Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.1/2 (2005) 10-27
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Without a Trace:
Sexuality and the Colonial Archive
There were no papers, the ostensible reason for my visit, and of course, no trace of the Rani. Again, a reaching and an un-grasping.
The past few decades of scholarship have witnessed a rich outpouring of critical thought on the colonial archive and its varied instantiations. For better or for worse, the turn to the archive is no longer the sacrosanct domain of the discipline of history. Rather, it has emerged as the register of epistemic arrangements, recording in its proliferating avatars the shifting tenor of academic debates about the production and institutionalization of knowledge. As Foucault observed, the idea of the archive animates all knowledge formations and is the structure that makes meaning manifest.2 Jacques Derrida has termed the quest for such a meaning-making network "le mal d'archive," or "archive fever." The literal and figural site of the archive both permits the "commencement" of and provides the "commandment" for intellectual labor. "Archive fever" expresses the craving for this archive, the desire to enter it and to procure it, even unto death.3 [End Page 10] Such a deconstructive reading of the archive as a necessary and precarious repository of meaning has been embraced as well as resisted by historians and anthropologists. Social historian Carolyn Steedman reminds us that the material deposits of the past (dust, in her case), whose affective reach exceeds all forms of theorizations, are the "real" drama in archive fever: "You think, in the delirium: it was their dust that I breathed in."4
Even as the concept of a fixed and finite archive has come under siege, there has been an explosion of multiple/alternate archives that seek to remedy the erasures of the past. Scholarship in South Asia, in particular, has recast the colonial archive as a site of endless promise, where new records emerge daily and where accepted wisdom is both entrenched and challenged. In some ways, these archival expansions resemble the contours of the earlier canon wars in literary studies, as they question received notions of proof, evidence, and argumentation, particularly in fields involving historical inquiry.
Like other fields of inquiry, sexuality studies has turned to the colonial archive for legitimacy. Queer texts, topics, and themes have been discovered in the archive and examined exuberantly. The process of "queering" pasts has been realized through corrective reformulations of "suppressed" or misread colonial materials.5 These reformulations have intervened decisively in colonial historiography, not only decentering the idea of a coherent and desirable imperial archive but also forcing us to rethink colonial methodologies. Implicit in this rethinking, however, is the assumption that the archive, in all its multiple articulations, is still the source of knowledge about the colonial past. The inclusion of oral histories, ethnographic data, popular culture, and performances may have fractured traditional definitions of the archive (and for the better), but the telos of knowledge production is still deemed approachable through what one finds, if only one can think of more capacious ways to look.
I am not suggesting here that such archival modes are facilely flawed or merely enact a different order of archival truth claims. The new material on homosexuality does not purport simply to "correct" and/or reveal the truth about the history of sexuality in the colonial period. While there might be a certain evangelical flavor to some of the scholarship, most of the work indicates that the authors are keenly aware of the shifting parameters of space, time, and knowledge and of the role of the archive in such entanglements. [End Page 11] David Halperin, for example, has often made a case for historicism in the study of sexuality, a historicism that would acknowledge the alterity of the past as well as the irreducible cultural and historical particularities of the present. The recent turn to geopolitics in sexuality studies has also highlighted historical...