reading robin kelsey's archive style across the archival divide

Download Reading Robin Kelsey's
               Archive Style
               Across the Archival Divide

Post on 16-Feb-2017




2 download

Embed Size (px)


  • Reading Robin Kelseys Archive StyleAcross the Archival Divide

    Joan M. Schwartz

    The word archive now has intellectual cache in the academic world,but its currency has little to do with the real world of archives as Journalof Archival Organization readers understand it from a professional orinstitutional perspective. Rather, it is the metaphorical archive of Frenchphilosophers, their followers and interlocutors, who employ the conceptof the archive as something produced by the nineteenth-century driveto extract from the world a complete and corresponding record of itself(Kelsey 2007, p. 9). That archive is not grounded in a concern for theorganic nature of records production, preservation, and use. Quoting Der-rida and citing Foucault, Robin Kelsey, too, sees the archive not as aninstitution or set of institutions but rather a system enabling and controllingthe production of knowledge (p. 9). While his Archive Style: Photographsand Illustrations for U.S. Surveys, 18501890 is, thus, not about the realworld of archives, to dismissas theoretically driven or professionallyirrelevantKelseys elaboration of the practices of visual representationthat created the archival record of nineteenth-century surveys of theAmerican West would be a grave mistake. This reading of Archive Stylestraddles the archival divide separating academic and institutional,theoretical and professional understandings of the archive and the realworld of archives.1

    Joan M. Schwartz, PhD, is Associate Professor/Queens National Scholar inthe Department of Art at Queens University, Kingston, Ontario.

    Address correspondence to: Joan M. Schwartz, Queens National ScholarDepartment of Art, Ontario Hall 318C, Queens University, Kingston, Ontario,Canada K7L 3N6 (E-mail:

    Journal of Archival Organization, Vol. 6(3), 2008Available online at http://www.haworthpress.comC 2008 by The Haworth Press. All rights reserved.

    doi: 10.1080/15332740802421923 201


    We can think of Archive Style as a book about government docu-ments that happen to be visual materials. Even if it is not written froman archival perspective, does not cite the archival literature, and is nottargeted at archivists, it has much to say to archivists willing to ac-commodate academic understandings of the archive and brook art his-torical posturing. Inspired by certain pockets of recalcitrant ingenuityin the survey archive (p. 193), Kelsey makes the critical point thatthe archives have been more generative of new forms of pictorial in-telligence than most scholars have recognized (p. 193). And archivistswill certainly appreciate his aim to reconnect remarkable pictures tothe texts, processes, social units, and political struggles in which theywere once embedded (p. 4). Taken as a whole, Kelseys book demon-strates the important role of visual materials in the course of govern-ment business, in this instance specifically the United States surveys of18501890. In its combination of solid and extensive research in archivalsources, especially on graphic materials and government records, ArchiveStyle offers an opportunity to extract important lessons not only forarchival theory and practice but also for professional self-reflection andidentity.

    Archive Style begins with clarification of riddles andpremisesdefinitions of both archive and style and an admis-sion that the title of the book . . . asks for trouble (p. 8). Interestingly,Kelsey claims that among scholars, either archive or style standing alonecan attract controversy, and for many readers, the two terms togetherwill seem oxymoronic (p. 8), implying, I presume, that these conceptsoccupy separate, mutually exclusive spheres. What is important, however,is Kelseys effort to excavate the way in which Style served generationsof art historians as a way of . . . freeing certain particulars of form fromany traffic in interest (p. 12). Kelsey acknowledges that historians ofphotographyand here I might add archivistsmay be wary of bringingthe word to bear on archival pictures, suspecting that it signals yet moreforced assimilation of pragmatic material into the traditional categoriesof art (p. 12). But this is not Kelseys aim, and his discussion of themodernist appropriation of survey photographs into the art historicalcanon and the modern/postmodern debate over their place in the galleryclarifies his use of style as an analytical lens and sets up the argumentsthat follow.

