The Archive and the Commons

So many recent posts on this blog have addressed the place of the archives in the world of the humanities today. I am inclined to agree with Hannah Alpert-Abrams’ diagnosis that there is a certain materiality to old texts that is simply lost with digitization, yet maintaining (and visiting) traditional archives is both a luxury and a necessity for scholars across the world.

The importance of storing information for future generations is, I think, an opinion that most humans would share. Yet, we never stop to think exactly how such information is selected for storage. What are the requirements for accession (and its opposite) into an archive and what do such choices say about the power dynamics of those who create or control them? Where are the gaps in a given archive, why do they exist, and how might researchers go about recognizing and filling them?

We ponder all of these questions in a class I am currently taking: ANT 394 – Archive & Ephemera. As a part of this thought experiment, we are encouraged to create our own miniature archive over the course of the semester to both see firsthand how these questions arise and propose solutions for them.

I chose to create an archive of invisible spaces. Rather, after working on a paper last semester involving the aesthetics of invisibility in Eduardo Lalo’s Los países invisibles, and also stumbling upon this documentary while helping a friend, I decided to amass a photo collection of overlooked common spaces in Austin. What is it about the commons that lends itself to being invisible in the eyes of the community it serves? And what is it about invisibility itself that makes it not just a visual phenomenon, but a fully tactile experience? Is our relationship with the world too mediated by technology for us to ever truly experience anything anymore?

I’ll be documenting this process (both the images, and my own reflections and observations of the spaces photographed) in a series of posts on this blog. I’m hoping that by focusing my eyes (and nose and ears) on the places we normally overlook, I can at the least illuminate some areas that aren’t normally deemed worth seeing, let alone saving.



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