The State and the Archives in the Post-fact Age

AHA Session 7
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Embassy Room (Omni Shoreham, East Lobby)
Noa Shaindlinger, North Carolina State University
The Audience

Session Abstract

Much has been written on the professionalization of history and the rise of the modern nation-state. Clinging to mythical origins as basis for legitimacy articulates well with the modern state’s practice of archiving, celebrating and supplying “evidence” of ethnic and cultural authenticity. The purpose of this session is to expand the conversation about the state and its archives. Jacques Derrida identified archives as sites of disease or evil, at the intersection of the will to power and an obsession with beginnings (commandment and commencement). Archives are not only repositories of the past the state wishes to preserve, documents not simply “there” to be “discovered” by the erudite historian. Archives are organized to tell specific stories and silence uncomfortable ones. Reflecting on the archives as sites of power, participants in this panel will ask: how are archival silences produced and moreover - can historians make these deliberate silences heard? Problematizing the ‘feverish’ (to quote Derrida) obsession with archival evidence, we wish to question the assumption that state-archived documents are where the ‘smoking gun,’ or the undeniable evidence of past injustice, is found. What if that evidence never enters the archive? What if we only find its absence? These questions have become more urgent in the “post-fact” age, with the undermining of “evidence” as a concept and as a tangible and knowable artifact. Our questioning of common assumptions about the nature of evidence is designed to bolster history as a method and an insistence that although archival research may prove disappointing, it remains indispensable if we ask the right questions.
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