Originally published in France in 1989 and now arriving in English translation from Yale University Press, Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archives is a little gem of a book. A diamond, perhaps, given both its clarity and the finesse with which it’s been cut and set. It is an unmistakable classic: one of the great memoirs of the silent, day-to-day drama of research.
Yet it is not the story of a career. A reader unfamiliar with her name will soon enough recognize that Farge specializes in 18th century social history. (She is director of research in modern history at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique, in Paris.) One of her endnotes refers to the volume she published in collaboration with Michel Foucault in 1982, two years before the philosopher’s death. It was an edition of selected lettres de cachet from the files of the Bastille. (In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens portrays the notorious legal instrument as one of the aristocracy’s corrupting privileges, but Farge and Foucault showed that it was disturbingly easy for an ordinary person to take one out against a family member.)
Many an over-active ego has turned to autobiography on far slimmer grounds than that. But in spite of its personal and even intimate tone, The Allure of the Archives is never primarily about the author herself. She instead writes about a subjectivity that exists only upon entering the reading room – or perhaps while trying to find it during the first visit.
As much as an institution, the archive is, for Farge, the site of a distinct array of experiences. It is defined by rules, habits, worries (especially with fragile documents), and a kind of ambient awkwardness that she evokes perfectly. “The silence of the archives,” she writes, “is created out of looks that linger but do not see, or gazes that stare blindly. No one escapes these wandering eyes, not even the most obstinate reader, his face clouded by work.”
In the midst of that tense, watchful silence, the patrons jockey for prime desk space, or drive each other to distraction with coughs and nervous tics. Locating the documents you want requires initiation into the cabala of archival reference numbers. Even if you have one, it “often will only direct the reader to another serial number that will itself only give access to a new series where other serial numbers await.” For guidance, one must turn to the superintendent of the reading room: “She reigns, gives advice that bears a strong resemblance to orders, speaks very loudly, and does not understand what she does not wish to understand, all the while constantly ruffling the pages of her morning newspaper.”
Her descriptions are very true to life, even an ocean away from the French archives she has in mind. The part about reference numbers may sound like comic exaggeration. It isn’t, or at least it corresponds to my last visit to the Library of Congress manuscript collection some years ago.
But all of it is just the setting for the necromancy of research – calling up men and women who are long dead and utterly forgotten, speaking for the first time in two or three hundred years. The dossiers Farge explored in her research consisted of police and judicial records as well as reports to His Majesty on what the rabble of Paris were doing and saying from week to week. A whole layer of informers – called in slang mouches, “flies” – kept track of rumors and complaints making the rounds. (They were, in effect, flies on the wall.) Also in the files are slanderous and subversive posters with traces of grit clinging to the back after the authorities ripped them down.
Police interrogations (transcribed for use during an investigation, then filed away and eventually warehoused) document the everyday happenings, criminal and otherwise, of urban life. Most of those speaking left no other account of their lives. Nor could they; even those who could read a little had not always learned to write. Having become accustomed to reading the faded or erratically punctuated documents, the researcher may undergo a sort of rapture: “the sheer pleasure of being astonished by the beauty of the texts and the overabundance of life brimming in so many ordinary lives.”
At that point, a danger becomes evident: “You can begin to forget that writing history is actually a kind of intellectual exercise, one for which fascinated recollection is just not enough…. Whatever the project is, work in the archives requires a triage, separation of documents. The question is what to take and what to leave.” And the researchers answers it by coming to recognize the patterns that emerge from one document to the next: the unstated assumptions made by those on either side of the interrogation, the changes in tone or preoccupation recorded over time.
The historian learns to frame questions that the archive knows how to answer – while remaining open to the secrets and surprises to be found in the boxes of paper that haven’t been delivered to her desk yet.
“In the archives,” Farge writes, “whispers ripple across the surface of silence, eyes glaze over, and history is decided. Knowledge and uncertainty are ordered through an exacting ritual in which the color of the note cards, the strictness of the archivists, and the smell of the manuscripts are trail markers in this world where you are always a beginner.” Farge's memoir is adamantine: sharp, brilliant, perfect, and created to last.
The National Labor Relations Board has agreed to review Pacific Lutheran University's request to that it reconsider a regional board official's recent decision to allow the university's adjunct faculty to vote on forming a union. Pacific Lutheran objected on a number of grounds, including its religious nature. The national NRLB issued a brief statement that said: "The employer’s request for review of the regional director’s decision and direction of election raises substantial issues warranting review solely with respect to the assertion of jurisdiction over the employer and the determination that certain faculty members are not managerial employees." The local Service Employees International Union, with which the adjunct faculty union is affiliated, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In today’s Academic Minute, Kenneth Noll of the University of Connecticut reveals why termites would not be a threat to your home without the help of microbes. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.
