A Literary Reading of the Archive

April 26th, 2011 Comments Off on A Literary Reading of the Archive

On friday I attended a ‘colloquium’ in the Comparative Literature department at NYU, at which Cristina Vatulescu gave a presentation related to her recent book, “Police Aesthectics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times”.

After giving an overview of the state and history of police archives in eastern Europe in general, and detailing some of the bureaucratic hurdles she had to climb over in order to gain access to some of these archives (and quoting Derrida and Foucault on archives along the way, naturally), she got to what I found to be the most interesting part of her presentation.

Ultimately, she found that gaining access to the archives was less of a problem for her than the act of actually working through the materials: basically, she had no idea how to read the documents, and she had to undergo a process of “patiently re-learning how to read.”  She soon realized that she was essentially the second reader of these files, the first being a supervisor or archivist who had made numerous markings in red pencil.  However, there was a huge difference between herself and the first reader: the document had been written to meet the expectations of the supervisor and thus, the files can tell us more about the police than about the individuals who are the subjects of these files.  The traditional biography aims to create a comprehensive portrait of an individual, but the purpose of the biographies created by these files is to do the opposite: its intent is to eliminate any doubts or any contradictions and to transform all aspects of one’s life so as they fit into the context of “legal” or “illegal”, thus estranging the subject’s relationship to his or her own value system.  The only value system of any consequence is ultimately that of the interrogator, and that value system is aligned strictly with the secret police’s goals, whatever those might be.  She likens her own experience with the documents to surrealism: the groups of documents, when laid out on the table, seem absurd to the viewer, unless one looks at them through the strange lens of the secret police’s goals.

In the end, she makes the comparison between literature and the secret police file as a genre of writing, and how the two influence each other. She argues that the position of the author and the shaping of biographical materials (in literary practice in general, but more specifically in Eastern European literature) must be re-evaluated in light of the roles played by authorship and biographical truth in creating these police files.

[Photo by John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images]

Comments are closed.