Archives and Communities: Ann Stoler in Conversation

The Radical Politics of Hidden Archives was part of the Workshop in Archival Practice, which works in collaboration with Archives and Communities, an affiliated set of groups at the New School for Social Research, Columbia University and New York University.

On the following evening, March 3, our fellow collaborators hosted an exciting event – a conversation between anthropologist Ann Stoler and sociologist Robin Wagner-Pacifici. Selections from Stoler’s book Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, were pre-circulated and she opened the conversation by describing the book’s genealogy, which was twenty-five years in the making. Tracing the book back to 1985, when her work in Dutch colonial archives led her to a single 27-page letter, Stoler broke down how the process of writing the book prompted a self-reckoning with her preconceptions about hierarchies of credibility. As she wrote the book, her story allowed for fewer and fewer boundaries, ultimately refusing to conform to traditional dichotomies between colonizers and colonized. Only by reading documents up against one another and noting their shifts in narrative form could Stoler account for the fact that the “context kept shifting in my hands.” Through what she calls an “act of prolonged immersion,” Stoler sought (borrowing from Hayden White) the “content in the archival form.” Above all, Stoler said, she views her book as an extended invitation to her students to read, and read differently, in and from archives.

In 1985, as Stoler was beginning the book, Robin Wagner-Pacifici was in Philadelphia, observing what she calls an “archive in the making” at the MOVE hearings. In finding common ground between Along the Archival Grain and the work of twentieth-century sociology, Wagner-Pacifici noted Stoler’s facility with social form, genre, and discursive experiences. She lauded Stoler’s efforts to articulate vocabularies of undecidability and illegibility. She found resonance between Stoler’s work and the project of sociologist John Mohr. She echoed Stoler’s call for attentiveness to genre and argued for a need to counter the under-specification of genre in both sociology and anthropology. “We ignore genre at our peril,” she said.

In the question and answer session, the conversation focused on several key elements of interest:
* “Problems of archival acumen” for scholars – including a lack of training, the importance of building relationships with archivists and the difficulties of negotiating access. The answer, in Stoler’s estimation, is community: “I think you have to ask other people…I always tell my students to work together.”
* The role of archives in marking sentiment and citizenship, including legal definitions of citizenship grounded in what it means to “feel” at home
* Definitions of the home and the child as constitutive of social and identity categories
* The social relations that congeal around the movements of paper and documents
* Genres as sites for embedded or encoded sociocultural meanings – examples included Roberto González Echevarría’s Myth and Archive and Ilana Feldman’s Governing Gaza.


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