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DOI 10.1007/s10502-015-9261-5


Affecting relations: introducing affect theory

to archival discourse

Marika Cifor1

 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Abstract An engagement with affect theory is a significant way in which

dimensions of social justice for the archival field can be elucidated, fleshed out, and
ultimately confronted. Affect theory provides tools for undertaking substantive
analyses of power and its abuses in order to better perform, more critically
understand, and challenge and reconceptualize archival functions and concerns in
support of social justice principles and goals. In this paper, I provide an introduction
for the archival field to affect theory, arguing that the contributions of Ann Cvet-
kovich, Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant can critically expose, complicate and
further work toward social justice in three areas of archival concern. First, drawing
on Cvetkovich’s work, I argue that affective value should be surfaced and explicitly
applied as an appraisal criterion. Second, extending Ahmed’s work on pain and
witnessing to the archival realm and building on arguments that archivists are
witnesses (Punzalan in Community archives: the shaping of memory, Facet, Lon-
don, 187–219, 2009; Caswell in Archiving the unspeakable: Silence, memory and
the photographic record in Cambodia. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison,
2014a), I argue that archivists are deeply implicated in webs of affective relations.
Such relations require the archival field to expand its ethical orientation to address
considerations of emotional justice. Finally, I build out of Berlant’s work to call out,
define and analyze a different kind of archival relation, an affective investment in
and attachment to damaging neoliberalist ideologies that shape the conditions of
contemporary archival work.

Justice is not simply a feeling. And feelings are not always just. But justice involves feelings, which
move us across the surfaces of the world, creating ripples in the intimate contours of our lives. Where we
go, with these feelings, remains an open question (Ahmed 2004, p. 202).

& Marika Cifor
Department of Information Studies, University of California, GSE&IS Building,
Box 951520, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1520, USA

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Keywords Affect  Affect theory  Appraisal  Community archives 

Neoliberalism  Social justice  Witnessing


Affect is a force that creates a relation between a body and the world. It is at the core
of how we form, sustain and break social relations, differences and individual and
collective identities. Archives are in large part about creating, documenting,
maintaining, reconciling and (re)producing such relations—between records and
people, ideologies, institutions, systems and worlds—across bounds of time and
space. As a growing body of literature has demonstrated, archives also produce and
reproduce both social justice and injustice in their shaping of the past, engagement
in the present (Duff et al. 2013, p. 319) and building of futures. Drawing on an
interdisciplinary corpus of writings, Wendy Duff et al. conceptualize social justice
for an archival audience as the:
Ideal vision that every human being is of equal and incalculable value, entitled
to shared standards of freedom, equality, and respect. These standards also
apply to broader social aggregations such as communities and cultural groups.
Violations of these standards must be acknowledged and confronted. It
specifically draws attention to inequalities of power and how they manifest in
institutional arrangements and systemic inequities that further the interests of
some groups at the expense of others in the distribution of material goods,
social benefits, rights, protections, and opportunities. Social justice is always a
process and can never be fully achieved (2013, pp. 324–325).
Affect is a central component of social justice work and aims. Struggling against
injustice in part is about how affects move us into a different relation to the social
norms that we wish to contest or the injury we wish to heal. Affect offers the
possibilities of new forms of attachment to others (Ahmed 2004, p. 201). Power and
its distribution, operation and abuses are the ‘‘most significant consideration for
understanding social justice and injustice’’ (Duff et al. 2013, p. 319). One of the
ways in which dimensions of social justice for the archival field can be elucidated,
fleshed out and ultimately confronted is through an engagement with affect theory.
Affect theory, developed through humanistic inquiries into affect, feeling and
emotion, provides tools for undertaking substantive analyses of power and its
abuses, construction, distribution, mobilization and circulation. In this paper, I argue
that these tools might be applied to better perform, to more critically understand,
and to challenge and reconceptualize core archival functions and concerns in
support of social justice principles and goals.
Emerging out of a long history of engagement with social justice concerns and
implications (Punzalan and Caswell 2016) and the call for an adoption of a social
justice mission (Harris 2002; Jimerson 2007, 2009; Wallace 2010), a social justice
agenda is being set by the archival field. Such an agenda requires identifying and
analyzing power and its operations; addressing inequities in resource distribution

