ARCHIVING, SECRECY AND OFF-SITE RESEARCH

The second workshop of the “Off-Site” ERC project was held on 9-10 September 2019.
It dealt with the questions of “Archiving, Secrecy and Off-Site Research”.

With: Cécile Boex, Leyla Dakhli, Omar Dewachi, Carolina Kobelinsky, Shourideh Molavi, William Walters, Shela Sheikh. See full abstracts below.

ABSTRACT

Archives are sites where power is actively negotiated, contested, and confirmed. More than sites, they are social and material practices, such as researching, collecting, classifying, and the ‘turning of real lives into writing’ (Foucault 1979). Archiving involves rationalities and classification, yet it goes back to a ‘fever’, a desire (Derrida 1995): a passion, be it a passion for order, rationality, control or simply for records. But these records are an addition of traces, not the reality, and not even its full representation. These paradoxes and impossibilities have not weakened our ‘taste for archive’, on the contrary, it seems that Derrida’s critique renewed the interest and creativity in the use of archives as a research practice, method and field of observation. The scientific fragility of archives – their subordination to affects and power – seems to have paradoxically propelled them as emancipatory tools for knowledge and political resistance. Several reasons come to mind to explain this. Archiving materializes the epistemic, material and social relations between power and knowledge. It thus offers a site of critical observation (Ann Stoler’s urge to “move from archive-as-source to archive-as-subject”, 2010), which can be further used to build knowledge from outside the positions of power that have a monopoly on the production of archives themselves. Archiving can blur to the highest level the frontiers between knowledge production and political intervention, for instance at the crossroads of artistic, expert and critical knowledge productions, or through collaborative/inter-subjective forms of knowledge production. These blurring create viable zones of observation, writing and intervention but can also expose to many tensions and conflicts of loyalty. In these contexts, the creation, subversion and critical readings of archives are often anchored in an attention to the missing, the absent or the hidden. This unfolds in different initiatives. Some are driven by the need for producing (grass-roots) archives when none existed before, which comes with a reflexion on the reasons for this absence. Others search for traces of violence and hidden histories in archives created for purpose of government and control. A central theme in these works is that of violence and the dialectics of the seen and the unseen: violence invisible and invisibilized, or the violence of invisibilization (of certain affects, people, ways of life, histories, places, etc. etc.) But then, are archives and counter-archives a matter of equal representation and visibility, or a challenge to the epistemic order that produces in/visibility? What are their relations to the present: How do we handle the curentness of the past (that is precisely not ‘archived’)? (How) can we archive the present? Gathering friends and colleagues across disciplines, the workshop wishes to create a space of dialogue on these questions, departing from one specific topic: working with/on archives, how do we come across and address the question of secrecy? There is a passion for secrecy as much as there is one for the archive: for Marc Bloch, the two obstacles to historical knowledge — built on archives – were “carelessness that looses the documents, and, even more dangerous, the passion for secrecy” (1941). Beyond the question of access to records, the notion of secrecy refers to affects but also to social and political bounds and relations – relationality being a dimension of secrecy as a practice of power (Simmel, 1908; Taussig, 1999). This has to do with the practice of ‘lying in politics’ (and Hannah Arendt’s analysis on the subject (1969) are based on the Pentagon papers leaked from the national security archives). But secrecy as a social practice has also to do with the protection of records and data, by professional secrets, ethical codes of conduct or ‘regulations on personal data protection’. While touching very real ethical and political issues we encounter at different levels in our works, these regulations are also perversely used, not to protect anyone, but as obstacles to any initiatives that are not subordinated to the neoliberal administrative and managerial rationalities that produced them. Which is yet another side of the power-knowledge nexus. This, as well as Arendt’s reflection on the Pentagon papers, builds further on the idea suggested by Simmel and Taussig that understanding how secrecy works enlightens the understanding of power (Walters and Luscombe, 2017). But secrecy is highly polysemic. It refers to what exists and is kept hidden – then, the focus is on concealment, and the relation to data is closer to that of fact-finding and counter-investigation. It can also refer to what is unspoken, intimate, private – what has a hard time surfacing even for the producer/keeper of the record: a thread followed by Stoler when she looks at the private correspondence of colonial administrators to understand the intimate life of power. Here, unlike for the concealed/leaked administrative records, the relation to data is no more that of investigative rationality but requires different epistemologies and writings. These reflections open several paths for further exchange. At a methodological level, we may have to clarify the relationships between archiving and the creation and uses of online databases: what are the different logics at play? What are the procedures of objectification and subjection encrypted in the technologies at use? Another central question is that of the relation between archives, bodies and the secret: readings of the archives can enlighten how (past or invisibilized) experiences are embodied; suppressed bodies can resurface through the archive, bodies can also become archives — archives of violence or of social and political practices for instance. These uses confront us, however, to the paradox of veracity and truth when it comes to violence: the standards of veracity that require to find more sources and establish their falsifiability can amount to demanding the impossible, and be another way to reconducting a violence that is at the roots of the lack of archives, their scarcity or their incompleteness. The workshop wishes to be a space of open, informal discussion in order to explore these questions and raise many more in relation to our respective fields of research, writing and archival activism.

