Last week, Annelie de Villiers posted a piece on her blog – Considering “The Power of the Archive”. This response continues the conversation started there.
When considering the power of the archive, the term ‘power’ can have numerous meanings: political power; the power to change or affect a situation; emotive or affective power; or even potential, unrealised power. On the latter, there may be a document (or documents) in an archive with the potential to bring down a government. If this hasn’t happened yet, does that record have power?
Another question that arises: if it is the materiality of archives that gives them inherent power, does this mean immaterial records (for example, those based in oral traditions) or intangible heritage, in lacking materiality, lack power? (Sound can be considered a material object too, but that is a topic for another day.)
One aspect of such discussions is that power – whether assigned or inherent – is often treated as an actual or potential property of a discrete thing. But, looking at Annelie’s post, particular phrases stand out:
- Windschuttle engaged with archival documentation
- records were accessed and interpreted
- the Ngarrindjeri hold an extensive archival collection
All are relational. They describe relationships between people (or groups of people) and records.
Annelie approaches this idea with the following: “ultimately someone needs to be there to engage with the records and therefore assign power.”
Taking this a step further, to understand power we need to understand the ways in which things interrelate. This doesn’t have to be engagement with the records (in the sense of access and use). An organisation which prevents access to its records (or destroys them) by doing so produces and reproduces structures of power. Power here is not something inherent to things, or assigned to things by agents, but the product of complex systems involving things, their relationships, and their contexts.
The materiality of the records ‘care’ leavers take into advocacy meetings may contribute to the power dynamics of that situation at that time, in that particular context. If the same records were once held by a past provider, unlisted and poorly managed, they had a very different role within very different power structures.
When an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community holds and manages an extensive archival collection, power here is a product of the custodial relationship between the community and that collection. Perhaps other forms of power emerge from the relationships that develop within and beyond the community as a result. If that collection was previously held by a museum founded during Australia’s colonial era it was previously part of a different system of relationships, with a different sort of power.
Giving an even more explicit nod to Foucault, power is diffuse and distributed across complex systems where relationships can evolve and shift through time, sometimes quite dramatically. Archives can potentially play very significant roles within these systems, as can creators, custodians, users, and the subjects of records, and the relationships between all these (and other) elements.
In short, power in all its complex forms emerges from and is maintained by relationality.
Do you agree? You can comment below, keep the conversation going on Twitter (@mikejonesmelb), or write your own blog post in response. Many thanks to Annelie @annelie_de (and her supervisor Tom Denison @30secondarchive) for getting the ball rolling.