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and opportunities (Dunbar 2006, p. 117); exploring how diverse archival

stakeholders express their agency, realities or representations (Dunbar 2006,
p. 117); promoting the inclusion of underrepresented and marginalized individuals
and sectors of society (Punzalan and Caswell 2016; PACG 2011); developing and
sustaining cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues (Dunbar 2006, p. 117; Evans
et al. 2015); and reinterpreting and expanding archival concepts (Punzalan and
Caswell 2016) to disrupt dominant power structures and promote justice. As related
work on ‘‘intellectual empathy’’ has shown, affect is crucial to assessing individual
positionality and the structural inequalities that perpetuate social injustices (Linker
2014). Power and racialized, classed, gendered and sexualized relations to it are
shaped by affect and are affective experiences with real consequences. Working
toward social justice in archives requires expanding the ‘‘archival sliver’’ (Harris
2002) to collect and appraise in more socially conscious ways that extend concepts
of who and what is of value—rethinking what is necessary to serve diverse
constituencies ethically, and challenging dominant normative political, economic
and social structures through which power, privilege and oppression are enacted.
Such efforts cannot be made without a critical eye on current conditions, constraints,
and possibilities that stand in the way of attaining social justice. Affect theory
provides a theoretical toolkit needed to conceptualize and reinterpret more fully, and
to enact change for justice in archival functions and concerns such as appraisal,
access, use, responsibility, accountability and service.
In this paper, I provide an introduction to affect theory for the archival field,
arguing that the contributions of Ann Cvetkovich, Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant,
all leading scholars in the cultural strain of affect theory, can be deployed and
extended to make significant interventions into many aspects of archival theory,
practice and professionalism. Following a brief review of the literature on affect,
affect theory and archives, I focus on how affect theory can critically expose,
complicate and further work toward social justice in three different areas of archival
concern in order to understand better what is, what is ‘‘stuck’’ (Ahmed 2004; Berlant
2011) and what is possible. First, drawing on Cvetkovich’s work, I argue that
affective value should be surfaced and explicitly applied as an appraisal criterion.
Appraisal is an archival relation that has an impact upon all subsequent relations
between individuals, communities and records. I ground this section in how, as part
of the appraisal process, valuing affect and viewing records as repositories of
feeling would enable archives more fully and directly to identify and capture
intimacy and other queer affects that are contained or are implicit in the materials
being appraised. Second, extending Ahmed’s work on pain and the relationship of
witnessing to the archival realm and building on arguments that archivists are
witnesses (Punzalan 2009; Caswell 2014a), I argue that witnessing is a relation that
comes with certain responsibilities. The pain of others that can be found in archives
does not simply belong to others; rather, as inevitable witnesses to such pain,
archivists are deeply implicated in webs of affective relations. In order to be
accountable to the individuals and communities that are affected, and to live up to
the obligations of facilitating larger societal reckoning processes, the archival field
needs to expand its ethical orientation to address considerations of emotional
justice. Finally, I build out of Berlant’s work to call out, define and analyze a

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different kind of archival relation, an affective investment in and attachment to

damaging neoliberalist ideologies that shape the conditions of contemporary
archival work. Berlant offers critical tools for archivists and scholars in neoliberal
archival contexts to imagine, think and figure out how to act differently in order to
dismantle damaging and unjust dynamics.

