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Archives, records, and power: From (postmodern) theory to (archival) performance


This article is the continuation and conclusion of our introduction, as the guest editors, that appeared in the first of these two special issues ofArchival Science, which together are devoted to the theme, “Archives, Records, and Power.” It argues that, in performing their work, archivists follow a script that has been naturalized by the routine repetition of past practice. They act in ways that they anticipate their various audiences would desire. If archival practice is to be influenced by the postmodern ideas of the authors of the essays in these two volumes, then archivists must see that the script, stage, and audiences have changed. Theory and practice are not opposites, not even polarities, but integrated aspects of the archivist's professional role and responsibility. Transparency of process about the archivist's performance will facilitate this integration, stimulate the building of archival knowledge, and enable present and future generations to hold the profession accountable for its choices in exercising power over the making of modern memory.

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    This pair of thematic issues ofArchival Science (the current volume and its predecessor) is dedicated with affection to Hugh Taylor, the dean of Canadian archivists. The ideas that we as editors decided to explore in commissioning these essays owe much to his reflections upon documentary meaning, technological transformations, media characteristics, the evolution from ancient and medieval mnemonics (archivists as remembrancers in the oral tradition) through to archives without walls in a wired networked world, for purposes possibly good (his own bioregional, ecological, spiritual thrusts for the archival endeavour) or possibly ill (a worldwide corporate power base making the exploitation of humans in the industrial revolution look modest in comparison). In his challenges to archival traditions, practices, and conventions, penned from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, also lay the germs of our postmodernist sensibilities. The best of his essays, together with new reflections by Hugh and critiques by the books' editors, will soon be available in Terry Cook and Gordon Dodds (eds.),Imagining Archives: Essays and Reflections by Hugh A. Taylor (forthcoming, early 2003).

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    Two recent essays especially address, in a broad, conceptual way, the always-opening narratives within archives, the never-ending history of the record before and after it arrives in an historical archive. See Tom Nesmith, “Seeing Archives: Postmodernism and the Changing Intellectual Place of Archives”,American Archivist 65 (Spring/Summer 2002): 24–41; and Eric Ketelaar, “Tacit Narratives: The Meanings of Archives”,Archival Science 1.2 (2001): 131–141. See also Carolyn Hamilton et al. (eds.),Refiguring the Archive (Cape Town, 2002).

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    Judith Butler, “Preface (1999)”, in herGender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London, 1990; 2nd edn., 1999), pp. xiv–xv. We thank Sharon Anne Cook, University of Ottawa, for bring Butler's performance theories to our attention.

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    Judith Butler, “Performativity's Social Magic”, in Theodore R. Schatzki and Wolfgang Natter (eds.),The Social and Political Body (New York and London), pp. 29–48, quoted at 30.

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    See Ketelaar, “Tacit Narratives: The Meaning of Archives”, already cited..

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    This might usefully be thought of as the “poetics” rather than the “politics” of archives, and indeed has been. See Joan M. Schwartz, “‘We make our tools and our tools make us’: Lessons from Photographs for the Practice, Politics, and Poetics of Diplomatics”,Archivaria 40 (Fall 1995): 40–74.

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    The historical notions of this view are explored through the medium of photography, in Joan M. Schwartz “‘Records of Simple Truth and Precision’: Photography, Archives, and the Illusion of Control”,Archivaria 50 (Fall 2000): 1–40.

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    Luciana Duranti'sDiplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (Lanham MD and London, 1998), originally a series of six articles inArchivaria 28 to 33 (1989–1991), has had an influential, but not uncontroversial, impact on archives. For a flavouring of explicit criticism of this positivist, diplomatics-centred approach, see, in addition to the postmodern analysis generally cited throughout these two issues ofArchival Science, Brien Brothman, “Orders of Value: Probing the Theoretical Terms of Archival Practice”,Archivaria 32 (Summer 1991): 78–100; Schwartz, “‘We make our tools and our tools make us’: Lessons from Photographs for the Practice, Politics, and Poetics of Diplomatics”; Nancy Bartlett, “Diplomatics for Photographic Images: Academic Exoticism?”American Archivist 59 (Fall 1996): 486–494; Preben Mortensen, “The Place of Theory in Archival Practice”,Archivaria 47 (Spring 1999): 1–26; Susan Storch, “Diplomatics: Modern Archival Method or Medieval Artifact”,American Archivist 61 (Fall 1998): 365–383; and Terry Cook “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts”,Archival Science 1.1 (2001): 3–24.

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    Tom Nesmith, “Still Fuzzy, But More Accurate: Some Thoughts on the ‘Ghosts’ of Archival Theory”,Archivaria 47 (Spring 1999): 136–150. On the ghost metaphor in Jacques Derrida's writing concerning the persistence of the “Other” being ever present, of never being able to fully escape the past, see Stuart Sim,Derrida and the End of History (Cambridge, 1999), which is a critical appreciation of Derrida'sSpecters of Marx (1993, an American translation and thus the Americanized spelling).

