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St. Valentine's Day Hop at the National Archives, 14 February 1975, NARA identifier 35810664

St. Valentine’s Day Hop at the National Archives, 14 February 1975, NARA identifier 35810664

I am here to dirty the clean room.

I have never fallen in love with archives per se, and this is probably at the root of why I prefer to think/spiel about archivists, what they like, do, and need, instead. I have, however, a couple/three times, fallen in love in archives, had erotic encounters in archives, and so on, so there’s a literal component to why I see archives through the lenses of desire, romantic love, compassion. Or, as we had it in the deeply abridged and mixed-up Catholic teaching on love we got as kids: eros, amor, and caritas.

(All philosophers of Christian love should abandon ship here, because any consideration of who thought what about love in what way in the first couple centuries of the Common Era and what words they used basically lands Christians at C. S. Lewis and he frustratingly counts up Four Loves, which is no good for me because I need three things for my Lacan, Freud, Marx, etc. Seek shelter elsewhere is all I’m saying.)

My work is reliably physical, so again, it’s only a hop and a skip to see the handling of sheaves of text, or skins, substrates, emulsions, as ways of enacting desire. To get any knowledge about what I touch, there’s a lot of opening, paging or thumbing through (thumbs are erotic, says the palm reader, but I understand ymmv), and so on. The initial contact and exploration, the first enticing hints of what might be deeply and sustainably important about the collection or corpus, the discovery of its quirks and kinks — accessioning is the kingdom of Eros for archives, and that’s where I live all day.

Work in accessioning is like bringing a thousand houseguests into your bedroom every year: establish names, addresses, relationships, remove outer enclosures, pile your puffy coats on the master bed, add new enclosures, triage, decide who gets to stay, put them to bed. The first thrills of desire are I can’t help but think likewise a kind of triage: how does this work, what works, does everything work, is this at all real, are we just blinded by newness? The first stages or opening gambits of a love affair are all about acquisition — I want you, I need you, I have you — and appraisal — You will be mine and I want to keep you close.

Amor, as the dads of CCD had it, is romantic love, eros for them denigrated into something more like cupiditas, a fleeting, wayward, unreliable, momentary bliss. You may bring things into your holdings which don’t deserve to stay. Amor is the business of naming what will stay, and doing the work to keep it whole. All of this blog is an overextended conceit, but this is the greatest overreach: processing is a series of acts of romantic love. We undertake to remove from the body we want anything that will harm it, we pull metal, we breathe rust, we scrub dust, we house the new beloved body in clean clothes. Having gotten a grasp on the corpus, we achieve physical control. More significantly, we ask the newcomer about himself, we do a deep dive, who really are you after all, what are your contents, what is your scope, help me to name it, help me to name it.

Certainly all of you have seen and thought about that slightly annoying article in The New Republic, o which one you say they’re all kind of okay well here:

Go read, there’s enough rage-inducing stuff there to fill a whole other blog, but I was struck over and over by the outsiders’ — we all know that humanities Ph.Ds’ experience of research in primary sources is, well, variable — focus on the bodily presence of the archives, of its mutability and permeability: narrow stacks, well-worn handles on drawers, jeans, the fugitive poisonous adhesive of post-it notes, self-destructive cellulose nitrate. And if the author promotes a kind of fetishization of ordinary care, well hell so do we right? Our author even gets a little monarchist, but I don’t know, man, Eros rules me like a sovereign does a serf, so even this dankness didn’t faze me:

This is the sort of thing that the New-York Historical Society saves: flotsam, jetsam, things left behind. The curators follow closely in the wake of the city’s human activity, collecting the materials left behind by protests and vigils and attacks. The museum treats these items with a reverence rarely seen in any part of our culture. The archive turns objects into art the same way that a devoted servant might turn everything the king has touched into treasure.

