University of Manchester
The Reason of the Archive and Work of History
The paper is a preliminary working out of some ideas about how to approach the archive . It represents an extension of recent work of mine, in the journal Past and Present, attempting to address the relationship between so-called postmodernism and history in terms less of the epistemological than of the historical. The archive represents an extension of this historical dimension, but in particular broaches the question of modern structures of temporality in relation to debates about postmodernism and history. I approach the archive in terms of its history, the experience of the archive, and in particular the concept of the archive, which involves the question of the archive's politics.
I begin by contrasting to history of the nation as developed by Pierre Nora in Realms of Memory and British histories of the nation state which inhabit a somewhat different conceptual universe. The main purpose here is however is not to develop a sustained contrast of different national experiences, though I invite discussion of this, but to open up questions of the relationship between the experience of the nation state, the writing of history, and the transformation of memory in the recent and not so recent past. This serves as a context for considering different approaches to the archive. If modern memory is increasingly and irrevocably archival memory how do we think about what the archive is?
I consider the archive as experience, drawing on Carolyn Steedman's recent work. What happens when the experience of the archive (and the historian him or herself ) is revealed to be what Nora calls a site of memory, and when archival encounters are seen to be about the making of identity? These are perhaps important questions for social history especially, where the identity of the historian and discipline has been constructed out of archival encounters with particular sorts of other. However, though this is related to my concerns, my chief interest is in exploring a history and a politics of the archive around certain ideas taken from the work of Foucault.
First I consider the deployment of these ideas in terms of the history of the Imperial archive (in India), but chiefly around the idea of liberal governmentality in terms of the emergence of the public library in 19th- and early 20th-century Britain, linked as this was to the projection of particular sorts of liberal subjectivity which were connected to ideas of freedom and of "the public". Following on form this history, I consider the concept of the archive more abstractly in terms of its existence as what might be turned a political technology of interpretation and a centre for the production of credibility. As such, it involves a politics, which while not always liberal, is nonetheless always a politics, in the sense of an agonistic space opened up for contestation.
The chief question I ask it is how can we think about a present and future politics of the archive, given our inheritance of an earlier liberal politics of the archive, history's monopoly of memory, the demise of what Nora calls lived memory, and the enormous contemporary explosions and potential democratisation of the archive. It is this to be post- liberal politics, a neo- liberal politics, some other sort of politics? As a way of giving these questions some shape I close by drawing on some recent observations on the "electronic archive".