This is a reflection of our readings coming from the 2016 issue of Social Text, that probe the possibilities and impossibilities of recovery as both historical method and ethico-political act. In Helton et. al’s “Questions of Recovery,” the authors flesh out a brief history of historical recovery and the expansion of the archive as prominent and, at the time, essential practices, whereby “the consolidation of a global color line” and “in the wake of efforts to forge black internationalism in the 1920s and 1930s” seemed to necessitate attempts to “to preserve and narrate pasts that could be used to contest global inequality.” Foundational to these attempts are the fundamental belief “that one of the most pernicious manifestations of racism was the exclusion of Africans from narratives of historical progress“ (emphasis mine). However, as the authors go on to explain, contemporary thought regarding the relationship between blackness and the archive—especially among those who take seriously Patterson’s “social death” thesis—call into question the supposed utility and political purpose of historical recovery (and thus, archives) by understanding the archive as “subject” instead of source”, in light of “the discrepancy between a present marked by racialized forms of social negation eerily similar to those of slavery, and conventional frameworks for understanding the black past that revolve around the progress from slavery to freedom.“ In this sort of analytic, the archive is a “mechanism of racialized discourse and governance” as opposed to a “storage mechanism” that can provoke, say, a flat and impossible empathy by revealing the “humanity”—or, in da Silvian terms, “transparency”—of the racialized subaltern. As such, the ongoing exploitation—as opposed to exclusion—becomes the primary signifier of anti-black violence in this critical move, paralleling the call to unpack what Hartman has dubbed “the afterlife of slavery.” Historical recovery, here, must reconfigure its political purpose against desires for liberal inclusion, and reconsider, then, what “justice”, “freedom”, and “democracy” should mean and look like.
I appreciate the authors uptake of the “social death” thesis not only because the idea is heavily contested and disregarded in the academy (especially as it’s taken up by Afro-pessimists), but also simply because I personally see it as the most apt analytic in a moment where historical recovery and archival expansion/reconfiguration has seemingly been unable to produce even adequate conceptions of “justice.” As I elaborate in my own project regarding the uptake of archival practices in light of recent movements against “anti-asian violence”, the recovery and documentation of anti-asian violence—in an effort to produce public empathy in opposition to “hate”—has led to carceral (which is to say, anti-black) notions of justice, producing legislation and public desires for increased policing and surveillance. I don’t think it would be far off to claim that this uptake of historical recovery, in the context of recent “never forget, never again” recovery projects within the Asian American community, is inextricable from earlier movements for global racial justice, which include 20th-century Black social movements, as well as the global confrontation of the Holocaust and the intense memory practices that followed it. However, as Valentina Pisanty asks in The Guardians of Memory: “Is it really sufficient to remember past events to guard against the eventuality that something similar might happen again?“ Given the continuation of anti-black violence and terror in our contemporary moment despite the now extensive documentation of anti-black violence in the US, it would seem that “progress” is called into question.
Thinking off of Helton et. al’s “Questions of Recovery,” I’m also considering two other things. The first is the relationship between “recovery” and of “humanity” in the first instance, whereby both may be considered liberal humanist projects. Lowe elaborates on this relationship briefly in “History Hesitant”: “To focus the inquiry on recovery mobilizes the different valences of the term: a sense of the retrieval of archival evidence and the restoration of historical presence, on the one hand, and the ontological and political sense of reparation, on the other, that is, the possibility of recuperation, or the repossession of a full humanity and freedom, after its ultimate theft or obliteration.” Here, Lowe draws a connection between the ethico-political act of recovery to a desire to be included in—yet reveal the always-already being-of—the ontological status of “Human.” However, as Lowe seems to gesture towards but doesn’t fully elaborate through Hartman, Fanon, and Mbembe, the notion of “The Human” and “humanity” is a racialized project in and of itself. Recovery, then, is also an attempt at an ontological intervention. Without going too much into it, I’m wondering then, in what ways does “dehumanization” fall short as an analytic for recovery? How does this play into liberal hegemony?
The second thing is the fetishization of the archive as a gesture towards global justice. While Helton et. al, Lowe, and Rusert acknowledge the racialized history of the archive as contingent upon the sovereign goals of a select (white) few—and as such, an understanding that “recovery” also (perhaps inevitably” leaves things out—I think what could be useful in corroboration with this acknowledgement is a comprehensive understanding of how the archive becomes fetish: What are the ways that, perhaps, that liberal hegemony is entangled with humanist desire, such that “never forget—never again” becomes a political go-to and an ethical imperative? As Dominick LaCapra explains in History and Criticism, “The archive as fetish is a literal substitute for the ‘reality’ of the past which is ‘always already’ lost for the historian. When it is fetishized, the archive is more than the repository of traces of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction.” What makes the archive so seductive, especially within the academy, and how might this understood through material understandings of the state? These are the sorts of questions I think, might be helpful in future work re-considering the political possibilities and limits of historical recovery and archival research.