- Quotidian Geographies and Futures That Never Were:Speculative Historiography in the Transimperial Archive
The Brink of Freedom: Improvising Life in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World, by David Kazanjian, is the fruit of an archival researcher's sheer frustration. As Kazanjian explains in the "Coda," he began his research on Liberian ex-slaves and settlers expecting to uncover texts loaded with philosophical and political engagement. Instead, he found quotidian documents: ex-slaves asking their former masters to send tools, seeds, or household objects; new settlers writing that they long to return to the United States; and farmers relating the difficulty of planting crops on Liberian soil. Kazanjian narrates that he often found himself lamenting that "their spelling, grammar, and syntax are so difficult to read," and wondering, "When will they stop writing about needing seeds and blankets?" (232–33). But, as he describes, he eventually learned to read in the quotidian details and intimate concerns of the Liberian settlers "a critical refection upon freedom as a kind of dynamic, living force, a critical [End Page 101] reflection that was the dynamic living force of freedom" (233). In the absence of direct political and philosophical engagement, it was the texture of the archive rather than its express content that Kazanjian began to read for, first in the Liberian epistolary archive, and later on in letters and periodicals composed by Yucatecan Creoles and Maya during the Caste War of Yucatán.
Faced with the silences of the archive, Kazanjian, Tamar Herzog, Ernesto Bassi, and María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo approach historiography otherwise. Faced with the spaces that interrupt and that lie between the demarcations of nation-states and field-imaginaries,1 they are forced to conceive of and to map alternate geographies and geographic imaginaries. To do so means to do away with teleological conceptions of historiography and to embrace the uncertain terrain of the entangled, the noncausal, and the plausible futures that could have been but were not.
As Kazanjian admits in his "Coda," his reading of the Yucatecan archive for The Brink of Freedom was deeply informed by his reading of the Liberian archive, even though the two groups are geographically and historically disconnected from each other. In the absence of a causal or teleological connection between two contemporaneous archives, Kazanjian develops a form of archival interpretation he terms speculative reading, in which he reads quotidian documents as doing theoretical work. As Kazanjian claims, because the Liberian and Yucatecan archives he engages with have been developed and maintained by the very centrist liberal structures that the Liberian settlers and Yucatecan Maya attempt to critique and remake, practices such as speculative reading uniquely enable scholars to approach history via counterfactuals, accessing "futures that were never built but still might become" (229). It may come as no surprise, then, that Kazanjian felt obligated to address charges made by his early critics that he risks "overreading" his sources. Kazanjian uses The Brink of Freedom not only to read Liberian and Yucatecan archives speculatively but also to defend the practice of speculative reading itself. Speculative reading ultimately functions as a way to engage otherwise with the manifestly colonial archive and its organization via field-imaginaries, which work to separate the early Americo-Liberians from Yucatecan Creoles and Maya on geographic or national grounds, despite both being inexorably tied up with (i.e., both subject to and implicated in) global racial capitalist routes and discourses. For Kazanjian, speculative reading is not simply a means by which to...