Rodney Carter on Chapter 4: Archives, Facts & Flights of Fancy

Today’s post comes from participant Rodney Carter. Thanks, Rodney, and if anyone else would like to write a guest post on one of the other chapters or a general topic on the book, please let me know.

Memory, identity, narrative, and dreams are all touched on in Chapter 4, “The space of memory: in an archive.” This essay* is, I believe, the most useful and interesting chapter in the book from an archival point of view as it focuses on historians’ work in archives and with records, even though, as we’ve come to expect from Dust to this point, it is a wide-ranging essay which draws on a number of varied theoretical perspectives. Here Steedman examines the (ideal) Historian working in the (idealized) Archive, walking yet again with Michelet as he reads the purloined letter and breathes in the dust of those gone before him, a necessary step in making the documents speak.

In her examination of the relationship of memory, history and the Archive, drawing on Bachelard and psychoanalysis, Steedman frames the work of historians in archives as a question of longing & appropriation (81); of finding not what is there but what they want to find, be it a sense of self, the confirmation of identity or sense (77). They go beyond the accumulation of names, dates, and other facts to ponder, imagine, dream, and create a narrative of self.

Does this search for confirmation contradict the idea of the fever-inducing thrill of discovery? Are you convinced by Steedman’s idea of the archives as a space which spurs the imagination? What do you think of the Archive as “a place of dreams” (69)?

* Originally this essay appeared in an issue of “History of the Human Sciences” devoted to “the archive” (vol. 11, no.4 [Nov 1998] , the first of two special issues on the topic. The second is Vol 12. no 2 [May 1999] ; both are worth having look at.)

2 thoughts on “Rodney Carter on Chapter 4: Archives, Facts & Flights of Fancy

  1. Ah, people have quieted down! I suspect because there’s just not that much to say about this book. The chapters (articles) don’t seem to be trying to convey a clear argument, so it’s not as easy to find something to wrap coherent thoughts around. I wonder if the article were better? If not, I’m sort of surprised they got published, although they are entertaining to read and have the exoticism of being about archives.

  2. I agree, Kate, that this book is hard to talk about in that sense. Many of the chapters are quite meditative and observational of internal states, so it’s hard to really grapple with them without misrepresenting them as universal arguments.

    Chapter 4 I really liked, though, because it felt true to my experience. My day to day sense is that historical research is about looking for mirrors, putting the records of what we didn’t experience together until we have enough to retell them through a narrative or context we do recognize. I think the “thrill of discovery” applies less to those entire frameworks, and more to individual documents and examples that fill them out and help us construct images that are instructive to us today in ways they would not have been when the events they describe were actually happening. We find correspondences, but we need to be careful of calling them equivalents or new truths.

    This probably isn’t what history is to all, or even many, archives or historians; different studies and subfields have different goals. But from the perspective of Steedman’s stated interest in social history and the lives of “common people,” her description really rings true.

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