About Object Archives

The archive’s traditional role in the practice of historiography, as a source of information, often makes a fetish of it, reading it as “a literal substitute for the ‘reality’ of the past which is ‘always already’ lost for the historian” (LaCapra, 1985: 92, n. 17.), or “the language of a voice since reduced to silence, its fragile, but possibly decipherable trace” (Foucault, 1972: 7). However, recent criticism has redirected attention to the ways in which archives have emerged as fraught and problematic sites, continuously thwarting rather than merely shaping our expectations of history (Arondekar, 2009; Stoler, 2009; Spivak, 1985). Moving away from the image of the historian reading bureaucratic documents in dusty, poorly lit reading rooms, scholars are increasingly looking towards alternative archives: texts that allow us to construct history in potentially destabilising ways.

Object Archives: Reading and Writing Eccentric Histories aims to bring together articles that deal with such alternative archives, in particular, the possibility of “doing” history through material objects. While the study of objects stretches back to the phenomenon of the cabinet of curiosities (the first instances of which can be found in around 530 BC), recent years have seen an unprecedented proliferation of scholarship focusing on “things”, be it the BBC/British Museum series, The History of the World in a 100 objects, or Bill Brown’s formulation of “Thing Theory” and literary practice. This blog will present some of the ways in which objects are read and studied across the humanities – literature, history, theology, music, classics and anthropology are just some of the areas the articles will cover. Despite their disciplinary differences, all of the articles will focus on similar questions that have larger implications for archival methodologies today. Is any object an archive – a statue in an art museum, as well as a keepsake secreted away in a shoe-box under one’s bed? How do objects travel, circulate and change? How does the value of an object alter in different times and contexts, and how does this shape our understanding of historical processes? Do they gain an affective life that goes beyond their original function? Does the object hold the potential to address gaps in official histories? If nothing else, Object Archives hopes to create a series of eccentric, quirky histories about both mundane and extraordinary pieces of material life.


Works Cited

Arondekar, Anjali. For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. Print.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28.1 (2001): 1 – 22. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge, 1972. Print.

LaCapra, Dominic. History and Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. Print.

Spivak , Gayatri C. “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives.” History and Theory (24): 247 – 72. Print.

Stoler, Ann L.  Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. Print.

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