AAA 2015 Preview: The Actant Archive: On Surveillance, Subversion and Self-Fashioning

Duck Rabbit final

Original artwork by Jessica Deane Rosner

By Keith Brown, Brown University
Saygun Goksarikel, CUNY Graduate Center

A panel sponsored by APLA and the Society for Cultural Anthropology for the AAA Meetings in Denver,
Thursday November 19: 1:45-3:30

Anthropology’s interest in archives (and/or “The Archive”) is, of course, nothing new. Brian Axel’s rich 2002 volume, From the Margins, which includes contributions by Nicholas Dirks, Ann Laura Stoler, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and John and Jean Comaroff, among others, serves as a wonderful starting point. More recently, David Zeitlyn’s 2012 Annual Review of Anthropology contribution offers a valuable reflection on the breadth of interest in the topic. There, Zeitlyn gently suggests that the range of approaches out there might suggest “…the archive concept has been a fashion victim and risks collapsing under the weight of metaphoric overextension. If everything is an archive, then what do we call the buildings that house the old files?” (Zeitlyn 2012: 467).

Macedonian_commission_for_verification of facts

Photo: Vlatko Perkovski.

From our own work in two East European contexts (as well as Katherine Verdery’s in a third), we have discovered common interests in the real-world effects of what might be termed archival neoliteralism. In Poland, Macedonia, and other formerly communist countries, textual artifacts generated by a state-sponsored security apparatus have become key components of legal and extra-legal processes of “lustration” designed to create a break with the past. Since the early 1990s, governments have faced pressure from victims of former regimes to open the archives and make their contents public, hoping to bring to light and to justice the informants and collaborators on which those regimes relied.

Such efforts have prompted wide interest in the interdisciplinary field of Transitional Justice. They also evoke and sustain folk concepts of truth, and invest those responsible for its extraction from the archival records—like Macedonia’s Commission for the Verification of the Facts, depicted here at work by independent.mk, with an aura of dispassionate, scholarly authority.

Yet such initiatives do not always sustain the legitimacy they seek. When besuited middle-aged men gather around a table at the behest of a post-transition regime, charged with the task of providing a definitive interpretation of written texts, they find themselves part of longer processes of political contestation and historical process.

In their gathering and their reading they affirm that the archive is seldom, if ever, simply a repository or storehouse of ‘facts,’ but always operates in dynamic tension. Archival holdings are generative of the objects, subjects, and socialities that they document. Archives, especially of state security or repression, are often sites of volatile social and political struggles that raise important moral and political epistemological and ontological questions. This is particularly the case in the contexts of so-called transitional justice or ‘democratization.’

Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 11.26.48 AM

Photo by Saygun Goksarikel

Engaging these issues, our panel problematizes the archive along two main lines of inquiry. One explores the differential functions of the information generated and circulated by state security and discusses the social-political effects and moral implications of repurposing security files for different normative ends. There is a certain tension here that we want to explore. As illustrated in recent work by historians on post-civil war Guatemala (Weld 2014), and the colonial archives of British Kenya (Elkins 2005), such archives may be put to subversive or emancipatory use. In literature on Eastern Europe, meanwhile, political scientists and legal scholars have observed the ambivalence of communist-era security archives, which have been mobilized to promote transitional justice and restore trust in government, but also manipulated in much the same manner as the services that created them, to perpetuate fear and distrust (Kornai and Rose-Ackerman (eds.) 2004; Stan (ed.) 2008; David 2011).

How is it that the security archives can be put to use for such contradictory ends? What is it that makes those archives particularly appropriable or manipulable? What patterns can be observed in different cases of re-intertextualization—do some archives resist repurposing more than others? What metaphors of personhood can we apply to archives—by labeling them, for example, shifty, unruly, stubborn, or malicious—without prompting criticisms of metaphoric overextension?

While these questions, we hope, invite reflection on classical anthropological concerns of textual authorship, translation and appropriation, as well as on the materiality of state bureaucracies, they arise from our second line of inquiry: the relationship between theory and practice, or methodology and political engagement or activism. The practices of archival reckoning under way in some parts of Eastern Europe—and, arguably, elsewhere—pose a particular challenge to some of our enshrined disciplinary principles. Could it be that certain theoretical frameworks such as actor network theory with its diffused conception of human responsibility are particularly conducive to the promotion of culture of impunity? Does methodological individualism—here interpreted as the practice of establishing singular relationships between singularly named agents and specific acts that demand restitution—either necessarily or primarily lead to emancipatory politics? Does revelation of past secrets necessarily produce public transparency and trust?

Our panel explores these questions and their profound theoretical and ethical-political implications through ethnographic case studies that provide a comparative historical perspective. The individual paper titles and abstracts in the preliminary program are, we trust, indicative of our shared interests. Besides paper-givers Katherine Verdery and Matthew Hull, whose recent books Secrets and Truths (2013) and Government of Paper (2012) indicate their expertise and interest in these issues, we are delighted that Joe Masco (University of Chicago) and historian Kirsten Weld (Harvard University) have agreed to serve as discussants, and that David Bozzini (CUNY) will chair the session.

We hope that this panel will represent a start-point for new discussions at the interface of engaged anthropology, history, and legal studies, especially for those scholars with interests in the comparative political analysis of “old” and “new” technologies of surveillance and data acquisition, analysis and disposal. As we explore ways to continue this dialogue—whether through future panels, workshops or seminars, or in published form—we hope to identify others working on similar issues, and on ways—in keeping with this year’s conference theme—to further explore “Familiar/Strange” anthropology and its applications.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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