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  • Dwelling in the Digital Archive:A Meditation on the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Project
  • Stephen Berry (bio)

I have said elsewhere that if history is my religion, the archive is my church and research is my sacrament (and my penance). I never feel myself so much at home as when I am entombed with my dead in some archival catacombs, convinced I am searching for their humanity, knowing I am searching for my own. To be an archive rat, said Derrida, "is to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive, right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there's too much of it. . . . It is to have a compulsive, repetitive . . . irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for . . . the most archaic place of absolute commencement." As historians, the archive is our psychic headwaters. For narrow professional reasons, we go to answer research questions, but we know the pilgrimage runs deeper. We aren't looking for data. We're looking for Revelation. Like time-tripping flaneurs, we watch the dead live their lives, not as we live ours, and we revel in the differences, inspired by all that we have to live up to, ashamed of all we need to live down. This encounter, Carolyn Steedman tells us, is physical. The dead press their concerns upon us, and we come away with their dust in our lungs. Keats used to say that when he came home from a party he felt a little lost. "Myself [does not go] home [End Page 161] to myself," he marveled, "but the identity of everyone in the room begins so to press upon me, that I am in a very little annihilated." We go to the archive to be multiplied. We go to be annihilated.1

Somehow these metaphysical rites coexist with our rising skepticism of the archive itself. (We love our god, but we doubt it too.) The 'archival turn' is relatively old now I know. Derrida published Archive Fever in 1995. Ann Stoler's "Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance" came out in 2002, the same year as Steedman's Dust. Summarizing the general line of thought—that archives encode and enshrine Power—Stoler noted: "Scholars need to move from archive-as-source to archive-as-subject. . . . [We need to] view archives not as sites of knowledge retrieval, but of knowledge production . . . [as] cultural agents of 'fact' production [and] state authority." While this thinking may be more than twenty years old, there are reasons to believe that we are in the middle and not the end of that turn. First, as Civil War historians we continue to unspool precisely how insights that were originally framed by debates over colonialism can be best applied in a related but not synonymous context. The Civil War was absolutely a war for empire—a war to determine which imperial model would prevail in the west—but as a war we fought against ourselves there are peculiar archival dynamics to what records got made and saved and put to what purposes. Second, as the country has lurched to the dystopian right, the urge to interrogate inherited structures, especially structures of information, has deepened. Every generation takes on inequality, and each finds it rooted deeper than they originally thought. At least since Gayatri Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?" (1985), there has been a debate over whether the archive really can be read 'against the grain' of the forces that created it. Third, and most important, the digital turn allows us for the first time to create our [End Page 162] own archives. Some we might call archival-boutique—archives of coroners' reports, say, or letters from transitionally literate Civil War soldiers—projects that search for needles in the haystacks of other archives and use them to create a haystack of needles. Other digital archives, like Valley of the Shadow or the Civil War Governors of Kentucky (CWGK), create an archive where what is being privileged is not a record type but a peculiar vantage—a sort of transect or view, a gubernatorial panopticon or the line of...


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pp. 161-178
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