Introduction
Chowra Makaremi, CNRS (Iris) Paris
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Participants’ introduction
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Mobilizing Secrecy 
William Walters, Carleton University 
In my presentation, I want to problematize our assumption that secrets are located. A central feature of our imaginaries of secrecy is place. More specifically, we imagine secrets as things that are stored, located, kept, and usually in a fixed place (or perhaps inside someone’s head). They are static. This is problematic. For secrecy to be useful and meaningful within contexts and programmes of, say, national security then the things being made secret need to move between sites, persons and agencies; along wires, cables, in telegraphs, through airwaves, in planes and ships, in envelopes, on mobile phones and laptops crossing borders, diplomatic bags and postal systems, concealed on bodies, or concealed bodies crossing borders, and so on. It is precisely because the secret usually needs to move that it is sometimes traced and exposed. How do secrets move? This requires specific operations and techniques. The question my presentation will address is this: what do we learn about secrecy when we approach it from the angle of mobilities? It will call for a perspective which mobilizes secrecy. The presentation will focus on a fascinating case study: the Venona project, a US and UK top secret programme of decryption which targeted telegraphic cables and wireless communications between Soviet embassies and Moscow during the 1940s. The presentation will argue that decryption and cryptanalysis offer a strategic entry point for theorizing the mobilization of secrecy.
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William Walters is a Professor of Politics in Political Science and Sociology & Anthropology and FPA Research Excellence Chair (2019-22) at Carleton University. His work explores the objectification of human experience in specific domains – unemployment, migration, and, most recently, state secrecy. He is an investigator of the SSHRC research project ‘Air deportation’ investigating the role of civil aviation in the forced removals of foreigners and illegalized people in and from Europe.
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Archiving vernacular videos of the uprising and the conflict in Syria against new regimes of invisibility 
Cécile Boex, EHESS
Since March 2011, the revolt and subsequent conflict in Syria has yielded a considerable and varied quantity of online videos posted by ordinary protesters, activists, and armed groups. Unprecedented in the history of conflicts, this profusion of data gives the impression of accessibility and hypervisibility of events. However, this is far from being the case. Drawing from my own archiving experience, scrutinizing the process of transformation of often anonymous audiovisual traces into sources of knowledge, my presentation will tackle the different forms of invisibility and opacity proper to this audiovisual footage. I will first explore the finding and collecting of videos in a volatile digital environment. Then, I will focus on the issue of emotion, subjectivity and the experience of violence which often blurs the legibility of the data itself. As these videos are politically and emotionally embodied, they have been systematically called into question in terms of authenticity by the media and also, of course, by the regime. In this context, archiving concretely deals with and resists erasure, distortion, oblivion and impunity. These new regimes of invisibility, located at the crossroads of political and digital logics, raises new issues regarding the making of the archive – its veracity, publicization and transmission – which I will address.
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Cécile Boex is a political scientist and associate professor at the EHESS, at the CéSoR research institute. She has worked and published on cinema and politics in Syria. Her current work explores the videos produced in the context of the revolt and the war through the process of their becoming archives. She is an investigator of the ANR research project SHAKK “From revolt to War in Syria: Conflict, displacements, uncertainties”.
