An Interview with Verne Harris – Sean Ravey

Verne Harris’ new book, Ghosts of Archive: Deconstructive Intersectionality and Praxis (London and New York: Routledge, 2020) posits that archives are inherently political and spectral: Harris draws on thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous to argue that archives ‘haunt. They haunt the living because they are both dead and alive. They haunt the present because they are both present and absent’ (Harris, 2020: 45); they are spectral. For Harris, archives are full of the traces not just of the past but of the present and future: ‘In the archive, the whispers will always be heard of contexts undocumented, unknown or yet to be generated. Ghostly voices.’ (Harris, 2020: 62).

Archives are political because they are part of an omnipotenceothers; that is, ‘those apparatuses of power and authority that determine who is in and who is out, who gets heard and who does not, whose lives matter and whose don’t’ (Harris, 2020: 49). Those who work with archives, so the argument goes, can and must use their positions in these apparatuses of power to bring about social justice. Archives have a crucial role to play because they are spectral, because archivists are in a position to listen to ‘the whispers of absent authors, cryptic idioms, names without stories and stories without names, absent content, unknown contexts, the incessant movement of recontextualisation, readings of content (past, present and future), readers excluded or obstructed’ (Harris, 2020: 108).

I, like many other Archive and Records Management students, have read Verne Harris’ work as part of my record-keeping education. It was, then, a pleasant surprise to be asked by one of my former tutors to read Ghosts of Archive and respond with some questions for the author.

SR: One thing that struck me about the book was how often you drew on your personal experience in order to demonstrate the spectral nature of archives. You write about the process of reckoning with your past experience as a conscript in the South African apartheid military, and how the befriending of your own ghost was part of the healing process. Should archivists listen to their own, personal ghosts in order to better appreciate the ghosts of others? Would this be of benefit in working toward a justice-centred approach for archival work?

VH: I believe very strongly that archivists should listen intently to what you call ‘their own, personal ghosts’ – the strangers within, the ‘others’ within. In deconstruction justice is, precisely, a relation of hospitality to ‘the other’. So that a justice praxis in archive would have to build from individuals and collectivities rooted in this kind of orientation, or awareness, or positioning. Working for a liberatory future begins in the work of liberating self. A work which has no end, and a work which draws forth both humility and humanity.

SR: You write that ‘Expertise in contextualisation, arguably, is the core archival competency’ (Harris, 2020: 62). Could any move towards more vocational training in record-keeping education, and away from critical theory, mean that new professionals would be unprepared to deal with dismantling, or even recognising, oppressive practices in archives?

VH: Any move away from critical theory would be a move toward ensuring that new professionals are oriented toward being servants of prevailing relations of power. Work in the space I call archive should be shaped by a calling, not a job spec.

SR: If an archivist came to you and said, “we have heeded the call for justice in our archive, listened to and respected all of the ghosts, diversified our collections, user base, and staff, and now the process has come to an end”, what would your response be (apart, perhaps, from please take a closer look at Ghosts of Archive!)?

VH: My answer would be rude! But seriously, every archivist knows that even the most diligent process of contextualisation is always scratching the surface of possible meaning and significance, and is, in principle, provisional. There is always the possibility of a new layer of context emerging, an unexpected reader unlocking obscured signification, and so on.

SR: In the introduction you write, in relation to the imperative that you acknowledge your relative privilege and work to redistribute your social capital, that you are ‘reminded of the wise words of a character in an Anne Michaels novel: “What is the true value of knowledge? That it makes our ignorance more precise”.’ (Harris, 2020: 6). Did the process of reading for and writing this book allow you to pin-point more precisely any areas of ignorance regarding the spectral in archives, deconstructionist thinking in relation to archives, and/or social justice you might have? If so, were you surprised about what you knew and what you didn’t know?

VH: The short answer to both questions is “of course!” For me, writing a book is not about laying down what I know. It’s about an exploration. I found myself learning many things I didn’t know about big data, logarithms, and the archival worlds controlled by big tech companies, for instance. I found myself reading texts recommended to me by Michelle Caswell, which transformed my understanding of intersectionality. I found myself re-reading texts by Gramsci and Marx which I first encountered in the late 1970s and which now offered up both old memories and fresh insights. I could go on. Let’s just say I found a new self.

SR: Why should those who work with, care for, and create archives read this book?

VH: Because it might inspire them, move them, remind them of how critical archive is to the work of soul and the call to make a just world.

Thank you to Verne Harris. Ghosts of Archive is part of the Routledge Studies in Archives series.

Sean Ravey, recent graduate of University of Liverpool Centre for Archive Studies

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