non-existent singular, or, as a Cossack would say in an Isaac Babel story, “What is this archive? I assure you I’ve never killed anyone in this unknown archive,” all of which is by way of saying, skilled, hyper-smart, overworked people are in the archives business, and you need to pop up and set everyone straight about what an archives is, what archivy is, and what all that’s for. Theory, even if it isn’t homogenously “archival,” can and must stage a prison-break on archives.

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