Tag Archives: Archives–History and criticism–Theory etc.

So yeah I’ve been re-reading my Capital, and that means first of all expect a lot more twittering and snickering about Bubbee Marx’ funniness, which is too little discussed, but also we come to this:

Moreover, only so much of the time spent in the production of any article is counted, as, under the given social conditions, is necessary. The consequences of this are various. In the first place, it becomes necessary that the labour should be carried on under normal conditions. If a self-acting mule is the implement in general use for spinning, it would be absurd to supply the spinner with a distaff and spinning wheel. The cotton too must not be such rubbish as to cause extra waste in being worked, but must be of suitable quality. Otherwise the spinner would be found to spend more time in producing a pound of yarn than is socially necessary, in which case the excess of time would create neither value nor money.

That’s chapter 7, page 52 in the 1906 edition, and this is a link to the lol Library of Economics and Liberty so we can all follow along. Whether Marx himself subscribes to the bourgeois cult of efficiency, let those who would speak as learnèd men speak, but we can all agree that to produce use-value to say nothing of surplus-value, you have to have tools of replacement-level efficiency. Agreed? Agreed. Which is why our man throws some excellent, if prima facie silly, shade at slavery in footnote 17:

Hence the principle, universally applied in this method of production, only to employ the rudest and heaviest implements and such as are difficult to damage owing to their sheer clumsiness. In the slave-states bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, down to the date of the civil war, ploughs constructed on old Chinese models, which turned up the soil like a hog or a mole, instead of making furrows, were alone to be found.

Can this be true? Discuss among yourselves. There are bigger fish here. Slaves have no incentive to not break tools, nor to treat animals decently, I mean clearly this is nonsense, slaves worked in the home, they cared for children, never mind go on, here’s Marx quoting Messr. Olmstead:

And I am assured that, in the careless and clumsy way they must be used by the slaves, anything lighter or less rude could not be furnished them with good economy, and that such tools as we constantly give our labourers and find our profit in giving them, would not last out a day in a Virginia cornfield—much lighter and more free from stones though it be than ours.

We will pause briefly to consider the Virginia “cornfield,” which by the 19th century was most assuredly not a thing. Two and a half hundred years of slavery had made into a deal the following things: cotton (a lil), peanuts, pigs (fed on peanuts), and tobacco (the biggest of big deals). This is like when that NYT plagiarist dude wrote about the tobacco fields of Palestine, West Virginia. NEVER MIND ON WE PLOUGH WITH OUR ROUGH-HEWN IMPLEMENTS:

So, too, when I ask why mules are so universally substituted for horses on the farm, the first reason given, and confessedly the most conclusive one, is that horses cannot bear the treatment that they always must get from the negroes; horses are always soon foundered or crippled by them, while mules will bear cudgelling, or lose a meal or two now and then, and not be materially injured, and they do not take cold or get sick, if neglected or overworked.

Marx is clearly aware of the internal rhyme of the spinner’s mule and the slaver’s mule. One is a technological innovation which permits two minders to manage like 1300 spindles, replacing (optimistically, with the neoliberal gloss of Marx, “liberating”) the labor of, say, 1300 Penelopes. The other is the rump end of feudalism, strong enough to survive all abuse, creeping slowly across the broken earth. A tool that hangs around for no reason really than that it’s around, it hasn’t been turned into a non-tool, and crucially, that it limits the ingenuity of its user, the worker.

Are you picking up what I’m putting down, Dear Reader? Are you ready to see how this passage of world-historical significance applies to the little-shits-given-about sphere of archivists and their descriptions and the managements thereof?

