DH Reads

DH Read: “Archives in the Anthropocene”

This talk by Purdom Lindblad is a great entry point for understanding how the concept of the Anthropocene relates to digital humanities. The “Anthropocene” is a term that refers to our current geological time period, in which human activity has been the main influence on the environment—a time defined by mass extinctions and climate change brought about through our own actions. I’ve sometimes seen the term referenced by digital humanists, but until I read this piece, I had a difficult time wrapping my mind around how this idea should shape how we think about and do DH. From the talk:

I want to think with you today about how such future-making materials are collected, preserved, and made accessible in a moment of extreme climate change and the attending displacements of people and animals due to environmental and political-economic erosion of homelands and sites of cultural heritage.

We cannot save everything, nor would we want to. Decisions have to be made about what to keep and what to discard; these decisions encode and reflect particular values, privilege and power structures—some decisions about what to be kept go against the community’s desire for privacy or restricted access to materials; this is a tension between surveillance and privacy, between visibility and erasure.

Drawing on the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Lindblad emphasizes that archives (broadly defined) “do not only exist to explain or contextualize the past, but also signal towards and shape futures.” Lindblad further explains that:

There is an inherent violence in archival work–silencing and obscuring of people and sources, creating and sustaining hierarchies through collection practices that value some voices and experiences over others, through naming practices, controlled vocabularies, and description, as well as  hiding/devaluing the labor involved in this work. Terry Cook emphasizes from the ancient world to the present women (and people of color, LGBT communities, and other non-white, heteronormative, able-bodied people) have been de-legitimized in archival processes.

How can we deconstruct this silencing and archival violence, to build an anti-violent, anti-racist, woman-ist practice instead? Within this reflective, critical archival work, how do concerns of climate change put pressure on—and reshape—this striving for practice?

The answers to these questions are not simple, but Lindblad provides several principles that can help archives address these issues: transparency, stewardship, poly-vocalism, and ethics of care. She then outlines how a number of projects act on these principles and “point to archival possibilities in the Anthropocene.” Lindblad concludes with a very helpful summary of why the idea of the Anthropocene is important to archival work:

The lens of the Anthropocene gives us a way to look at large-scale threats and pressures and to contextualize local responses, to move between the two views attending particularly to practices of making, keeping, and utilizing of records for memory. It gives us a way to consider what our abilities to respond currently are and ways to imagine what our responses could be.

Read the original Editors’ Choice piece here.

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