Archives, Material Histories and Anxieties

At a recent conference on histories of material life in South Asia that I attended there were two excellent papers that touched on the physical creation of archives. The keynote lecture on pre-colonial records in Maharashta, delivered by Rosalind O’Hanlon, described the use of inscribed rocks and copper plates to document and preserve the rites held by influential families. And, in a paper on early-modern Sri Lanka, Sujit Sivasundaram detailed the labour that went into the production of palm leaf manuscripts. The materials used to make these records were central to their authority. Palm leaf was deemed fit to be handled by rulers, whereas paper was an adulterated, tainted material. Making these records required special skill and took time and care. What was being recorded in these materials had to be worth while recording.

Thinking about how these records were made led me to reflect on how writing technologies influence what can be recorded, and thus, what enters the archive. Just to be clear, by ‘the archive’ I don’t only mean the physical buildings in which documents from the past are stored, although this is part of it. I also mean a broader, more philosophical definition of ‘the archive’, one forwarded by Michel Foucault. This definition holds that ‘the archive’ is an overarching cultural power structure that governs what can and can’t be said in any particular historical period or place. What the examples from South Asian history remind me is that the way something is physically recorded shapes what is recorded. Jacques Derrida noted this in one of his unusually plain passages in Archive Fever, in which he discusses Sigmund Freud’s personal archive. He speculated on what Freud’s records might have contained if email had been around. How would this have changed what he wrote? This historical sci-fi has endless potential. What if Oscar Wilde had a twitter account? What if Rosa Luxemburg had a tumblr site? What if George Formby was on myspace? You get the point.

These speculations suggest that due to new technology it is now easier to record our lives than ever before, and less of a laborious material act. But I think that this might hide ways in which the archive remains partly a constraining, limiting structure. There is a material aspect to the production of this electronic record, it is just that we are distanced from it. There is the labour involved in the production of the laptops and smartphones, and the global inequalities inherent in this. There is also the energy used to power these technologies, and the environmental cost of this. The privilege and power apparent in the production of Sri Lankan palm leaf manuscripts might seem more material and physical, but just as with those early-modern elites, most of the material work that enables us to record ourselves is done by others.

However, the material nature of these technologies has nonetheless changed the impulse to record our lives. For Derrida, committing something to paper, leaving an impression, was an act that involved internal conflict. Freud, he argued, wanted to make his ideas known, but was equally anxious about how they would be received. He feared revealing too much about himself. The psychological impulse to archive, Derrida argued, was a ambivalent one. This anxiety described by Derrida still haunts us, but the immediacy and inter-connectivity of internet platforms shape our fears. We want to share our thoughts, feelings, and holiday snaps – but not too much. There is the fear that a midnight, drunken rant of a facebook status might be read by your boss. That you might accidentally hit ‘reply all’ on an angry email and it might go viral. That an ill-conceived, overly self-referential blog might undermine someone’s academic credibility. Just as someone starting out on a palm leaf or a cooper plate, we don’t write just anything and what we record is informed by how we record it. Whereas an early-modern Maharastrian engraver might have hovered over a copper plate with chisel in hand, our mouse icon might hover over ‘publish’ on a blog site.


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