Behold, APPM (1989) on descriptions of “non-textual” materials, from Rule 1.1B4, footnote 4:

4. For cataloging individual nontextual archival items, see the appropriate alternate rules noted above.

oh man which refers to 1.0B1 footnote 2:

2. For book-like manuscripts (e.g., literary manuscripts and codices) and other manuscript material for which a more bibliographically oriented description may be desirable, see chapter 4 of AACR 2 and Bibliographic Description of Rare Books (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1981); for photographs and other graphic material, see chapter 8 of AACR 2 and Elisabeth Betz, Graphic Materials: Rules for Describing Original Items and Historical Collections (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1982); for motion pictures and videorecordings, see chapter 7 of AACR 2 and Wendy White-Hensen. Archival Moving Image Materials: A Cataloging Manual (Washington, D.C. [1984]); for maps and cartographic material, see chapter 3 of AACR 2 and Cartographic Materials: A Manual of Interpretation for AACR 2 (Chicago: American Library Association, 1982); for machine-readable and computer files, see chapter 9 of AACR 2, Sue A. Dodd, Cataloging Machine-Readable Data Files (Chicago: American Library Association, 1982), and Sue A. Dodd and Ann M. Sandberg-Fox, Cataloging Microcomputer Files: A Manual of Interpretation for AACR 2 (Chicago: American Library Association, 1985).

I submit that this is basically Steven Hensen taking whatever was at hand and hitching archivists to it. Why give archivists a thoroughbred when we’ve got all these different mules already under harness? No doubt this impulse came from a desire to maximize efficiency, and to promote cooperation across systems — if the universe is AACR2 in USMARC then bah gawd you know, we operate under conditions not of our own devising.

Ahh but it still just sucks. Some of the rules just suck. And maybe you don’t live with a lot of legacy APPM in your shop but it just fucking sucks. Every single goddam title is “Papers, 1701-1789 [bulk 1776-1789]” and we can have another sidebar about the idiocy of my personal beef with bulk dating, and if you want to automate that shit, like say, take 100 or 110 and copy paste into 245$a and find-replace capital “Papers” for “papers” and capital “Records” for “records” and pray that you can identify where your dates are and get them out of $a and into $f and oh godDAMNIT 245$g, then you will still have gobbledegook like “Reagan, Ronald, 1910- [Jelly beans and miscellany], [1950s-present]” and you will have to rewrite this by going and looking at the original stuff all over again, which begs the question, why in the everlasting fuck did the NEH pay for the creation of APPM? You mean to say we were somehow doing things WORSE BEFORE THIS WAS A THING?

I am of a conspiratorial bent about APPM. I think that people with a very strong catalogers’ streak, and (to absolve them of some of these crimes) people subject to early data-frugality — “Cnnt prt this many chars to s/l cd. Use abbvs.” — found a discipline which needed flexibility and creativity in description — my favorite is when I get to describe a collection created by a person about another person: Homer J. Simpson Starshipiana, 1974-1991. 520$aCollection consists of Homer Simpson’s Jefferson Starship memorabilia — and sold it on a phantom of interoperability instead. I think we got sold on APPM because of professional insecurity, a perception of diminished status, subalternity whatever. Elsewhere, Hensen laments that there’s no ISBD for archives. THERE’S A REASON FOR THAT. ISBD exists to make sure that you and I are not trying to sell copies of each other’s books, by accident, or for profit via piracy. It is a disciplinary regime. There could never be, can not be, and will never be an ISBD for archives because, dog, you don’t sell those shits. The only reason to lament that there isn’t an international standard for punctuation — PUNCTUATION DAWG — in a description of an archives-thing, therefore, is that the international standard assigns its own legitimacy. IF ONLY WE HAD THE BAR EXAM PPL WOULD RESPECT US MOR. And this was a kind of insanity that infected the minds of thousands of archivists working in the 1980s and 1990s, the people who ask in meetings convened about metadata — FUCK END MY LIFE NOW FOR REAL — “Can you do that though?”

Goddamn, fortunately for us living in the present, there are skilled people in SAA’s description section, and skilled people working with Teh Softwares, who are designing delicate, sturdy tools meant to be used by people with ingenuity and brilliance. Tools meant to transform the workplace from an abyss of tedium into a canvas of delights. ALL IS PERMITTED. To paraphrase my grandfather, if your description can’t be good, it can be careful; and if your description can’t be careful, it should be sanitary.

