The Discarded Archive

“My only consolation is that periods of colonization pass, that nations sleep only for a time, and that peoples remain.”
—Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism

The Discarded Archive is a collection comprised mainly of 18th, 19th, and early 20th Century reference documents that were being discarded by the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago. Showing signs of irreparable damage, most of them were considered no longer viable as complete texts. And, given their condition, it seemed unlikely even a collector or skilled conservationist would have been able to fully restore them. Their disposal was inevitable, as the task of preserving them falls outside the parameters of the National Archives mission, which involves:

[P]reserving and protecting Trinidad and Tobago’s memory and maintaining the democratic rights of citizens to have access to the records of the government. In order to fulfill our mandate we acquire, process, manage, and make accessible to citizens and researchers quality records documenting the broad spectrum of activities undertaken throughout the history of Trinidad and Tobago.

I decided to digitize them. It is still a work in progress, pending the collection of metadata and more extensive analysis, but preliminary digitization is complete (tiff and jpeg), as well as a rudimentary cataloging system (titles, authors, publisher, sellers, dates, plate numbers). The originals have been sealed and stored.

A book is not a talisman, nor are its pages sacrosanct. Whatever its subject, it possesses no special powers that make it impervious to critique. The texts included in this collection are no different. Like other projects included on this site–Found(ations), The Prior Sketches, and In Theory—this is a project that embraces some of the general principles of Digital Humanities (DH) in that it is focused primarily on the digital curation, rhetorical research, and free distribution of texts of Caribbean import. This includes the collection of letters, photographs, notes, books, drawings, and a host of ephemeral documents—mining for texts, rather than mining the texts themselves. Similar to the other projects, this one is deliberate in its curatorial simplicity, which (aside from the theoretical and metacognitive work that can come out of it) applies methods that can be employed by researchers of all kinds—academic, extra-academic, collaborative, restorative, those with access and experience, and (especially) those without. This is because the site operates on the methodological principle of democratization—specifically, the democratization of knowledge that emerges at every level of society. In its consideration of what it would mean to democratize knowledge in the Digital Humanities, members of the HASTAC Scholars Program suggested in 2009 that a traditional take on democratization, while generative for scholars, can ultimately delimit opportunities for public scholarship, thus (in my opinion) reinforcing familiar traditions of gatekeeping. They suggested an even broader approach:

[P]ractitioners of the digital humanities can also democratize knowledge by collaborating with their community partners to produce public scholarship, often through action research, experiential learning, and civically engaged pedagogy, all of which ultimately re-situate and reformulate expertise.

Public scholarship and the democratization of knowledge also involves the critical decolonization of vernacular Caribbean thought and action. This is a challenge. In “Desiderium,” for example, I compare the effects of that decolonizing process to a trauma in itself because, while inclusive of a vision to which people can aspire, there is an inherent and unavoidable violence that must be negotiated.  After all, the implementation of a vision or agenda as an alternative means changing what currently exists as a norm. And we have sufficient precedent, in the region and beyond it, that more violent than a change of regime through upheaval is a change of mind that would make such measures unnecessary—think of it as the virtual dormancy of revolutionary thought. One alternative—a scenario that I see stalling at widespread self-negation—leaves us with a people hollowed of their collective will, whose denial will be so deeply internalized that it will become as calcified as bone, leaving us with little choice but to be complicit in our eventual undoing.

It is that urgent.

Assimilating Teresa Mangum, this impulse is emancipatory, a radical redefinition of who finds, owns, and gives knowledge, an area of work that is produced by the public for reciprocal consumption and critique. I would add that because it involves these factors, the practice of public scholarship contributes directly to the knowledge-making activities of the social formation where it is employed. The assumption here is that the texts collected will be subject to a critical lens that is characteristic of that social formation. In this way, the collection and critique of archival texts bridges—or is an attempt to bridge—the creative tension that exists in DH and in Rhetoric and Composition, my field of “specialization.” It is a particular tension that exists, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick put it,

between those who suggest that digital humanities should always be about making (whether making archives, tools, or new digital methods) and those who argue that it must expand to include interpreting.

As a researcher in Caribbean rhetoric, I’m relieved to say that I have no dog in this fight and reject it on the grounds that (for me) the distinction is unnecessary and patently absurd. Indeed, the work included here and elsewhere on this site embraces both imperatives (equally, at times, or at varying intensities as situations may require). In research, some things must be taken for granted in order to address issues that are more urgent or those that take priority over others. In the case of this site, what is taken for granted is that the tension between practice and theory, making and interpreting, can be productively fused to create praxis.

Prima facie, the documents are fairly unremarkable as historical artifacts, except perhaps to collectors. They were by no means ubiquitous in the Caribbean, but aside from their obvious age—the oldest, a few drawings from 1764—many households possessed a version of at least one of these encyclopedia. Most popular was the Encyclopedia Britannica—included in this collection are some maps from Vol. 28, 1911. In these texts, many students at the upper-primary, secondary, and tertiary levels conducted research in a range of prescribed topics, for which the encyclopedia (as repositories of infinite knowledge) were perfectly equipped to serve as references for the shaping and reshaping of minds. Whatever we wanted to know could be found in those pages. Or so it seemed.

But where some see the unremarkable, others see the overarching imposition of hegemony. They see the normalization of learning imposed from above by the imperial state, or hegemon, and the subsequent acquiescence to that imposition as evidence of manipulation, marginalization, misrepresentation, and silencing on a deep cultural level. The convenience, of course, was by design. Clark and Ivanič put it rather succinctly when they note that, “such a perfectly ordered world [was] set up as an ideal by those who wish[ed] to impose their own social order upon society in the realm of language.” Language, as the vehicle for sanctioned knowledge. Needless to say, the inculcation of particular colonial values all but ensured the subjugation of other more indigenous and vernacular forms. 

