Sunday, July 26, 2009

Archives and their (dis)contents

Near Sheki, Azerbaijan, site of the rebellion Bruce Grant studied

Bruce Grant, an anthropologist at NYU, describes how one paragraph among the hundreds of pages he read in Azeri archives arrested his attention: "From the end of 1929 to April of 1930, the political situation in [our region] was good. In April, a few kulaks and bandits raised a commotion and spread discontent. Currently, however, our political situation can be considered average." What, he wondered, did "average" mean in the context of November 1930 Ajerbaijan, when the report was written? And what, for that matter, did "good" mean? The "kulaks and bandits" in question were the grandson of a Sufi-style saint and his followers, who fought a rebellion against the Soviet presence.

Moments like these occur frequently during archival research. You ask for a carton number, and the archivist returns with a box the size of several telephone books stuffed with reams of largely unordered pages, some handwritten in mystifying cursive, some purple mimeograph bleeding-ink typeface. It becomes a real-life jigsaw puzzle. Even simple sentences demand cross-references that would have been obvious to the people involved at the time, but which now are entirely mysterious. Sometimes those cross-references appear in the other documents, but sometimes they don't. Colonial political reports were submitted trimestrally, semestrally, and annually. Why, then, in the case of Ndele, were only the reports from 1936 and 1948 saved? Can any inference be made on that basis? Probably not. Still, one wonders.

During my time at the colonial archives in Aix, I had the privilege of watching a master at work. Fred Cooper is one of the leading historians of modern Africa, and he was in Aix to research citizenship in post-WWII French West Africa. In 1946, former French subjects became French people with "the quality of citizenship". Though a highly ambiguous category, "the quality of citizenship" became a way for people to make claims on rights in ways they never had before. Fred went through carton after carton, quickly assessing each document: some he would photograph, some he would quickly note, and many, many he simply whizzed past.

As a part-time historian at best, I found I lacked that facility. Too often, I would stop to ponder word choice (how odd, for instance, that the French referred to Sultan Senoussi as the "sovereign" even as their treaty stripped him of all sovereign powers), wonder about the backgrounds and characters of the people writing the documents (was he really a slacker, as his higher-ups said, or rather the only one who could see clearly?), and get dragged down side paths by stray sentences or details that caught my eye (funny that the 1935 Oubangui-Chari census listed Turks -- as well as Brazilians, Americans and Syrians -- under the category "European": new evidence for EU accession hearings?).

But more than anything else, I found myself slowed by the continual voice in my head wondering about the relationship of all this history to the situation I will find when I start my fieldwork. Sometimes I felt I kept seeing examples of how history repeats itself. For instance, for security reasons, the French sited their garrison in Ndele over a kilometer from Senoussi's fort. This meant that they actually had very little idea of what was going on over there, and Senoussi was able to sign treaty after treaty saying he'd relinquished the slave trade while having done nothing of the sort. Similarly, for reasons of security the UN base today sits behind a massive, concertina wire-iced concrete wall at the outskirts of town, and many employees have only a spotty idea of what is going on outside. (I write this while wary of the direct parallel it suggests between the French and the UN. Please take it as a musing for now -- I am certainly not ready to make any such sweeping assessment.) Colonial/imperial projects by their very nature are so full of hubris that they involve repeating a lot of mistakes, as many have pointed out in the case of Afghanistan.

But clearly the relationship between past and present is not simply one of repetition; we don't live in "Groundhog Day." Nor is it a case of building blocks stacking ever-higher toward some noble goal. The anthropologist and historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, inspired by Foucault, suggests that we are never so steeped in history as the moment when we think we stand outside of it as the omniscient viewer who makes some judgment. Much valuable work has drawn attention to the ways that the voices of women and non-white men have been silenced throughout history. But including more of those voices does not mean that we have a complete understanding of history, for the choices we make about how to bring voices back in, and the analysis we draw, are situated firmly in the present, not in the thousands of little conflicts over power that are occurring at any given point through the years, most of which remain unknown. Trouillot does not intend to undermine the study of history but rather to strengthen it by showing how we are always, irrevocably, creatures of our time. (Even the physicists who claim that backward time travel is highly possible admit that fast-forwarding is impossible.) I find hope -- inspiration for my research -- in having made peace with that.

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