The SAA defines access as either the ability or permission to locate (and retrieve) information; accessioning is defined as either transferring or taking custody of that information. What does it mean to both act upon archival materials – to acquire, control, circulate, and interpret their content – and have those actions curbed? In what instances is this circumscription a means of empowerment? How do we negotiate taboos and the politics of (moralized) discomfort in the archival space with respect to atrocity, and the words and images that capture (and/or objectify) its violence? This week, these issues were apparent in three projects from which I consumed archival materials: (1) MIT’s Visualizing Cultures website, (2) HSP’s “One Manly Soul” display, and (3) Ava DuVernay’s 13TH documentary.
Violent imagery and rhetoric (past and present) pervade American society. In 2006, the MIT Visualizing Cultures controversy centered on Japanese war propaganda from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Many picture labels objectified the caricatured, mutilated bodies of Chinese men by alluding to the beautiful aesthetics of war and Japanese portraiture. Some protestors focused on the flippant textual engagement of the creators and/or the circulation of the imagery used for promotion of the site. Images independent of text are not generally “unbiased;” they are decontextualized. In the archive, metadata itself is subjective. These decontextualized images of atrocity are evocative and we must be self-conscious of our own (objectifying) gazes. Meanwhile, other protestors took issue with the preservation and (re)publication of the propaganda itself. However, the censoring one’s own history is often disempowering. Historical atrocity should not be viewed as evidence of humiliation or failure (i.e., internalized victim-blaming), but be woven into an identifiable history from which a one can derive meaning and the impetus for change and self-advocacy.
Chinese student protestors were accused of bias (“militant nationalism”), but the site’s creators themselves were two male professors: one white and one Japanese. Where were the Chinese voices in this project? In Jing Wang and Winnie Won Yin Wong’s introduction to Positions‘ unpacking of this controversy, they ask “Who holds a privileged viewpoint over the images, texts, or even the history of a tribe or a nation—experts or natives?” (6). What irks me about this question is that it treats “the expert” and “the native” as mutually exclusive. What the question really does is normalize the (white male) historiographical gaze, its abstractions and armchair theories, and its seemingly omniscient outsider “objectivity.” What is ideal – what ought to be the “privileged” (read: prioritized) perspective in the construction of historical narratives – is the voices of Others. What is more productive than studying, engaging with, structuring, and circulating one’s own history? It is neither irrational upheaval, nor the clamoring of pathos-driven plebeians. Only Others know how to perform and demand historiographic restorations and reparations. Historians are often the “middlemen;” word and image pass through the hands of their original creators and archivists before they reach historians and the general public. Historians may fancy themselves the retrievers and interpreters, but archivists and "natives" (and native archivists) are really the first filters through which materials pass – creating, weeding and processing information before everyone else.
Meanwhile, HSP’s upcoming “One Manly Soul” display features pamphlets and political cartoons created by white men that feature racist imagery and rhetoric about the 1763 Conestoga Massacre (the brutal murder of 21 Susquehannock men, women, and children). Absolutely no American Indian (let alone Susquehannock) people were involved in the compilation and interpretation of these materials, and respected scholars within this field are white people (mostly men). Is my (lone) presence on this project as a person of color (albeit Asian, not American Indian) some sort of consolation, pseudo-validation, and/or tokenization? Conversely, the recently released documentary 13TH (which explores the Thirteenth Amendment, mass incarceration, and racism in the United States) was directed by Ava DuVernay, a Black woman, and its “talking heads” are majority Black scholars. In a moment of metanarrative, the film (which features images of racial violence and oppression, both past and present) discusses the role of visual culture in shaping liberation movements: “[We] are extensions of this kind of oppression, we don’t need to see pictures to understand what’s going on. [It’s really there to] speak to the masses who have been ignoring this…” Shock value became a powerful tool with the advent of photography; seminal images like the scarred back of Gordon (an enslaved man) and Emmett Till’s open casket are ingrained in the American historical imagination. Must we objectify ourselves, our histories and traumas, in order to validate our humanity? With the advent of social media – when Black people can live broadcast their own murders and only enact conversation, not justice – how will archivists access(ion) our atrocity?
On Off the Record, former SAA President Jackie Dooley published “Should a legal right to “archival privilege” be established?” – written by Frank Boles, another former SAA President and chair of SAA’s Government Affairs Working Group, back in 2013. In light of the recent Belfast Project controversy, wherein the subpoenaing of oral histories to use as evidence in a murder investigation roused the old “archival privilege” debate, Boles (in line with SAA’s official statement on the incident) opts not to commit to any particular stance. Rather, he affirms the professional and legal context surrounding the issue – intra-archival acrimony and the currently unrecognized right to confidentiality for scholars and archivists. Boles encourages discussion so we might someday arrive at a consensus.
Spouse, psychiatrist, lawyer, priest – under “privileged communication,” these are the protected relationships within which one may divulge anything. Comparatively, Randall Jimerson’s published SAA Presidential Address “Embracing the Power of Archives” (2006), discusses the archive as a site of power – a temple, a prison, a restaurant. I find the former two to be most relevant in the case of “archival privilege.” If archivists are to be counted among lawyers and priests as those who have the power to withhold (protect?) information, then the archive really does become a nexus for “authority,” “veneration,” and “control” of materials. But how can archives embody the contradiction of the temple and prison – open and closed, welcoming and impenetrable – when confidentiality risks superseding public well-being? Confidentiality of the (alleged) aggressor (e.g., a murderer) is not the same as confidentiality of the victim (e.g., someone who may be outed if their personal papers are circulated).
In the SAA blog post, Boles asks, “Is history always more important than justice?,” but I’ve always believed history and justice to be inextricably linked. Justice may be subjective – worthy of debate and speculative outcome – but isn’t history, too? “The public’s right to every man’s evidence” is a contested ideal itself (for journalists and witnesses, as well as archivists). History and historiography rely on testimony, and while tenuous privacy/confidentiality rights discourage revelation, what use is information if it’s inaccessible, especially when lives are at stake? Perhaps, in the case of archives at least, Justice Felix Frankfurter’s dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court Case 1943 United States v. Monia applies: “Duty, not privilege, lies at the core of this problem – the duty to testify, and not the privilege that relieves of such duty” (316).