Paper Cadavers? Archival Powers till the Digital Age

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Course Description: 

This course investigates the genealogies of the archives’ powers from their inception as state building projects to their metamorphosis into counter-sites of opposing authoritarian power and politics. The course analyzes through certain key case studies ranging from 19th century archives to secret police, counterinsurgency, colonial and identity archives, the changing interaction between influential documentary practices, (counter-)state politics and history writing. So, instead of offering an "evolutionary" history of archives from the paper age to the digital age, the course offers an insight into what made archives important and relevant in the first place, in order to understand the challenges associated with the digital platforms nowadays. In times when "the paper" and "the digital" are still coexisting due to infrastructural, political and socio-economic disparities, and the "context" of an item is difficult to assess within the flattening ecologies of the digital platforms, it is important to also rethink the relationship between the physical records and the digital ones. The course studies archives as objects and the objects within them, so it is useful for both public historians interested in public institutions of memory and historical cultural data (in general) as well as for historians who would like to more comprehensively understand the relationship between "sources," their biases and historical problems.

It investigates, for example, how the current 'information overload" is the byproduct of a relative recent drive of comprehensive record-keeping which eventually turned on its head the relationship between phenomena and evidence (from "what is in the archive is the arbitrary trace of what happened" to "if there is is no evidence, there is no phenomena"). The current production of evidence by the construction of paper or digital "counter-archives" is thus aiming to recuperate or construct marginal, subversive or invisible phenomena. Archives have therefore become consubstantial to new political and identitarian movements which are opposed to the states or imperial powers and they are crucial for the work and analyses of the [public] historian.

The challenges for the future [public] historian would be complex. On the one hand, he/she would have to know the general challenges that archives face (with regards to what to select, how to preserve and how to make accessible documents - online or not - from the past for increasingly broader and distant publics). On the other, he/she will deal with the ethical, professional and political aspects of any historical intervention in the public realm. The course therefore combines insights from media archeology, archival ethnography, history of law and historiography in order to address current questions about the interventionist (and yet truthful) powers of archives in the public realm.

Learning Outcomes: 
  • students would be able to approach the archive as on object of study, not just as a source, to contextualize it as an intriguing phenomenon socio-historically bounded and yet transgressive in its ideals of truth and evidentiary force
  • students will learn how to position the history of archival practices within broader publicly oriented archival cultures and informational ecologies
  • as future public historians, the students will acquire critical skills with regards to the creation of more inclusive/ comprehensive/ just digital platforms or archives by studying past counter-archival practices and the challenges of digital archiving

Attendance and class participation: 30%
Blog posts: 30%
Final paper: 40%