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Against Accumulation
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We might, with a little work, productively imagine the archive as the historical unconscious, with the evidence therein the near endless series of signifiers. If we were to push this analogy a little further, we might say that the archive is structured like the unconscious (which is structured like language), and if this is the case, then we might be apprehensive about the relationship between the archive, evidence, and “the real,” or reality. The real, we know from the work of Jacques Lacan, is that which is foreclosed, impossible to be symbolized, and thus incapable of being represented in language. It is also undifferentiated, whole—the cut of signification (castration) does not exist there. It is that which we desire, that impossible place without lack. If this is the case, then the archive will never, no matter how much evidence we accumulate, yield reality. Yet, for all of this, recent accumulative trends in digitization of archives (more accessible evidence searched more easily) and extranational scales of analysis (which add geographic spaces in order to challenge the hegemony of the nation) have led to a neo-empiricism that, once again, chases that elusive phantasm of reality.

In one sense, this empirical, positivist search for reality is not particularly new. Since at least the nineteenth century, the archive has been figured as the repository of documentary evidence. It was the institutional site where evidence could be found to document the veracity of historical narratives. Of course, this empiricist account of the archive has long been critiqued: think of Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever or Joan Scott in “The Evidence of Experience.” In some instances, the capacity of both evidence and the archive to satisfy our contemporary political desires is called into question, as in Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” For Scott, a critical relation to evidence shifts our work from “a belief in the unmediated relationship between words and things, to one that takes all categories of analysis as contextual, contested, and contingent.” In a word, Scott asks historians to acknowledge that we read evidence—we do not discover unmediated accounts of that elusive phantasm, the past “as it actually was.” Yet no matter how many critiques, empiricism persists.

Recently, a confluence of technology, framework, and new practices of reading have resulted in a newfound fascination with an empirical orientation toward evidence, one frequently offered as a substitute (or antidote) for now supposedly “tired” hermeneutics. The digitization of archives (and the attendant quasi-disciplinary formation we have come to call digital humanities) and global (and other extranational) studies have engendered an accumulative logic toward evidence and the archive. Supposedly, the more evidence we have the better, whether through the multiplication of pieces of evidence or the ability to search keywords across a previously unimaginable number of sources. This move has been accompanied by the emergence of new practices of reading—distant, surface, descriptive—that embrace a certain kind of empiricism—one designed, in part, to move across a large body of evidence, something at which older, tired, and out-of-date critical and hermeneutic practices would be less adept.

Yet the digital and the global stand as sentries at the archive, orienting our analyses and capacities for critique. As Derrida wrote of the archons (those who secured the archive and its documents), “They do not only ensure the physical security of what is deposited and of the substrate. They are also accorded the hermeneutic right and competence. They have the power to interpret the archives.” The archons of the contemporary scene of historical writing might just be the digital humanities and the spatial turn. While there are certainly critical projects that come out of both domains—indeed, my own work has benefitted greatly from the digitization of archives—there is also a celebratory tone that is primarily about accumulation. Despite its insistent antihermeneutic logic, it is a hermeneutic imperative nonetheless—accumulate more and more, think beyond and against the nation, but always do it in a manner, aided and abetted by digitization, which adds rather than subtracts.

The tendency among historians and others to lionize the digital and the global as the proper modes of thought and writing work to...



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