Put a slightly different way, the very unremarkability of these texts is not only evidence of a lasting colonial influence (that extends well into post-colonialism and successfully undermines the notion of sovereignty among post-independence states), but is evidence also of a rhetorical situation that provides practitioners with an opportunity to critically redress the operation of power on their ways of seeing and knowing—literally, these texts provide researchers with digital and material texts that can be reoriented toward the articulation of vernacular sensibilities.  We are further reminded by Clark and Ivanič that,

hegemony is unstable and there are opportunities for change—sometimes more, sometimes fewer, depending on conditions in the wider socio-economic context. This is why is it so important to fight for an educational and cultural climate that encourages challenge and change, real empowerment and emancipation.

The imperative is clear. And just as there are things that should be taken for granted in the course of any inquiry, there are things that require our attention because they remind us, and others, that we are aware of our particular ways of seeing. This is especially important when dealing with a social formation that has historically been subject to disregard in the areas of knowledge-making and complex expression. The logic of this inquiry may be outlined like this: if it is true (or, at least, reasonable to suggest) that few things reinscribe empire and the concomitant inferiority of its subjects more effectively than the ubiquity of texts that define what has traditionally counted as knowledge, then it is equally true (or reasonable to suggest) that the deliberate resistance to these traditional assumptions is an act that is both deeply subversive and highly political.

Now, does this ensure decolonization? No, but it does provide an alternative context in which to effectively nurture the possibility and increase the probability of decolonization occurring among members of this social formation. So while it is true that these texts are not inherently Caribbean, and that they do not deal directly with overtly Caribbean topics in the way other Caribbean archives do, this fact (coupled with their problematic unremarkability) affords opportunities for critical engagement from a slightly different perspective. Because these texts were literally owned by a post-independence Caribbean state institution—purchased, coded, cataloged, stored, discarded, and now digitized and repurposed—the archive has been subject to a series of deliberate moves to control the dissemination of its varied content. As readers, we will certainly recognize parallels, as we trace their transformation from the constraining materiality of embodied histories to the constitution of a digitized functionality.

But recognition alone of the colonial dynamic is only a point of departure, not an end in itself. Reflection must follow. And understanding after that.

Yes, I do see the irony in appearing to “save” texts that name Britain as the interpreter and arbiter of knowledge and global culture. But the disregard, destruction, or disappearing of any repository of ideas constitutes a tragedy that applies to all knowledge—the ubiquitous, as well as the silenced—and are therefore anathema to any useful democratic/decolonized imperative. What Césaire referred to as “the boomerang effect of colonization” ought not be compounded with a retributive handling of the knowledges that have—for better and for worse—contributed to our development. Colonialism and its cousins remain indefensible. There is other work to do.

So this is how I enter.

For me, this archive is an opportunity for critical rhetorical intervention that is consistent with my ideas on Caribbean rhetoric and the applicability of that rhetoric in service to vernacular social formations. Beginning there, I view the archive holistically to enhance the analysis of these markedly non-Caribbean texts with a definitively Caribbean lens, subsequently extending the applicability of vernacular rhetorical method to a much broader range of texts. It can serve as a generative space for reflective engagement, and as a practical model for work that can be conducted both within and beyond the academy, as we strive to tell our stories in ways that possess academic potential and, more importantly, demonstrate the intellectual vibrancy that attends the practice of everyday life.

Included in this archive are the following texts (in chronological order):
Miscellaneous Correspondence, 1764.
The British Encyclopaedia, Vol. 3, 1809.
The London Gazetteer, 1825.
The Portable Encyclopaedia, 1826.
The London Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, 1829.
The London Encyclopedia, Vol. 17, 1829.
The Century, Vol. 23, 1881-2.
The Scruggs Maps, 1900.
The Chambers Encyclopaedia, 1908.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 28, 1911.

Research is a dynamic process; it is still left to be seen exactly what these archives will yield. But I’m guided by Joseph Maxwell‘s concise list for conducting qualitative research, in which the researcher is invited to consider goals, conceptual framework, methods, and validity concerns in the formation of viable research questions. As the archive develops, so will the ways of approaching it. In the meantime, I want to invite you to use the following questions as a starting point, from which you can develop questions—and, hopefully, projects—of your own.

Drawing on the rationale described above, these initial research questions include:

1. How do we, in our various capacities, reclaim material spaces of textual knowledge production and reshape them for our own, vernacular purposes?

2. What does it mean to challenge and subvert traditional or official representations of knowledge, and how can implicit misrepresentations be deliberately reoriented in the service of more accurate representations?

3. What is at stake with the preservation of images and texts that were designed to exclude, rather than include, Caribbean people?

4. How are distinctly Caribbean research methods/methodologies developed and deployed for the analysis of expressly non-Caribbean texts?

5. In what ways do the evolving representations—say, of hand-drawn maps—illustrate evolving economic and political landscapes (globally and regionally)?

6. What were the processes involved in the production of particular texts (printing, engraving, photographing, etc.)?

7. How do aspects of accuracy/inaccuracy affect the reception of a given text or set of texts?

8. What can these texts teach us about preservation and the practice of vernacular archiving—specifically, the politics of collecting our own stories and the validation of vernacular forms of knowledge?

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