An archive of the present
Researchers, writers, and artists have long viewed archives as a site of limitless possibilities – a mechanism for retrieving deleted or erased stories to unravel the past and inform the present. But in recent decades, theorists have questioned this attachment and its place in radical and decolonial movements, arguing that it is often a reification of official state narratives.
In his recent book Becoming Palestine: towards an archival imaginary of the futureacademic Gil Z. Hochberg intervenes in this debate by examining how the work of contemporary Palestinian artists challenges dominant notions of what constitutes an “archive” to offer a radical vision of building the future.. Analyze eclectic pieces by filmmakers Jumana Manna, Kamal Aljafari and Larissa Sansour; choreographer Farah Saleh; and visual artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, the book asks us to put into practice what Hochberg calls an “archival forward-looking imagination,” one that views the present itself as an archival moment in time. to become.
I spoke with Hochberg about the political limits and the potential of various archival designs for Palestinians and other colonized peoples. Our conversation has been condensed and edited. It appeared yesterday in the Jewish currents newsletter by e-mail, to which you can subscribe here.
Hazem Fahmy: In the book, you question academics’ pervasive obsession with archives as a site of emancipation in and of itself, what Jacques Derrida called “archive fever”. What do you think is the problem with this concern?
Gil Z. Hochberg: I want to criticize some form of trust in the archive as a source of knowledge. But it’s important to me that we don’t throw the baby out with the basket. I am not saying that the archives are not important, on the contrary. What I am saying in the book is that it is very important to separate archives and archival thinking from a [linear] temporality – past, present, future – and of the idea of the revelation of the past informing the present and leading to a fairer, more correct future.
So my beef, so to speak, with “archive fever” is really about what he’s doing in the present tense. The past is very attractive. There’s this idea that you’re going to dig, dig, dig, and you’ll find the first bones of a dinosaur, and then you’ll rebuild it the right way, and you’ll find out about the past – and therefore you’ll understand the present better. I suggest that this eagerness needs to be redirected to the present. The present indeed deserves the attention of an archive.
HF: How does the attachment to archives relate to privileging written evidence over other types – such as oral histories maintained by colonized peoples – and the accounts of colonizers?
GZH: Archives are often treated as if they were the gateway to what really happened. If you as a scholar are really, really lucky, you might find that document, that signature, that description, that proves something beyond doubt. But the question is: prove to whom, and in what sense? When can we “prove” that the Americas were colonized? What does it mean to “prove” that what indigenous peoples are saying is indeed “true”? The written word remains a force that no oral tradition can ever overcome. The hearing remains hearsay, while the written word is a universal document. It is as if the knowledge of colonized peoples had to be validated by a world tribunal. It’s almost perverse! You actually have to find the perpetrator’s documents, and the more documents you find, the more reliable the story becomes. It’s like in a trial where there is a rape victim, but unless we find the rapist writing: “Dear diary, yesterday I raped such and such”, it didn’t happen. not produced.
In the case of Palestine, in the late 1980s there was a time when [Israeli historians] Ilan Pappé and Benny morris and a few others released official documents which “proved” the events of the Nakba [the Arabic name for the events of 1948, when Israeli forces expelled an estimated 700,000 Palestinians from their homes]. There was that moment of elation, that feeling of “Okay.” Here is the official account. The State of Israel narrative has now collapsed. I’m not saying it didn’t matter. But as time goes by, and this kind of material just goes around and around. . . these are not secrets. When revisited over and over again, it actually establishes a certain tale of mastery, not only of the past, but of the archive itself: Those are the voices we need to come back to, in order to prove that things come, and How? ‘Or’ What they arrived.
We keep coming back to state archives – and the vast majority of archives, 90% if not more, are state archives – which have now gone from denial to openness, saying, “We have nothing to do with it. to hide. This actually happens in many contexts. Time and time again, when there are atrocities and genocides, the first reaction is to go into hiding. And then when things are open, it is to saturate confessions.
HF: And the idea that the availability of information means that things will change betrays a profound misunderstanding of how historical knowledge affects the present. If you look at a context like the United States, for example, no serious person would deny that it has a history of genocide and movable slavery. The fact that these things happened is not in question. But as to the implications for the present – how to deal with these legacies and repair their damage – that’s a whole different story. So if more documents were to surface now that more accurately reflect certain American atrocities, it would not change those attitudes.
GZH: I see this in many contexts. In the 2000s, Europe experienced a kind of epiphany. Countries that were less often recognized as evil colonial forces, like the Dutch, started doing this cleanup, where they found all these records and proved they had slaves. Now I’m sure many Dutch people never thought about their colonial heritage, and now they know it. But that cannot be a goal in itself.
HF: One of the central arguments of your previous book, Visual occupations, is that “the Israeli occupation of Palestine is motivated by unequal access to visual rights, or the right to control what can be seen, how and from what position.” Where do you see access to the archives included in this analysis?
GZH: The easiest thing you can do to manipulate people’s minds is to change what they see. The visual politics of radical partition is what holds everything together. It’s not just about having walls and having people living in different conditions, but it’s also about making sure that these people don’t see each other, and that they don’t see the same. thing. As I mentioned in this book, the wall is very different on the two sides. On the Israeli side, it looks very small, almost like a pretty fence, as it is built in such a way that there are grass and trees everywhere. And then the visual we all know – cement – is on the other side.
When it comes to archives, of course, people are finding ways. These are the boundaries that can be crossed simply in the sense that individuals can copy and distribute material for others. So as part of divisions and scores, especially today, with the ability to transfer things digitally, that’s kind of a minor concern. But what’s amazing about most of the artwork in the book is that these young Palestinian artists realized that they didn’t need the Israeli state archives. They have archives. First of all, stones and buildings and flowers are archives. And also, there are unwritten archival documents. The Israeli state archives and the not quite solid archives of the Palestinian Authority are not the only options.
HF: Some of the media theorists you cite, like Jaime Baron and Laura Marks, argue that the obsession with archives, especially in the visual realm, is somehow indistinguishable from a sense of nostalgia for the past. Where do you see the kind of “forward-looking archives” that you have analyzed fit into this?
GZH: My problem is not the nostalgia per se. We all feel nostalgic. But that’s not a particularly forward-looking feeling. It has to keep you in a kind of state of longing for something that has been better, that you have lost, because the pleasure of longing is to feel that although you have lost the item, you can get it back in. mourning. That’s fine, but it’s not a recipe for moving forward. I think we need to focus on –– and that’s something I took away from [philosopher] Stephen Best – the question of what this “us” is that we are trying to revive, and that we are trying to tell the story of. The collective that comes together to generate archives is a collective that is being built.
HF: In the book, you engage in an eclectic range of artwork, spanning vastly different mediums and sensibilities, by Kamal Aljafari Yaffa Trilogy and his haunting use of Israeli film footage to comment on the city’s colonization, to Farah Saleh’s re-enactment of scenes of resistance to an attempt to ban Palestinian higher education during the First Intifada. What was your process for selecting these works?
GZH: I only get involved with works that fascinate me, that touch me deeply, that make me think and feel. I didn’t come to the project with an argument – when I say in the book that artists are as much writers as I am, I really mean it.
I believe that art thinks, and it thinks in a way that argumentative and analytical thinking cannot. For me, these particular works of art made me think in a way that no text can. They have reshaped the way I look at things. There is in them a kind of potentiality – an approach to the past which is based on archives, but which is not intended to prove anything, and which in fact reconstructs an archive of the present. It’s not just about going in and finding the folder in the archive. This is just the beginning. What are you gonna do with this?