Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Freedom from the Files

I am relieved to have left the archives and say, "enough is enough." I could always read more, losing myself in the minutiae, engorging myself on tidbits of information without turning them into history.

Archives are places of hidden knoweldge that become the stuff of fantasies and desires. Research, like psychoanalysis, seeks to uncover the layers of meaning. It is disconcerting when a file comes up wanting, lacking the depth of information that was hoped for. The longing remains, and satisfaction must be found indirectly in other files.

Like all witnesses, time acts on the files. A student, low on funds, mights slip a few pages into a notebook. Brittle paper tears. Pages become dirty; ink fades; writing becomes uncertain. The bureaucratic squiggles in the margins become meaningless doodles.

Politics can take their toll as well. Records are purged. Files are moved from small offices to centralized archival repositories; files are lost along the way, others never classified and rot in neglect. A stray bomb (or even a well-placed bomb) might turn centuries of potential history into a pile of debris, a problem for a community that will face the challenges of rebuilding in the future. All these things add to the insecurity of the researcher.

Some deliberate acts of archival vandalism cannot be mourned. When the peasants burned down the manor house or the burgers the town hall, they erased the records of feudal obligations, debts, and the surveillance of the prefects. They gave themselves new starts. They destroyed what historians need to learn about them. They destroyed knowledge of their daily lives, but freed themselves from the conditions they lived in(or tried). In due course they asserted themselves as political animals, objects that historians find worthy of study. Should we mourn the loss of the files? For them burying the knowledge of their conditions was freedom. In that which cannot be uncovered, there is still liberation.



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