Unravelling Silence and Noise in the Archives

Several complex but crucial questions in our interdisciplinary conversations on the archive have continued to resurface as matters worthy of reflection. What is an archive? How do we create them? And how can we mine our archives for individual and collective experiences of the home during the Corona pandemic in accordance with the scholarly requirements of our individual research fields? Since we at STAY HOME are researching materials as varied as architectural models, interviews, and historical documents, as well as working from different theories and methods, we often face dissimilar challenges and possibilities across disciplines. We have, however, also discovered aspects of our archival work which give rise to interdisciplinary conversations.

In this blog post, I will reflect on a series of readings and discussions on the archive carried out in the STAY HOME research group which helped elucidate shared thoughts and concerns. More specifically, I will focus on the varying ways in which silences are embedded in the archives and how these silences are created, negotiated and interpreted through the researcher’s interactions with archives.

Silence, Absence, and Fragments

Archives play a vital role in determining which pasts to preserve for posterity. Over the centuries, shifting archival paradigms have shaped different frameworks regarding the aims and processes of archiving as well as for establishing and maintaining archives (Cook 2013, 97, 196).

The undeniable significance of archives for collective memory and identity formation has led several scholars to critically examine who has established archives, when, to what purpose and to which effect. Consequently, many scholars have argued that archives are inextricably linked to power. Amongst others, Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook have argued that “archives are established by the powerful to protect or enhance their position in society. Through archives, the past is controlled.” (Schwartz & Cook 2002, 1). They point out how certain pasts are privileged and others marginalized, and through this process, how archives are permeated by silences and absences. This also makes archives an active site for the negotiation of social power (Schwartz & Cook 2002, 1). As Michel Trouillot pointed out in Silencing the Past (1995) we must keep in mind “the many ways in which the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production” (xix). In other words, the processes through which some aspects of the past (and the present) are made invisible is connected to power, and it is vital to critically assess these power dynamics.

Rather than approaching silences as being destructive of the archives, some scholars have argued that researchers should seek to probe the many meanings hidden in and communicated through silences. Writing on oral history interviews, Alexander Freund emphasizes how silences are ambiguous and open to a multitude of interpretations:

Silences may express individual or collective forgetting, collaborative remembering, discomfort, reluctance, (self-)censorship, noncompliance, confrontation, reticence, politeness, fear, anger, deceit, taboos, contemplation, concern for the other, reflection, conformity, or that which need not be told. Some silences are explicit or obvious, others are not.

Freund 2013, 223

The STAY HOME group discussed whose experiences of the home our individual research projects are able to uncover and highlight. In combination, our four different projects give different perspectives on collective and individual experiences during the Corona pandemic, but we will, however, never be able to capture everyone’s experience. We will inevitably still have blind spots as a consequence of our archives and focus.

The Researcher’s Cut

Archival research is enmeshed in a multitude of knowledge practices. Archives are not only fragmented, but as the feminist scholar Maria Tamboukou suggests, archival research is thoroughly fragmented too. In the article “Archival Research: Unravelling Space/Time/Matter Entanglements and Fragments” (2014), she describes how archival work is both shaped by the archives themselves, the theories, notions, and demarcations the researcher is working from, as well as the space and time in which the research takes place.

While working in the archive, researchers always create an archive of their own, Tamboukou states. It is through what she terms “the researcher’s cut” that “archival fragments, theoretical insights, spatio-temporal experiences and material conditions and limitations” are gathered into a unity (631). In other words, the researcher’s questions, interpretations, theoretical insights and (de)selections exist as an interaction between spatial, temporal and material relations alongside similar selective forces within the archive itself (617). The researcher’s cut is therefore “never the consequence of a linear and closed causality of the research hypothesis, questions and theoretical insights that [the researcher] initially brought in the archive” (628).

According to Tamboukou, when we gather and create an archive we always do so from our own perspective. At STAY HOME, we have discussed how the fact that we ourselves have lived through and experienced the Corona pandemic will undeniably influence how we read and what we interpret from our archives. In some cases, it can even be difficult to separate our own experiences, what we have heard from relatives and other relations, and what we have read in our archives from one another. Our own personal experiences will inevitably become part of our archives.

Concluding remarks

Our communal delving into the notion of the archive incited a variety of mutual reflections. Firstly, on the extraordinary limitations and conditions placed on collecting and establishing archives during the Corona pandemic, and its effects on which and whose experiences have been collected. Secondly, on the necessity of considering and listening for silences in our archives and the meanings hidden within them. Thirdly, on the demand for awareness of what has not found a place in our archive or in our researcher’s cut, and on the inevitable partiality of our archives and of our findings. And finally, and most importantly, on permitting these reflections to resurface and to persist.

References

Cook, Terry. “Evidence, Memory, Identity, and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms.” Archival Science 13, no. 2 (2013): 95-120.

Freund, Alexander. “Toward an Ethics of Silence? Negotiating Off-the-Record Events and Identity in Oral History.” In Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice, ed. A. Sheftel and S. Zembrzycki (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2013), 223-238.

Schwartz, Joan M. and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2 (2002): 1-19.

Tamboukou, Maria. “Archival Research: Unravelling Space/Time/Matter Entanglements and Fragments.” Qualitative Research 14, no. 5 (2014): 617-633.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1995.


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