The Creation of Memory:
Archives as Living Cultural Practices
- Benedetta Zaccarello
Researcher in Philosophy and Textual Studies (CEFRES, USR 3138 CNRS-MEAE)
- Sukanta Chaudhuri
Literary and digital humanities scholar (Jadavpur University, Kolkata)
- Kannan M.,
Researcher in contemporary Tamil language, literature and history (French Institute of Pondicherry, Puducherry)
- Venkat Srinivasan
Archivist (National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore)
- Roland Wittje,
Historian of Science and Technology (Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai)
With the collaboration of Peter Heehs (historian and archivist, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives), Ranjani Prasad and Faisal Rehman (archivists, Keystone Foundation, Nilgiris) and Raphaël Voix (anthropologist, French Institute Pondicherry, Puducherry)
Whether the etymology of the term is traced back to the ancient Greek arche, “the beginning”, the illustrious antiquity, or to the Latin arca, a box for safe-keeping, which preserves and transmits, the notion of archive refers to the journey in space and time of any trace worthy of its name and therefore implicitly refers to dynamics of transfer across ages and cultures.
Archives cannot be reduced to a storage place or to the array of preserved documents, as in various cultural contexts they take the form of very different technologies and practices and gather various kinds of materials. Filing, preserving, giving public access to, and even interrogating the archive are practices that constantly evolve, refashioning our cognition of such “device”.
From the late 1970s onwards, thanks to the so-called “archival turn”, the archive has received new attention, which radically transformed our understanding of that notion. Archives became understood as an object governed by its own dynamics, and determined by cognitive and epistemic strategies that exceed by far the mere texts and documents preserved. On the contrary, archives were revealed as a complex artifact, as a cultural and political dispositive governed by specific logics structuring its constitution and conservation, and later its understanding and interpretation. Human and social sciences (and philosophy in particular) started at that time developing critical tools for a new understanding of the political enjeux implicit in the “archive-device”. The sociocultural dimensions of the archive highlighted by such a turn reappraised the conditions of utilization of the archive in order to criticize the socio-political implications of existing archives and their complicity with power or colonial structures, and sometimes to encourage the production of alternative archival projects.
Seen from such perspective, archives allow us to “deconstruct” the history and the narratives of our own civilizations, and not only in what concerns the past. Modern European archives, for instance, are institutions that were shaped in the making of nations and national states in order to preserve – and thus contributing to write – their histories, collective memory and imaginations as they were inspired by a post-romantic aesthetic imaginary in the case of a single author’s archives. How can our present receive such heritage if not reshaping its configuration and reinventing its meaning according to contemporary needs and mentalities? What is happening today to the making and preservation of the archival heritage, in the age of all surrounding digitization and of the global info-sphere?
More and more archival images are now potentially accessible from anywhere in the world, outside the limits of archival institutions, and beyond the national framework that used to determine archival praxis and knowledge. Digital representations of the archive are progressively enabling the public to read the same (complex) object from different perspectives and to unfold accordingly the potentiality of the archive into almost tailor-made paths of fruition. The age of the semantic web promises to let appear beyond a cloud of papers consolidated information about histories, relations and figures whose traces are kept by the archive, making thus evident the structural relation in between the documents and the society that produced them. Moreover, new technologies not only allow a different relation within the public and institutional archives, they also constantly invite us to create our own personal one, to redefine our identity through the choice and assemblage of memories and traces and to do so in relation to the broader agora of the social exchanges. Such popularization of what we could call the “archive-function” is at the same time becoming a powerful tool to give voice to and preserve the memory of endangered minorities, as to rewrite the (self-)narration of subaltern communities.
In order to explore the complex nature of archives in their relation to society and to provide methodological tools for a critical understanding of their relation to history, culture and heritage, the workshop will focus on three aspects:
- a) The archival heritage: interrogating the past through documents. How do we build the narration of our own past, choosing, assembling and assigning constantly renewed interpretations to documents and papers? How to understand such hermeneutic dynamics, intrinsically embedded in the diachronic dispositive of the archive?
- b) Archives at the present tense: the “digital turn” and its effects on archival practices. How did the relation in between the archives and their public change as a consequence of the introduction of (new) digital tools? How do the digital representations of the archive impact the interpretation of the documents and information?
- c) The future of our memories: community archives and non-documental archives. Which are the limits of an archive? Do they change with the evolution of the use we make of it? How can the “archive-function” be understood as a tool for giving voices to communities and minorities instead of reassessing preexisting powers?
As an output of the training, the participants will be asked to imagine an archive hosting their own research corpus or part of it, and to sketch a representation of it according to specific methodologies and consciously chosen criteria.