Recently Read – Along the Archival Grain

September 23, 2010

My last few months have been spent reading and searching through archival documents and images. As I have posted in the past, I am constantly in awe of the materials that can be found there, documents that are both revealing and limited. I’ve also had some wonderful conversations with the archivists I have met (in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa) and it’s been a pleasure to discuss some of the complexities involved in doing this research. Over the last few months, I have also been reading (and re-reading) sections of Ann Stoler’s book, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, which has provided an additional perspective on reading not only the documents contained within the archive, but on the archive itself.

I’ve found that my approach to archival research follows what Stoler identifies as “archiving-as-process rather than archives-as-things” (20). She stresses the need to read both along and against the grain of the archive, that is, to understand the conditions in which these archives were created and cultivated, and the conditions in which they are read now. Archives are not simply produced; they are productive. Because archives are charged sites of both knowledge and anxiety, they must be read as sites of contestation and resignification.[1]

These reflections have also led me to recognize that  truth commissions themselves are often about the production of an archive. For example, Verne Harris, Deputy-Director of the National Archive of South Africa during the South African TRC saw the reconciliation process as  “profoundly, an archival intervention.”[2] As the South African TRC gathered testimonies, “it was engaging archive, rescuing archive, creating archive, refiguring archive.”[3] I am curious to see how the archive (as both process and thing) plays a role as the Canadian TRC moves forward.

[1] See the collected essays in Lucy R Lippard’s Partial Recall: Photographs of Native North Americans for one example where indigenous people have done re-readings and resignfied archival images.)

[2] Krog, Antjie. There Was This Goat: Investigating the Truth Commission Testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile. University of Kwazulu Natal Press, 2009, p. 65

[3] ibid, p. 65.

4 Responses to “Recently Read – Along the Archival Grain”

  1. jb Says:

    Thanks Naomi! I need to read this book in its entirety too.

    She also has a great article called “Colonial archives and the arts of governance,” which covers some of the same conceptual ideas. You can read the abstract here:

    If you google it, it comes up as a PDF, in case you are interested.

    That image that you found with “GOODBYE” is really compelling. I can’t stop looking at it.

    Thanks for all your support these days!

  2. Thanks, Jamie. I’ll check out that article.
    I found the “goodbye” image really compelling too. The boy holding the second letter, the first “o” turning towards the building makes my breath catch. I wish the students in the photo had been identified.
    I’ve found a lot of other striking images too, and I’m not sure what to make of them. And even though they seem to say so much, I’m not sure what to say/do about them. In the meantime, I continue to look at/through/with them.

    Thanks for your support too, Jamie. (Can’t wait to see you!)

  3. jb Says:

    you must read elizabeth edwards and jane lydon when you have the time. they do such amazing work with the colonial image archive – particularly about the necessity to go back and re-read/re-write the images. it’s really inspiring work.

    can’t wait to see you either!

  4. Yes, have enjoyed Edwards and Lydon – such interesting work!

    Also the essays in Lucy R Lippard’s Partial Recall: Photographs of Native North Americans are really great. There’s one essay written by Gerald McMaster that I keep thinking about as I look at the images in the archive. In his article, “Colonial Alchemy: Reading the Boarding School Experience,” he focuses on one particular image from the Battleford Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. The image is of the school’s football team and their shirts are embroidered with the letters “IS.” The letters stand for “Industrial School,” but McMaster reads it as a declarative statement of existence, and also as a sign of resistance. I keep thinking about these images this way, as evidence of both existence and resistance…

    (J. – Soon, we get to have these conversations in person!)

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