I’m headed to California tomorrow for a few weeks and, while there, will be doing a little archival work. As a theorist, my relationship to archives has always been something of an ambivalent one. On one hand, I am a trivia geek and a total sucker for troves of old things. I like thumbing through letters and thinking about changes in penmanship and syntax over the years. I really dig the time capsule aspect of the process that creates enough distance for everything to appear strange and special to me. On the other hand, I am wary of the temptation to identify a clear or linear narrative about (and, in so doing, romanticize) the past. The archival project that I often assign to students in my Religion in the American South seminar, for example, asks them to focus on the rhetoric and contextual politics of the archival sources they examine in UA’s special collections library. In that sense, my students are looking reading historical texts from a perspective akin to what Hayden White outlines in his now-classic Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), keeping in mind the manifold narrative devices present in the presentation of an artifact.
The ease with which such devices are forgotten, however, makes my own time in the archives interesting (and useful) for reasons beyond what I find in the library stacks. When I set out to explore some resources for my current work on the concept of “slave religion,” one librarian in particular became incredulous as I explained to her my project (one that focuses on the rhetorical and political implications of the category rather than the descriptive history of rituals and belief systems in the 18th and 19th centuries). “But what are you really studying?,” she asked.
So as I set out on my newest adventure in the archives, I take heart in what Jacques Derrida suggests in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression:
…the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event. (17)
What am I really studying? Processes of production rather than recording.
I’ll let you know how it goes…