On issues of representation in archives – whose materials (whose perspectives) are available, represented, retained and maintained?
In her article “Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman studies the pervasive symbolism of the Black Venus in the archive of Atlantic slavery. Through oppressive archetypes (e.g., “A sulky bitch. A dead negréss. A syphilitic whore”), the white patriarchy constructed a sexually gratuitous commodification of black women’s bodies to justify and assert its power (6). Yet, the failure of the archive, which is almost singularly composed of the contextual perspectives of slavers, is the retrospective disempowerment of a people through a lack of resources. Black women in the Atlantic world are cast as voiceless historical actors who are objectified by a white male gaze.
While researching the murder of two captive girls (one of whom was called Venus) aboard a slave ship, Hartman concedes that because she had very few sources to inform her discussion, she opted to say very little at all about Venus, glossing over the major problem of inherent bias in the archive. Looking back on this decision, she realizes the flaw of her method. Hartman’s approach towards historical gaps and omissions (or rather, her avoidance of them) ended up covering over a complex and contested past — an issue itself worthy of discussion in conjunction with her topic. Upon reflection, she arrives at the question: “Is it possible to exceed or negotiate the constitutive limits of the archive?” (11).
Hartman comes to the conclusion that historiography must engage loss — to acknowledge that we, in the present, will never know the full story (“the words exchanged,” “the furtive communication” of excluded historical actors) — and find comfort in our discomfort (10). By trying and failing to capture the complete narrative, we can demonstrate the tangle of history through the limitations of historical writing. In seeking to convey a full historical picture, Hartman is highlighting its unattainability. As a consequence, she encourages us to see this impossibility as that which shapes our understanding of the past and sparks our efforts for an improved future (a “free state”).
Hartman effectively discusses the place of the archive in historiography — its ‘violence, silence, scandal, excess, boundaries, discrepancies, and promiscuity’ — by bringing it to life through vivid descriptions of her dilemma. She characterizes the archive as alive, a continually evolving entity that both shapes and is shaped by the oppressive power dynamics that characterize our history. The agency of historical actors to participate in a collective narrative is revealed through the limited contextual evidence produced by the archive (primary sources) and, in turn, informs the ability of historians to re-construct events. “The violence of the archive” is, in essence, the reduction of history into a simplified, quantified, and seemingly “objective” account. The erasure of a people’s history is rooted in the inherently biased (as well as the nonexistent) contents of the archive and in the interpretations layered upon them by academia.