My focus on Ann Stoler’s work, Colonial Archives and the Art of Governance and Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge has in some odd way given me a tremendous understanding of both the history of record keeping and the language that factors to authorize those records. These reading and others, like Trouillot’s book, “Silencing”, which exposed the greatest lie of the U.S. archives from slavery. This realization, though I had heard stories of the great Haitian Revolution, brought an awareness that was not there before. Before reading these works, I personally not comprehend the practices that for over a century have kept archivist tormenting with the idea of how to better perfect this apparatus called the “fonds”, so that it reflects true society as a whole. I discovered that not only was archival science an intentional and manipulated practice of memory retrieval and making, but also a potential and proven socio-political weapon created as a way to control and rule over populations and to claim provenance.
A few key points hit home for me and my interests in the political nature of archives as well as the practice and language that creates them. I was pretty surprised to discover the three Canadian Dutchmen who, in 1898 presented a shiny new rule book on how to ensure the integrity of the “fonds” and how to conduct thorough analysis of it’s contents. The “Dutch Manuel” set the president for what archiving is today. The most important rule of this ‘Manuel’ was to not be altered or delineated from, was rule number one, ” “the whole of the written documents, drawings and printed matter, officially received or produced by an administrative body or one of its officials …”. Though others have attempted to revamp this record production system, many continue to use this out dated method still today.
I explored a lot of Ann Stoler’s ideas as well as the cited references from her works. I have realized that I am one of those “students of culture” she speaks about in her writing. She speaks directly to the questions that have plagued me since embarking on my own journey for true representation of my self and factual historical records of ancestors and events surrounding family. I am questioning the very same issues she points out and reading her thoughts gave me relief, that I can be candid and open about my same frustrations with silence and erasure within and around the archive.
Focault’s quote on asking questions about “how” this happens, gave me the spark to go digging. He states, “I don’t believe the question of ‘who exercises power’ can be resolved, if the question of ‘how does it happen’, is resolved at the same time.” Focault’s “system of formation and transformation of statements”, “enunciative function”, and his “historical a priori” all shed valuable light as to what is occurring as the archives are being structured. What Focault stresses is nothing more than the “language of the privileged” and how the archive becomes what it is when archivist begin to talk over, about and around the truth.
Who has the authority to make selections to be placed in archives? How does this process work? What processes exactly are at work? and “What criteria is chosen to either store or discard?” What is classified as evidence of truth? and what are reliable sources?– since some believe that history has no power without it’s source.
So many questions began to come to me as I became anxious about the possibilities for future archival work and ways to improve and build new ideas to make it all inclusive for everyone and everything- for the sake of correcting history. I wanted to compare what was already in the archive to what part of my heritage and others in this ‘whole’ had been erased, silenced or omitted completely from the record? As I dug further into the history of record keeping, I began to discover many examples of errors, omissions, deliberate erasures and just flat out manipulations on the public record. How can the archives represent the whole of a society when clearly what is and remains within it, is only a fraction of what is factual. Is this why the three amigos of archival science felt compelled to publish in 1898 an official rule book on properly describing materials? Were they driven by the frustration as I am today? I had to know more and with a few more questions I went a little further.
Focault has greatly influenced me if not as much as Ann Stoler. Stoler’s points which reminded me of Derrida’s truth that “there is no political power without control of the archive.” It seemed true. Who has the power to decide? Stoler rightfully explains how the “arch”, “archi(v)a” means magistrate in Greek and Latin and how ‘etymology’ rules for those who control it. As Thomas Richards Hilton states in “Lost Horizon about the Archive”, it was a “prototype for a global system of domination through circulation, an apparatus for controlling territory by producing, distributing and consuming information about it.” This statement suggests that the archive was invented for the sole purpose to circulate information (repetitiously), and to also consume what was being spoon fed to the public itself.
Here is where my application to Political Epistemology begins. I address questions of authority and provenance, the questions of diversity and culture and the questions of access and truth. Erasure, silencing and ostracizing culture in and throughout history has become seemingly the norm for archival practice. Is this behavior inevitable among future archivist or can it be corrected with new innovative approaches to this science? With so many new technologies, data sets, creative minds springing up, I am wondering why no one has made a way to drastically challenge the of silence to marginalized populations and manipulated evidence of statements and events of the past.
This newest challenge with the art of record keeping is with vast databases of electronic records which will make or break of future archiving. Will archivist create a whole separate practice for digital records? Will they incorporate old practices and processes with new materials and what problems come with them?
Stoler cites author Michel De Certeau’s challenge to question and rethink the archival process. I too will take on Certeau’s call to “prowl” the landscape of what kinds of piece meal knowledge has been blindly entered into the archives and how that information has affected me directly and collide with the future of others. Today with more communication modes and access to a fair amount of knowledge of the past (not enough), marginalized communities are asking these questions and will ultimately find answers. The taxonomies of race and rule have been unchecked and have persisted for too long. If legitimizing the epistemology of society is the true mission of any archivist, there must be severe improvements in the areas of provenance and historical cultural claims (not negatively).
Archivist must certainly know the difference between “what happened” and “what is said to have happened” when preserving knowledge. The source is the most important mode of understanding of the process, and the words to describe them has become a nuance for the practice and must be carefully considered before applying them to any new material. It is in the context and the process that create the original record that is more trustworthy and reliable.
Finally, the fact that there are less articles, reports and scholarship written on the social practices of archiving today, than there were a hundred years ago, speaks volumes on the work ahead of Archival Science. Why are there no efforts being made to master the understanding of the act of archiving or the sociology of archiving?- rather than on the rules, extraction of materials, organizing, describing, and theoretical spiel on archival practice? What is our inner drive or “impulse” to create records in the first place? This is a totally different question from memory- or is it?