Transgressing the Archive





The study and research of historical phenomena faces a very difficult and awkward obstacle in its use and production of the archive, which in itself is engulfed in its own specific power relations involving that of institutionality, ideology, and a justification for its further cultural production. This problem builds up a realization of the threat found in the archive not only by the naming and collecting of a specified set of artifacts, but it asks of us to question how these artifacts are seen by the historical gaze. In an effort to challenge the paradigms of historical construction, my interest in this essay is to define what precisely the archive ultimately entails, making use of Louis Agassiz’s daguerreotypes, the history and theorization around this series of photographs, and how these photographs were re-narrativized through the art practice of Carrie Mae Weem’s work, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995).

Apart from the questions of the archive, the original photos, and their movement in meaning, there is also an essential question we have to address before continuing further; that being the conditionality and placement of this series of photos as a museum artifact, as opposed to seeing this series of photos as spectacle within a fine-arts discourse. Does this movement in placement alone shift how we perceive these photographs as viewers, thereby hiding the original intent of the maker? Although this may be true, and a question we should take up, my main assertion in this essay, rather, is that through the means of this strategy of re-imagining the archive, there is an opening that allows for an adjustment, which displaces a proposed subjectivity of the marginalized into one worthy of attention; antithetical and resisting the essentialized meaning of the stereotyped image throughout. So in maneuvering through the  precept of belief dispersed through the methodology of the archive, what is frequently overlooked is the alienation of the subject, viewed through the framing of these objects, is the manner the subject bears witness to the history being asserted. As Renee Green in her 2002 essay, Survival: Ruminations on Archival Lacunae, says concerning the act of bearing witness and the materiality of that act, the subject’s testimony, “that all subjectivity, if to be a subject and to bear witness are in the final analysis one and the same — is a remnant ... They have not an end, but a remnant. There is no foundation in or beneath them; rather, at their centre lies an irreducible disjunction in which each term, stepping forth in the place of a remnant, can bear witness.” Because of this, the remnant becomes what we must undertake in our looking as spectator, and also must be our focus when thinking about how the object inhabits the institutional archive. 


The Archive, What Is It??


This notion of the archive is “constituted by a set of documents…resulting from the activity of an institution” or that of an individual, carrying with it three characteristics: 1) organized by, and being composed of the objective document; 2) the archives relationship to the institution; and 3) the conservation and presentation of said documents within the public space. Defining the archive in these terms is indeed accurate, yet I would make a claim that the archive extends out  from these defining terms as a declaration of factual truth; in as much as the document is synonymous with the tracings of the past, the archive is appointed as ideological arbiter and cultivator for its own survival. Also included within the milieu of the archive is the object of the photograph, which brings about its own set of complications, yet “the document [that the photograph] produces…becomes the source and foundation of the archive and the archive itself authorizes the veracity of the document through its [own] incorporation.” Does this reliance on such a fluctuating source, as that of the photograph, carry with it questions on the stability of the archive, wherein the viewer has the ability to capture and adapt its meaning into anything they desire? Does that then destabilize the authority of the archive altogether?

The functioning operation of the archive is activated by the enduring residual memory of the past, positioned as “no longer [necessitated by] the correspondence between a life lived and a life remembered, [as an] endeavor of remembering and the more general prospect of forgetting.” As a consequence of memory being “embedded in the [archive, there is a] recognition of loss,” insisting on a futurity of difference; “wielding power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity.” Therefore there is a claim being made by the archivist in the ordering of the archive, which results in a historical memory that is referential to a dominant mass of the populace, proposing a specific politics of identity wherein its production has the outcome of both “establishing provenience” and “exposing cultural distinctions.” Just as the photograph is often displayed as holding an objective status, situated at a distance from its claim, the archive is analogous to that perception, yet this objectivity is unfortunately a fiction since “archivization produces as much as it records the [historical] event.” 

Jacques Derrida saw the archive as both a “threat and a promise…occupying us in advance, determining all our preoccupations through a process of identification,” contending that the established premise of the archive, as exclusively a site of cataloging the past is inaccurate, and what the activity of the classification and ordering of the document(s) is actively pursuing, is a building up of the means in how we perceive the image in the present and future moment. The project of the archive is thus a “destructive drive,” selecting what and will not be retained as possession, inheriting the position of the responsible elder, where the individual archivist puts to use what Derrida calls the “economy of memory”. Through this “economy of memory” the momentary collapse of the “real” becomes condensed into a conventional historical narrative, wherein the “prerogative of the ruling classes, the means by which they shored up and secured the historical legacy of the privileged,” becomes the sole arbiter of knowledge; therefore the reflection over these collections are a reflection on a particular historical lens. As Guy Debord makes clear in The Society of the Spectacle, “writings are the thoughts of the state…and archives are its memory.”