I’m really not being sarcastic — or comprehensible — here. But I don’t meant to shitbag Hensen. Hensen was — I dunno, arguably? I was like 10 years old lol — responding to a crying need from the profession for stability and guidance, doing the yeoman’s work of turning a billion isolated fiefs of description into a polity, and so APPM reached for the iron shirt of AACR2, without considering leather, or worsted. Something homespun, even.

In lettuce fields along the Colorado River, Mexican worker carries boxes to field pickers, 05/1972. via NARA, ARC#549084

In lettuce fields along the Colorado River, Mexican worker carries boxes to field pickers, 05/1972. via NARA, ARC#549084

So if anything is archives’ product it’s historical writing, right? This is the classic view, reading rooms open only to known scholars carrying out their business with ancient texts in stunned, holy silence, and I can’t imagine that this view is wrong, not yet, or else not possibly. What else could be the one inalienable outcome of archives work?

It’s not access to information, because everything. It’s not cultural patrimony, though that’s a better candidate because it makes me feel French and man archivists love to be French RESPAY DES FONDS, because many archives just don’t operate in the sphere of heritage. Many of us are hired goons for vicious people who test herbicides on Africans and then try to kill poor George Clooney to cover up their nefarity I mean yaa lots of us are basically risk-managers for Tilda Swinton. Similarly, I think we can scratch out community, emancipation, liberation, and reconciliation as products, though I’m sympathetic to the lattermost, not just because archivists though mostly of Zion invariably work for Babylon, but because it’s cheap, alienating and silly to conceive of those ideas as quantities much less as products. It’s easier to think of exhibits or curation as our product, I mean because we definitely do that, but those things aren’t inalienably ours since you know there are still museums and galleries and the whole interwebs now is building itself on users tumblr™ing and Pinterest™ing collections of their favorite GIFs from Korean soap operas and every outer-borough party DJ five years ago was calling himself a music curator, so either we abandon curation as skunked or we reconceptualize curation as something other than cool mashups and stuff and that’s not to diss good curation at all, I mean my soul too would swoon if I heard someone spinning “Israelites” into “96th Nervous Breakdown,” it’s just if we’re going to insist on the idea that archives make something exclusively archivish, curated content — feel free to at every instance of this term which by itself proves the insufficiency of late-stage capitalism exaggeratedly sigh, facepalm, do a shot, or throw steak knives at your Elon Musk hand puppet — ain’t it.

But the thing we clearly still do and do alone is prepare the field for historians, and yeah, Newspapers, I said it. Because your first draft of history sucks, mainly, but also because the action on history — by which I mean now the tides of human events we all swim in and please don’t make fun of me for getting all Hegelian, whereas usually here I’m using “history” to mean the discipline, the body of techniques, practices, rhetorical modes whatever — that newspapers are part of emerges extemporaneously. Contemporaneous “research” is reporting. You got that, still, kind of, in a way. Non-contemporaneous research is history-writing. We got that.

Here’s the supply chain of archives: creator bodies ⇨ (optional records management / appraisal, usually nothing) ⇨ archival description ⇨ reference archivists ⇨ researchers ⇨ dissertations. Framed this way, some interesting things happen. You can see I’m being SUPER NORMATIVE UP IN THIS BITCH because OMG not all of our interactions follow the chain. Sometimes historians or journalists do a bunch of work with creators first and then dump incriminating content onto archives /cough/ BELFAST /cough/. Sometimes archivists go out and get oral histories straight from creators and put them up online. Sometimes IT and Legal get together and install a keep-everything-forever email-vaulting-system that they will call an “archive” and that real archivists somewhere down the line will have to deal with WHICH IS CRAY-CRAY. But those are comparatively small branches in a big supply web, and when you break them off you get archivists doing labor on primary source materials for the benefit of people who write secondary source materials. I feel like I’m only stating the obvious here.

