Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Blank Spaces in Records

Imtiaz Habib gives us an interesting, detailed effort of accounting for the presence of black individuals and families in English archives in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2008) analyzes as many documents relating to blacks as could be found in legal, taxation, medical, civic, and personal archives in these two centuries, providing an item by item description of the 448 documents in a chronological listing at the end of the volume. Habib states frequently throughout his volume that this is not a comprehensive assessment: “To aspire to definitiveness in the detritus of personal, mercantile, legal, and governmental minutiae cannot be a feasible prospect because the accidental, discontinuous, and impossibly dispersed nature of the survival of such details ensure for them a slate of perpetually incomplete recovery” (pp. 13-14). Any researcher – historian, genealogist, or antiquarian – who has worked in such early records could affirm such problems and challenges, for virtually any topic, although whether such researchers would describe the records in the same fashion – “obscure, truncated and largely inaccessible documentary records” (p. 1) or “voluminous cryptic citations” (p. 2) – is problematic because Habib’s agenda is different than merely compiling evidence of black lives in old records.

So, what is this book about? Yes, indeed, it is an effort to uncover as much can be about the presence of Blacks in early England. “Presence” is the critical term, it seems. Here is one way in which Habib uses “presence”: “The very idea of a black presence as such may appear difficult to validate, because the specificity of such a presence seems to be absent from or ignored in these archives. Yet, precisely that feature may be what makes these records significant despite their numerical slightness. The curiously causal or cryptic content of such references can be seen to confirm the evolving sense of early Tudor attitudes to black people, in the fact that such casualness or crypticity could mark a linguistic nonchalance about such a group that is indicative of a cultural space for them in the early Tudor social imaginary” (p. 50). Or, more simply, it is hard to piece together substantial evidence about this social and racial group. What Habib contends, really, is that traditional historical and other scholars are unable to discover such evidence unless they follow the trail blazed by Derrida and Foucault and other poststructuralists and postcolonial theorists who understand that “to navigate the archives is also to construct them” (p. 11). This theoretical orientation, whatever its value, also leads to some pretty dense writing.

What is this book not really about? Let’s consider what Habib states about early Tudor period archives: “Whereas all the records of black people presented in this book have a varyingly uncertain luminosity, some early Tudor black records occupy an irrecoverable heuristic eporia – orthographic and archival, as well as historical. Such records are mere palimpsests of human presence, the outlines or substances of whose narratives no ancillary light can sharpen, and who must therefore be read as the models of their own meaning. To track the early modern English black subjects’ archival beginnings is thus to negotiate the disjunctive history and indeterminate logic of early modern English archival culture itself” (p. 19). Ah, archival culture it is that we will learn about. . . well, no, not really. What we learn about is the archival culture according to folks like Derrida and Foucault, not the actual culture of four hundred years ago. In fact, while Habib provides detailed descriptions of document after document with some reference to blacks, we read nothing about the legal, administrative, and other aspects of recordkeeping that was forming, in quite systematic and regulated fashion, during this period. Archival culture will be revealed by theoretical models guiding us through these four hundred-plus documents discovered with references to black lives. I don’t think this really works; it does not read as a full study, but more as a complex finding aid to a set of records discovered by laborious searching through actual archives and published documents from these archives. There is a difference between how we read archival culture from today’s perspective and how we immerse ourselves into the archival guides, manuals, laws, traditions, practices of the period itself, although admittedly this is not Habib’s agenda as it turns out. You will learn something about how blacks are represented in records, something of the black lives themselves, and a lot about poststructuralist and postcolonial approaches. Archivists and those interested in archives can still learn about some interesting ways of studying archival documents.