A reading response to:
Harriet Bradley, “The Seduction of the Archive: Voices Lost and Found”
Heidi McKee and James E. Porter, “The Ethics of Archival Research”
Barbie Zelizer, “Reading Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory”
Thomas Osborne, “The Ordinariness of the Archive”
Barbara Biesecker, “Of Historocity, Rhetoric: The Archive as Scene of Invention”
As the aim here was to keep to 500-750 words, I have simply offered reflections to each piece individually rather than trying to weave them together into a cohesive whole; my hope is that by juxtaposing them yet leaving the reflections separate I will be able to hold the texts more usefully in mind while still considering them against one another.
Concerning the Bradley piece, I was immediately struck by the refreshing choice to open on a vivid personal image. This choice gave the piece an immediate vibrancy lacking in many academic articles and welcomed me not only into the piece but into the selection of readings. Bradley describes the memory as “haunting” her; this serves as an unspoken introductory definition of the “archive,” as not only a trove of past, “dead” knowledge, but as a source of codified experience that may become an equally vivid, vibrant, and living element of our own contemporary experience. The piece continues to grapple with identifying the nature of an archive, yet as I proceed I can only think—“you have already answered!” The archive is memory; memory is an imprint of lived experience. Memory exists in conversation with present experience. Bradley goes on to discuss four different archives, yet for me the answer came most richly in the initial image, conveying the concept of archive as memory. (Though, as Bradley later suggests, other concepts of archives—as community, as source of secret knowledge, as site of discovery and ethical quandary—are similarly compelling.) As with the opening image, the rest of the piece is written in an engaging style, still a refreshing departure from the stereotypical academic slog.
McKee and Porter open by characterizing archives as having “person-ness.” While I try to hold myself to reading “with” rather than “against” the article, this immediately puts my guard up; while I am willing to contend that there are many personal, subjective, and vital elements to an archive, this seems a strange approach. The article proceeds, in framing its purpose, to explore definitions of “archive.” Then, it stakes its ground in a much more quantifiable way than the opening (and its problematic reference to vague “person-ness” implies), offering a practical set of questions to guide an approach to archive work. In proceeding, this article offers a discussion that is grounded in further practical questions and definitions, and I come again to the idea of how to introduce an article successfully: Bradley’s concrete and vivid image gives me something I can grasp on to, while McKee and Porter open by fielding a term that is vague and perhaps (arguably) even deceptive, which I find has the opposite effect, inviting confusion rather than easy entry into the text. While it was not my initial intention, perhaps the introduction as lens will emerge from this reflection. If nothing else, this piece does offer a practical guide to the ethical questions associated with archival research.
I can say little of the introduction to Zelizer’s piece; it opens on a definition, which I have always found to be a tedious, tired method of opening article. Yet, it moves on to ask a few generative questions about the nature of memory that lead into the article’s main purpose. The piece goes on to discuss moves then current (1995) in memory studies, dealing with collective memory. This aligns with some of my own research interests (to be discussed, I hope, in future postings—though it would be premature to discuss them here), leading me to flag this article for possible reconsideration when I am able to proceed with that research. For the sake of brevity I will refrain from further immediate comment on this piece, noting instead that I suspect it may come back into play (in some form or another) in my future research.
In Osborne’s article, he quickly establishes his own definition of the archive, a “centre of interpretation,” weaving through assertions about theorists and “liberalism” to link the archive as a concept to a kind of credibility, centering on questions of ethos. Given the complex discussion of memory from the preceding Zelizer text, I find it interesting to consider the archive as a form of (power-curated) public memory. The archive (like all things, it seems) becomes a political and partial space. I had not previously considered the archive as such a political space, yet of course it makes sense to consider the archive in terms of power (public, royal, democratic?) and making that power visible. Osborne’s emphasis on the “ordinary” might, simplistically put, be seen as what separates the archive from the exhibit.
Biesecker opens with a series of complex assertions; while sorting through these highly loaded and heady arguments seems a bit treacherous, she comes quickly to some striking cautionary points about the nature of the archive, referencing other writers who have pointed out the easy mistake of seeing the archive as a direct, unmediated representation of the past. The latter portion of the text focuses on discussion of museum exhibits concerning the Enola Gay, offering a culturally vivid occasion to consider the force of intention when considering what is to be privileged or foregrounded in any depiction of historical events, which archives certainly are. The general move of the piece seems to be designed to highlight these questions of implicit bias, which is of course an important consideration when engaging with the archive as a resource.
2 thoughts on “A First Look at Archives”
Cristina Ramirez says:
Yes, we had many readings this week. I am drawn mostly to your statement about Zeiler’s piece opening with a “tedious, tired method of opening an article.” Ah, yes, I do agree, but as a method, we always need to position ourselves and our definitions of what we are considering, or we will be misunderstood. But, yes, I hear you.
Dave Rick says:
I think I did too much reading in too short a time that day. Looking back, my reader-fatigue comes through very strongly in that entry….