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The archive and the state

Archives, the collection of files and materials (electronic or physical) stored and maintained for future reference, have an intimate connection with state power–after all, those who are in power fund and create them, leading archives to reflect the ideas, beliefs and sometimes contradictions of those who control them.

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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Archives, the collection of files and materials (electronic or physical) stored and maintained for future reference, have an intimate connection with state power–after all, those who are in power fund and create them, leading archives to reflect the ideas, beliefs and sometimes contradictions of those who control them.

The end of Mae Ngai’s piece on the historical creation of the legal and social category of illegal immigrants, “The Strange Career of the Illegal Alien: Immigration Restriction and Deportation Policy in the U.S., 1921-165,” caught my eye in relation to the issue of archival research and the potential for state-created archives to be used, in a sense, against the entity that created them:

She gratefully acknowledges the Central Office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C., for allowing her access to its records and INS Historian Marian Smith for her generous assistance.

Ngai, evidently, used (at least in part) the archives and historian of the INS (now defunct, with its functions now split within three agencies of the Department of Homeland Security) to investigate and reveal the workings of state power, including revealing potential flaws of the organization itself.

This ties in nicely with Ann Stoler’s piece, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” in the sense that the archives of those in power (or their organizations and institutions) can be used for more than the mere maintenance and continuation of that power. Administrations may have maintained archives for their own purposes, in order to foster institutional memories to better exploit their colonies or more efficiently prosecute their missions, but these archives can be effectively exploited by historians to go beyond these original purposes, to cut against power and state intention.

Although I might argue that democracies may often prove best at creating and maintaining “unbiased” archives (in the sense that most everything is kept, or at least in the sense that what is kept is left to professional archivists and not to the vagaries of state or organization intention), non-democratic colonial administrations and totalitarian regimes also create and maintain archives of use to historians. Since even “unbiased” archives enshrine, at the very least, unconscious judgments as to importance and organization (for even the most intently objective archivist cannot keep everything nor organize what is kept without imposing some sense of outside structure and judgment), perhaps regimes with more obvious purposes actually create some of the most useful archives. If the purpose is obvious, then can it not more easily be seen through, after all?

In Richard Harvey Brown and Beth Davis-Brown’s terms, “relations of power and domination are often masked by or reduced to technically instrumental relations of efficiency; that is, moral and political questions are displaced to nonmoral and nonpolitical technical or professional discourse” (“The Making of Memory: The Politics of Archives, Libraries, and Museums in the Construction of National Consciousness,” 30). In this sense, archives maintained for ostensibly objective purposes may be more subtly misleading because what they hide is better masked, and what they reveal is more easily taken to be the complete truth, untainted by attempts to manipulate the narrative. As Brown suggests, though, the solution is not to dismiss such archives, but rather to be aware of this as we focus to “build a reflexive, democratic society” (31).