Archives and Social Justice: On the Importance of Postmodern Theory

In the last decade, the preeminent South African archivist Verne Harris has advocated postmodern archival theory, arguing for its role in supporting the archivist’s response to the call for social justice. Harris has a unique perspective on social justice archives, as he worked in the apartheid-era State Archives Service in South Africa.1 Along with other, predominately Canadian, postmodern archival scholars, Harris encourages a will of hospitality toward otherness, seeking to include those who have been marginalized and denied a legitimate place in history. These scholars offer an ill treatment of traditional archival methods, which have privileged the application of a singular reading onto archives through positivist beliefs in authority and objective knowledge. However, in light of postmodern ideas related to power and social memory, some archivists worry that the profession is inherently marginalizing and xenophobic. To address this worry, Harris and others are quick to cite Jacques Derrida and his theory of deconstruction, warning of archival complicity in oppressive bureaucracies. As the main infuser of postmodern thought into archives, Derrida is an important figure for study. But there remains a logical discrepancy between postmodern theory and social justice. By defining these terms and understanding their complexity, it becomes apparent that postmodern theory alone cannot guarantee that social justice will emerge from a deconstructed archive. Certainly, philosophy can inspire activism, but to argue that postmodern theory is a necessary grounding principle for a social justice archives is to misrepresent the archival profession and its calling.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the subjects of postmodernism and social justice have commanded the attention of archival scholars. While postmodernism is a relatively recent development, social justice has a long and complex history. Arguably, for as long as human societies have existed, there has been some notion of social justice. Duff et al. mention that social justice has had many manifestations across time and space. They identified theological, philosophical, economic, legal and political contexts where this notion has been applied.2 But with the advent of postmodernism, ideas of what constituted the appearance of social justice came from various counter-cultural milieus. Radical and civic movements alike sought political representation in efforts to secure equality. Social memory was also at stake in these political battlegrounds, as marginalized groups fought to legitimize their identities, which would allow them the opportunity to construct their own history free of oppression. Duff et al. argue that social memory is always “contingent, contestable and reconfigurable” through politics and political power. They also warn that archives exist in explicit relation to this power.3 In this sense, one can readily argue that it behooves archivists to be guarantors of the social memory of oft-marginalized groups. But as we shall see, abandoning objectivity and neutrality in the archives in favor of political activism can have an unintended, negative affect on the very groups which social justice archivists wish to empower.

Harris claims, perhaps rather too arrogantly, that he introduced transformation discourse into the field of archives. By “transformation,” he is referring to the idea that archivists are active shapers of social memory instead of impartial custodians of the recorded past.4 Postmodern theory, however, was introduced into the archival field by Terry Cook (who had a huge influence on Harris) at the close of the last century. In What is Past Is Prologue, Cook analyzed the major treatises of archival theory and arrived at social theories for appraisal. Following Hans Booms and Helen Samuels, Cook argues that archival value should be defined by social constructs and societal functions.5 This would ensure that state archives broadly represent society by acquiring both private and public sector archives.6 As part of the Canadian school at the National Archives of Canada, Cook helped to inaugurate the total archives approach; a vision of archives “sanctioned in and reflective of society at large rather than one shaped primarily by powerful interest groups of either users or creators, or the state.”7 This approach recognizes the dichotomy of power between the state and its citizens. The Canadian school sought to elicit broader contextuality through their archives, focusing on how archives are related to public policy and public use. Speaking directly on issues related to social justice, Cook explains:

While the maintenance of government accountability and administrative continuity and the protection of personal rights are still rightly recognized as important purposes for archives, the principal justification for archives to most users and to the public at large rests on archives being able to offer citizens a sense of identity, locality, history, culture, and personal and collective memory. Simply stated, it is no longer acceptable to limit the definition of society’s memory solely to the documentary residue left over by powerful record creators.8

This concept of total archives put Canada ahead of other national programs in terms of offering a more democratic and open agenda. This emphasis on broad contextualization represented at the state level may also be the reason Canadian archival scholars first picked up the works of postmodern authors. But as Rodney G. S. Carter states: “Even in a “total archives” environment… it is impossible for archivists to reflect all aspects and elements of society. Admittedly, this impossibility hinges on practical limitations of financial resources and physical space. However, reasons of practical economy do not excuse archivists from understanding the discourses of power, and that archiving is essentially a political exercise with far-reaching implications. In fact, Harris states “that politics is archival; that the archive is the very possibility of politics.”9 This pronouncement is supported by the fact that archives are socially constructed, and that the decision of what to keep necessarily implies that some are being remembered for posterity while others are not.

