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  • Of Historicity, Rhetoric:The Archive as Scene of Invention
  • Barbara A. Biesecker (bio)

First, an assertion: Whatever else the archive may be—say, an historical space, a political space, or a sacred space; a site of preservation, interpretation, or commemoration—it always already is the provisionally settled scene of our collective invention, of our collective invention of us and of it. To assert this much is, of course, to refuse absolutely the substantial constitution of any "us" or "we" as well as the evidentiary status of any archive, its inherent (by virtue of its "realness") capacity to guarantee in advance or serve as ultimate arbiter of identity, history, practice, criticism, and theory. To assert this much is also to open the way toward writing a different kind of rhetorical history that will not be governed by the notion of referential plentitude and the motif of truth.

I am quite aware that in claiming that the archive may best be understood as the scene of a doubled invention rather than as the site of a singular discovery, I am challenging a whole set of presumptions that underwrite the lion's share of critical and theoretical work in the field at the present time. I am also quite aware that it is a good deal more likely that historians of rhetoric will take strong exception to my insisting on the historicity of the archive (its merely appearing to be present in an ontic sense, as material proof of the past) than my insisting upon the historicity of "us" (subjectivity as process rather than subjectivity as presence). Of course the reasons why this is so are multiple, and although a nuanced accounting of them no doubt would deepen our appreciation of the stakes and entailments of our recent return—nearly en masse—to archives of all kinds, for the purposes of this short essay suffice it to note only two. The first reason is the transformation into common sense of the deconstruction of the subject and, more specifically, of all the familiar concepts on which any sense of stable subjects depends: amongst others, origins, autogenesis, presence or consciousness as the self's being present to itself, and the immediacy of sensation and experience. The second reason, which is actually closely related to the first, is the widespread sense among academics that History—a certain idea of history, the Idea of history or history as the unfolding of the Idea—has come to an end.1 History as a metaphysically animated and unilinear narrative of progress and overcoming is, well, history, and "this [End Page 124] also consequently means," as Jean-Luc Nancy passionately put it, "that history can no longer be presented as—to use Lyotard's term—a 'grand narrative,' the narrative of some grand, collective destiny of mankind (of Humanity, of Liberty, etc.), a narrative that was grand because it was great, and that was great, because its ultimate destination was considered good."2 Indeed, with the awareness of the resolutely discursive character of ourselves and the radically precarious character of history came the frenzied production of micrological analyses of the past that, at their best, ostensibly delivered a minimally mediated account of a "moment" whose value was understood to be predicated on the presumed stability, materiality, or "givenness" of the archival object and on the researcher's ability to allow it to speak on its own behalf.

To be sure, I am not alone in worrying our investment in, unbridled enthusiasm for, indeed under-interrogated relationship to the archive. Back in 1985 historiographer Dominick LaCapra admonished against the new archivism's tendency toward the misrecognition of words as things:

The archive as fetish is a literal substitute for the "reality" of the past which is "always already" lost for the historian. When it is fetishized, the archive is more than the repository of traces of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction. It is a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself—an experience that is always open to question when one deals with writing or other inscriptions.3

Nearly 20 years later, in a special 2003 issue of Poetics...


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