Affect theory and the archives

Since the 1990s, in what has been termed ‘‘the affective turn’’ (Clough and Halley
2007), the study of affect has become a focus for scholars across the humanities and
social sciences. This turn represents more than just making affects, emotions and
feelings legitimate objects of scholarly inquiry. With the justified and rigorous
introduction and contemplation of the personal and subjective, it marks a new way
of doing cultural criticism. It is a body of work that brings together in new ways
theories of subjectivity and subjection, the body and embodiment, and critical
analyses and political theories (Zembylas 2014, p. 391). There are a few things that
can be said for certain about affect theory. First, there is no consensus on what affect
is. It is associated with different and contradictory movements and articulations. At
their core, definitions of affect understand it as a force that creates a relationship
(conscious or otherwise) between a body (individual or collective) and the world.
Some definitional ambiguity creates generative space, however, for rethinking the
interrelations between the psychic, the body and the social. I employ affect here as a
culturally, socially and historically constructed category that both encompasses and
reaches beyond feelings and emotions. Second, it is agreed by affect theorists that
affect is crucial to relations as well as bodies (our own and those of others), and
informs our sense of place in the world. Third, affect is central in everyday life and
theory—affects are key to the ways in which power is constituted, circulated and
mobilized (Harding and Pribram 2004, p. 873). Affects are indicators of how people
give and withhold resources (knowledge, power, agency); form social relationships,
differences and identities; and ‘‘negotiate meanings, and constitute their subjectiv-
ities’’ (Zembylas 2007, p. 180). Finally, affect theory opens up possibilities for
extending the domains of scholarship beyond reason, cognition and language
(Sedgwick 2003, p. 114) to address the problems of (in)justice and power in novel
Many projects within the affective turn address issues that are of archival concern
in a social justice paradigm including representation, identity, bodies, accountabil-
ity, collective memory and community empowerment. These texts often do not
address archives as conceived within archival studies. Nevertheless, they offer
crucial insights, theoretical tools and approaches that can enrich conversations
within the field and promote discourse across disciplines. Such projects include
studies of collective memories and public cultures that emerge in response to trauma
(Cvetkovich 2003; Taylor 2014); the role of emotion in politics and political life,
including for community empowerment (Ahmed 2004, 2006, 2010; Berlant 2004,
2011; Cvetkovich 2012; Staiger et al. 2010); modes of historical inquiry that
emphasize affective relations across time and space (Eng 2014; Freeman 2010;

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Love 2007); the bodily, psychic and material legacies of colonialism and slavery
(Gopinath 2010; Hartman 2008; Holland 2000; Mankekar 2012; Pinney 2014); and
the effects of feelings on representations in and understandings of images (Brown
and Phu 2014; Cvetkovich 2014; Hirsch and Spitzer 2014; Matthews 2013; Smith
2014; Sheehan 2014). To demonstrate a few of the ways in which affect theory, as
developed in cultural studies, can make important contributions to archival
scholarship and practice, I focus here on the social justice implications of three
such projects.
The works I employ are part of the ‘‘feminist cultural studies of affect’’ (Ahmed
2010, p. 13) or ‘‘cultural strain’’ of affect theory. Cvetkovich, Ahmed and Berlant,
like other theorists in this strain, locate affect as a phenomenological and social
endeavor. They are feminist, queer, critical ethnic and cultural studies scholars who
focus broadly on the question of what affect does. Feminist scholars have a long
tradition of affective examinations due to the nature of their research and personal
politics (Gorton 2007, p. 333) and their recognition of the significant linkages
between affect and gendered, sexualized, racialized and classed power relations
(Pedwell and Whitehead 2012. pp. 115–116). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work on
Silvan Tompkins’ psychobiology of differential affects (1995) is foundational to
this strain. Its major theorists include Judith Butler (2004, 2009), Heather Love
(2009), Ngai (2005) and Sedgwick and Frank (1995, Sedgwick 2003). Many of
these works contend with particular affects (e.g., happiness, compassion, grief) and
the qualities they engender and meanings they produce in direct relation to cultural
and social forces. What these theorists demonstrate is that power circulates and that
political ways of being and of knowing are produced ‘‘through affective relations
and discourses’’ (Pedwell and Whitehead 2012, p. 116). Additionally, they show
that affect theory offers a crucial set of resources for thinking through the
relationship between bodies and discourses. This strain of affect theory is central to
social justice work because of its powerful alignment of affect with the social and its
aims of realizing a world that both exists within and ‘‘exceeds the horizons and
boundaries of the norm’’ (Gregg and Seigworth 2010, p. 7).
In line with the affective turn, there is a growing body of work on affect and
archives developed by researchers who use archives. The power of affective
relationships and experiences of archival usage have been explored in diverse
contexts by historians Ghosh (2006), Ramirez (2006), Dever et al. (2009), Robinson
(2010), and Farge (2013). Scholars in history, anthropology and gender and
sexuality studies have begun to examine the affective power of archival records
including how they shape political struggles and influence social change, for
example, through the circulation of affect (Trundle and Kaplonski 2011; Murphy
2011; Rawlings 2011; Navaro-Yashin 2007) and also the affects of queer archival
relationships, materials and spaces (Orr 2012; White 2014; Manalansan 2014). In
spite of the interest of archival users in such topics, they remain largely unexplored
or responded to either theoretically or practically in the archival field.
There are a few significant reasons why affect has not received more than
cautious or tangential acknowledgment in archival discourse to date. The first
reason is the still prevalent modernist construction of the study and practice of
archiving as a ‘‘science’’ that has led to particular practices of knowledge production