Seeking to make archives more explicitly postmodernist, Cook expanded on his ideas in Archival Science and Postmodernism. He explicates some of the principal insights and methods of postmodern theory, such as the contention that there is no universal truth or objective knowledge, and the relentless application of logical criticism used to deconstruct the taken-for-granted meanings of texts.10 Instead of reading against the grain, Cook appropriated these ideas and applied them in parallel with archives. Also, following Jacques Le Goff and Gerda Lerner, Cook recognized patterns of machination among those who have historically held power, whether that power was political, religious, or economic. Convinced, Cook succinctly concludes that “there is nothing neutral, objective, or “natural” about this process of remembering and forgetting.”11 In other words, the processes of remembering and forgetting are often found to be controlled by a centralized authority. Moreover, Cook also realized that archival records are merely signs or signifiers of events. Context and contemporary voices are often lost in the creation of records, and to countenance archival use by historians, who transmute these signifiers into facts, is a smoke and mirrors game in which archivists participate.12 This kind of power circumscribes the traces of social memory. Harris, also writing on the concept of the archival “trace,” claims that the event is “irrecoverable,” and that archives comprise only a sliver of a sliver of a sliver” of all records that are available.13 These ideas, when taken together, have a clarion resonance. What remains is the undeniable existence of gaps, or silences, in the archives.

The idea of “gaps” may have come from Robert Smithson in his discussion on museums.14 But the term has more recently revolved around the concept of archival power. Derrida spoke of archival gaps in the historical record of memory when he wrote about the “absence of archive.”15 We can take this idea of absence to mean that records which are not made are often more important than records which are, because archival gaps represent a wider conception of thoughts and feelings in historical time, and thus a more accurate picture of social memory. This question of are and not at once speaks of a negation and an affirmation; an exclusion and an inclusion in the archives. Here, the presence of power is undeniable. Joan M. Schwartz and Cook addressed this by delineating the ways in which archives and archivists wield power, and how various governing bodies can determine what becomes archives through state control. For example, Schwartz and Cook mention that archival institutions “wield power over the administrative, legal, and fiscal accountability of governments, corporations, and individuals,” while archival records “wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity…”16 This latter power implies the plurality of the Other in society, and they can either be included or marginalized in the archives.

The discussion of archival power was informed mostly by postmodern theory. The power of the archive mentioned above is derived from the topo-nomological “archontic” power of Derrida.17 Some postmodern archival scholars, including Harris, have chosen to read Derrida both liberally and literally (a mistake, perhaps, considering Derrida’s obscurantism). They understand archontic power as the practice of consigning history to a place of privilege. In other words, archives are seen as being institutionalized and controlled through the use of certain “rule-guided systems.”18 This is the marginalizing power; the power to circumscribe the trace and to naturalize universalism. If the marginalized are included, however, archivists cannot regard archives as these positivist containers of objective truth, because the multitude of other voices and contexts open out indefinitely unto the horizon of history. As Harris says, “archival contextualization reveals the multiple layers of construction in text, and in doing so adds yet another layer. Properly conceived, archival contextualization—archival endeavor as a whole—should be about the releasing of meanings, the tending of mystery, the disclosing of the archive’s openness.19 We can understand all of this to mean that detached objectivity on the part of the archivist is paramount to allowing gaps to persist, voices to fade, and histories to perish.

With this philosophy in mind, Cook and Schwartz – in their second issue on the theme of archives, records, and power – ponder how the archivist should “perform” in a postmodern world, or how they should apply postmodern theory to archival practice.20 Performance implies action, and in light of the discussion on power in archives, the action implied is decidedly political. The authors, however, grappled with the practical issue of calling an entire profession to action, especially based on the polarizing nature of postmodern theory. As Cook and Schwartz write: “the script acted out daily by line” archivists is rarely derived from a detailed understanding of archival theory, let alone abstract philosophizing, for it is strongly suspected that few practising archivists read such work.”21 Instead, archivists still largely adhere to the normalized shibboleths of the practice, like provenance and original order. These principles have become rather “fundamentalist,” according to Hugh Taylor, and they have confined archivists to the role of passive and neutral spectator of history.22 In other words, it is not the archivist’s place to question the value of a record, the moral character of a record creator, or the potential abuse perpetrated against others through that record’s creation.

