Friday, September 27, 2013

The Allure of the Archives

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee reviews the English translation (from French) of Arlette Farge's The Allure of Archives (Yale University Press).  Here is a taste: 

Her descriptions are very true to life, even an ocean away from the French archives she has in mind...
But all of it is just the setting for the necromancy of research – calling up men and women who are long dead and utterly forgotten, speaking for the first time in two or three hundred years. The dossiers Farge explored in her research consisted of police and judicial records as well as reports to His Majesty on what the rabble of Paris were doing and saying from week to week. A whole layer of informers – called in slang mouches, “flies” – kept track of rumors and complaints making the rounds. (They were, in effect, flies on the wall.) Also in the files are slanderous and subversive posters with traces of grit clinging to the back after the authorities ripped them down.  
Police interrogations (transcribed for use during an investigation, then filed away and eventually warehoused) document the everyday happenings, criminal and otherwise, of urban life. Most of those speaking left no other account of their lives. Nor could they; even those who could read a little had not always learned to write. Having become accustomed to reading the faded or erratically punctuated documents, the researcher may undergo a sort of rapture: “the sheer pleasure of being astonished by the beauty of the texts and the overabundance of life brimming in so many ordinary lives.”
At that point, a danger becomes evident: “You can begin to forget that writing history is actually a kind of intellectual exercise, one for which fascinated recollection is just not enough…. Whatever the project is, work in the archives requires a triage, separation of documents. The question is what to take and what to leave.” And the researchers answers it by coming to recognize the patterns that emerge from one document to the next: the unstated assumptions made by those on either side of the interrogation, the changes in tone or preoccupation recorded over time.
The historian learns to frame questions that the archive knows how to answer – while remaining open to the secrets and surprises to be found in the boxes of paper that haven’t been delivered to her desk yet.