Archives, “the archive,” violence

Miners tested for black lung, 1974, via NARA, ARC#556566.

Miners tested for black lung, 1974, via NARA, ARC#556566.

When “the archives” does violence to a historic group, what do we mean by “the archives,” what do we mean by “violence,” and how does the violence get done? I’m asking Deborah Thomas because I don’t think she’s considered this stuff; to her credit, I don’t think any historian out there blithely “theorizing the archive” has, and Thomas at least uses “archives” as a singular, and has done research in them, and I trust does not use the nefarious verb “to archive” which we’ve somehow inherited from gamers backing up their playthroughs like “ZOMG I AM ARCHIVING THIS” and which is now accepted language and which as you may or may not see below because I don’t really know fully where this is headed elides the relationships of creation, stewardship, inquiry and justice which archivists are bound to make plain.

Let’s for a second pretend I didn’t ask any of the above, and let’s assume that we all speak the same post-Foucauldian language, that we can recognize a panopticon at 50 paces, or contend that my son’s Melissa-and-Doug safari truck is a metonym for the carceral bodies of Africans, and so forth. I like the figure of the archives as a prison, a lot. So I’m hip to this. And I also refer to my son’s toy as Caucasian wood-people pillaging the continent for trophies LET’S DRAG THIS PURPLE HIPPO INTO THE TRUCK so again, I think we’re all receptive to the carcerality and the panopticisms.

(I’m also skipping over what I think for @meau is another whole thing: ICA calls the collections or the archival holdings “the archives.” And how of course can boxes of papers “enact” anything? And even if you buy my “it’s structural, dude” position, doesn’t that let agents off the hook? To which, yeah, but it’s more like we agents — creators, donors, subjects, archivists — are the woven hook, and how do we get to be I don’t know a needle or a shovel or something? How do we take the overlapping ties of responsibility and rebind them to better ends? All of which is by way of saying, I use “archives” to mean the styles of behavior of archivists, their technologies of the self, and the cultural practices found in archives — meaning places, sites, institutions.)

With terms given, I can give you an example of how archives enact violence. I have a body of personnel files which contain Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory results for people applying for jobs in medicine, education, and so forth. Applicants knew they were being personality-profiled, but they couldn’t have known that their tendencies toward hypochondria, psychosis or homosexuality were being measured. (There are or could be nested layers of violence here: the MMPI and its descendants are copyrighted by the University of Minnesota despite being developed under a Works Progress Administration grant, which is theft; the original MMPI was keyed to rural, middle-class, white Minnesotans and so classed everyone who grew up poor, or in a city, or black as aggressive, psychotic and sexually deviant, which is slander. In this instance, the people being profiled were predominantly rural, white, and midwestern, so ignore first possible instance of violence above. But they were predominantly bookish, which in MMPI makes you sexually deviant. I am not even joking.) These folks are still alive. The creator-body I serve needs to hold these records as a liability shield; when a student or patient comes along 70 years later and says Dr. Florence Engobe was a deviant and deviated her, the creator-body needs to say, “We tried our best to flag deviants and keep them in the library WHERE THEY BELONG.” Subjects of the archives have a compelling case for excision of records from the archives and repatriation, because of the right to opacity. Agents of the creator body have a compelling case not to repatriate, because of liability. It’s a classic double bind.

What’s interesting is that this isn’t really what Thomas contends at all. Following the trend of the 1990s — I’m looking at you Terry Cook and your appraise-everything-in illness — she sees fragmentary or insufficiently evidentiary collections as violence. For which the contemporary response is to make sure that everybody makes all kinds of things and keeps them somewhere which is great so long as someone else is responsible for keeping them forever, which again, calls into question the original premise, because somehow a communal or participatory or relational archives will have gotten over its predisposition to violence. I’m just guessing here, because that’s a default position. Maybe Thomas is cooler than that.

See what happens there? Theorizers of “the archive” on the one hand lament the centralized power of archivists to deny entrée of materials into the archives, to marginalize peoples’ histories. On the other hand, the presumed solution is a unitary “archive” thought of the way college freshmen think of “the commons,” a revivified pre-lapsarian vault for all the stories of all the peoples.

There isn’t of course a way back because there never was such an Eden to go back to. Any anthropologist should have read David Graeber’s Debt, which one prays has dropped the final nail into the coffin of utopian socialisms, so that Thomas should anticipate my “it was ever thus”: archives are bodies of order made by creators in a position of dominance. Their structural position by itself enacts violence. They are this way because our civilizations order themselves through violence. (Which, you know, I’m also hip to the idea that we’re talking here about differentiated evils. Yoking Haiti to reparations for its revolution is far, far more evil than anything any archives could do. No comparison. PERSPECTIVE.) The question clearly isn’t, How do we make a big, peoples’ vault which appraises everything in and which nominally has no archons but for real though has like five or six Grand Wizards? because that’s the Interwebs. The question also isn’t, How do we get new things into archives to make them righteous? The question is, How do we arrange social relations such that archives are not structurally violent?

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