"On the Subject of Archives", a double issue of e-misférica (vol. 9, issues 1 and 2)

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Archive in Transit 

Marianne Hirsch and Diana Taylor

The subject of archives has been a topic of conversation, collaboration and co-teaching between the two of us for several decades. Whether we were working on the memory and postmemory of the Holocaust or the Argentinean Dirty War, thinking about literature, photography, or performance, whether we were co-teaching courses on trauma and memory or co-organizing conferences or workshops, the subject of archives supersisted in our minds. Why had the subject of archives taken on such power? Our discussions about “Engendering the Archive” took place in the very different but equally exciting contexts of two working groups—at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of of Social Difference between 2008 and 2012, and at the Hemispheric Institute’s Encuentro in Bogotá, Colombia in August 2009. Both working groups, like this issue, brought together scholars, artists, activists, and practitioners, and both reflected a great variety of fields and approaches, ranging from anthropology, to performance, history, literature, theater, visual culture, memory studies, public humanities, and politics. The theoretical, critical and personal essays, interviews, art pieces, and activist work represented in this issue emerge from the commitment of the working groups to looking at how gender, race, sexuality, class and power determine what societies remember and what they forget.

Why the archive now? How has the term become so ubiquitous and so capacious—encompassing the collection, the inventory, the library, the museum, and even the corpus of our scholarly projects, or the references we use? Why have archives, and archival practices become so central to our understanding of our historical moment and of ourselves as subjects of history? More than a repository of objects or texts, the archive is also the process of selecting, ordering and preserving the past. It is simultaneously any accessible collection that potentially yields data, and a site for critical reflection and contestation of its social, political, and historical construction. The archive is also a widespread social practice. We archive ourselves in action, in our files, and on our shelves, as well as on Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and in photos and videos, through every available medium. What is more, the archive is also fertile ground for artists and performers who use and at the same time critique its construction.

As a digital publication, this double issue of e-misférica is particularly well poised to look at how digital technologies have realigned the subject of the archive—both the archive as concept and the subjectivity that is created through archival practices. As digital archives expand our abilities to structure and preserve knowledge, have they also succeeded in shifting the logics of intelligibility to bring the unspoken and the unthought into public awareness? How have the power structures behind archival practices been transformed through technological and creative innovation over the past decades?

The contributions to this issue expose the archival work of different media, languages and technologies—verbal and written, digital, narrative, painting, drawing, comics, photography, radio, performance, official and unofficial documents, testimonial objects, bodies, and bodily remains—in calling urgent attention to war, repression, dictatorship, environmental disaster, AIDS, and struggles for economic justice across the Americas. This issue asks who and what is the “subject” of archives? What do we want or need from the past? How is the past put into the use of the present? What subjects are left out in the process?

To read the rest of the editorial remarks please click here.  To read "On the Subject of Archives", a double issue of e-misférica (volume 9, issues 1 and 2), please click here.