Unstable materials. Part 4: Archives, power and counter-hegemony

Unstable materials is an ongoing series of blog posts reflecting on memory, oral history, archives and digital preservation. Previous posts include Part 1 (on memory and oral history), Part 2 (on individual and collective memory) and Part 3 (on collective and cultural memory, and archives).

“Archives have always been about power, whether it is the power of the state, the church, the corporation, the family, the public, or the individual. Archives have the power to privilege and to marginalize. They can be a tool of hegemony; they can be a tool of resistance. They both reflect and constitute power relations. They are a product of society’s need for information, and the abundance and circulation of documents reflects the importance placed on information in society. They are the basis for and validation of the stories we tell ourselves, the story-telling narratives that give cohesion and meaning to individuals, groups, and societies.” (Schwartz and Cook 2002, 13).

If “archive” is, as A. Assman argues, passive (A. Assman 2008; see Part 3 for some background), but always holding the potential to become active, stored and awaiting (re)interpretation, (re)negotiation and new meaning-making, this imbues the idea of archive with a sense of latent potency. This idea of the power of the archive is reflected in the fact that archives have traditionally been seen as hegemonic, organisational, institutional, governmental. This is the view of archives as places where official records are stored. They are the records that the powerful keep to facilitate and bolster their administration, protect their position in society, and to control the ways in which the past is interpreted (Schwartz and Cook 2002, 1).

The existence of official archives can also reduce the tendency to record and memorialise in an informal way, thereby strengthening the official version of history in the long run. As Haskins points out:

“…relegating the task of remembering to official institutions and artifacts arguably weakens the need for a political community actively to remember its past. Instead of continuous transmission of shared past through participatory performance and ritual, memory work is carried out by…..museums, archives, and memorials…..these institutions of memory have tended to promulgate official ideologies of the ruling elites while claiming to speak on behalf of the people.” (Haskins 2007, 402).

But “archive” can also denote collections beyond records of organisation and administration. In archival studies the question of how to define the scope of archive has been debated, pitting the idea of the archive as having an official, record-keeping function (where maintaining evidence and records of accountability are paramount) against a much broader view, where many different types of materials and items that may contribute to cultural memory of the future are preserved (see Greene 2002, 47). In this latter view of the archive, oral histories of everyday life are valid items for collection in an archive, and accessioned collections can be individual, as well as institutional. Within this latter paradigm, archives have the potential to become a counterpoint to the institutional record – archives can be both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic.

“…the endeavour by individuals and social groups to document their history, particularly if that history has been generally subordinated or marginalized, is political and subversive.” (Flinn and Stevens 2009, 3).

Digital “archives” (or collections) have made it easier for marginalised groups to create and display these archives, and some argue that digital technologies have contributed to a powerful impulse to archive evident in modern societies:

“Today, the will to archive is a powerful impulse in contemporary culture. This could be stimulated by……the sense that the modern world is generating new experiences, new tastes and new recording technologies, at a rate that defies organization.” (Featherstone 2006, 595).

But if digital contributes to and facilitates the urge to archive, it also provides a platform for dissemination that is remarkably (notoriously) unstable – digitised items have no guaranteed longevity, they require constant archival attention. The idea of instability is threaded through this series of blog posts; from the uncertainty of memory, to the post-modern view of the archive (something dynamic and constantly open to reinterpretation), to the ongoing problem of digital preservation.

Update (January 2015)
There is a follow-up post to “Unstable materials. Part  4”. See Part 5.


Assmann, A. (2008). Canon and archive, pp. 97 – 107 in Erll, A. and Nünning, A. (Eds.), Cultural Memory Studies. An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook. Berlin, New York.

Featherstone, M. (2006). Archive. Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3), 591–596.

Flinn, A., & Stevens, M. (2009). “It is noh mistri, wi mekin histri.”Telling our own story: independent and community archives in the UK, challenging and subverting the mainstream. In J. Bastian & B. Alexander (Eds.), Community Archives: The Shaping of Memory. London: Facet Publishing.

Greene, M. A. (2002). The power of meaning: the archival mission in the postmodern age. American Archivist, 65(1), 42–55.

Schwartz, J., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science, 2, 1–19.