It’s fine to acknowledge that new users come to the archives by way of bodily connection. I guess the only difference between them and me, in Accessioning Which is the Kingdom of Eros, is that I lack reverence for the bodies becoming guests in my house. I do not wrap them in muslin or mylar. I do not shield my hands with nyplex from their pages. I do not breathe in their vapors. That way lies a neurosis your boy Nietzsche diagnosed in 1874, in Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie fur das Leben:

Man envelops himself in an odour of decay; through his antiquarian habit he succeeds in degrading even a more significant talent and nobler need to an insatiable craving for novelty, or rather a craving for all things and old things; often he sinks so low as finally to be satisfied with any fare and devours with pleasure even the dust of bibliographical quisquilia.

Caritas, always presented last, is for the dads of CCD, the highest form of love, and I disagree. Caritas is the love that lays down its life for a friend (John 15:13), meant to be the semi-literate Catholic dad’s version of ἀγάπη, abiding, boundless, and unconditional love. Perhaps there exists a love without conditions or boundaries, preset terms, default entries, perhaps between people ἀγάπη exists, perhaps between people and their god, but I’m not sure we have this in archives. Nothing lasts, the future is the obsolete in reverse, in the very long run we’re all dead: as an archivist you have to bend your mind to the idea that your world is material and entropy is its governing force. For outsiders this is an ironic stance: the people most dedicated to making texts (broadest possible sense) persistent don’t really think any of their work will succeed. If there is agape anywhere in our discipline, it rests in exactly this kind of humility, it lies in offering our bodies daily to an insurmountable task, to the presence of failure and loss, and at the end there won’t even be dust left to devour.

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First control of the self, then control of the collections. via NARA, ARC #558218

First control of the self, then control of the collections. via NARA, ARC #558218

There’s kind of nothing as terrifying as associative labor. I think it’s fairly clear that we’ve adopted most of Fourier’s prescriptions for the workplace and, far from emancipating the worker, only solidified the managerialists’ grasp on us inputs:

1. That every laborer be a partner, remunerated by dividends and not by wages. The to-each-according-to-his-ability crowd loves employee ownership, defined-contribution benefits, management retreats / coaching / mentoring, etc.

2. That every one, man, woman, or child, be remunerated in proportion to the three faculties, capital, labor, and talent.
Ditto. Pay for performance for everyone, all the way down to school funding hinging on test results.

3. That the industrial sessions be varied about eight times a day, it being impossible to sustain enthusiasm longer than an hour and a half or two hours in the exercise of agricultural or manufacturing labor. Actually, I think we skipped this one.

4. That they be carried on by bands of friends, united spontaneously, interested and stimulated by very active rivalries. Teams are the great Satan of workplace culture. Teamwork and groupiness are the most pervasive of the neo-Fourierist interventions; opposing teamwork is a priori bad. Who wants to be not-a-team-player? Who wants to be a rogue actor? Dissent minimized, check.

5. That the workshops and husbandry offer the laborer the allurements of elegance and cleanliness. …but not the capacity to actually live for himself in a clean environment. My workplace is cleaner than my house BECAUSE I AM ALWAYS THERE INSTEAD OF HERE. The neighborhood of my workplace is cleaner and more secure than my neighborhood because I am always there and not here.

6. That the division of labor be carried to the last degree, so that each sex and age may devote itself to duties that are suited to it. Because we know in advance what duties we’re suited to, or Fourier knows. I mean, we laugh at the naive rationalism of the 18th century, but any vision of complete and over-arching order applied to human affairs should give us all the heebie-jeebies.

7. That in this distribution, each one, man, woman, or child, be in full enjoyment of the right to labor or the right to engage in such branch of labor as they may please to select, provided they give proof of integrity and ability. Choosing not to choose is of course not an option. Participants only! Also, before we commit you to this unchosen choice, please provide certification from an accredited authority of your integrity and ability.

What is it that archivists — professional, skilled, highly-educated, broadly-speaking well-paid workers — have a stake in? Why are professional workers compelled to identify their work in terms of investment, growth and return on investment? So, to rephrase, what is it that we’re committing ourselves to? Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure continuous self-improvement and rectification of the workflows isn’t it. So what is it that management science offers us, apart from initiation into the cult of self-worship and bodily discipline on capitalism’s behalf which has been with us since wackjob aristocrats started ennobling the industrious wasp and the busy beaver?