In her book “Artful Science,” Barbara Maria Stafford, Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago, examines entertainment and educational materials to see how the visual component changed in the “long eighteenth century,” which she defines as the era of the Baroque to the Romantic period. In relation to the current state of the culture and leisure industry: the objects of her investigation are instructional such as textbooks, artistic pictures and chambers of curiosities. Stafford seeks to upgrade the role that the “lower” visual elements have played in culture over the highly developed textual and literary sources that have been entrenched in scientific study. She posits that abstract thinking was actually trained through the production of visual patterns and that optical technology often facilitated the learning process with difficult, abstract content. Stafford localized the beginnings of visual education in the early stages of Modernity and at the borders between art and technology, play and scientific experiment. In Keywords for American Cultural Studies, Elizabeth Hutchinson, Professor of Art History at Columbia, similarly notes the contrast between “visual culture” with “high art” mentioned by Stafford and a number of art historians mainly through the presumption of visual materials as containing “neutral information” or able to stimulate “consumer desire”. Hutchinson locates the split between visualities in American Culture a century after Stafford did for the rest of Western world, in the moments where photographic evidence gained authority in scientific and legal spheres, when discourses of visual representation were integrated with those of the social sciences.
Following the intriguing peculiarities of the word “visual” in American Cultural Studies, I ruminate on the keyword “archive” which is not on the list probably because it has become so ubiquitous in scholarly language that it is rather difficult to lasso to a particular field of study. Though creating a standard meaning is not the task of the Keywords publication, as inspired by an earlier enterprise of socialist writer Raymond Williams, like “visual” and many of the terms in the list, the word “archive” gained some degree of particularity in American Cultural Studies through both historical and contemporary usage. The archive can also be understood as a yet to be constituted or imagined set of data or material, often with connotations of detective mystery and monocles, where scholars can build their own metadata, or ciphers from which to navigate the dark terrain of knowledge.
My entry for “archive” would begin with the standard Oxford English Dictionary meaning, from the Greek word “arkhe” which means government and “arkheia” which means public record. I would skip the highly philosophical engagements on the word and will focus instead on the usage of the term in scholarship mentioned in the most esteemed course syllabus in American and Cultural Studies. I will attempt to point out when exactly the “archive” of say the US Civil War, became referred to as an “archive” and not simply as a record or collection; how for example a compilation of photographs of enslaved persons in the 19th century by American Ethnologists were referred to as an “archive,” and individually as “specimen”; or how the inscrutable set of documents of Filipino freedom fighters formerly referred to with initials “I.R.” meaning “Insurgent Records” were lodged in the basement of the “National Archive” and Records Administration of the United States and how the largely forgotten war is still referred to at present as an “insurrection” for “historic reasons”. Given this short list of disparate labels, what comes into mind with “archive,” in my rough operative meaning of the word is anything that is kept under lock and key in museums or academic institutions. I also imagine the archive as containing anything not being actively investigated in the real world and with numerous exceptions, also anything not being tested in a laboratory. For this reason, I presume that the “archive” in Cultural Studies is often a euphemism for history’s skeletons in the closet from where scholars will necessarily write against and not very often for. The purpose of referring to something as an archive is to cue in notions of a hegemonic dataset and the ensuing writing of a counter-history. Often, the mere constitution of the archive, reveals the anomalous existence of such objects or data.
Some of the finer points I will address in my Keyword entry will be following: how has contemporary scholarship challenged the notion of the archive as generated by a perceived authority? Should an archive consisting of a single medium be more appropriately called a collection? And in connection to that question, are there instances when the archive does not mean confidentiality or inscrutability? Who benefits from its existence and limited access?
The archivist is not really demanded to provide answers for any particular question, or expected to answer any question about what an archive actually is. Archives are repeatedly equated with libraries, museums and collections without any clear demarcation. And the archivist was for a long time regarded as a cryptanalyst eccentric who fiddles with cobwebbed tomes and ancient parchments in dusty vaults in order to bring forgotten events from the distant past to light.
Much to the contrary, the kind of scholarship presented in the American Studies seminar at Columbia gives the impression that nothing about archival research is staid. There is a proliferation of research on “archives” that are not necessarily formulated by a perceived authority or public: Black, feminist, queer, anticolonial, and location-specific. This is the Derridean/Freudian characteristic of the task of preservation in archive as the “unconscious secretion” of official history. Which has become virulent at the rate of our current events.
The archive in American Studies expands as scholars reckon with the impact of the US culture on the world. “Virtual” sounds like it is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Indeed, instead of being put under lock and key, the archive of the scholar is sunk into the silent ocean of the World Wide Web, absorbed in its immeasurable applications and implications. Archives work on an outpatient basis thanks to smaller and smaller chips containing bigger and bigger data. New search technologies mimic old hunting instincts and the archivist often shifts from becoming the keeper of the grail of knowledge to the swashbuckling navigator in the Babylonian flow of information.