The Agassiz Daguerreotype and Racial Science:


 This question of impartiality, of the document and its inclusion inside the archive, carries with it quite a substantial meaning when it becomes coupled with that of scientific inquiry, wherein what develops is a legitimacy to it as spectacle, and through that legitimacy it is defended from any sort of rigorous critical thought. An interesting case for us to look at regarding this relationship is a series of daguerreotypes commissioned by the Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) in 1850, where their production was prompted in order to prove his theorization of “the biological inferiority of the Negro,” and by their realization as legitimate document we can ‘discredit the very notion of objectivity and call into question the supposed transparency of the photographic record.” The daguerreotypes existence and historical placement within the archive is not what is in question, but with the erasure of their intent by organizing and including them in a 1992 exhibition entitled, Nineteenth-Century Photography, is where it becomes a problem. At what point did this series of images become a document for supposed “scientific” utilization, to  an object to be acknowledged and seen as some sort of historical residue? What is referred to as the slave daguerreotypes, were designed to “actively perform stillness,” in an effort to reproduce the black body for the use of inspection as anonymous specimen, this is typified by the voyeuristic impulse which the daguerreotypes take in “indiscriminately survey[ing] the bodies …irrespective of the subjects’ lives.”

There are 15 daguerreotypes included in the series which are then divided into two separate groupings, making use of the physiognomic (recording and the measuring of the body), and the phrenological approach (recording and the measuring of the shape of the head). Clarifying the intention of this series is significant if we are to articulate how unquestionably non-objective these images were meant to be seen as. By producing this series of daguerrotypes, Louis Agassiz and the American School of Ethnology were at the time making an attempt to undergird their theory of polygenesis, the notion that there were “multiple, separate creations for each race as distinct species,” attempting to make visible differences in the bodies of “European whites” and “African blacks.” Although the original intention of Agassiz’s “Slave Daguerrotypes” are to an extent interrupted in the current moment and context, its remnants exist in the continuity of the stereotype, replicated by the “role of the observer [and] the part museums and archives play in fixing meanings.” W. E. B. Du Bois’s description of black subjectivity was one built on visual representation, what he termed “double-consciousness,” the “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others…measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” 

Du Bois’s descriptor of black subjectivity is important not only in how subjectivities are represented within the archive but also it becomes important when we examine the materiality of the daguerrotype itself. For one of the distinguishing trademarks of the daguerrotype is the mirroring of the image, reversing both its orientation and its negatives and positives; moreover, this mirroring doesn’t end in the alteration of the image but it goes further in changing the viewers relation to the object; where the viewer sees themselves as “portrait on the surface of the image.” What is more is that there is an argument to be made that with the imposition of the daguerrotype on the social body, there is a process of democratizing the image itself, which allows for an argument against Agassiz’s proclamation of a racialized taxonomy. We can observe this argument, which also speaks to the importance of how documents are organized within the archive, with Fredrick Douglas’s own series of daguerrotypes, and the commonalities his profile has with the “European type,” taking Joshiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon’s 1854 work Types of Mankind as a reference point. While Douglas’s intention may not have been aiming at Agassiz in particular, between 1861-1865 he “deliver[ed] a set of lectures…[entitled] The Age of Pictures, Life Pictures and Pictures and Progress,” where there was a challenge directed toward   white artists and their use of representing the black male in “grossly exaggerating” ways.

The Agassiz daguerrotypes aren’t an outlier within the oeuvre of a racist projection of the black body in Western culture but are merely a continuing legacy of white misrepresentation, seen most clearly with the case of Saartjie Baartman, who is often referred to as the “Hottentot Venus.” The utilization of her image is comparable to the Agassiz daguerrotypes wherein there is a desire to make use of her body as specimen, displaying her body even after death; dismembering, preserving, and exhibiting it in a Paris museum. Making the association connecting the daguerrotypes to Baartman is to not only make visible the utilization of “science” to foment a racial ideology and its historical connectivity to the stereotype, but to also elucidate on the theorization around the term “the black body.” As Young defines this term, the black body, he refers to it as a second body, wherein “popular connotations of blackness are mapped across or internalized,” producing an “abstracted and imagined figure [which] doubles the real one.” Therefore the notion of  “the black body” in our understanding, is not a body which possesses a particular set of characteristics, but rather a body that embodies a preconceived judgment held onto by an outside force, signified by a continual historical experience, blurring an “abstraction into materiality…tantamount to imprisonment.”


 Carrie Mae Weems and the Re-appropriated Consensus: 


“I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects.”— Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Carrie Mae Weems’ work, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995), is an intervention, an attempt in dismantling the power of the institutionalized archive and the stereotyped other, creating a new narrative, rescuing the subjectivity of blackness from a violated colonized life. In making use of Agassiz’s slave daguerrotypes she appropriates from the past the anonymous life of the sitter, placing them in the present, naming and giving them agency, much like the representative life seen in the 1920’s portraits of Richard Samuel Roberts. Harvey Young proclaims in his book Embodying Black Experience, that “there is power in the photograph…to refute representations of us by white folks…carry[ing] with it the potential to challenge and, possibly, erase stereotypes and caricatures of blackness.”

