Kolkata Urban Archive: Archives and Forms of Knowledge

By S Bharat  |  December 16, 2019

This article is the second of a three part series reflecting on the archiving process undertaken to create the Kolkata Urban Archive. Access the  third and first parts. 

“That every document comes layered with the received account of earlier events and the cultural semantics of a political moment makes one point clear. What constitutes the archive, what form it takes, and what systems of classification signal at specific times are the very substance of colonial politics.”

-Ann L. Stoler, ‘Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance’

Perhaps partly out of a disciplinary habit, I envision my ongoing record of the archiving process as an ethnographic undertaking. In doing so I straddle three archives simultaneously  – the archive as I receive it, the archive that I am engaged in producing, and the supplementary archive of reflections and commentary I generate alongside the process – my field notes, so to speak. In her essay, Ann Stoler suggests that historians and ethnographers of the colonial state can no longer treat archives as repositories of content but that they must attend to the very form of the archive as an instrument of colonial governance and knowledge production. The archive produces the truth it purports to merely store. Archival production establishes taxonomic categories and “evidentiary paradigms”, it regulates the relationship between written documents and memory; it is in that sense a form of colonial governance. 

The points Stoler raises, though specific to the colonial context she studies, are not without resonance with the current project. I understand this archive as a counterpoint to the archives of the state. As an archive of tacit knowledge, it is made up of that which is elided by ‘official’ archives, that which escapes it and that which might never become a part of that archive. What, then, are the evidentiary paradigms appropriate to a public archive of “tacit knowledge”? How can such an archive move away from the paradigms, taxonomies and truth regimes of “state thinking” and avoid the pitfalls of reproducing them? These are questions to be posed not only to the content of the archive, but to its very form and schema. Instead of an extractive method of archival engagement, Stoller calls for an ethnographic approach that is more interested in archiving as a process than the archive as a thing. Part of what I hope to accomplish through this record-keeping is to work through these and other such questions. 

These writings therefore serve a dual purpose – they are an ongoing record of the archiving process; as such, they are also a means to think through and reflect on the methods and choices that comprise the archiving process, as well as a means to locate the archive within its specific material and conceptual contexts. 



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