One reading that most resonated with me in this seminar would be David Kazanjian’s piece “Scenes of Speculation” from the week 2 (alas, a long time ago by now). Though, at the end of this post, I will also warn myself of a peril of elusive, ambivalent, or even opaque interpretation of ownership in a trendy archival practice, I admittedly felt attuned to what the author suggests and elucidates in their essay. I have been reading the Harlem Renaissance (and later Parisian expatriate) painter Beauford Delaney’s calligraphy in his letters in an interdisciplinary mode of attending to their sonic (and otherwise textual) composition, perhaps akin to Kazanjian’s Derridean practice. Since I have an essay in progress on this subject right now, I can’t describe the crux of my interrogation but my method could be also called “speculative”. (Note: A few weeks ago I decided to not pursue the archival project of Delaney’s handwritten letters and notebooks due to the copyright issues and I felt fine with it. Generally, I like to fully respect the ownership of works by marginalized artists and even relatively unknown persons, and I don’t think love for the public scholarship or open-ended interpretation of the archival material is more important than honoring that ownership especially siding with the historically or culturally dispossessed. I gave up only the public reproduction of those manuscripts but I can still write about my research, so everything feels fair to me.)
As Kazanjian proposes, paying attention to the ambiguous dimensions of textual and also often quotidian aspects of documents (rather than the authenticity of obvious records) from an archive can indeed benefit a researcher with the critical profundity of questioning the seemingly transparent values of notions such as freedom, sovereignty, citizenship, and even the self and desire. In so doing, the archival object becomes a speculative object that propels thinking heterogeneously or under-commonly (if this word makes sense at all) about history and memory against the moral or societal dogma about the past and the time to unfold. In this seminar, I think, we reflected on the most of archival objects in this direction despite the variations of the archival contexts. Especially, in approaching to the archival material inscribed by socially abandoned or imputed subjects (such as fugitives, refugees, and otherwise migrants), we learned how we can envision a sensitive or politically aesthetic relationship to the ambiguity of struggle and hope (or even dream) nuanced or obscured in the material.
However, unlike what Kazanjian repeats, I cannot overstate the importance of the ownership of archival materials as well as the tangible records of the subjects involved in those records. Post-structuralism (Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Blanchot and many more) that Kazanjian and other researchers (including myself) trained in literary criticism and continental philosophy take even in their archival practice is largely a product of white labor for their own knowledge and pleasure of complex discourse. While there is a critical benefit of the speculative mode of archival intervention in ways of seeing a layer of history and consciousness in the objects, I don’t think that should be an intellectual excuse to diffuse the ownership of objects and ethical (or even spiritual) desire attached to the objects on the side of the dispossessed or the oppressed who made or will make them.