Archives of Movement

Reviewed by Gregory Betts

As archives move increasingly to the forefront of academic attention as an object of study, scholars have expanded their attention to a fuller range of its manifestation and conceptualization. An archive describes a range of collections: from a national institution housing the foundational documents of the State to the letters written home by an author collected in a shoebox in a parent’s closet. The paradox is that while archival studies has reached maturity as a field of scholarship, and become attentive to the breadth of its field, the archives themselves are morphing under a variety of pressures, including budget cuts, digitization, and significant cultural shifts outside of the archive that raise essential and existential questions about what gets collected, who gets collected, how it is stored, how it can be accessed (and by whom), and so on. It follows that scholars like Linda Morra and the contributors to this timely collection have taken up the question of what to make of the moving idea of the archive and of the collected effects of such sundry shifts.

Moving Archives responds to developments in this object of study and begins mapping the implications of these changes. For over two decades now, archival studies has been guided by Jacques Derrida’s theorization in Archive Fever (1995), in which he proposes a lingering abyss between the identity of a State or an author and the troubling gaps that persist in the construction of an archival record. As he writes in a now famous formula, “the archive reveals as much as it suppresses” (15). Such gaps haunt Moving Archives, too, especially in the contributions by Linda Morra, Katherine McLeod, and Karina Vernon, who consider the implications of charged public silences, especially as provoked by deleterious attitudes with regard to race and gender in Canada. These studies fit the traditional work of archival scholars, which has been to find unacknowledged objects inside or outside the archive and to bring those objects, with all of their attendant implications, into an ongoing scholarly conversation. Derrida’s gap reminds such scholars of the persistence of materials yet outside the archive, despite their best efforts.

Morra’s resonant introduction, however, seeks to advance the field beyond just supplementing existing literary scholarship, beyond even the poststructuralist sense of the death drive, the lack, and the gaps inherent to the archive. By expanding the trope of moving to its widest connotations, she seeks to pull the field toward affect theory’s embrace of the living ethics, the links, and the emotional impact of things that establish our subjecthood in the world. In the words of Marika Cifor, affect is the “force that creates a relation between a body and the world” (8). This collection deploys models of affect and the ethics of our relations with objects, especially as developed by Cifor, Catherine Hobbs, and Sara Ahmed, to extend the conversation beyond what is not archived (or what is and why) to consider the emotional impact of objects and the ethics of their movement into and out of archives. This approach creates more room for the story of how archives are created and the emotional process of transforming objects into archived objects. Contributions by Susan Rudy, Patricia Godbout, and Marc André Fortin especially focus on personal stories and the emotional experiences of creating an archive.

In widening the purview, Morra’s collection permits productive divergences and even contradictions between the ideas of what an archive does to things. Thus, for Joseph LaBine, the archive is a positive means by which a (postcolonial) nation establishes itself, such that archives moving out of country constitute a “cultural betrayal” (67). For Karina Vernon, in contrast, her archival scholarship was “never motivated by a desire to belong to nation” (134) and, instead, addresses the ambivalent and emotionally resonant history of Black bodies and how they came to the land now called Canada. Vernon imagines an archive, a potential archive, in which Black objects (made so by forced interpolation into a racist worldview) claim subjecthood on their own terms.

A similar desire for what the archives might be lurks beneath many of the papers in the collection. In opening up a space to consider affect in the creation of archives, including what Jennifer Douglas calls the “aspirational” archive, Morra invites the possibility for archival scholars to reflect upon their own aspirations for the archives they participate in creating—and how those aspirations inevitably become encoded into the archives themselves. Thus does the field move, and as it moves it stirs, and the silt aroused by that movement stretches over the gaps and the abyss.

Works Cited

Cifor, Marika. “Affecting Relations: Introducing Affect Theory to Archival Discourse.”

Archival Science, vol. 16, no. 1, 2016, pp. 7-31.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric

Prenowitz, U of Chicago P, 1996.

This review “Archives of Movement” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 25 Jun. 2021. Web.

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