Kicking off with “Dust”

Welcome to the discussion of the first book here on Archivists Reading Together, Carolyn Steedman’s Dust. The way I plan on structuring the discussion of this book is to start out today with some general questions and then over the next few weeks I’ll post narrower topics about specific sections or that follow up on issues brought up in the comments. We’ll see how it goes. I doubt it will be an issue, but I posted my comment policy on the “About” page. If you haven’t managed to read the book yet but want to participate, please feel free to jump in after you’ve read it. I’ll also post a poll soon so we can vote on the next book, so look for that as well. And so, with that out of the way —

Steedman’s book is a compilation of essays written for various journals, and in reviewing them for this collection she determined that the unifying theme was that of “the practice and writing of history, in the modern period.” (viii) The kind of practice Steedman describes is one based on working in archives, although she admits that it is a “particular kind of archive, instituted by state (or quasi-state) organisations since the lat eighteenth century, in England and France.” (ix) I’m not familiar with all the journals in which she originally published these essays, but her primary intended audience for them seems to have been historians. So we have a historian writing for other historians about the experience of working in archives and with archival sources. What are your general impressions about her characterization of archives and the way historians use them? Did anything surprise you? Is there anything in this characterization that should concern an archivist reader?
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8 thoughts on “Kicking off with “Dust”

  1. Right, I’ll go first as we’re hours ahead on this side of the Atlantic and I’ll probably be in bed well before anyone else settles in!

    In Chapter 6 (‘What a Rag Rug Means’), Steedman speaks among other things of the way in which the presentation of working-class homes became a sort of rhetorical or literary trope for middle-class or academic commentators. The presence of the actual inhabitants was erased both by the description of such rooms as empty of people (though full of their humble, signifying possessions and accoutrements) and by the fact that we almost never get to hear their own thoughts about their homes and spaces.

    It struck me that this is exactly what Steedman does with the archives and record offices she describes: idealized, romanticized spaces for the contemplation of the historian, from which all trace of the actual inhabitants, the staff, has been erased (except for the invisible hands that provide her, the historian, with dusty bundles to unwrap). More figuratively, signs of habitation in the form of records management and archival processes have largely been erased as well, apart from a few references to catalogues and such: the encounter is purely and unmediatedly between the historian and the physical remnants of the past, and perhaps (for a Michelet) the dead they have summoned up from the records. Steedman in fact speaks of the archives as ‘home’ for the historian, as if the archivists or records officers are interlopers or (in light of their wordless fetching and carrying) servants.

    Presumably deliberately, there is a pervasively dream-like quality in Steedman’s presentation of archival spaces and settings, heightened by the references to Freud and Bachelard, that removes it at least as far from the reality as Derrida’s speculations, which she nonetheless chides as bearing little resemblamce with actual records repositories. …

  2. The archivist as actor seems only to exist as a phantom magician that makes bundles appear, waiting to be untied. The archivists’ trace appears in passive voice, “The Archive is made…” and “It is indexed, and catalogued…” (p. 68). On the following page, more passive voice, “…traces of the past are put in boxes and folders…” In Steedman’s account, I missed the multitude of archivists.

  3. The archives, when described here, are a very particular sort of institution. Steedman is quite upfront that she is discussing a very specific practice of history – one which is unfamiliar to perhaps even the majority of historians (x) – in which certain types of archives are used. Her characterization of archives are frequently idealized and all-in-all rather Romantic. I don’t think this in and of itself should be a concern as long as the reader keeps in mind the qualifications offered in the preface.

    As becomes apparent very quickly, “Dust” is not really a book about archives so I wasn’t surprised that it did not deal with the many different types of archival institutions.

    Rachel’s observation on the absence of the archivist is very astute. Even when archival activities (appraisal, description, reference, etc.) are mentioned (68) as Rachel states, the archivist is invisible. This is troubling as it devalues the work and necessity of the archivist in providing the historian with the primary resources they need to complete their research.

