The archives, in public imagination and professional literature, is imagined as a repository where historical records might be retained indefinitely. Scholars and practitioners alike ascribe the persistence of archival records to archives’ capacity to support or upend the nation state or other institutions, form or complicate lineages, and provide access to histories of human thought. This hope for an eternal archives, however, runs contrary to the realities of physical matter in our universe. Matter is continually changing and defying ontological categories. Karen Barad describes matter as ‘promiscuous.’ (1) Like all matter, the matter of the archives is continually changing, slipping into states we call ‘decay’ or ‘decomposition.’ Decay and decomposition are established concerns of conservation and preservation professionals, however archival studies has been reluctant to allow decay to influence core archival concepts – the record, provenance, archival value. My research takes root in this gap and asks how the uncertainties of materiality might help us rethink archival theory and praxis. Rather than problematizing decay or turning away from it, my research “stays with the trouble” (2) to observe and learn from decay.
My Current Approach
What is the quality – or perhaps texture – of archival materiality? What underpins our affective responses to decay and loss? These two questions drive my current research.
The first question requires a theoretical framework for thinking about archival materiality as meaningful, without relying on textual content or ‘information value.’ Here I draw on Jane Bennett’s concept of ‘vibrant matter’ to ask how archival objects might be seen as having full, complex lives outside of human intentions or endeavors (3). A document or photograph has a full material existence which is not fundamentally about humans or human history. Instead, I envision the archives as a temporary material assemblage which is contingent, porous, and troublesome. In our furious attempts to confront, manage, or evade the decay and disassembly of the archives, we form a set of discrete behaviors towards archival objects and those behaviors impart a texture or trace onto matter. It is this imparted texture which I aim to describe in my research.
For the second question, we need a complementary framework which attends to the conflicting, powerful psychological drives running through archival theory and praxis. Psychoanalysis provides a useful set of analytic tools for creating such a framework. Psychoanalysis challenges the assumption that we are fully aware of our desires and impulses, and suggests that human emotion and behavior are haunted by evolutionary history, family trauma, and personal frustrations. Psychoanalysis insists that the unexamined and ignored exert themselves into our behaviors. This mirrors my approach to the first question: an interest in what we ignore, what we deny.
Currently, I am running an informal experiment in which I am exposing a photograph to the elements of my garden to trace the material changes which take place in the photo, and my affective responses to those changes. As I journal through the process, I look to the writings of Sigmund Freud, Ala Rekrut, Terry Cook, Georges Bataille, Michael Marder, Anna Atkins and Donna Haraway to think through the phases of contact, change, grief, anger, boredom, and hope that emerge. This project is a direct outgrowth of my first peer-reviewed article on these topics, “Material Provocations in the Archives,” which called for archivists to face decay as something more than a problem to prevent, delay, or deny. Instead, I believe decay is an opportunity for archivists to recognize the complex materiality of provenance, the ever-shifting boundaries of ‘the archives,’ and the reliance of archival practice on plant and animal species.
Collaborations & Funding
Unstoppable material changes are also a point of concern for scientists, policy makers, and humanities scholars confronting global climate change. In my research on seed banks, I note a distinct use of archival parlance to describe the work of biobanking: i.e. saving ‘records’ of botanical history. I am interested in, and looking for, opportunities to collaborate with seed savers, ethnobotanists, agriculture experts, and historians of science to think through the links between archival thought, genetic banking, and our hopes for surviving the future by documenting the past.
A potential funding source for this type of research is the National Endowment for the Humanities’ ongoing fellowship program. As my career progresses, opportunities such as fellowships at the National Humanities Center may also be appropriate.
(1) Karen Barad, “Transmaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21, nos. 2-3 (June 2015): 387.
(2) This phrase borrowed from the title of Donna Haraway’s book. See Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.
(3) See Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.