The photos included in, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, are appropriated from various sources, but apart from the daguerrotypes there are depictions of African-Americans living in the segregated Jim Crow South, presenting to us a historical timeline of black experience within the United States. Weems transforms, in the case of the daguerrotypes, photos measuring at a minuscule 8 by 10 cm into what resembles a run-of-the-mill matted framed family photo, measuring at 68 x 56 cm-110 x 85 cm; in so doing she makes invisible the momentary violence of Drana, Jack, Renty, and Delia’s forced disrobing. We, as the spectator, are not exclusive in witnessing the conditions of the commodified body; for sitting and watching the thirty-one other crimson-colored photos are two Nubian women, tinted blue, situated on either end of the series of photos like guards, taking back from the archive the “fruits of their exploitation.” 

While these transformations of the original material is significant, what becomes revolutionary is the evocation of Weems use of “folktales, myths, and songs[,]…paying homage to African-American expressive traditions,” therein honoring the dead and repositioning the trauma and vulnerability of the victim as powerful testimony to a sadistic past. Making use of a literary discourse within the paradigm of the document, Weems places a new narrative upon the face of an already realized historical account, subverting language “in such a way that only insiders may understand its meaning.” In critically confronting the archive, the words, “you became a scientific profile; a negroid type; an anthropological debate; a photographic subject,” are sandblasted onto the glass of the frames, performing an aggressive incursion upon Agassiz’s daguerrotypes; obscuring and making difficult the production of subject as specimen, unable to be realized in totality. Additionally the narrative of a problematic quotidian is made evident by juxtaposing the words, “you became playmate to the patriarch; you became mammie, mama, mother & then, yes, confidant-ha; descending the throne you became foot soldier & cook” wherein what emerges is a contradiction with the material world and the mythological construct of the nuclear family. Therefore by constructing the narrative in this way, Weems makes known the invisible labor of the domestic space being taken up by black bodies as a substitute for the source of white social reproduction; inconsistent and detrimental to a racial theory tied to a so-called white American normativity.  

Bell Hooks in her essay, In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life, assigns the camera as an instrument of resistance, a means of re-making conventional aesthetics found in dominant culture, where she expresses that;

The camera was the central instrument by which blacks could disprove representations of us created by white folks. . . . For black folks, the camera provided a means to document a reality that could if necessary, be packed, stored, moved from place to place. It was documentation that could be shared, passed around. And, ultimately, these images, the worlds they recorded, could be hidden, to be discovered at another time.

So is Weems merely continuing the tradition exemplified by Richard Samuel Roberts and Fredrick Douglas, making available a counter-claim on the archive’s documentation of an image of blacknesss that was populated not only by items like the Agassiz daguerrotypes, but in “the projection of racist Imagery on everyday possessions…serv[ing] the purpose of ingraining stereotypes through repeated, daily reinforcement.” While yes, Weems is in fact making a counter-claim, much like her predecessors Roberts and Douglas, I would argue that she is undertaking an entirely disparate kind of project, considering that she is utilizing the material produced by the hands of racist ideologues to make that claim; therein inverting the imagery of subjugation to one of an empowering hostility to the conventional seeing of the black body. In the making of, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, there was a provocation on the claim of ownership, involving particular artifacts found within the archive, initiated by Harvard’s assertion that “Weems had freebooted their copyright to the Agassiz daguerreotypes,” where Harvard went on to make a demand  to be compensated each time Weems sold a print of the work. While Harvard might make the claim that they are the rightful owners of the daguerrotypes under American copyright law, my argument is associated to a greater extent with  the ethics related to the declaration of ownership over an artifact made through the means of  violent racial subjugation. This is consequential in our discourse of the archive since Harvard is not alone in collecting artifacts depicting slaves from the 19th century, in fact the list is massive, ranging from the Maryland Historical Society to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In fact, because of this incursion within the question of property rights in Weems’s artistic practice, there is a heightened sensitivity to how things are acquired, made, and postulated as holding an objective status within the archive, furthering the question about exploitation and the labor of the non-consented sitter. 




It is a rather difficult undertaking to rescue the status of the image from institutional normalcy, and while in this essay I have made an attempt to do just that; raising concerns over the concept of the archive, instigating the intent surrounding the image, and providing a means to invert the mode of conventional thinking, what remains is a position of marginality, slowly chipping away at the structures of power. With the privileging of the document, and through that privileging, the obtainment of legitimacy by institutional power, located in the archive, secures its control over the image, weaponizing it as signifier over the ideological narrative. While reaching back into the archive conjures up concerns over the re-victimization of the dead and a type of regenerative violence on the living, what is made clear by the totality of the threads I have been discussing, is the means in which the specter of historical violence lives on in the social body, haunting and re-injuring the present and future in its location as residue. As historians I believe it is imperative that we look at the document as an object of doubt, in this way, re-orientating our analysis as one of an incessant questioning rather than as a definitive unambiguous knowing. 



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Daniel Arcand