Approaching the Archive

Erudition becomes a field of play rather than a substantiation of fact”

– Michel De Certeau

Ann Laura Stoler’s eloquent evocation of the archival grain persuasively shows the importance of critical reading of both the content of the archive (against the grain) and its form and context – the production, maintenance and physical situation (along the grain). Deep engagement with any archival sources must do both, so potential alternatives should be seen as what can be added to readings with and against the grain, rather than methods that can replace them. Several such additions will be discussed: one is critically reflection on one’s personal experience of the archiv; another is to attempt to more deeply understand ones own biases and the political, social, epistemological pressures and constraints present when working with archives. This can be described as reflecting on the influence of the present moment, both personal and societal, on the use of archival sources. A further alternative involves juxtaposing different documents or collections, which can be done through academic triangulation or in more creative, artistic ways. Furthermore, interdisciplinary approaches to the use of archival sources can free one from particular disciplinary confines and pressures, and bring innovative ways of thinking about archival research, though this could be seen as part of reading along the grain. Finally, in all our criticality and careful use of archival sources, we must keep in mind the limitations of archival sources, that some things can never be known through archival research (see Derrida, 1998: 50).

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An essay prepared as partial fulfillment for the degree MSc African Studies at the University of Oxford.