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    For the origins of these traditional archival scripts or theories within their historical contexts, see Terry Cook, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift”,Archivaria 43 (Spring 1997):: 17–63.

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    One could cite a mountain of books on the impact of technology, technical thinking, and the technological imperative, their focus on information rather than knowledge, and their antipathy to humanist, historical, and substantial thinking. The archivist who advocates most eloquently the importance of the spirit over the letter, the meaning over the technique, is Hugh A. Taylor. See, among others (note 1 above), his “Chip Monks at the Gate: The Impact of Technology on Archives, Libraries and the User”,Archivaria 33 (Winter 1991–1992): 173–180; and “The Archivist, the Letter, and the Spirit”,Archivaria 43 (Spring 1997): 1–16. Two very accessible cultural critics on this subject, who argue that technology is anything but neutral, are Ursula Franklin,The Real World of Technology (Toronto, 1990); and Neil Postman,Technology: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, 1993). On how the technical tools we adopt as archivists then redefine us, see Schwartz, “We make our tools and our tools make us’: Lessons from Photographs for the Practice, Politics, and Poetics of Diplomatics”. On the nature of research required for thesubstance andknowledge an archivist needs to perform archival work, as opposed to the standards and methodologies through which that substance is displayed, see Terry Cook, “‘The Imperative of Challenging Absolutes’ in Graduate Archival Education Programs: Issues for Educators and the Profession”,American Archivist 63 (Fall/Winter 2000): 380–391. For another statement of the need to refocus on the substance and cultural goal of archival work rather than its technique and means, see Mark A. Greene, “The Power of Meaning: The Archival Mission in the Postmodern Age”,American Archivist 65 (Spring/Summer 2002): 42–55.

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    Butler,Gender Trouble, Judith Butler,Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London, 1990; 2nd edn., 1999), pp. xvii, xxvi, 173–80. In her case, “obvious” assumptions about gender, about such dichotomies as male and female, even about mainstream feminist critiques of patriarchyversus matriarchy, have been challenged by drag or cross-dressing performances, by more aggressive homosexuality (“Queer Nation”) within previous heterosexual conventionalities, and by yet more transgressive behaviours in transsexuality, surgical intersexuality, and so on. This doesnot mean that those holding the old assumptions suddenly become gay or transsexual; it does mean that their old “obvious” notions about gender no longer stand up, because the previously silenced and ignored “Other” has, through transgressive performance, demonstrated forcefully the inadequacy of the old script to account at least for some aspects of gender.

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    For a short analysis of the historical conditions of postmodernity, with related cross-references, see Terry Cook, “Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives”,Archivaria 51 (Spring 2001): 14–35, especially 22–27.

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    It is appropriate that these two special issues ofArchival Science are dedicated to Huge Taylor, for it is Hugh, closely followed by David Bearman, who has consistently advocated transgressive behaviour against archival norms. His vision of “total archives,” his broadening of the terms of archival imagination far beyond the usual custodial cloisters and usual media of recording, generated a significant “rediscovery of provenance” and a revitalization of archival studies at many levels. His transgressive performance also created the framework spawning Canada's leadership internationally in postmodern thinking about archives, by archivists. After viewing Hugh's transgressive performance carefully, no archival audience will ever think of the old scripts in the same way as they did before. For an analysis of David Bearman's similarly transgressive performance, and its encroachment on the old scripts, see Terry Cook, “The Impact of David Bearman on Modern Archival Thinking: An Essay of Personal Reflection and Critique”,Archives and Museum Informatics 11.1 (1997): 15–17.

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    A. Taylor, “The Archivist, the Letter, and the Spirit”,: 11, 5.

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    Greg Dening,Performances (Chicago, 1996), p. 104.

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    The arguments in this paragraph reflect a longer analysis in Cook, “‘The Imperative of Challenging Absolutes’ in raduate Archival Education Programs”,.

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    Verne Harris, “Seeing (in) Blindness: South Africa, Archives and Passion for Justice”, draft essay for presentation to New Zealand archivists (August 2001), p. 11 (manuscript pagination).

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    Schwartz, “‘We make our tools and our tools make us’: Lessons from Photographs for the Practice, Politics, and Poetics of Diplomatics”,: 116, 63–64

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    Dening,Performances (Chicago, 1996), pp. 116, xiv.

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    Ibid. Dening,Performances (Chicago, 1996), p. 20.

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    Readers please note: As guest co-editors, we have standardized spelling and grammar in all the essays to conform to Canadian-English style; however, authors' varying footnoting styles have been respected in large part, and only made consistent within each article, not across all the articles.

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Cook, T., Schwartz, J.M. Archives, records, and power: From (postmodern) theory to (archival) performance. Archival Science 2, 171–185 (2002).

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  • accountability
  • archival practice
  • archival theory
  • postmodernism
  • performance