From Source to Subject: Historical Writing and the “Archival Turn”

AHA Session 162
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Madison Suite (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Catherine E. Clark, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cybernetic Archives
Orit Halpern, New School
History As a Field of Struggle: The Making of Black Archives, 1915–50
Laura E Helton, Carter G. Woodson Institute, University of Virginia
Jack (John Kuo Wei) Tchen, New York University

Session Abstract

If archives have long been the methodological terrain of history, they have more recently become the conceptual and analytical terrain of a range of disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, most notably literary and cultural studies and anthropology.  Indeed, the terms "archive" and "archives" have proven remarkably elastic.  They now serve as keywords for questions of memory, evidence, taxonomy, classification, governance, authority, knowledge production, and justice.  Scholars invoke "the archive" to refer to places, institutions, collections, practices, traces, methodologies, organizing principles, information networks, and theoretical frameworks.  This "archival turn" outside the field of history has produced a wealth of recent work.  Scholars such as Ann Stoler (Along the Archival Grain) and Anjali Arondekar (For the Record) have studied colonial archives as sites of tension between the mediated subjectivity of those documented in records and the authority of state record-keepers to shape memory, while others have taken up the archive as a metaphorical apparatus to examine the transmission of knowledge through writing (Deborah Thomas'  "Caribbean Studies, Archive Building, and the Problem of Violence") and performance (Diana Taylor's The Archive and the Repertoire).  These are just a few examples of many. 

Because archives provide the evidentiary scaffolding for most historical analyses, historians have an intimate familiarity with archival dilemmas--from silences in the archival record to the ways that power structures documentary evidence--that is perhaps unparalleled in any other discipline.  Such dilemmas have remained largely methodological concerns, discussed in graduate seminars but rarely subjected to extended reflection in our published writings.  As in other fields, however, historians in the past decade increasingly have come to make archives the foreground, rather than the background, of their work--from Antoinette Burton's Dwelling in the Archive to Kathryn Burns' Into the Archive, Astrid Eckert's The Struggle for the Files, and Kirsten Weld's forthcoming Paper Cadavers.

This roundtable will feature in-progress work that builds on this renewed attention to archives as rich subjects (and not just sources) for historical study.  The scholars featured focus on four different moments of archive-building in the twentieth century: African American collectors in the interwar period; the development of a Soviet archival system after 1917; competing frameworks for Jewish archives before Israel; and the relationship between modernist archiving and post-war cybernetics.  Chaired by Catherine Clark, who studies the making of French photographic archives, and with a comment by Jack Tchen--long a builder and critic of Asian/Pacific/American collections--this session will generate a rich discussion not only about the area-specific intervention each scholar is making, but also about how together this work within historical studies reflects and/or departs from the "archival turn" in other fields.

We will ask how the recent surge of attention outside of history to archives as concept, space, and source might foster cross-disciplinary thinking and practice.  In what ways could interpretations of the archive in one field help reframe archival questions in another? And within our own field, how might histories of the archive reshape histories written from the archive?

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