Reimagining the Archival Body: Towards a Feminist Approach to the Archive

An archive, in the traditional sense, is a physical – and recently a virtual – space where archivists preserve a collection of documents, historical sources, and various material. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences mine the archives in search for stories to tell and arguments to make about our human societies. Towards the middle of the twentieth century, cultural theorists began questioning the relationship between power and knowledge and their nexus in spaces such as the archives. This moment became known as the archival turn, which opened the space for a critique of the archive. Until then, the archive was bound within its traditional framework and therefore knowledge production mirrored this concentration of power.

The Archival Turn 

This power dynamic permeating the archive became particularly flagrant when second wave feminist scholars in the 1960s struggled to tell women’s history, which had remained until then absent or structurally excluded from the historical canon. They first asked the compelling question: Where are the women? And how do we write histories of women when they are absent from the archives? More importantly, why are women marginalized and absent from the archives? There is of course, a very obvious answer to that question, and that is, if women lived within the constraints of a patriarchal system that did not allow for them to take control of knowledge production – of writing, collecting, or recording material – then their voices were naturally absent from the historical sources that eventually constituted the archive. However, what this question and the answer to it also prompted was a deeper examination of the mechanisms that made up an archive to start with. Meaning, what if the reason women were not in the archives is because the archive reflected the power structures of our societies and was in and of itself a site of contestation that needs to be revisited and revised?

How archives are built and curated and categorized is not an innocent objective act, rather, it is a reflection of the center(s) of power of any given era

Within the archival turn, the archives are no longer simply objective spaces of source collection and curation, and depositories of documents and sources in a specific place/space and institution, but rather archives are being seen as entities through which power is exercised in the production of knowledge.1 This has led scholars to deconstruct and break up the systemic and structural ways in which the archives have been built and assigned meaning by those who used them – social scientists and humanists across the disciplinary spectrum, but also archivists themselves and the institutions that house archives in general. How archives are built and curated and categorized is not an innocent objective act, rather, it is a reflection of the center(s) of power of any given era.2 It comes as no surprise then that historically archives grew exponentially under major sites of authority such as the church, religious clerical hubs, and centers of education and learning. The modern era saw the consolidation of archives under the nation-state, with national archives comprising the bulk of source material depositories. States control the archives to control narratives constructed around the foundation of the state, nationalism, and access to power.

Archival Biases

This power structure embedded in the design of the archive manifests itself flagrantly within the issues of women, gender, and sexuality. This is present at every level of the process of archiving, including primarily in the politics of selection, of what is selected to be preserved and what is deemed not worthy of preserving. Official state documents, diplomatic correspondences, newspapers and periodicals, police records, and institutional records, constitute the bulk of what archivists select for preservation. This conscious centering of power within predominantly hetero-male circles excludes all other political, sexual, and social categories out of the historical record. Moreover, bias also exists at the level of categorization of the preserved material and its presentation to the public. When women and other minorities are included in the archives, they are segregated and categorized as separate in archival finding aids and in the document organization. Therefore, women’s history is deemed as separate as well, and even marginal, from “real” history which remains predominantly patriarchal. 

States control the archives to control narratives constructed around the foundation of the state, nationalism, and access to power

The quest for women in the archives was also coupled with the absence of all minority and structurally excluded groups around the world, most flagrantly those who are non-white, from the LGBTQ community, and those from the lower classes. This explains why colonial archives constitute a blunt example of the implication of the archive in the reproduction of power relations in our human societies and why empire studies were also central, along with gender studies, to the deconstruction of the archive. The colonial archive suffers from systemic and targeted erasure of records in order to ensure the creation of a sanitized narrative of the colonial encounter. The colonial past has also created depositories of information that scholars from colonial and postcolonial societies need to tell their stories that are contained in archives they do not own and whose access is restricted to them due to visa complications, language impediments, and institutional access. For instance, for anyone looking to write about the history of Algeria in the 19th and until its independence in 1962, the archives are housed in the colonial archives in France rather than in Algeria itself. The archives consist of administrative, legal, political, social and urban planning, and day-to-day reporting and media coverage, among other categories, that are available in the French language and are cataloged and organized by French state employees. Perhaps the most flagrant example of this colonial power dyanmic is the state of Israel and its handling of Palestinian records. Israeli archives contain confiscated and stolen records from palestinian organizations and institutions, ranging from the pre-British mandate period and up until the present day. Moreover, Israel not only controls the archive and access to it, but it has also worked to eradicate records, such as burning the archives of the Institute for Palestine Studies during the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982.

It is then fair to argue that the politics, technologies, and infrastructure of the archives in their traditional sense are biased against oppressed and minority groups in human societies. What does this mean for those of us who seek to dissect and reveal power structures within our societies that continue to oppress various people across the world? How do we research, write, and understand our histories and our present societies? Do we have to abandon the archive in order to write the history we want to write?

Alternative Approaches to the Archive 

There are ways in which we, as researchers and readers seeking this knowledge on gender and women, can circumvent the bias in the archive. First, we can be creative about our reading of the archive. To tackle the issue of reading, historians of empire and of gender have developed methods of reading documents against the grain and along the grain.

