For many of us, archives are a central feature of our day-to-day work practices. In research practicums we learn about how to identify archival sources and begin piecing fragments into coherent accounts. However, I often find myself thinking about the epistemological (and ethical) status of the archive. This is a gap in our pedagogy that warrants attention. At the most basic of levels — how did this material come to be available to me as historian and what are my obligations to these material traces?
Cultural critics, anthropologists, and social historians have done important work in this vein — the translation of Derrida’s Archive Fever into English spurred a flurry of scholarship in the late 1990s, including one of my favorites: Carol Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. Steedman is an interpreter of Derrida, who draws on the archive as source of power in order to probe the politics of doing ‘bottom up’ history with records that were produced by the state (prison records, tax records, birth and death certificates). More recently, Ann Stoler has drawn on her considerable ethnographic and historical expertise to problematize the archive in colonial history in her book Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Along this grain, indeed, the archive has increasingly become an intellectual boundary object, bringing historians into dialog with anthropologists. A recent example is Andrew Wilford & Eric Tagliacozzo’s edited volume, Clio/Anthropos: Exploring the Boundaries between Anthropology and History. The essays, by practitioners of history and ethnography, consider how the archive structures knowledge production . . . and vice versa.
My own work as a historian of biology deals with the construction of archives (this is an actor’s category) made out of human and non-human blood samples. The scientists who have assembled these collections view them as repositories that will be used to generate knowledge about the past and engage in various memory practices (ala Geoff Bowker) familiar to me from my own experiences in textual archives. This leads me to my questions for the blogosphere:
(1) What are the epistemic & ethical anxieties that you — as historians of science — have faced in your own encounters with the archive? To what extent are we uniquely positioned to contribute to this broader discussion? I have a few ideas of my own, but want to hear from you.
(2) And, what are the range of non-text-based ‘archives’ that you have encountered in your research? What can we learn about our own historical knowledge production practices by studying the archival techniques of other kinds of experts? How does this work intersect with or diverge from the literature on the history of collections and collecting?
I leave you with a link to the Cryobook Archive, work of the artist Tagny Duff (thanks to historian of bio-art, Hannah Rogers for the tip!). Duff has fashioned a series of texts out of living, human bodily substance. Creepy, ‘cool’, and provocative . . .