- The Archive of Place: Unearthing the Pasts of the Chilcotin Plateau
William Turkel's The Archive of Place is about a whole range of techne: technology, techniques, technicians, and technicalities. It is less a critique of such things as an exploration both of and with them. It is not, despite its title, a sustained engagement with the growing body of literature stemming from the archival turn in the social sciences and humanities. The former is unquestionably the book's greatest strength but the latter, perhaps, its most frustrating shortcoming.
The Archive of Place explores how place, in this instance the Chilcotin Plateau in the interior of present-day British Columbia, becomes marked, filled, and otherwise affected by time. Its most enduring argument is that historians can and ought to recognize the indexicality of material traces bequeathed by time's effect on place and to identify how these traces and later ways of knowing them render all places as contested, negotiated, and (re)-constructed landscapes. This argument is developed through three discrete, carefully organized case studies that both begin and end in the 1990s but which stretch back in both geological and human time. The case studies are well chosen, for each represents a distinct historical episode, but they also overlap in their involvement with the politics of land claims and aboriginal peoples in late-twentieth-century British Columbia: mining at Fish Lake, commemoration of the Mackenzie Heritage Trail, and the landscaping of place and identity that stemmed from the mid-nineteenth-century Chilcotin War. Readers of this journal will likely find the first two case studies most compelling for the multifaceted and influential roles played by both technologies and a variety of sciences.
T&C readers will be impressed at how widely Turkel has read in history and the social sciences, and also in natural history and the natural sciences, but it is Turkel's acknowledged-yet-unclear relationship to Bruno Latour (the Latour of Science in Action) that is perhaps most intriguing and beguiling. Turkel explores how various institutional networks, located in government, business, and local communities, made possible and necessary a whole host of knowledge-making by an equally diverse number of actors. This is especially strong in the first two case studies. Among other things, we read about technicians hanging from helicopters and snipping samples from the tops of pine trees so that biogeochemists could assess concentrations of precious metals and minerals located deep below the surfaces around Fish Lake, and we learn about archaeologists unearthing fragments of pottery and other matériel in order to re-map trade routes and migratory habits of the region's aboriginal population and the non-aboriginal explorers, traders, and settlers who arrived (starting in the late eighteenth century) hundreds of years later. In short, we learn about how scientific and [End Page 772] technical knowledge was made, including the epistemological and political structures that shaped this process.
Unlike Latour, however, Turkel is not an active part of this book's identification and deconstruction of the techne involved with knowing and governing the Chilcotin Plateau. Indeed, to the above list of actors one could add a twenty-first-century academic historian, armed with a digitial camera, GPS equipment, and GIS-related software who encountered, explored, documented, archived, and then, in ways not unlike the biogeochemists and archaeologists, processed this data. It is thus somewhat frustrating that, in a book about various ways of knowledge-making in a contest for being the most powerful (or what, following Michel Foucault, we would also call "truthful"), we read a sentence like this: "On Mackenzie's route, for example, there are house pits located at 32.76 kilometres and more at 147.80 kilometres, protected now as heritage sites" (p. 118). The reader is told nothing of how Turkel came to report such technicalities, aside from a tantalizing clue provided by Graeme Wynn in the book's preface about how the book was researched and written.
Nor do we read any kind of self-reflection...