Another way to circumvent the bias in the archive is by reimagining what the archival body itself could be

In reading against the grain, the document is scrutinized for its absences, the silences in it; it is analyzed and dissected to produce an alternative reading of the text. For instance, Philippa Levine told the story of prostitutes in nineteenth century Hong Kong, India, and Queensland through a reading of British colonial police records and documents on the spread of venereal diseases.3 The records themselves are, at the surface, information written by white British male police officers describing the examinations and test results conducted on colonized female bodies for the purpose of policing these bodies and controlling sexual interaction between white and non-white bodies. Levine reads through the absences to shed light on the narratives of these women, their living conditions, their experiences, their labor, and their oppression by colonial and patriarchal structures. Elizabeth Thompson also used French colonial archives to argue how a paternal structure of privileges was part of the statebuilding process negotiated between the French Mandate and its colonized citizens in Lebanon and Syria.4

Reading along the grain has also been a useful tool to deconstruct the centers of power within the archive; this happens when the archive is read exactly as presented to try and understand the power dynamics behind its particular presentation. It is a close, intimate reading of the ways documents, photographs, or any historical record create epistemological categories of knowledge. Ann Stoler first argued for this method through a close reading of colonial administrators’ production of social categories and power dynamics in their organization, language, and structuring of the archives.5

Aside from using the archives while aware of their bias for the purpose of writing about gender, women, and sexuality, another way to circumvent the bias in the archive is by reimagining what the archival body itself could be. Historians have found ways to circumvent the gender bias of the archival institution(s) through considering non-traditional mediums and texts as historical material. This includes, but is not restricted to, the use of literature, popular culture such as music and songs, art and visual representations, television and media, and of course most recently, social media as sources that could diversify the body of primary sources we use to write our histories. This has allowed researchers to break the monopoly of the state over archives by expanding our understanding of what, and not only how, we archive.

Therefore, instead of abandoning the archive, I am suggesting recentering the political in the intimate and the private, in the feminist domain of research. In No Archive Will Restore You, Julietta Singh offers a very powerful feminist critique of the archive. After years of struggling with the elusive nature of the archive and its bias, Singh learned of Argentine women who, imprisoned during the dictatorship, stored and moved subversive material/archives through their vaginas. She calls for us to reimagine the archive by wondering over our own bodies as “an impossible, deteriorating archive [...] to dwell on the messy, embodied, illegitimate archive that I am.”6 She argues for a body archive, as “a way of knowing the body-self as a becoming and unbecoming thing, of scrambling time and matter, of turning toward rather than against oneself. And vitally, it is a way of thinking-feeling the body’s unbounded relation to other bodies.”7

The problem has remained in the fact that these non-traditional feminist archival initiatives are not often taken seriously by academia

This reimagining of the archives starts by accepting its messiness and therefore that of the process of knowledge production itself. But also, by accepting that what goes into this archive needs to include bodies and sexualities and fears and anxieties and the day-to-day smells and sights that make up a certain moment. Several archival initiatives in the Arab world have begun this work. For instance, the Palestinian Oral History Archive at the American University of Beirut, the Women and Memory Forum in Egypt, and the Oral History Mapping Project at the Syrian organization Badael, are depositories for considering oral testimonies, and particularly women’s stories, as part of the Arab archival canon. Similarly, organizations such as the Arab Image Foundation, Syria Untold, and the Syria Music Map of Action for Hope, and initiatives such as WikiGender, among others, are also reshaping knowledge production of and from the region by adding image, sound, maps, and more testimonies as historical sources.

The problem has remained in the fact that these non-traditional feminist archival initiatives are not often taken seriously by academia, and particularly the history profession, often with historians discrediting and flagrantly attacking non-traditional approaches to the archive.8 This is therefore a call to change how we think of an “archive”, and where we go looking for information. But more importantly, this is a call to revolutionize the archive itself, to insist on expanding the bounds of the archive, and therefore of changing its predetermined power dynamics. It is about recentering power by taking active decisions about what to consider as our “‘archive” as researchers, but also as curators, collectors, and archivists, to shift the center of power towards what we consider as part of our lived experience and our history too. It is a call not only for historians, researchers, or archivists; rather, this is a call for all of us, at every crossroad and within every choice that we make about how and which stories to tell. What do we preserve from ourselves and how? Who do we tell our narratives to? It is about recentering affect, and the feminist understanding of how bodies interact and grow in relation to each other and not as separate, “an archive of gendered bodies, dispersed across time and geography but no less entwined.”9 The idea is not to “rescue” facts or issues that are “out there”, but rather to move beyond the binary of presence/absence within the archive and to reimagine how we do research, what questions we ask, and where we go looking for answers. In this sense, archiving and the archive itself, become feminist acts and issues. 

 

 

  • 1. Bonnie Smith, “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: the Seminar and Archival Research in the Nineteenth Century”, The American Historical Review Vol. 100, No. 4 (October 1995) p. 1150-1176.
  • 2. Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • 3. Philippa Levine, Prostitution, Race, and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire, London, Routledge, 2003.
  • 4. Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon, New York, Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • 5. Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • 6. Julietta Singh, No Archive Will Restore You, Punctum Books, 2018, p. 27.
  • 7. Julietta Singh, No Archive Will Restore You, Punctum Books, 2018, p. 29.
  • 8. B.M. Watson, “Please Stop Calling Things Archives”, Perspectives on History, January 22, 2021.
  • 9. Julietta Singh, No Archive Will Restore You, Punctum Books, 2018, p. 92.