What’s significant about our supply chain is that just as in any other chain the work in the middle is obscured from the end-user. Until in maybe 2009 I realized that textile workers’ strikes were happening every summer in Dhaka I really didn’t care where my socks came from; even if I did care, I’d never see the rest of the chain beyond point-of-sale. And historians have nearly the same haptic impressions of archivists’ work as we in the West and North have for Bangladesh’s textile workers, only with one crucial difference: we don’t get ALL UP IN THE GRILLS of Bangladesh’s textile workers and write about how we found all these socks lying around and no one had done anything with them in the dusty-crusty old mustinesses and hidden fastnesses of the sock factory AND HOW AMAZING IS THAT I AM A FINDER. Exhibit A in all of these conversations, for me, is the Times writing about the “discovery” of a copy of “The Machine Age” in the Norbert Wiener papers at MIT: “It was a vision that never saw the light of day.” Yes, except insofar as Wiener was processed to the item level in 1980 and the whole shebang was dumped into Archivists’ Toolkit in 2009, so yes, this essay has been visible in some form for at a minimum four years and at a maximum 33 years before you ran across it, Times.

This happens over and over again. Five hundred fairytales outside the Grimm canon, published in three editions in the 19th century are “discovered” after being “locked away in an archive [sic].” Google it. Historians “discover” women scientists, dance lineages, jazz gems, prospectors’ diaries, photographs, reel-to-reel tapes, and everything. (Gallingly, sometimes archivists “discover” things that were “lost,” which is why #IFoundItInTheArchives is the worst, and why the term “trove” is suspect, and there WILL BE A TEST ON RECAPITULATING THE TERMS OF OUR OWN SUZERAINTY.) Naturally, historians insist that their information-seeking is serendipitous, that they find things by accident because archival description is so hard to navigate, and I’m sympathetic to that I mean we’ve all seen crazy kinds of legacy description, and Duff and Johnson were writing in 2002, when all we had was HTML, and PDF, and EAD 1.0, and APPM in MARC, and DACS was just a glimmer in our eyes, and OH WHATEVER SHALL I DO I CAN’T MAKE SENSE OF THIS DAAAY-TAAAH, but there’s no real difference in a user survey between serendipity and bald-assed ignorance of the political economy of archives. Mostly I think historians just like to pretend they’re entering the Temple of Doom instead of the reading room. They’re engaged in a retail experience, which frankly most of us under late-capitalism view as a kind of foraging, I mean day-um I feel like I just persistence-hunted a deer every time I drive back from Whole Foods, so it’s not surprising that they’d see processed, weeded, carefully tended collections as virgin territory met by their conquering pioneer hands.

So let’s make a deal. I like you, historians, I really do. When next you plan on theorizing the archive, let’s theorize across the supply chain, let’s be up-front that there’s a long distance of labor between records and you, and let’s start by theorizing your styles of consuming archives before conceptualizing my styles of producing them. Do that. I gotta get some vittles.

Radar in snow, 1968, via NARA, ARC# 6506387

Radar in snow, 1968, via NARA, ARC# 6506387

Evgeny Morozov led me to Remo Bodei, whose brief notes here bring the clinical definition of delusion to bear on the acts of memory and the practices of history. There’s a lot to chew on here for archivists.

Speaking of the classical delusional subject, Bodei lays out for us some stuff: I’m going to replace “his” here with “the archivist’s”:

[The archivist’s] psychic apparatus does not only raise smoke screens or secrete ink, like cuttlefish, in order to hide from itself: to dazzle and confuse it also uses light.

The style I’d like to call white redaction emerges when we dazzle and confuse with light. It isn’t always a matter of overwhelming potential researchers with an abundance of worthless bulk, the way your lawyer will passive-aggressively respond to a discovery request with photocopies of everything JUST EVERYTHING HAHAHAHAA. It’s more akin to what David Foster Wallace gets at in The Pale King: an iron triangle of information, transparency and apathy. Any system in which our capacity to read records outpaces our capacity to understand them, where access outpaces description, is essentially a regime of redaction.