  4. I first read Steedman as a first year PhD student in a graduate course on historical methodologies. I read it back then as an emerging scholar/historical researcher, so I didn’t read it in quite a nuanced way. I neglected to observe that she was leaving archivists out of her narrative. Now that I am better informed about archivists’ work, Steedman’s ideas don’t seem as wonderful as they did four years ago.

    Specifically, I am troubled by what I call the “fetish of discovery” in her work: for instance on page 10, she writes, “the practice of history in its modern mode is just one long exercise of the deep satisfaction of finding things.” This notion of “finding things” is a common theme in the book and it is a theme that works to exalt and romanticize the intellectual labor of the historian. It makes it sound as if archival materials come to life only when they are “found” by the historian.Part of my trouble with “Dust” is the fact that it creates the impression that archivists are to be not heard and not seen (as Rachel and others here have already pointed out). But I also wonder how this idea of the archivists not being seen or heard reinforces a master-servant dialectic? The archivist is merely the assistant to the toiling researcher. I am also troubled by the implication that the intellectual labor of the historian is much more important than the labor of the archivist. Such a move effaces the deeply intellectual work of creating and maintaining archives.

    Another thing that I want to point out are the different kinds of archives that get conflated in Steedman’s book. There’s Derrida’s notion of archives (which is not about archives at all), there’s Freud’s notion of the psyche as an “archive,” and then there’s the very specific kind of research archive that Steedman has worked in. It would be useful to separate these varying notions of archives, especially since a lot of scholars don’t seem to understand them as different things altogether.

  5. “… especially since a lot of scholars don’t seem to understand them as different things altogether.” Amen! This is slippage in the use of the term “archive” is extremely frustrating particularly in some of the ways historians and other scholars have employed the term, particularly in some examples of digital humanities work (a debate which Kate has recently engaged in at ArchivesNext). While Steedman is talking about actual archives sometimes, at other times it is the more symbolic or theoretical Archive. Both are valid objects of study, but it is really important not to conflate the two.

    I think the labour of the historian might be held in higher esteem because their work in meaning making is much more visible. The notion of a neutral, custodian archivist still seems to be widely held, despite one of the major gains of the archival turn being shining the spotlight on the implications of archival work in shaping records.

  6. “And nothing happens to this stuff, in the Archive.” (Chapter 4, “The space of memory: in an archive”, p. 68, within a passage noted above by Deb T.). Ah, the Archive. So like the “Heaven” of which David Byrne sang. The Archive “is a place where nothing ever happens.”

    Steedman does apparently recognize that an archive comes into being by virtue both of deliberate selection and of willy-nilly circumstance (whereby stuff “ended up there”) and that the stuff of which an archive is comprised is “indexed and catalogued”. That archivists do not appear as actors in Steedman’s scenario is a bit of a knock to the old professional pride but should not surprise many of us.

    What conflibberated me within the passage from which I quoted was Steedman’s reference to the Archive’s “condition of being”. Here her fanciful ongoing construct of a sojourn in the Archive as a Twilight Zone episode seems to have carried her into a realm of mental fairy dust. Exclusion or omission of Stuff would seem to comprise part of the Archive’s “condition of being”. Stuff that is not catalogued is uncatalogued for the plain reason that it does not rest within the Archive. This “condition of being”, she asserts, “deflects outrage . . . ”

    Here I cannot grasp what Steedman means (condition of being?) nor how she feels (deflection of outrage?). Certain records may not be found within the Archive, she says, for they are no longer extant, having been “destroyed by enemy action during the Second World War”, for instance. Or we find representation of “the gentry and not the poor stockinger” within the the Archive, a contention at odds with the thrust of Chapter 3, “The Magistrate”, much of which she devotes to a lot of poor buggers’ compulsory narration of their lives to representatives of the Law. But you, the historian, cannot be shocked nor outraged by such exclusions, Steedman declares. Not in the Archive. The tidy Archive, with “its quiet folders and bundles”, their inclusions and their absences, demonstrates neatly “how state power has operated”. Check your shock and outrage in the locker outside the reading room.

