Archives/Institutions of Dissensus*

Lara Khaldi, Annie Jael-Kwan, Ann Laura Stoler
Harvest by Daniel Aguilar and Diana Cantarey
Hosted by Carine Zaayman
As Lara Khaldi remarked during the conversation, the ‘Archives/Institutions of Dissensus’ session took shape as a storytelling-jamming session that reflected on what happens when archives defy the function of being inert spaces of preservation and consignation. Khaldi, together with Ann Laura Stoler and Annie Jael-Kwan, related various stories about archives that do not conform to the dynamics we conventionally associate with official and/or state-sponsored archives. Khaldi recounted that the Palestinian Museum was widely reported to have opened with empty vitrines when in fact, there were objects on display. Why did the absences eclipse the presence in people’s memories in this instance? Stoler related the story of a VOC official who engaged in extensive correspondence with the Company, robustly critiquing their very presence in Indonesia. His letters now form part of the VOC archive. Responding to Khaldi and Stoler, Jael-Kwan reminded us of how shifting racial categorisations across the globe change the way in which people’s histories are recorded, resulting in some pasts slipping out of view.

Most of the archives referenced in the narratives of these three contributors are implicated in acts of resistance and dissent, as well as in building solidarity. Absences, dispersal, excess and contradictions are thus deliberately not elided or glossed over but are instead understood as evidence of the difficult conditions under which they were formed. Archives that derive their logic from and consciously inhabit the states of incompleteness and changeability can thus lay bare the precariousness of power as exercised through and disguised by ‘official’ archives. They also help us to think of other forms of archiving in which the relationship between the past and the documentary record is framed as inherently unsettled. As dispersed, community-owned and co-constituted institutions, archives of dissensus open possibilities of imagining the very institution of archive anew.

*“On Archiving as Dissensus” is the title of Ann Laura Stoler’s essay in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 1 May 2018; 38 (1): 43–56.