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Iraqibacter and the Biology of History
Omar Dewachi, Rutgers University
Building on my ongoing ethnographic research on war wounds across the Middle East, I explore the rise of Iraqibacter, a moniker given to Acinetobacter baumannii — a superbug associated with the occupation of Iraq in 2003. I show how unravelling ethnographic and microbiological knowledge about Iraqibacter show deeper entanglements of this killer superbug in the political, biosocial, and environmental manifestations of long-term war and present-day fallout across the region. Building on the notion of biology of history, the registration of human activity in bacterial life, I suggest that Iraqibacter could be understood as an archive revealing the changing ecologies and toxicities of war in Iraq and beyond.
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Omar Dewachi is an anthropologist and physician by training, Associate Professor in Medical Anthropology at Rutgers University. His work focuses on the human and environmental manifestations of conflict and military interventions in Iraq and the broader Middle East. He is a founding director of the Conflict Medicine Program at the Global Health Institute, American University of Beirut, and author of Ungovernable life. Mandatory Medicine and Statecraft in Iraq (Stanford U Press, 2017).
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Farm Warfare in Gaza: Unearthing the Testimony of the Land
Shourideh C. Molavi, American University in Cairo
This talk examines the historical production and ongoing maintenance of the eastern ‘border’ of the occupied Gaza Strip with Israel in the wake of the 2018 Great March of Return. Against the backdrop of over seven decades of Israeli settler-colonialism, a ‘buffer zone’ has been formed along Gaza’s border with Israel through the denial of Palestinian access to agricultural lands, periodic military confrontation, the uprooting and grazing of farmlands, and the latest practice of herbicidal spraying. During the Great March, the slow violence of this gradual border production culminated in the fast killing of human bodies. Using a range of visual and fieldwork methodologies, this talk will unpack the link between these forms of violence and locate the destruction of the environment and the destruction of the body in time and space. In doing so, I examine the ways in which the testimony and of the land can be documented along the human testimony to confront the historical erasure of state crimes and expose forms of ongoing settler-colonial violence.
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Shourideh C. Molavi is a scholar in political science, trained in International Humanitarian Law, and an Assistant Professor at the American University in Cairo. Her legal and fieldwork research in the Middle East focus on human and minority rights, with an emphasis on the relationship between the law, violence and power. She is the dedicated Israel-Palestine researcher for Forensic Architecture (Goldsmith University).
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General discussion – Day 1
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Archiving in an age of (counter) revolutions
Leyla Dakhli, CNRS/CMB
This proposal resulted from the observation of the realities and (often contrasting) imaginaries related to archives and the acts of archiving. As part of a joint reflection on how the State is affected by the events that have shaken the Arab world since 2010-2011, it is necessary to observe the places of the archive, their semantic and semiotic shifts, their positions in relation to the power (regimes, States) to understand what is at stake today. Two aspects stand out in this regard: the opening (even sometimes in a very ephemeral way) of once inaccessible or invisible state archives, as occurred in Egypt and Yemen in 2011, and is still occurring in Tunisia, and the multiplication of private archiving initiatives, documenting in particular revolts and revolutions, but also older memories. Both raise several questions this chapter hopes to interrogate, most important among them: Does this private space complement or contradict the archive of power? What power regime does it build?
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Leyla Dakhli is a historian and a full-time researcher at the French Center for National Research (CNRS) at the Marc Bloch Center, Berlin. Her work focuses particularly on the study of Arab intellectuals, as well as, the social history of the South Mediterranean region. She is the investigator of the ERC research project DREAM “DRafting and Enacting the Revolutions in the Arab Mediterranean. In Search for Dignity – from the 1950’s until today”.