For the better part of a two decades, archivists with a thing for information technology have been shoehorning narrative content into structured data with the aim of enabling researchers to drill down into a collection to get at the couple parcels they knew they needed, doing for the old print finding aid what the print finding aid did for collections, making sure no one has to read things that they didn’t ask for. MPLP and flipped processing, though in good hands they shouldn’t, similarly enable a style of archives-work that deprecates description. We’re counting on users to know what they’re looking at when they see it, and to know what they’re looking for before they see it.

What if we’re wrong and better known-item search is not better research? The glory of an archival collection is that it’s a collection, a whole tangled bolus of curated passages into historical fact, each reflecting and illuminating every other. Really great known-item search is like digging out individual carbon molecules from an ingeniously cut diamond. Even calling archival known-item search known-item search is oxymoronic: an item in an archival collection can’t be known except as part of a whole. In the name of facilitating access we’ve deployed our technologies to the task of alienating researchers from archives’ contexts. This is our old unacknowledged wish irrupting into daily life, and our compensatory act for indulging the will to opacity is to desperately try to re-embed context into data. And I mean we can BRO DOWN WITH EVGENY LATER about how the response to the ills brought by technophilia is to apply more technophilic solutions, BUT THAT’S FOR LATER. Following Bodei, I can see a world in which EAC-CPF implementation is like stress-eating, or the itch you get when you’re depressed; a technical response to a deep psychic wellspring.

We’re now going to replace “acute schizophrenia” here with “archives”:

Overinclusive thought, frequent in [archives], consists in the inability to choose the pertinent elements of a concept, eliminating the ones that are less relevant or completely unrelated

Delusion, for Bodei, is hyperawareness, “the result of an unsuccessful attempt to interpret coherently the incoming collection of data,” which is the kind of thing so broadly misused as to diagnose all of modern life as schizophrenic, and is this close to being just warmed-over Future Shock, dumbed-down Eros and Civilization, or lobotomized Civilization and its Discontents, but if we confine ourselves to the tiny sphere of archival description and its encodings, and we think about who’s writing new descriptions, and whether those young people are well-read enough to write a good historical note, or to identify events of significance in 20th-century collections, then I think it’s fair to say at many institutions we see unsuccessful attempts to interpret large bodies of information coherently at least after every summer internship if not ALL THE TIME HAVE YOU EVER READ A BOOK and so here’s a fun aside:

Archives comrade: So when are these due? December 7? How will I remember that?
Old Mole: Um, it’s Pearl Harbor Day?
Archives comrade: [baffled, in all seriousness] Oh okay, like that’s gonna help. You’re so obscure.

Now, I might have said “That reference is obscure,” because it’s just my style coz I dunno if people other than Jude can be obscure per se, but ultimately the larger point is SO MUCH FOR LIVING IN INFAMY hahahha I mean, WHO REMEMBERS WHAT ALL THE FUSS WAS ABOUT ANYWAY and as you can see my aside and my main theme dovetail neatly [/brushes shoulder off]:

It’s important that researchers get as broad a view of the historic record, or cultural patrimony, or the sources of art history, or the scope of old business operations and human resources practices, or whatever it is we’re curating as possible. We have to replace immediate if fragmentary access with knowledge born of real work in history; to get people a wide-angle view of a collection, to see peripherally. One of the ways we defeat information-delusion is to deliver to our seekers something like a collection’s gestalt, the undergirding sensation of being situated in space and time.

We can read another path to defeating information-delusion into the phrase “choose the pertinent elements,” and I really think this should be etched in everyone’s mind in screaming capitals: RECORDS MOTHERFUCKING MANAGEMENT. And on and on. There’s a lot more in that little address to pick through for anyone interested in how human beings might behave in the so-called information age: “insecurity exits,” the feverish work of maintaining delusion, delusion as dense interconnection — or why networks don’t always cure cancer or solve economic inequality or make a better grilled cheese sandwich — more than enough for this paper-pusher to handle in one go.

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?

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.