    Kelsey launches into Archive Style armed with four interlocking hy-potheses, the first two of which are couched in remarkably familiar archivalterms. Archivists engaged in nurturing postcolonial and postmodern

  • Joan M. Schwartz 203

    understandings of our professional responsibilitiesfor diversity and theinclusion of the marginalized voices of societywill nod in agreementwith the following passage:

    We may be accustomed to thinking of archival pictures as straight-forward records, but in the archive, the representation of straightfor-wardness has never been straightforward. The very definition of anaccurate pictorial record, and the effort to demonstrate the epistemo-logical and practical advances that it affords, has entailed rhetoric.The producers of archives have, in other words, claimed and defendedthe completeness, authenticity, and reliability of their holdings. Thereason for this is not merely that some degree of self-presentationamong social entities is unavoidable but also that archives, especiallypublicly funded ones, rely on political support for their maintenanceand growth. Throughout the modern period, those responsible forassembling and maintaining federal archives have subtly promotedtheir collections to legislators, other officials of high rank, leadersof industry, and the general public. They have asserted the benefitsof archival neutrality and scientific care in a manner that is hardlyneutral (p. 5).

    Claiming that archives have operated under expectations of self-effacement (p. 5), Kelsey sets up his thesis about the rise of archivestyles and the ingenuity behind their creation. Even if we are not con-cerned with style, archivists must ponder his point that the rhetoric ofarchival neutrality and self-effacement derives not only from within thearchive but from the politics inherent in the states making a record ofits own actions and holdings (p. 5). With implications for a variety ofarchival contexts, from appeals to resource allocators to virtual exhibitionson the Web, Kelseys argument merits close scrutiny:

    By constructing archives, the state represents itself to its leaders, ri-vals, and constituents. The archives of U.S. government are filled withdocuments concerning its programs, procedures, funds, agencies, andlands. Although officials supporting or administering these archiveshave routinely proclaimed a desire for accurate and objective infor-mation, the federal government has just as routinely (if less openly)demanded to be shown in the best possible light. The self-promotionof national archives has thus been inseparable from their tendency toglorify and reassure the state of which they are a part (p. 5).


    For someone working outside the realm of the literature, institutions, andconcerns of the archival profession, Kelsey seems remarkably prescient.On his way to establishing his main focus on approaches to the productionof pictures, he touches on such key issues as the presumed objectivityof archives, and professional and institutional invisibility. Narrowing hisfocus from archives to archival images, Kelsey then presents the centralpremise of Archive Style, arguing, Nowhere have the effects of theseinclinations surfaced more compellingly than in pictures (p. 5).

    Whether displayed at permanent or rotating exhibitions adjacent torepositories, in brochures or reports, or as part of entreaties for publicparticipation (such as FBI wanted posters), pictures have playeda central role in the appeal of archives. The treatment of archivalpictures as sober public records, as objective findings responsiblycollected for the citizenry and its representatives, is precisely thepoint. Making pictures that speak to the neutrality of archives and itsbenefits, to the profitable knowledge that processes of measurement,recording, and cataloguing can secure, and doing so in a manner thatreassures the government that the objective facts are on its side, hascalled for ingenuity. The aim of this book is not merely to puncturemodern myths of disinterestedness or objectivity; in other contexts,this task has been performed expertly. The focus is rather on howand why the insistence on scientific exactitude, perspicacity, anddetachment historically coalesced at particular moments into specificapproaches to producing pictures (pp. 56).

    Archive Style seeks to demonstrate that the instrumentality of pictures iscrucial to a new understanding of government surveys. While this willpique the curiosity of art historians, it should also be a clarion call toarchivists. For archivists, Kelseys real contribution is not in his notion ofarchive style but rather in his exegesis of pictorial intelligence, not inhis effort to reconcile modernist pictorial qualities and Romantic landscapetradition, but in his attempt to explore the federal bureaucracy as an engineof social and cultural production. Where Kelsey is intent on explainingthe look of survey pictures, archivists would do well to consider how theirlook not only reflected the contexts of their creation, but also embodiedtheir function and influenced the work they performed. Archive Style, withits emphasis on the contexts of record creation, circulation, and viewing,has much to say to archivists responsible for the care of visual materialsand government records.

  • Joan M. Schwartz 205

    The book unfold