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aimed at objectivity that dismiss their inherent power relations. The second is the
ideal of neutrality, an ideal many postmodern and other archival thinkers have
rightly challenged as a professional illusion that denies that archives’ exercise
power (Cook 2000; Gilliland and McKemmish 2004; MacNeil and Mak 2007;
Gilliland 2011). Even though they recognize that signs carry meaning, their work
often neglects the ways in which these signs are imbued with affective intensities.
Finally, gendered notions of knowledge production, that have led to discourses and
a politics of research in which ‘‘detachment, objectivity and rationality’’ are valued
and ‘‘implicitly masculinized’’ and ‘‘engagement, subjectivity, passion and desire’’
are ‘‘devalued and frequently feminized’’ (Anderson and Smith 2001, p. 7; Kwan
2007, p. 24), have also marginalized affect in archival discourse. This marginal-
ization denies the reality that there are times, places and spaces where lives are
explicitly lived through affects (love, pain, pleasure, hope). It also asks us as
scholars and archivists to ignore how our work and relationships are mediated by
affects, thereby excluding important relations through which we live our lives, make
societies and cultures and produce knowledge.
Affect has always been present as an underlying factor in archival scholarship
and practice, but shifting it from a tacit concern to an explicit focus opens it up as a
category of analysis and legitimizes it as an area of concern. Several recent
scholarly works on human rights and archives implicitly acknowledge affect
(Caswell 2014a, b; Halilovich 2014; Harris 2001, 2014; Wallace et al. 2014).
Similarly, there is recent work on intimacy and archives such as Sarah Kim’s
treatment of the emotional aspects of personal digital archives (2011) and Marika
Cifor’s capture of intimacy in queer archives and relations (2015). Gilliland (2014a,
b, 2015) and Reed (2014) have recently made explicit calls for the acknowledgment
of the significance of affects when examining the impact of archives and
recordkeeping on daily lives, especially those of survivors of traumatic events, as
well as on archivists themselves. The Affect and the Archive Symposium organized
by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in November 2014 was the
first event in the field to have affect as its focus and was thus a watershed moment
for the recognition of affects in and of archives. Nevertheless, while affect may have
gained a measure of recognition as an appropriate area of inquiry in archival studies,
the theorization of affect as well as its implications for social justice remains
underaddressed in emerging scholarship and professional practice. By using
Cvetkovich, Ahmed and Berlant’s texts to expose, complicate and work toward
improving some specific areas of archival concern, I also seek to further the
attainment of social justice in archives.

Valuing affect

The values, processes and parties that should be involved in archival appraisal, as
well as the time line of appraisal itself have been the subject of some of the most
extensive discussions in the archival literature since the early twentieth century.
While it may well be that different models are appropriate for use in different
contexts, affective value should be surfaced and positioned as a criterion that speaks

