Between Facts and Archives: Designing Future Histories

By | September 15, 2014

While I was home just a few months ago I discovered an old box full of memorabilia and souvenirs I’d saved over the years. Among the items were old cards, movie stubs, school projects, and even several journals.
As I sifted among theses I items I began to reread some of these journals (well let’s be honest, diaries really). Immediately, I found myself embarrassed by the younger me. Often harsh, dramatic and overly trite, this was not someone I wanted to uncover, let alone have anyone else stumble upon. My first instinct was to throw these diaries out, or at least carefully remove select pages. What I wanted, was to self-censor any and all future recollections of my past.
Similarly, in this past week’s reading, “Colonial Archives and the Acts of Governance” Ann Laura Stoler reflects on the archives not merely as sites of knowledge retrieval but also of knowledge production and codification. Since archives collect historical artifacts our tendency is to treat them as passive, objective and at times even sacred sources.
However, as Stoler points out, “It was in factual stories that the colonial state affirmed its fictions to itself.” Rather than producing certainty, facts can conceal alternate truths and reinforce dominant fictions. Facts can be used selectively to support cultural myths. Facts can be destroyed or lost amidst the “politics of storage.”
In completing this week’s reading I couldn’t help but think of facts in the archival sense as historical imprints with a great deal of “negative space.” In this negative space we might find the missing stories, narratives, and lives that we’ve both unconsciously and willfully lost in the “marginalia.” Then and now, archives are never objective but rather support different “fashioned histories.” In some sense, I wondered, did this make archivists designers of history?
My own impulse to censor the past is a great reminder that even as the archive represents the “discontinuity of what we can no longer say” it also represents the reinforcement of that which we no longer wish to say. I recently finished reading Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of Ending and in this short piece of fiction so much of it rang true. He writes, “How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Between Facts and Archives: Designing Future Histories

  1. shannon Post author

    A lovely commentary, Laura. We can draw parallels here to Foucault (who argues that archives shape our thinkable thoughts or utterable statements). Taylor and Ernest and some of the other authors we read over the past couple weeks also highlight how the *contents* of those archives — what gets counted as “archive-worthy” — determines how we’re able to construct those fictions and “senses of self.” And speaking of self-construction through the archive: Wolf offers a counter-example — not of an archive that she constructed *of* herself to reflect an idealized self back *to* herself, but of an institutional archive that reflects a self she’d forgotten about and would rather not know.

  2. Nima Moinpour

    Thanks for sharing. Ernst’s Dis/Continuities Chapter, he points out Foucault: “Archives are less concerned with memory than with the necessity to discard, erase, eliminate,” and that we keep some that are archive worthy. I often think of that when I walk passed the used book/video hustlers in NYC. These were the ones that may have been part of a class named “classics” but they, themselves didn’t make the cut. Some folks have a higher tendency to keep ‘sentimental objects’ for future reminiscing. Our compulsion to archive combined to the filter of worthiness are very interesting.
    Some keep the 1st dollar they make, other’s the first book they buy…


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