NAVSA 2019

Victorian Archival Mediations panel

(Conference site)

Panel Participants

  • Ann Garascia, California State University, San Bernardino: “Gathering Victorian Moss: Archival Care for the Anthropocene”

  • James Mussell, University of Leeds: “Ephemera Belongs to the Dead: Affect, Print, and the Archive”

  • Matthew Poland (organizer), University of Washington: “Eliot at Yale: Gordon Haight and the Horizons of Victorian Studies”

  • Anna Wager, Hobart and William Smith Colleges: “Use and Disuse: Mediated Access and the Liverpool Cathedral Embroideries”

Panel Overview

It is a favorite bedtime story for historians in any discipline: the next time we go into an archive or library is the time we uncover a lost letter or manuscript which changes scholarship forever. It is also a favorite media narrative, recent entries including a “lost” Sylvia Plath story and a “rediscovered” Clara Schumann letter – which were catalogued all along. Trusting that verb, “rediscover,” underlines our complacency in understanding what curators do, but also in underestimating the extent to which institutional practices mediate our objects of study. As the archival theorist Wolfgang Ernst has written, “The power of memory lies less in the past than in its undeceivable storage.”

This panel will present four brief, fifteen-minute forays into Victorian archives. We take up Raymond Williams’ strong sense of the term “mediation”: that it inheres in cultural objects themselves. We examine how apparently objective, or innocuous, acts of storage, naming, and arranging shape scholarly inquiry. Our papers treat archival materials not just as constituents of other histories, but as vectors with trajectories of their own. We have adopted a catholic definition of the term “archive,” inclusive of print and literary forms as well as memory institutions. Our approaches are equally wide-ranging, drawing from literary studies, art history, print history, the history of science, and information theory. The materials under discussion represent the diversity of the Victorians’ continued presence: letters, printed ephemera, embroidery, botanical samples. Further, we offer new ways of thinking about archives as repositories of embodied affects, our subjects’ and our own. Our papers meander beyond the narrow (though intriguing) channels we route our responses into – Derrida’s “archive fever,” Arlette Farge’s “allure of the archives” – to register other sensations: longing, cramp, tedium, loss.

Following the Latourian turn against reflexively responding to institutions with suspicion, we do not stop at interpreting Victorian and early twentieth-century archives as the disciplinary apparatus of oppressive ideology, or merely tracing how those ideologies are reified in curatorial practices. Paranoia is not out of place in these institutions, but it can foreclose other insights. Rather, in the spirit of work by Nathan Hensley and Devin Griffiths, we model curatorial approaches which embrace a politics of care as well as of critique, reimagining these collections as active, generative systems, as new theaters of discovery for Victorian studies.