I'm currently on sabbatical and, after spending January marking work from the previous semester, I can turn back to research. I'm back working on archival documents this month and thinking through the stories told there and those that are not.
Sadiya Hartman's "Venus in Two Acts" (2008) is an excellent provocation to begin considering this double bind of the archive. Writing about the afterlives of slavery in the Atlantic world, Hartman describes the archive of slavery as:
"...a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property, a medical treatise on gonorrhoea, a few lines about a whore’s life, an asterisk in the grand narrative of history" (p. 2).
Hartman goes on to ask:
"[H]ow does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features?" (p. 3).
The archives of early international health campaigns that I am reviewing are quite different from the archive of the slave ship and the plantation. But they too contain lacunae, found in the often-faceless documentation of technical projects, outreach activities, and calls for improvement. Hartman outlines the practice of "critical fabulation" to try and prise apart this tension that exists between experience and evidence. Here is Hartman again:
"By playing with and rearranging the basic elements of the story, by re-presenting the sequence of events in divergent stories and from contested points of view, I have attempted to jeopardize the status of the event, to displace the received or authorized account, and to imagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done" (p. 11).
This involves an attentiveness to conjuring stories not told by the archive that "could have detailed the small memories banished from the ledger" (p. 8). Working through an archive requires stories to be told where the paperwork says nothing, where conjuring the spectral traces of lives lived is all that we have.