How, then, are postmodern archivists supposed to rally the profession? Can postmodernism even be considered an animating philosophy for social justice? The connection is a precarious one, as these two subjects suffer from an incompatibility of definition. Duff et al. demonstrate this incompatibility by writing: “abstract universalistic philosophical approaches to social justice have been criticized as being “unable to respond to people throughout the world who are experiencing the presence of injustice in the form of poverty, landlessness, dispossession, political and religious oppression, and genocide.””23 Solving these global issues, admittedly, is beyond the capacity of a profession that can only deploy its discretionary funding internally. But postmodern archival scholars have provided examples where archives helped to secure justice for citizens. Randall C. Jimerson, for example, convincingly showed that archives have the power to hold political and social leaders accountable, support open government, redress social injustice, and document underrepresented social groups.24 Both Jimerson and Harris maintain that corrupt bureaucracies have their own systems of recordkeeping in which they engage in an archivization of their own. But instead of keeping records as evidence of wrongdoings, these bureaucracies deliberately hide their documents from public view, sometimes even destroying documents relating to illegal activities. Because secret government agendas are often made to avoid public scrutiny and accountability, Jimerson contends that archivists should actively engage” in politics to fight for open access to government information in efforts to ensure that citizens will be able to judge the health of their respective democracies. This is the social justice imperative, shared by Harris and other postmodern archival scholars.

As popular as this discourse has been, there are some archivists who reject the social justice imperative. Mark A. Greene, for example, argues that social justice archives “overly politicize” and “ultimately damage” the archival profession.25 However, in rejecting the social justice thesis, Greene seeks to arrive at the same conclusion that postmodern authors strive toward. Namely, that the archival profession works for the collective good of all. Whereas the postmodern archival scholars argue that archivists must fight against corrupt governments and avoid participation in their recordkeeping systems for fear of being complicit, Greene suggests that the issue of power and corruption is not always so black and white. For instance, corruption is not always immediately apparent in government. Regrettably, some scandals – like the Watergate crisis and the Iran-Contra affair mentioned by Jimerson take years to come to public consciousness. Fortunately, there were remaining records in these cases to prove the culpability and guilt of those involved.26 But even in government systems that are visibly corrupt, Greene asks: “How is it that [without archives]… agents could be prosecuted for their crimes? The legal proceedings [rest] solidly on the evidence in the very records that archivists should have resisted creating or even destroyed.”27 Here, Greene effectively flips the “complicity” argument on its head. Instead, he argues that archivists who perform recordkeeping tasks on behalf of corrupt governments are not “morally bankrupt,” so long as those archivists are working from an objective and neutral angle.28 Greene agrees that sometimes archivists must take a public stand when their professional values are being threatened,29 but going beyond their professional calling to participate in wider political action is unnecessary when the very act of archiving is a democratically-infused power.

