Of “Spectral Infrastructure”
I’ve been pondering a couple of ideas about the limitations of archives that were sparked by two recent webinars. The first of these provocations occurred back in April 2021 when I tuned in to a symposium organized by the Vera List Center at the New School—-part of the Center’s durational investigation that goes by the title “As For Protocols.” The particular session that captured my interest was a conversation between Irit Rogoff and Massimiliano Mao Mollona about what they called “spectral infrastructure.” I made a contemporaneous note to myself that is probably a combination of paraphrase and mash-up of Rogoff’s comments, and my own interpretation. “Spectral Infrastructure: the mesh of work of social action and human connection that continues to thrum (this was Rogoff’s word, and I love it) across time, even when the space is taken over by other forces.” I also made a note about Rogoff’s reference to something Theaster Gates said, that even erased memories leave a rhythm, and it is from that rhythm that we can start to work.
Rogoff talked about how spectral infrastructure is both “hidden” and “haunting,” and of her interest in digging intuitively into those presences that are less visible, less tangible, and less materialized, but still have a hold on us. She related this quest to her efforts to see Goldsmiths, University of London, where she teaches, be a more inclusive, imaginative, and risk-taking academic environment. The late sociologist and activist Stuart Hall taught at Goldsmith’s, and, according to Rogoff, left a presence that is intangible but potent—–a piece of spectral infrastructure that gives her and others inspiration and motivation.
I was drawn to comments Rogoff made about her interest in the “unarchivable”—–things that defy efforts to catalog or categorize them. An example she gave was the tortured history of Lebanon, and how the complexity of that country calls for a strategy other than conventional archiving in order to capture what she called the “sediments and residue” of Lebanon’s history and culture. I think the same logic could apply to Afghanistan—especially as the debacle of the past 20 years of U.S. involvement gets deconstructed, analyzed and propagandized. What does “archiving” mean in that gnarled and politicized context? What will be left “hidden and haunting,” regardless of how many artifacts of these past two decades are collected and cataloged?
I also began to think about cultural activist Arthur Hall’s legacy. Temple University recently acquired his archive, lovingly preserved, organized and digitized by Maine resident Bruce Williams, with support from a Philly-based board of people who, like Bruce, knew and revered Arthur. In order for that important archive to be accessible and usable by a broad swath of the public that could learn from and be inspired by Arthur’s work, there should be time and resources committed to interpretation and exhibition of the archive’s holdings. But beyond that, how do we stay connected and attuned to the “spectral infrastructure”—the intangible presence that Arthur holds in Philadelphia—particularly in the neighborhood of the Village of Arts & Humanities—-these many years later?
In the context of Chronicling Resistance, how can we take into account the “unarchivable?” Is it a separate realm? Can the “unarchivable” be invoked to frame or critique what the archive offers? Can/How can the “unarchivable” lead us to mineable places within the archive? I find these to be potent questions in this project that purports to place archives in service of communities who historically were excluded from what was considered collectible and archivable, and who were often indifferent to or suspect of being collected and categorized by conventional archival institutions. I think Rogoff gives us a place to start to wrestle with these questions, without necessarily answering them. She advises us to “step out of expertise.” She cautions that expertise can be “the great trap” if it makes us dismiss the offerings of the uncredentialed, or blinds us to the power of intuition. Her advice also suggests to me that we should stay mindful that the institutional archive is just one among other strategies for remembrance, preservation, memorialization.
Recognizing when an elusive force is “unarchivable” might relieve some of the frustration we Fellows in the Chronicling Resistance project sometimes feel when we can’t quite get the archive to disgorge materials that respond to our inquiries or thesis. But it’s also important to distinguish between what’s “unarchivable,” and what’s either unarchived or archived-but-buried. After all, researchers of Black women’s cultural history like Saidiya Hartman, Jayna Brown, and Jacqui Malone mine and interpret the archive in ingenious ways to overcome its omissions and occlusions. Moving too quickly to a conclusion that we’re confronting the “unarchivable” not only lets ourselves off the hook for insisting, through such methods as close reading and informed speculation, that archives represent society and history inclusively, but also deflects responsibility from the archivists and archival institutions that have perpetuated the exclusions we decry. It’s a two-edged sword, but we get to influence which way it cuts.
The Right to Invisibility
The other webinar that I’ve been pondering occurred in mid-August. It was the fourth and final installment in a series on Archiving Black culture curated by Linda Earle in her role as this year’s Artist-in-Residence at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. The guest speakers were Miranda Mims and Stephen G. Fullwood, both professional archivists and founders of the Nomadic Archivists Project, an initiative “to establish, preserve, and enhance collections that explore the global Black experience.” In a presentation that was rich and provocative throughout, there was a statement made, almost in passing, that riveted me: that researchers and archivists must respect the right to be invisible or forgotten.
Harking back to the conversation with Irit Rogoff, I wonder how we distinguish someone exercising their right to be invisible or forgotten from something that defies the conventional methods of archiving? It suddenly occurred to me that Louise’s absence from the archive might not be due solely to historic dismissal of the lives of Black women as worthy subjects for research. Might the absence of photos and film footage of her, and her increasing reclusiveness be evidence of her desire to be invisible or forgotten? I’m not prepared to adopt that interpretation, or wrestle with what doing so would mean for my current research. But now that the bell has been rung, it can’t be unrung. The possibility is always lurking.
Copyright 2021 by Germaine Ingram. All rights reserved.