Dreaming History: archive (1)
In the lands of the singular and the plural
I begin with a Dictionary of Etymology.
archive (n.) See archives
I follow the instruction to depart from archive and make my way to archives.
c.1600, “records or documents preserved as evidence,” from French archif (16c. Modern French archives), from Late Latin archivum (plural archiva) “written records.”
also the place where they are kept, from Greek ta arkheia “public records,” plural of arkheion “town hall, public building,” from arkhe “government,” literally “beginning, origin, first place” (verbal noun of arkhein “to be the first;” see archon).
The sense of “place where public records and historical documents are kept” in English is from the 1640s.
The dictionary sends us to the land of the plural without explanation. This easy crossing seems dubious. It is made easy by the fact that archives have a material presence. They exist and we long to go to them, seek entry, ask for documents, find something that was previously lost, answer a nagging question that has given us sleepless nights, locate evidence, formulate our ideas about past events and people. In the practice of History, there are perhaps few greater gifts than hours spent in archives. I remember my first encounter with a collection of ‘primary source’ documents — in this instance, 19th century London court records examined for an undergraduate essay on class relations and domestic violence in Victorian England. There was a thrill, a conviction that finally, I was doing that thing called History.
So, don’t get me wrong. The land of the plural is important. We journey to the archives because they are the yellow brick road of the historian’s quest, the material locations of historical records. They can confirm incontrovertible facts — the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, January 1st, 1863. But that the Proclamation is an oft-misunderstood US historical document requiring further explanatory evidence, some of it from archives, some from secondary sources (the realm of historiography and historians’ debates) where we may find other readings, different interpretations of evidence — these are trickier matters. Moreover, there always was and will be a politics of the archive — what has been included, what is absent, and how particular inclusions and exclusions were brought about. Who benefitted from such decisions concerning any given set of historical records? So, no. There will be no arguments about the date of the Proclamation, but many will argue about the historical context and evidence surrounding it, the proclamation’s meaning and importance, what preceded and followed from it, the extent to which it succeeded or failed in its purpose, what it means now.
Or to return to my undergraduate essay on domestic violence, the archives provided evidence of the number of cases during a selected period that had something to do with domestic violence, including case outcomes, judges’ remarks, and sentences. In related archives, I found newspaper articles, hospital records, a handful of letters. But of course, this green historian had to learn quickly that the term at the center of my project — ‘domestic violence’- only achieved usage in the 1970s. How this issue was viewed at the time of those court records differed radically from the view I had gained by working in a London refuge for women fleeing what we all agreed was, without question, domestic violence. If there was continuity, it resided in the fact that as late as the 20th century, the time I wrote my essay, we were still fighting persistent notions regarding domestic privacy — that the home was a ‘man’s castle’ in which he might do what he wished. We were still getting over societal beliefs that a husband might physically ‘chastise’ his wife provided he used a stick no bigger than his thumb. But such continuity, however important, was not really the topic of my modest essay. The assignment was to test my usage of primary sources, not my commitment to overturning patriarchy and male violence. And this, perhaps, brings us back to the definition of archives.
My larger point is that the dictionary, like a guard at a border crossing, marshals us too swiftly. “See Archives,” we’re told. “Welcome to Plural, where we have all you need to know.” By all means, we must get to the land of Plural, but we will not find all we need to know there. My humble advice is — before you cross to Plural, visit the following: archive as singular. As concept.
What the border guard has not told you is that a good deal of theoretical attention has been paid to the archive, particularly since the 1995 publication of Derrida’s Archive Fever. But theoretical questions were always there, emerging at particular key moments in the history of History. In Michelet, who described his time in the Archives Nationales of Paris as breathing the dust of the dead. In Walter Benjamin — ragpicker, flaneur, creator of Surrealist montage, tireless collector of texts, images, maps, fragments, ideas, quotations. Benjamin, for whom these archival practices had political urgency: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger… For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”
Indeed, it is arguable that every historian must take some sort of theoretical and political ‘position’ with regard to the archive, whether consciously or expressly, or not. How archive theory works together with the material fact of archives (real places with real collections of historical evidence) remains unresolved. But the theory and the places — archive the singular and archives the plural — need one another.
(to be continued)
 It has been claimed, incorrectly, that this is the origin of the term ‘rule of thumb,’ a 17th-century phrase describing a way of obtaining a rough unit of measure and not initially used in the context of domestic violence. But it is certainly true that early jurists, newspaper editors, and feminist campaigners all drew on the term in relation to domestic violence cases.
 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, University of Chicago Press, 1996. Archive Fever began as a three-hour lecture given on 5 June 1994 in London during a conference entitled Memory: The Question of Archives. The conference was held under the auspices of the Societe Internationale d’Histoire de la Psychiatrie et de la Psychanalyse, of the Freud Museum, and of the Courtauld Institute ofArt. The initial title of Derrida’s lecture was “The Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression.” The French title is “Mal d’ archive: Une impression freudienne.”
 “… as I breathed their dust, I saw them rise up.” Jules Michelet, “Preface de l’Histoire de France” (1869). In her illuminating treatment of archive theory and historiography, Carolyn Steedman pointed out that Michelet had truly exposed himself to dust: “the dust of the workers who made the papers and parchments; the dust of the animals who provided the skins for their leather bindings. He inhaled the by-product of all the filthy trades that have, by circuitous routes, deposited their end-products in the archives.” Carolyn Steedman, Dust (2001) p. 27.
 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Benjamin, Illuminations, Hannah Arendt, ed. (1969).