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Today I talked to Michelle Caswell about her new book Urgent Archives: Enacting Liberatory Memory Work (Routledge, 2021).
What is the place of archives in our society? In archival studies, an answer to this question often presents an idea of linear, progressive temporality. A common trope goes: We learn history to have a better future. That is why history, and archives as a site of historical evidence, is important. In her thoughtful, groundbreaking work, a feminist archival studies scholar Caswell challenges the white imaginary of linear, progressive time embedded in our conception of archives. Pointing out how community archives from different ethnic communities across the US present cyclical temporalities where oppressions repeat, Caswell emphasizes the importance of activating the archives for their liberatory potential in the present. Over a year has passed since the murder of George Floyd and the beginning of the global pandemic that has highlighted not only structural inequality, but also an ongoing material and symbolic annihilation of Black Americans. As Michelle Caswell argues in her book, imagining liberatory memory work is an urgent project that needs to happen in the now.
In the introduction, Caswell begins with the question of the liberatory potential of community archives. Chapter 1 outlines the cyclical conception of time in critique of chronoviolence of white, dominant linear temporality. In chapter 2, Caswell draws from four focus groups to show how different ethnic groups use community archives to address repetitive oppressions by constructing corollary records. Chapter 3 focuses on her work with the South Asian American Digital Archives (SAADA) and the road to discovering the importance of liberatory activation. In Chapter 4, Caswell pushes back against the idea of archivists as passive technicians and repositions them as liberatory memory workers. In the conclusion, Liberation Now! Caswell emphasizes the need to disrupt the dominant narrative on future by embracing the joy of advocacy in the present. Urgent Archives will be an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in critically re-evaluating archives in academia and beyond.
In the interview, Caswell recommends following two readings to the listeners:
SAADA. Our Stories: An Introduction to South Asian America. Philadelphia: SAADA, 2021.
"The Chronopolitics of Racial Time," Time & Society, Special Issue: The Social Life of Time, 29, no. 2 (May 2020): 297-317.
Michelle Caswell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive.
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