Is Dust a collection of “personal essays” rather than scholarly ones?

I was reading last Sunday’s (March 3)  New York Times book review section and there were two reviews that reminded me of the problems we were having with talking about Dust. First, from Morris Dickstein’s review of two volumes of Phillip Lopate’s essays:

The personal essay has always been a stepchild of serious literature seemingly formless, hard to classify. Lacking the tight construction of a short story, or the narrative arc of a novel or memoir, such essays have given readers pleasure without winning cultural respect. Written in a minor key, they could be slight and superficial, but their drawbacks could also be strengths. The style of the first-person essay tends to be conversational, tentative–in tune with our postmodern skepticism about absolutes, the trust we place in multiple perspectives.

And from Christopher R. Beha’s review of Cynthia Zarin’s An Enlarged Heart:

“An Enlarged Heart” is a collection of personal essays written mostly over the past decade by the poet Cynthia Zarin. I assume the book is labeled a “personal history” for the same reason that collections of short stories are sometimes calld “linked stories” or even “novels in stories,” which is that the reading public apparently prefers unified, book-length narratives to such hodge-podge. This is a superficial point, and the packaging decision was almost certainly out of Zarin’s hands, but I mention it up front for a couple of reasons.

To begin with, the book isn’t uniform in quality or even–seemingly–in intent. A few of the essays clearly show their beginnings as magazine assignments. Others have an occasional slightness that sits awkwardly beside, say, the fierce urgency of the title essay … Such internal consistencies might mar a book-length project, but they’re entirely forgivable in a collection whose high points are so good.

Do some of these statements also ring true for Dust? If these essays had been couched more as “personal” rather than presented as scholarly, would they have been more successful? Is this collection of essays, written as individual assignments not successful because of these origins? Or does it have high points that are so good it makes these origins forgivable?


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.)

Intellectual fluff and archival immunity, or Chapter 2

Reading Dust is a bit like experiencing an overwrought Sunday sermon, where one’s attention is occasionally captured by a pearl but is usually sent adrift by verbiage and syntax meant to please the preacher more than the congregation.

So says Joel Wurl is his review of the book for the American Archivist. He was referring to Chapter 6, but it could apply to most of the chapters, I think. In reviewing the second chapter, the one of dust and various kinds of archive fever, I came away with a different analogy. I felt like I had just watched a show on PBS that was very clever, featuring many experts in different fields, each speaking confidently and sometimes amusingly about their own area, each for a short soundbite. The experts are strung together by a lively narrator, sprinkling in anecdotes of her own personal experience. When you finish watching it you feel as if you were entertained and learned a few facts, but if you stop and think about it, the whole doesn’t hang together very well.

And I am the only one who wondered, if it’s true that researchers are commonly struck down with illness from their extended communion with archival documents, what about the poor archivists who work with them every day? What thought does Steedman spare  to the lowly archivist, poisoned daily by such dangerous materials? (Although not, of course, subject to the more fanciful “fever” of never being able to absorb all the information in the records or tell all the stories present there.) Are we immune from the physical illness as much from the psychic one for the same reason: that archivists don’t customarily spend time attempting to breath in the spirits (and hence their dust) of every individual document? Our distance gives us immunity. Do archivists romanticize the collections they work with? I suspect not. We appreciate them, value them, honor them, become exasperated by them, and perhaps occasionally come to loathe them, but I don’t think we ever approach them with the same feverish perspective that Steedman describes. And it is not only our distance that gives us immunity, but our understanding that it is the archives’ mission that the documents will be preserved  forever. Unlike the rushed historian of Steedman’s essay, who is constrained by a limited schedule into feeling that the documents will only “exist” for her for a short time, the archivist knows that the documents will still be there tomorrow, next month, and next year. One historian will come and look them, and then another, and another.

Certainly new archivists may, at first, be carried away with the romance of the documents, but over time they become immune. It is not that archivists don’t believe–passionately believe–in the value of the collections, but that is different from this more abstract relationship described as “archive fever.” The exception I think, and we may all know of an illustration of this, is the occasional historian working as an archivist. These exceptions don’t achieve the kind of distance that archivists do. And it is this distance, along with our sense of the archives as permanent, that I think give us our immunity from the “archive fever” that scholars are subject to.

But what about you–do you agree that we’re immune, or are just subject to a different strain of the disease?