Providence College administrators have called off a lecture organized by several academic departments by a philosophy professor at Wayne State University who is an advocate of same-sex marriage rights, The New York Times reported. Hugh F. Lena, the provost and senior vice president at Providence, sent out an e-mail announcing that the lecture by John Corvino could not take place. In his e-mail, Lena cited a document created by American Roman Catholic bishops in 2004, "Catholics in Political Life," which questioned the appropriateness of honoring political leaders who take positions that disagree with church teachings. Lena also said that the college requires that "both sides of a controversial issue are to be presented fairly and equally."
On his blog, Corvino questioned the provost's statement. Corvino noted that he was not being given some award but was invited by academic departments to give an academic talk. Further, he noted that the organizers had invited a theology professor at the college to speak immediately after him, explaining the church's views on marriage, and that the professor had accepted the offer. So, Corvino wrote, his appearance complied with the various rules in place. "The provost seems to want to have it both ways: the appearance of a commitment to vigorous academic dialogue, combined with an isolationist approach to disfavored views; in other words, a Catholic identity defined primarily by what it excludes rather than what it includes," Corvino wrote. "Pope Francis, the Catholic Church’s new leader, has been justly celebrated for his welcoming tone toward gays and lesbians. Notwithstanding my abrupt dis-invitation, I remain hopeful that Providence College may soon better reflect that tone."
About this time of year one invariably reads fulsome, even orgiastic essays by academics professing the exhilaration and sense of joy they feel on the first day of class each August or September. In so doing, they often blather on about limitless possibilities and rituals of renewal, etc., and wax on about frisson A and epiphany B on the quad.
I must admit that my experience is quite different. Whereas for many professors the beginning of the academic year is a time of excitement and anticipation, for me it is — indeed, has been for the 30-plus years I’ve been teaching at the university level — a time of melancholy, even gloom. Indeed, late August/early September marks the peak period of my annual bout of SAD. To most clinicians, SAD denotes "seasonal affective disorder," a condition in which normally well-adjusted people experience a range of depressive symptoms, but for me SAD means "student affective disorder." Same symptoms, different etiology.
Around the beginning of August -- even earlier now -- I begin to suffer the symptoms: heightened anxiety; enervation; difficulty concentrating; social withdrawal; increased irritability; nausea. Over time, I’ve found that the reason for the onset of such conditions is the looming return of STUDENTS into my life.
It is not August, but the end of the exam period in May that elicits in me a sense of joy and limitless possibilities. Only when my grades are turned in, the seniors graduated, and the dorms emptied out do I begin to feel a sense of excitement and anticipation and the possibility for renewal. For it is only then that I can focus on research and writing without the threat of being interrupted by tedious office hours, middle-of-the night phone calls, and "urgent" e-mails ("Can I get an extension on my book review?"), not to mention lectures, seminars, grading, meetings, committee work, etc., etc.
Rather, with May comes "summer break" and the tantalizing possibility of finally honoring long overdue writing commitments, of making headway on a scholarly monograph, and of thinking deeply about new projects down the line. If sufficiently lucky, it might mean a trip or two to an archive to immerse oneself in source materials one has waited months, if not years to dive into. And it might even give one a chance to attend a conference, present a paper, and get some useful feedback from experts in one’s field. Talk about renewal!
But, alas, before one knows it, August comes around. David M. Shribman recently wrote a beautiful essay in The Wall Street Journal entitled "Whatever Happened to August?," an elegiac piece lamenting that August, once the Platonic ideal of summer, has been turned into a "month of work, school and calendars run amok." Nowhere is this more true than at universities. At colleges and universities across the land, the ecological system in town begins to become student-centric earlier and earlier each year, with suck-up seniors, jaded juniors, sophomoric sophs, eager-beaver fresh-faced frosh transforming the placid summer landscape on campus into a crowded cacophonous mob scene.
Even worse, by then the seemingly “limitless possibilities” for summer, the best-laid plans, the hopes and dreams have all been dashed. Some of the overdue commitments are still outstanding. Progress has been made on the unfinished monograph, but it still sucks. The trips to the archives brought disappointing results. The professional meetings were as boring as ever. And now the students are back. Any wonder that I get depressed?
To make things even worse, it seems more and more as though “summer break” is over just after the 4th of July. That’s when the first, vague symptoms of SAD begin to appear. They accelerate through July and peak about the third week of August when classes begin, at which time I feel like I’m about to embark on the academic equivalent of a death march.
Funny, though, every year the symptoms recede. Gradually, I adapt to the new ecology and again find my niche. By mid-to-late September — usually a few weeks after Labor Day — the symptoms are gone and I begin to feel like myself. The "new" landscape has been naturalized. I again begin to appreciate students — the putative causes of my seasonal plague — suck-up seniors, jaded juniors, sophomoric sophs, fresh-faced frosh all.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Adjuncts at Wright State University reached their first union agreement with the institution last week. The 180-member union of full-time adjuncts is affiliated with the American Association of University Professors.
In an e-mail, Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the AAUP and professor of economics at Wright State, said the contract was notable for its tenure-like job protections, including assurances of due process and continuous employment. It also includes a 2 percent raise and professional development funds, among other benefits. A separate agreement signed alongside the contract guarantees workloads of seven to eight courses annually for full-time adjuncts, depending on their rank.