Archival assemblages: applying disability studies’ political/relational model to archival description

Abstract

This paper critically explores power structures embedded in archival description and re-conceptualizes archives and archival material as assemblages of politicized decisions specifically by utilizing Alison Kafer’s political/relational model of disability as a framework. Kafer’s model draws upon previous models of disability to open up contestation and politicization of disability as a category. This approach acknowledges that concepts of disability always already intersect with notions of race, class, age, gender, and sexuality. This article argues that cross-informing archival studies and feminist disability studies illuminates the long history that records creation and description processes have in documenting, surveilling, and controlling disabled and other non-normative bodies and minds. Furthermore, a political/relational approach makes possible the illumination of archival assemblages: the multiple perspectives, power structures, and cultural influences—all of which are temporally, spatially, and materially contingent—that inform the creation and archival handling of records. Through close readings of multiple records’ descriptions, both inside and outside of disability, this paper focuses on the complexity of language and its politics within disability communities. A political/relational approach first promotes moving away from the replication and reliance on self-evident properties of a record and second advocates for addressing—not redressing—contestable terms, both of which illuminate the archival assemblages which produced it. By embracing the contestation of disability, and therefore the corresponding ways in which it is represented in archives, archivists and archives users are able to perceive and challenge the ways in which norms and deviance are understood, perpetuated, and constructed in public narratives via archives. Existing at the intersection of disability studies, feminist discourse, and archival studies, this paper builds theory around archival description and radicalizes traditional approaches to understanding normativized constructs within archives as it encourages reflexivity and shifts power relations.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Kafer is not the first disability studies scholar to use a relational model of disability. For example, Carol Thomas, Tanya Titchkosky, Allison C. Carey, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson have all written in detail about relational aspects of disability (Thomas 1999; Titchkosky 2010; Carey 2010a, b; Garland-Thomson 2011b). Additionally, there is a “Nordic relational model” of disability that came out of Scandinavian scholars such as Simo Vehmas and Anders Gustavsson.

  2. 2.

    Lydia X. Z. Brown has also developed a glossary of such terms to encourage people to reflect on their own uses of ableist language (Brown 2012).

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Acknowledgements

Thank you to Michelle Caswell for her continuous support and critical feedback on this project, to Susan Schweik for her historical analyses and valuable advice, to Alison Kafer for her generosity and engagement with the politics of disability, academia, and justice, and to María Montenegro, my ardent and ruthless friend whose ongoing collaboration, criticality, and support inform this project and many aspects of my life. I also want to thank my disabled community, who inspired this project and to whom I am forever grateful for their generosity, ideas, art, and activism.

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Brilmyer, G. Archival assemblages: applying disability studies’ political/relational model to archival description. Arch Sci 18, 95–118 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-018-9287-6

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Keywords

  • Assemblage theory
  • Critical theory
  • Description
  • Disability
  • Feminist disability studies
  • Social justice