What’s in a noun? “The archive” and an archive(s)

(This was touched on in the conversation on the previous post, but it’s a larger issue that I think this group might enjoy discussing. It’s a little off topic, I know. I promise we’ll get back to the book in the next post. ) It seems clear that the phase “the archive” is used by many scholars, including Steedman, primarily to refer to a conceptual notion. Sometimes it is explicitly Derrida’s arkhe, sometimes not. Often it is used without supplying any clear definition, as if all readers would understand the usage.

I am perhaps too much of a stickler when it comes to how people use words, but it does bother me when I perceive writers applying this conceptual meaning of “the archive” when they use just “archives.” Do you know what I mean? As if archives themselves are conceptual spaces rather than physical ones. And certainly it’s possibly to think of archives, as we know them, as conceptual spaces as well as physical ones. But how are we to know that people who discuss archives as conceptual spaces are also familiar with the reality of actual physical archives? For others that distinction might not be important, but for me it is. I’ve taken quite a bit of criticism for my defense of the traditional definition of “archives” and so I’m sure I’m more sensitive about this issue than others. I don’t care to police the common use of “archives” to mean a variety of things, even by scholars. What concerns me is whether or not they actually do know about what archivists call archives. Clearly Steedman does, to some extent. How much she understands about the work that archivists do to make the archives she visits possible is not clear, as covered in the comments on the last post.

Much of this concern, at least on my part, is that if the knowledge of what constitutes an archives (in the archival sense) is lost, then what separates an archives from any other kind of collection will also be lost, and therefore why does the world need archivists per se? If an archives is just any group of digital or non-digital stuff, preserved and made accessible according to the policies established by the creator of the archives, then of course anyone can do it. And of course, anyone can, in the way that most non-archivists understand archives. Is anyone who preserves something an archivist? Is any collection of valuable non-current material an archives? That’s certainly the way the majority of the world thinks, and it is foolish of archivists to try to scold people out of embracing preservation and making materials accessible.

What then should we do? For me, this is a continual balancing act. On the one hand I want to embrace and encourage people who are preserving and making materials accessible. We are all engaged in the same goal, after all. But on the other hand, I want to disseminate and promote the value of my profession’s tradition. And apparently that is, in some people’s eyes, where I go too far in trying to challenge or inform about what for a lack of better word we can call “traditional” archives.

So, to bring this rambling back to the book. Steedman wrote a book that seems to have been reasonably well received and is at least to some degree about archives. We should be happy about this, yes? Anyone writing about archives and getting historians to think about them is good, isn’t it? That’s one side of the balancing act. The side that doesn’t want to come off as scolding and critical. But what about the other side? Steedman wrote a book that, as you observed in the last post, doesn’t do a great job of talking about archives or archivists. How critical should we be? How much should we expect historians to know or articulate about archives? I think the answer lies in being supportive of what works, critical of what doesn’t, but more importantly, writing more about archives from an archival perspective for historians and other audiences.

How much of a stickler are you about words? Do you think a balancing act is necessary, or do you fall firmly on one of the two sides? How do you think archivists should react to varying uses of “archives”? What should the role of the professional archivist be in a world that embraces archives as a concept with a broad interpretation?

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?

One week left to go & introduce yourself, if you’d like

We’re scheduled to start discussion of Carolyn Steedman’s Dust just one week from today. I admit to being a bit of a slacker so I just started reading it this weekend but so far I am finding it (as described on the back of my edition) “witty, engaging, and challenging.”

One thing that I found useful the last time I hosted a online reading group like this was having people post a little about themselves before we started. It creates more of a sense of community I think and also it can be helpful to know a bit more about someone’s perspective when they are commenting on the book. So, if you’d like, post a short comment below telling us about your background in archives. This is not mandatory, of course. Anyone is welcome to participate in the conversation at any time.


Announcing our first book: Dust: The Archive and Cultural History

Welcome to Archivists Reading Together! Today I’m announcing the first of what I hope will be many books we will read together, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History by Carolyn Steedman. I’ll plan to kick off the discussion on Monday, February 18. This should give us all time to acquire the book and read it.

I’m not quite sure yet how the discussion will be structured, but I think we’ll approach it thematically rather than chapter by chapter. I’ve been told that the later chapters of this book may be less relevant to archivists, so if you don’t get around to finishing it, don’t fret. You can still be part of the conversation.

And please note, as I cover in the About page, this discussion is open to everyone–not just archivists. We’re going to be talking about books about archives, so I think archivists will be primary audience, but all are welcome. Please let me know if there’s anything else that I need to establish upfront. (Comments policy also covered in the About section.)