Posted on March 13, 2013
In a paper entitled 'Genres of the trace: memory, archives and trouble' published in Archives and Manuscripts in 2012, Verne Harris offers a brief preliminary deconstructive reading of the archives - memory nexuses. The reading is positioned in relation to what he sees as a paucity of engagement between archivy and the emerging memory industry. While at one level the essay is simply a reading of Jacques Derrida and Paul Ricoer within the archives-memory nexuses, at another, it is an attempt to demonstrate how troubled, and troubling, these nexuses are. In this paper, Harris ranges from theoretical to anecdotal, conceptual to political, and argues that archives and memory are best understood as genres of the trace. The excerpt below is one of two personal anecdotes used by Harris to introduce the 'troubling' and 'troubled' relationship between archives and memory.

"My life partner of 30 years - Kerry - and I first began corresponding in 1981, in the days before email, text messages and Facebook. Handwritten letters, cards, notes - for years deemed worthy of preservation - had all been stored safely. In 1997, after a change of residence and a clearing of boxes, we flirted briefly with the possibility of destroying what had grown into a substantial record, supplemented in the last years of accumulation by printouts of email communications. We decided instead, however, to embark on an epic journey together, re-reading each item, appraising it, then either destroying it or preserving it in part or in full. The journey took over a year, finally resulting in a scrapbook of fragments, ordered chronologically and contextualised with dates and occasional explanatory annotations.

I would like to offer two reflections on this story. First, I remember feeling uncomfortable at the beginning of the scrapbook journey. I felt uncomfortable as an archivist; I felt as though we were meddling with the record and, clearly, we were. But we were doing what archivists do as part of their work - reading the record, appraising it, narrating it. We were deeming what is worthy to be archived and what is not. And no doubt somewhere in the future, Kerry and I will read the scrapbook again, possibly 'redeem' it and bequeath it to our son, possibly re-narrate it before bequeathing it or possibly simply destroy it.

Second, among the many extraordinary discoveries made during the making of the scrapbook, one stands out. At the outset, we shared a similar memory of the way in which we had decided to get married. In short, Kerry had been reluctant, but I had been keen, determined and persuasive enough to secure her agreement, eventually. Out individual memories of that time had coalesced into a collective memory, which was shared, more or less, by family and friends. And yet, the letters told a different story. There was no evidence of me pushing or being enthused once the decision was taken. There was, on the other hand, much evidence of Kerry engaging with the idea of marriage, talking about its advantages and embracing the decision. So were were confronted by two different stories - one in the archives of our correspondence another in the archives of many memories, including our own. We still have not resolved this conundrum, And, of course, the record does not speak for itself - we, or others, are going to have to find the narrative which will make sense of things.

Footnote: Today, Kerry and I lean towards an interpretation with three movements: first, in those early days, I conveyed to her my desire to get married in ways other than writing, and she affirmed me in writing; second, I was relatively secure and wielding power in the relationship and; third, we both had a long way to go in our struggle against patriarchy.

Verne Harris is Head of Memory Programming at the Nelson Mandela Foundation's Centre of Memory and has been Mandela's archivist since 2004. He is an honorary research fellow with the University of Cape Town and has participated in a range of structures which transformed South Africa's apartheid archival landscape, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and is a former Deputy Director of the National Archives. Widely published, he is probably best-known for leading the editorial team on the best-seller Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself. He is the recipient of archival publication awards from Australia, Canada and South Africa and both his novels were shortlisted for South Africa's M-Net Book Prize. He has served on the Boards of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the Freedom of Expression Institute and the South African History Archive. Harris serves on the Archival Platform Steering Committee!

Source: Verne Harris (2012): Genres of the trace: memory, archives and trouble, Archives and Manuscripts, Volume 4 Issue 3 2012.
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