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directly to social justice concerns. Affective value can act as a corrective force to
address power inequities in archives. Critical approaches to archival studies have
demonstrated that archives are spaces, manifestations and instruments of power, and
that they produce and reproduce (in)justice and (in)equality. The concept of
appraisal lies at the core of power considerations on practical and symbolic levels
(Nesmith 2002, p. 32). In archival studies, there is widespread acknowledgment that
the archival record is but ‘‘a sliver of a silver’’ of the historical record that is
possible, and that sliver is the result in part of archival appraisal (Harris 2002,
p. 65). Through theorizations of affect and objects, I am building here on existing
postmodern and community archives critiques of traditional archival practices to
argue for the importance of acknowledging affective value as one of a matrix of
values that should be considered in collecting and appraisal. Affect should be
considered at multiple stages of the appraisal process. Drawing on examples from
LGBTQ community-based archives as well as of LGBTQ materials in more
traditional institutions, I gesture to how recognizing affective value can aid in
surfacing distinctive affective experiences as well as meeting the needs of LGBTQ
persons that have been long-denied through non-recognition and marginalization in
Postmodern and deconstructionist scholars assert that archivists are mediators or
constructors of the knowledge that is available within archives (Brothman 1991;
Nesmith 2002; Harris 2002). The archival appraiser is not ‘‘identifying records with
archival value,’’ rather they are ‘‘creating archival value’’ (Harris 2002, p. 84). What
is deemed to be of archival value is created in part through the appraisers’ own
values and perspectives, the quality of their work, the policies under which they are
working and their interactions with associated record creators, subjects and
communities (Harris 2002). Too often, appraisal serves to obscure and further
unequal power relations. Verne Harris argues that troubling normative dominant
power requires reckoning with ‘‘more than evidence of what is past,’’ while in the
sliver that remains for archivists’ selection there is always story, imagination and
future to consider (Harris 2012, p. 153). Community archives literature has extended
the discussion about and pushed the bounds of who has the power to appraise, how
appraisal decisions are made and what is deemed to be of archival value.
Supplementing these discourses with the work of literary and cultural theorist Ann
Cvetkovich, affective value should be positioned as a central dimension of the larger
project of reinterpreting and expanding appraisal theory and practice within a social
justice paradigm.
An Archive of Feelings (2003), Cvetkovich’s seminal work on affects in and of
queer archives offers a compelling perspective on archival records and their affective
power. Cvetkovich is one of only a few affect theorists who have worked with
actually existing archives. Her work on affective objects speaks to issues of archival
collecting and can aid in disrupting a multiplicity of institutionalized appraisal
practices and theories as well as the dominant power structures they reflect and
reproduce. There is no consensus among affect theorists as to how affect attaches
itself to objects. Some argue that it inheres within them, while others posit that objects
serve as containers for, representations of, or generate affects. It is clear from the
literature that they understand affect to be engendered through the encounter of bodies

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with other bodies and with particular objects (Ahmed 2004, p. 4). Cvetkovich argues
that ‘‘cultural texts,’’ including archival materials, are ‘‘repositories of feelings and
emotions’’ (2003, p. 7). This means that they have affects encoded within their
content in meaningful ways. Additionally, they are the repositories of the affective
practices that surround their production and reception (Cvetkovich 2003). Objects in
Cvetkovich’s theorization are also animated by feelings. For example, she writes that
‘‘the memory of trauma is embedded not just in narrative but in material artifacts.’’
‘‘These artifacts’… can range from photographs to objects whose relation to trauma
might seem arbitrary but for the fact that they are invested with emotional, and even
sentimental, value’’ (2003, pp. 7–8). Framing records as repositories of affect would
make appraising for immediate affective considerations during collecting and initial
appraisal appropriate. It would also call for another appraisal at a later stage for
enduring affective characteristics that might emerge only after time, scholarship or
intervening events. This is not to say that all feelings are of equal or archival value,
rather I posit that when acknowledging the centrality of power to social justice and
recognizing the experiences of those negatively subjected to it, justice is often
unattainable without consideration of affect.
While notions of value differ across appraisal paradigms, value is at the core of
the concept of appraisal—the ‘‘act of deeming [a trace]… to be worthy of
protection, preservation and other interventions which we call archival’’ (Harris
2012, p. 150). Appraisal processes include identifying materials with ‘‘sufficient
value’’ to be accessioned and determining the retention period for records (Pearce-
Moses 2005). It is in appraisal that archivists assign sociohistorical and cultural
value to materials, and this value is then fully articulated and reified through
subsequent archival functions (Dunbar 2006, p. 116). Archivists should, therefore,
carefully ‘‘reflect on why, how and for whom appraisal is done’’ (Cox 2002, p. 290).
Accepted institutionalized appraisal frameworks too often (re)enforce the interests
of dominant power structures (Dunbar 2006, p. 112) excluding the experiences,
value, and desires of marginalized individuals and communities from the archival
record. Part of embracing social justice is embracing the vision that every person ‘‘is
of equal and incalculable value’’ (Duff et al. 2013, p. 324). We need to surface and
embrace expanded conceptualizations of value (Flinn 2011, p. 15) in the pursuit of
social justice. I am employing Cvetkovich’s theorization of affective objects here to
complicate and expand notions of archival value in relation to LGBTQ communities
and their records. Recognizing and positioning affective value as an appraisal
criterion calls on archivists and scholars to carefully consider the affects of records
themselves in relation to their creators, subjects, users, larger communities and
systems of power.
LGBTQ persons and communities, like many marginalized groups, have been
ignored, deliberately silenced, and otherwise neglected in traditional archives and
archiving processes. In a social justice paradigm, producing justice in the archives
for such persons requires reinterpreting core archival concepts (Punzalan and
Caswell 2016). Cvetkovich argues that a new form of archives is needed, ‘‘a radical
archive of emotion,’’ in order to ‘‘document intimacy, sexuality, love, and
activism,’’ among other affective experiences, that are fundamental to queer
persons, practices, and lives (2003, p. 241). Following this, queer archives must

