my archival practice

I had a great question from my colleague today:

Hi Adeola. I’m curious how you think about your archiving practices in relation to your archiving (analysis? retrieval?)… I know in your work you are more focused on studying rather than creating archives. But you do create them, so I’m wondering how the 2 activities relate for you. Is one more personal and the other more academic? Or can there be such a distinction for you? What do you think Benjamin was doing with the Arcades project?

This was a great question, because it forced me to think carefully and articulate my approach to archiving. Here is my answer:

I don’t work on “the archive”, per se, because I think that it is too fetishized as an object. I am interested in “archiving” as an everyday practice that has been part of modern life, for many people (anyone associated with a state, in one way or another) and today, it is THE modus operandus for most people who live in the world of electronic devices–from TV watchers, to phone callers, and email senders.

Right now, as I write I am engaging in an archival practice. To me this is more than simply creating an archive that someone can retrieve. I take a lot of inspiration from Benjamin’s arcades project, and many of his writings are part of my “top shelf.” I don’t want to make the comment TOO long, so here is a link to my blog, where I discuss Benjamin a little:

You will see that Benjamin is very interested in trash, debris, what as been discarded. Why? Not only because it needs to be retrieved and saved (the Arcades project was as much about his life in Paris, as anything else. It is far from a library, or national archive, or institutional archive), or worked with in any conventional way, but because looking at the trash–dumpster diving–was a way to re-train our historical senses, to begin to see how the past is never really gone, and does not necessarily need to be “retrieved” because it never actually left. The Arcades project is not conventional history, or even conventional archiving, in any sense. It is not about creating narratives. I think it is about training oneself as a researcher to do what, in one’s time seems odd, challenging, difficult or even embarassing. What is today’s equivalence of (academic) dumpster diving?

I really like Agnes Varda’s film: The Gleaners and I. It literally takes up dumpster diving as a practice that spans a variety of fields and life syles, and connects it to her film-making practice.

So this brings me back to my statement in class about not wanting to create archives. I meant that I don’t see a need to create archives in any sense of consciously collecting the histories of others for instrumental purposes. We already create archives all the time. Almost everyone does. So for me, the question is: What is this everyday practice of creating archives doing to our senses of who we are, as people, citizens, neighbors? What is it doing to the way we see the world? This is key, because I think how we see the world, and who we think we are, is the basis of how we engage politically with the world.

What happens when everyone, from old people, in the Bronx to kids in Bed Stuy is already an archivist? What type of project does that mean I need to do, or we need to do? Do we need to create another archive as a goal? If so, what kind of archive do we need to make? Something that will end up in the library of congress, like StoryCorps?

Or something that is more about “dumpster diving” in some way? Or something else?

These are all big questions for me, especially because we, as academics, are part of a state institution, are funded (and applying for funding) from state instituions, and are planning to work with state institutions, and produce state-sanctioned knowledge about others.

(Ethically, my orientation is towards studying this knowledge production process itself. If we are part of the state, no matter our good intentions, we have to ask: while we watch the others, who is watching us? I certainly don’t like to think of myself as part of the state, but I know everytime I enter into the CUNY building, everytime I sit in the classroom, I am a state certified, run and operated educational system. I think this means something)

So when we make our state-initiated and state-sponsored archive, what should it be? What is the best, most creative way to address this world in which everyone is already an archivist?

So I send the question back to you!




2 thoughts on “my archival practice

  1. Ok Adeola, sorry for such a lengthy response time, but I’ve had your questions in mind! I’m with you on keeping in (much more) mind the fact that our work is state sponsored and done on behalf of others, and that we should take particular care in devising projects that collect information from their lives. What you’re talking about – studying the archival practices of people, from the least to the most intentional, and how they shape who we are and how we see the world- is such a different project from that of creating “an” archive for some group or group’s more instrumental purposes. So I can definitely understand your sensitivity to your interest in archival practices being misunderstood/run with in another direction. I feel like it has something to do with the word “archive” having particular appeal at this time- like you were saying about Sami’s privacy/surveillance work- why is there suddenly so much interest in these concepts? Do we have consensus about their meanings? At what point should we decide they aren’t the right vocabulary for our purposes, because the risks are too great that they’re used for evil rather than good? I wonder for most, if archiving is felt to be a more forward or backward leaning process, whether it’s about history or future documentation… I’m not surprised that your interest would be more present/future oriented, as you employ pragmatism in your work, whereas the humanist geographers may be more historically oriented. I’m completely torn between these leans and find that it changes depending on the situation. But as a practice, I wonder if archiving is especially subject to contestation because of this fundamental tension.
    I feel that your project is incredibly interesting and important. My husband would be a perfect specimen for you! He spends an unbelievable amount of time on flickr, he’s on and off it all day… I think it really has been accommodated in how he sees the world, himself, others… it was the platform from which he started his business, a blog for when he was sick with cancer, it constitutes a large portion of his social life. It’s not as though he is disengaged from “this world” or whatever, but that he has access to this whole other one.
    On the other hand, I think projects that organize and codify information, data, artifacts, or whatever WITH NOT FOR a group or community may also be an interesting project- but it’s of such a different nature that we should be very careful not to confuse them under the seemingly sexy archive umbrella.
    I wonder what you think about Sami’s project, since it sort of dances around archiving but he doesn’t use the term so much. I feel his attention to the way in which we’ve become so used to having data collected about us on such a regular basis, and they way that makes us sort of insensitive to these practices in general- is closer to what you’re interested in. It’s about how we are subjectified through our everyday practices, with more or less awareness about what we’re doing to contribute and what others may do with that information down the road. On the other hand, it’s conceivable that in some cases for some businesses and institutions that he may encounter are more intentional in their creation of “an archive,” or at least that’s where this all seems to be headed. Maybe his project is an example of how our current intentions to build archives in certain ways for certain people, is subject to change as time goes on… In fact, I wonder if when he was asking the higher ups about what they were doing/going to do with all this data, if he wasn’t possibly giving them ideas!
    So I guess I feel there is just as much risk in exploitation and manipulation in either case- but an important lesson is to understand that for both, current technologies are making it possible for all of our work to be picked up and f-ed with by just about anyone.
    Wow, I guess I rambled. And I didn’t answer the question about what it is we’re supposed to do… I’ll keep thinking.

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