Two goals, then, become apparent for the archival profession, and they depart radically from the postmodern ethos. These are the goals of objectivity and neutrality. Jimerson accepted the former while rejecting the latter, believing that archivists “can be objective without forsaking engagement in discussions of values, politics, or social policy.”30 Greene, on the other hand, argues that archivists should be neutral. Greene says, “without the goal of neutrality… archivists and their institutions will become completely politicized, the stalking horses or pawns of every stripe of partisan effort.”31 I am inclined to agree with Greene’s opinion. Archivists will understandably possess different political viewpoints, but the goal of the archivist remains to be objective and neutral while engaged in their professional work. Political commitment often comes from a place of passion and emotion, which can distract archivists from being dedicated to intellectual and professional principles. Political partisanship could easily cleave the profession and lead to infighting and division. The goal of neutrality, then, can also be considered as an imperative, because its scope allows for records of all kinds to be created and to speak for themselves. Indeed, archives should exist as evidence to be used for arbitrating justice by exposing wrongdoers and holding them accountable. The black and white perspective of Harris and Jimerson suggests that the archivist is always involved in bureaucratic back rooms, where evil minds hatch their plans. But this is absurd. While the archivist may have power in the policies of selection, preservation and access, they are rarely in the same room as governors, politicians, and bureaucrats. In fact, one can argue that this enhances the power of archivists, because they operate at a safe distance from such corrupting influence. This is a far cry from being a complicit “pawn.” 32 However, it is important to note that this issue is much more complex than either author concedes. Indeed, there are gradients of state power. Harris, for his part, found himself quite unable to be impartial or objective while in the State Archives Service. State control over records there was too entrenched to permit either minority representation or damning evidence. As Harris writes, “Apartheid realities and the service’s status as an organ of the state combined to ensure that many of its services, whatever the intentions of the service or of individual archivists might have been, were fashioned into tools of the apartheid system.”33 This is where the postmodernists could mount a counterargument to Greene. As we already know, postmodern theory is ruthless in its critique of power relations in society. In South African society, power that Harris could have otherwise exercised in the interest of the collective good was usurped by the regime. Still, documenting records of oppression with a sense of objectivity and neutrality (a stoic task indeed!) can serve to reflect the truth to other governments or international watchdogs. As Greene says, “we must realize that the recordkeeping of immoral regimes… is often transmogrified over time to recordkeeping of social justice…34 This is Greene’s power play. Objective records are essential for any justice to be enacted.

Harris, despite his firsthand experience, was unable to offer a “blueprint” for identifying the call to social justice. He even admits that, “Following Derrida, I don’t believe that justice, ultimately, can be knowable.35 It seems, then, that postmodern theory comes up short in prescribing a way forward for a social justice archives. Following Greene, however, such a prescription is unnecessary. The archival profession, when done right, already does all it can reasonably do to ensure justice. Postmodern theory is important for deconstructing power relations and promoting diversity in archives, but as a philosophy, it is incapable of grounding the archivist’s response to the call for justice.

I would like to turn now to a recent provocative thesis put forward by Richard J. Matthews. Matthews argues that social justice is incompatible with postmodern archival theory. He writes: “No ethical or political stance can be derived from the logic of deconstruction: “the former requires a performative commitment that cannot be justified by or grounded in the latter.””36 Attempting to clarify the “undecidability” of justice, Matthews proposes a theory of “new wave” deconstruction, based on the radical atheism of Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund. Radical atheism is concerned with the concepts of time and mortality. As such, it does not concern itself with the reflexivities of language or discourses on power. It is a radical politics of the now, demanding an answer to the social justice question, and refusing to accept that justice is unknowable. Matthews contends that the postmodernists have misread Derrida’s Archive Fever, appropriating his idea of “archontic power” to serve as a literal definition of state or government control. Instead, Derrida’s archontic power has more to do with the psychoanalytic desire of life over death. Because the threat of annihilation propels archival desire, Matthews says, “we care about archiving because of the possibility of the radical destruction of our memories and ourselves.”37 The conclusion of new wave deconstruction posits that the radical finitude of survival is the basis for definite moral values. As a philosophy, this insistence on the relatively short duration of human mortality should compel archivists to immediately demand justice. This is a strident attempt to support the archivist’s response to the call for social justice, but Matthews does not address any of the practicalities. How, for instance, will archivists come to accept his label of “radical atheist”? This designation, I believe, would be more polarizing than having the profession identify as postmodernist. Therefore, this prescription could be as disruptive and damaging to the archival profession as the politically-fueled social justice activism of postmodern archival theory.

I have attempted to define the connection between postmodern archival theory and social justice. While this connection has been defended quite rigorously over the last decade, the framework for a social justice archives remains tenuous at best. What remains, however, is a professional calling to safeguard the social memory of people from all nations. This does not just mean archival inclusion for representative democracies, but for all areas of human activity; even oppressive regimes. Objective archives offer the best evidence for democratic intervention and sanctions. These archives can later be activated by the repressed for therapeutic reasons in acts of remembrance and mourning.38 Thus liberated, the process of reconciliation can give rise to new histories and archives, satisfying the postmodern call for diversity and justice through the ironic intervention of objectivity.


Carter, Rodney G. “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence.” Archivaria 61 (2006): 215-33.

Cook, Terry. “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts.” Archives and Museum Informatics1, no. 1 (March 2001): 3-24.

