Applications are now open for GETSEA’s Fall 2022 Mini-Course!
One of our GETSEA Graduate Council members, Emi Donald (Cornell University), has written the reflection below about their experience in a recent GETSEA mini-course.
Reflections on “Theorizing the Southeast Asian Archive”
Emi Donald, PhD candidate, History, Cornell University
For six weeks in Spring 2022, I ditched my usual Wednesday night routine to attend a GETSEA mini-course on “Theorizing the Southeast Asian Archive.” Designed and taught by Dr. Judith Henchy, Southeast Asian Studies Librarian at the University of Washington, the course was a space for grad students like myself to think in community about the complexities and complicities of archives in Southeast Asian studies.
I dwell on archives quite a lot, maybe too much. I took an extended major in history as an undergraduate and am now a PhD student in a history department. There is a lot to say about archives, lots of questions we need to ask about this weirdly omniscient, sometimes romanticized, but always oh-so-flawed repository of sources. How do archives get made, for what purposes, and who makes decisions about what is collected or discarded? In what ways are particular archives complicit in systems of power and extraction, past and present? And what do we do with all that, how do we read archives with care?
I have studied archives in the abstract. I talk often with colleagues about the logistical headaches, emotional highs and lows archival research. But I had never been in a class devoted entirely to archives and archival knowledge in relation to Southeast Asia. Our readings and class discussions gave me a new appreciation for both the racist colonial investments of official archives and the potentials for justice-driven archiving practices being taken up by activists, political dissidents, and vulnerable groups in Southeast Asia and in diaspora communities.
Our class was made up of graduate students zooming in from across the US and Southeast Asia. It was rewarding to have a range of graduate experiences in the room, from those who had spent more time theorizing archives like me to those who had worked extensively with existing archives as part of their research projects. I gained important insights from listening to others describe and critique archival practices and method. Throughout the discussion we shared additional readings and examples of digital archives that I then incorporated into my final project for the class, which was a syllabus for a first-year undergraduate seminar using digital and physical archives to teach students about evidence-based analytical writing.
For me, one of the most impact discussions came from reading the scholarship of Doreen Lee, Marika Cifor, and others. These scholars position the archive as a space of affect, a potentially radical repository of feelings, emotions, and lively connections to the past that resonate within the present. Our class discussions drew out the idea that attuning to the affective relations that archivists, activists, and historical researchers cultivate with archives can help reorientate archival research and practice towards forms of emotional and social justice.
While making space for this innovative theorization of the potential of affective archives, our class discussion also considered the archive’s limits and restrictions. The archive, particularly when created by and for the state, determines what should be valued. Its desired subjects and objects are preordained with significance, while undesired voices or materials are deemed irrelevant by the fact of this exclusion. Something I appreciated about this class is that we were able to identify this pattern of value and exclusion while still acknowledging that it is up to scholars and practitioners to make critical decisions about how we use, present, and engage with archives.
In addition to thinking about what voices and objects are most desirable to certain kinds of archives and official narratives, we also discussed what we, as researchers and professionals, desire from archives. We were fortunate enough to have a visit from Dr. Temi Odumosu, Assistant Professor and Curator at the University of Washington Information School. Dr. Odumosu, in discussing the racialized and gendered components of colonial photography and the ethnics of digitizing historical images, pushed us to think about what we want from our encounters with archival material. What kinds of expectations or value systems do we as researchers carry with us into the archive? How might our desire to tell certain stories or produce a certain narrative influence how we read and engage with archives?
These questions are important to me because I think they can help researchers, archivists, and anyone engaging or working within archives to scrutinize their motivations and build new, justice-orientated approaches to the collection, preservation, and presentation of historical actors and events. Such questions about positionality and power will keep me company as I begin my own archival research this fall. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from my grad student colleagues and from our instructor, Dr. Henchy, and guest professors and postdocs as part of this class.