Monday, July 7, 2014

The Politics of Invisibility and the Pedagogy of the Archive by Alexandre White

I am conscious of a certain pressure before me in attempting to archive our panel discussion on our final night in Swaziland. It became quickly apparent that what we were witnessing, in the testimonials and histories of the four Swazi representatives, an encounter with the practice of archiving. 

All the contestations, fragmentations, and obfuscations of the archival project were laid bare for all to see in the vulnerabilities and problematics of the panelists. This I believe provides an interesting opportunity to discuss certain pedagogical questions of the archive as well as the importance of representation.

The complexities of everyday life exposed in the retelling of these varied experiences highlight the contrasting modes of living through unsettled times.

 As was told to us, the possibilities for public expression and freedom of the press in Swaziland are diminishing. The realities of this situation make the careful consideration of its archive even more critical.

Censorship is a great danger to the archival project as it disciplines the act of putting pen to paper making an engagement with the archive all the more difficult. Such actions also render histories that may enliven the archive invisible to dominant practices of academic research.

In the imagining of the archive we must also be mindful of how that archive is retaught and replicated in discussion and education as well as the limitations of teaching from the perspective of complete knowledge, or as Francoise Verg├ęs has put it, a project of omnipotence.

In assuming omnipotence or in its pursuit, we can so often gloss over that which the archive has made invisible. The Panel represented four vastly contrasting views on everyday life in Swaziland. However, as many pointed out, there were conspicuous absences of certain voices that were discussed but not seen. Several of the panelists presented a narrative that depicted Swaziland as a relatively untroubled space of interracial sexual exchange.

Digging beyond the opinions of these few, how might the understandings and particularities of this moment be changed by interventions and testimonials of black men and women who also loved across racial lines? How might the ethnomethodological practice of archiving unearth these histories made invisible by social forces and what are the stakes of leaving such questions uncontested? Also, what sorts of questions arise from the fact that two of the three members of the panel active in the anti-apartheid struggle were women? How does this exposure recontextualize questions of activism and revolutionary struggle?

I'd like to end with the question that Gabeba Baderoon left us with during the panel---what do we make of the way that South Africa forms the point around which the archives of frontier states must pivot?

The theme of the panel concerned places of refuge from Apartheid. Such a question, though fascinating, positions Swaziland and its history secondary to the concerns of South Africa.  Rather than directly answer Gabeba’s question, I want to introduce an element we may not have explored yet---how we approach the archive as a pedagogical project.

The process of archival recovery is not only about unearthing contested knowledges and searching for that which has disappeared. The wherewithal to ask the right questions that attest to such a project also requires keen sharpening of the analytic mind to recognize the questions that may retrieve such knowledge.  

While we may pursue our own reparative archival projects, a pedagogical process of training must also occur so as not to gloss over or render invisible those actors whose role in the archive have been so mindfully and unmindfully misrepresented and repressed.   
 All images by Tana Nolethu Forrest. 

About the Author
Alexandre White is a Martin Luther King Jr. Fellow and Graduate Student at Boston University. He studies race theories within the context of postcolonial theory and medical sociology. 

Follow him on Twitter: @RhizomeNomad

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