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Naming the Dead. Archiving the Silenced Side of EU Border Regime
Carolina Kobelinsky, CNRS/ LESC
Catania (Sicily) has become one of the main arrival ports for migrants trying to reach the European Union – among which, some die during the crossing. Locals have mobilized in order to identify and return their bodies to their families. This led them to design a database compiling all existing information about the dead migrants buried in the municipal cemetery. The Banca dati, as everyone calls it, represents and produces several things all at once. First, it is an archive of fragments of stolen lives and of something that the E.U. produces but does not publicize. It is also a way of gathering together disparate pieces of information, which become traces and clues that can eventually lead to identification. In this regard, the Banca dati became a tool for communication between the different institutions producing these traces (the undertakers, the cemetery, the civil registry, the forensics team, the court, and the different police forces). The database is a grass-roots bureaucracy that embraces hospitality as an endeavor, a goal, and a fundamental principle, at least for the dead. From its inception, the Banca dati has raised multiple questions related to confidentiality: the different actors have different ways of considering records, data, and professional confidentiality. These discrepancies offer a way of understanding the political motivations that underpin ethical issues: both the internal motivations of each institution, and the external motivations relating to the visibility of border deaths.
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Carolina Kobelinsky is an anthropologist and Research Fellow at the CNRS, Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative (LESC) in Nanterre. She has worked and published on asylum policies and their effects on ordinary life and asylum adjudication process. Her current work focuses on deaths at the EU borders. She is a co-investigator of the ANR research project MECMI “Morts en contexte de migration”.
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Working with the counter-archives of the Iranian revolution
Chowra Makaremi, CNRS/IRIS
The Iranian revolution of 1979 – as an event and a process that lasted for a decade – has been widely commented, analysed, and represented. But in fact, it has suffered for decades from a lack of documentation and, for instance, a basic chronology of the events is still missing. As a result, the history of political violence and terror that marked Nation-State formation after the revolution and during the war with Iraq (1980-88) has remained out of scope. Since a decade, several documentation initiatives have filled in this gap. These narratives, data and archives are entwined in conflicting enterprises of memory in Iran and in exile. In a context when on-site fieldwork is hardly feasible, how can we use these documentation initiatives to study the Iranian revolution? I will explore why the idea of “counter-archives” suggested by Foucault is useful to understand these material. What kind of knowledge can we draw from the counter-archives? Can we use the archives produced by power in order to write a history that challenges the hegemonic narrative on the past? And how to proceed?
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Chowra Makaremi is an anthropologist and Research Fellow at the CNRS, IRIS Research Institute (EHESS). She has worked and published on migration controls and border governance in France, and State violence in Iran (post-revolution experiences and legacies). She is the investigator of the ERC research program OFF-SITE “Violence, State formation and memory politics: an off-site ethnography of post-revolution Iran”.
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The Body of the Seed: Archivization and Entanglement between More-than-Human Lifeworlds
Shela Sheikh, Goldsmiths, University of London
In recent years, global seed vaults have received increasing critical attention. Ecofeminists such as Vandana Shiva have pointed to the connections between early systems of botanical taxonomy and the databases that underpin contemporary multinationals’ practices of biopiracy (i.e., the exploitation of genetic materials through modification and patenting). The body of the seed itself —in addition to the infrastructures that store it—can be seen not simply as a passive vehicle containing genetic information, but as a ‘bio-social archive’. In this paper, I present a reading of Wild Relatives, a feature-length film by Jumana Manna (2018), which follows the journey of seeds between the Global Seed Vault at Svalbard (Norway) and the Bekaa Valley (Lebanon), where seeds from Syria are being cultivated due to the ongoing civil war, probing the relationship between the preservation and (re)patriation of seeds on the one hand and global conflict and humanitarianism on the other, and considering local cultivation practices vis-à-vis the lasting legacies of the developmentalist, geopolitical agendas of the US-sponsored Green Revolution. Turning to (indigenous) more-than-human life-worlds and the place of the vegetal therein, the paper looks to productive moments of secrecy, untranslatability and undecidability (‘stubborn remainders’), strategic or otherwise, that resist hegemonic systems of the capturing (and hence policing and banking) of life.
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Shela Sheikh is Lecturer at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London, where she convenes the MA Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy. She has worked and published on the phenomenon of the “martyr video-testimony” and its cultural representation. Her current work explores the entanglement of historical and ongoing colonialism with environmentalism, botanical classification, extractive capitalism, law and spatial politics.
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General discussion – Day 2

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