    That’s all well and good, for the sake of maintaining both an open scholarly mind and decorum in the reading room. But I do wonder why she spoke at all of the Archive as a place wherein outrage is deflected, only to glide on to “other views” of the Archive.

    Come to think, what annoyed me about “Dust” was Steedman’s “this . . . and then this” manner of proceeding. Granted, the book is a collection of discrete essays, but each struck me less as a substantive consideration; rather, as a student’s plodding demonstration of the capacity to undertake and digest secondary research, enlivened with flights of fancy.

  7. Like Madhu, I had read ‘Dust’ before some time ago, and it had definitely lost some of its lustre on a second reading. Some of this may be because I’m pretty sure I didn’t read it through from cover to cover in one go the first time, so that its rather mannered style didn’t have time to start annoying me. But, given that Steedman makes a point every so often of deprecating ‘deconstructionist’ or ‘literary-theorist’ approaches in favour of the more down-to earth experience of the historian, what was noticeable on re-reading the essays is how unrealistic it all seems at times even from the perpsective of the researcher, let alone the archivist.

    Even allowing for the very specific nature of the archives in question, of which Rodney reminded us, what emerges as an experience is more an imaginative version of the archives of Michelet’s time than of the present day. And where Steedman brings her historical practice to bear, in talking about the ins and outs of the jurisdictions of magistrates, for instance, or of the specifics of the 19th-century rag trade, all of the citations are to published works: there is no sense of how the records that she or any other social historian might find in the archives actually make it into the text that presents it. We have the starting point of the process (the solitary sojourns in dingy provincial hotels, the sneezing over the opened bundles) and we have the end point (an analysis or evocation of certain specific conditions and times), but no real sense of how we got from one to the other.

    It is not so much Steedman’s romanticization of the records office that is a problem as that her romantic vision is impossibly vague about the details, so we are none the wiser as to what the historian actually does in producing their works, apart from sturdily eschewing deconstruction. I know that the essays are by way of being musings or meditations on the writing of history rather than a how-to guide, but it was after all supposed to be focused on the historian’s experience of or perspective on archives. By the time I got to the end, I had begun to feel as if I was fighting my way out of a blizzard of cotton wool.

  8. I’ve always seen the journalist’s introduction to an article about the latest “discovery” in the “dusty” archives to be a negative thing, and have said so on many a comment board and listserv. But I came to appreciate Steedman’s use of dust as metaphor, as it transitioned from a carrier of sickness, to dead voices, to the source of materials for reuse and recycling (new life). And I didn’t have a poor response to the historian’s “discoveries” as she had gone to length on the craft of history being the creation of something that didn’t happen exactly as is stated – just bits and gaps placed together to be built upon. My problem is more with those “discoveries” of discrete documents as artifacts “found in the archives” with no regard to context of creation or arrangement – as if the archivist or historian was engaged in a documentary version of “American Pickers.” Let us celebrate the discovery of archives in a barn or attic, where they should not be. I have never discovered a vegetable in the garden.
    As with others, I saw the absence of the archivist as the most striking aspect to this narrative of the Archive, apart from mentions of the archon and aspects of the magistrates. This does not trouble me too much, as it is a typical affront – while nobly seeking the quiet voices in the Archives one does not appreciate the role of the “support staff” – editors, archivists, indexers, and more – without which the historian would only have ideas, but no profession.
    While the book purports to discuss the making of history and feverishly driven historians, it is a particular type of historian that she is interested in. She whittles away at the field, selecting social historians, those in the narrative tradition, and those that use those particular archival records in the way that she is describing. Beyond being a textual repository, the Archive for Steedman is Place. Her approach is cultural studies, so she approaches the Archive not only as a historian’s library of disused texts for whom the transmission is the written world, but also as anthropologist and archaeologist documenting a past community. It struck me how similar was this approach to many public historians and their reading of historical sites.

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