Cook, Terry, and Joan M. Schwartz. “Archives, Records, and Power: From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance.” Archival Science 2, no. 3 (2002): 171-85.

Cook, Terry. “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift.” Archivaria 43 (1997): 17-63.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Duff, Wendy M., Andrew Flinn, Karen E. Suurtamm, and David A. Wallace. “Social Justice Impact of Archives: A Preliminary Investigation.” Archival Science 13 (January 18, 2013): 317-48.

Greene, Mark A. “A Critique of Social Justice as an Archival Imperative: What Is It We’re Doing That’s All That Important?” The American Archivist 76, no. 2 (2013): 302-34.

Harris, Verne. Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2007.

Ketelaar, Eric. “Archives as Spaces of Memory.” Journal of the Society of Archivists 29, no. 1 (April 2008): 9-27.

Jimerson, Randall c. “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice.” The American Archivist 70, no. 2 (2007): 252-81.

Matthews, Richard J. “Is the Archivist a “Radical Atheist” now? Deconstruction, its New Wave, and Archival Activism.” Archival Science 16, no. 3 (June 13, 2015): 213-60.

Millar, Laura. “Discharging our Debt: The Evolution of the Total Archives Concept in English Canada.” Archivaria 46 (1998): 103-46.

Schwartz, Joan M., and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2, no. 1-2 (2002): 1-19.

1 Verne Harris, Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective (Chicago, IL: The Society of American Archivists, 2007), 2.

2 Wendy M. Duff et al., “Social Justice Impact of Archives: A Preliminary Investigation,” Archival Science, Vol. 13 (January 18, 2013): 321.

3 Duff et al., “Social Justice Impact of Archives,” 329-30.

4 Harris, Archives and Justice, 11.

5 Terry Cook, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift,” Archivaria, Vol. 43 (1997): 31.

6 Laura Millar, “Discharging our Debt: The Evolution of the Total Archives Concept in English Canada,” Archivaria, Vol. 46 (1998): 104.

7 Cook, “What Is Past Is Prologue,” 34.

8 Cook, “What Is Past Is Prologue,” 44.

9 Harris, Archives and Justice, 245.

10 Terry Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts,” Archives and Museum Informatics, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Mar. 2001): 7.

11 Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism,” 8-9.

12 Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism,” 9.

13 Harris, Archives and Justice, 16.

14 Rodney G. S. Carter, “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence,” Archivaria, Vol. 61 (Spring 2006): 215.

15 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 64.

16 Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” Archival Science, Vol. 2, No. 1-2 (2002): 2.

17 Derrida, Archive Fever, 1-5.

18 Terry Cook and Joan M. Schwartz, “Archives, Records, and Power: From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance,” Archival Science, Vol. 2, No. 3 (2002): 177.

19 Harris, Archives and Justice, 45.

20 Cook and Schwartz, “From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance,” 172.

21 Cook and Schwartz, “From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance,” 173.

22 Cook and Schwartz, “From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance, 179.

23 Duff et al., “Social Justice Impact of Archives,” 323.

24 Randall C. Jimerson, “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice,” The American Archivist, Vol. 70, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2007): 256.

25 Mark A Greene, “A Critique of Social Justice as an Archival Imperative: What Is It We’re Doing That’s All That Important?,” The American Archivist, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2013): 303.

26 Jimerson, “Archives for All,” 256.

27 Greene, “A Critique of Social Justice…”, 305.

28 Greene, “A Critique of Social Justice…”, 305-306.

29 Greene, “A Critique of Social Justice…”, 310.

30 Jimerson, “Archives for All,” 271.

31 Greene, “A Critique of Social Justice…”, 312.

32 Harris, Archives and Justice, 248.

33 Harris, Archives and Justice, 176.

34 Greene, “A Critique of Social Justice…”, 321.

35 Harris, Archives and Justice, 249.

36 Richard J. Matthews, “Is the Archivist a “Radical Atheist” Now? Deconstruction, its New Wave, and Archival Activism,” Archival Science, Vol. 16, No. 3 (June 13, 2015): 220.

37 Matthews, “Is the Archivist a “Radical Atheist”…, 239.

38 Eric Ketelaar, “Archives as Spaces of Memory,” Journal of the Society of Archivists, Vol. 29, No. 1 (April 2008): 17.


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