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produce not only knowledge, but also feeling in order to adequately reflect queer
histories and realities (ibid). Through their materials, all archives produce affects
and enable affective experiences for those who encounter them. However, the
appraisal frameworks and processes of traditional archives have difficultly
adequately chronicling many affective experiences and have largely failed to
recognize their roles in the production of affect. Additionally, there are distinctive
affective issues at play in LGBTQ contexts given the historical and potentially
immanent threat of destruction of LGBT archives by oppressive social and political
forces, or of personal materials by family members after the deaths of their creators.
LGBT persons may experience an especially acute need for meaningful and
reassuring identificatory encounters with archival materials about others like
themselves where identity-based community is not usually biologically reproduced.
The (re)production of power through appraisal decisions means that too often users
are provided only with the opportunities to empathize with the records and therefore
the affects of those in positions of power.
Affect is at the center of the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ (LHA) mission and
collecting policy, thus rendering it unusually visible. The LHA illustrates how affect
is already figured into community-based appraisal practices. Looking to queer
community archives gestures to how affect might be employed to meaningfully
interpret and extend the concept of appraisal in other venues. The LHA’s mission is
to be a ‘‘safe space,’’ where lesbians feel welcome to see and literally touch their
own history. Affect figures significantly into how spaces are materialized and
experienced (Mankekar 2015, p. 105). The LHA, like many community archives,
was founded in a private home, acquired its records from community members, and
opened to community members for them to engage with the materials bursting from
many pantries, closets and bedrooms. Since 1993, the LHA has occupied a more
public space, a brownstone in Brooklyn that is home to the collections and a
collective member. It is a semi-domestic space where users are invited for a cup of
tea in the kitchen, to take a seat on a couch in the living room and to pore over the
ephemera lining every wall. The affective experience of users is emphasized in
access, with open stacks inviting users to browse and mediate on their own terms.
Visiting the LHA is and is intended to be as much an affective as an intellectual
The community appraisal of materials at the LHA is based on affective—
‘‘emotional and sentimental’’ value as much as if not more than traditional archival
considerations of historical or other research value. Their collection policy is to take
‘‘any donation of materials that a lesbian considers critical in her life’’ (Cvetkovich
2003, p. 243) and to make collecting and appraisal decisions by consensus within
the collective. Such policies ‘‘actively encourage ordinary lesbians to collect and to
donate the archival evidence of their everyday lives,’’ empowering women who
have been marginalized to recognize and demonstrate the enduring value in their
lives and experiences to generations of community members to come (ibid). Some
have characterized such ephemeral traces in community archives as lacking the
enduring value to make them properly archival; however, as Andrew Flinn argues,
the variety and rarity of materials collected in these archives ‘‘give them significant
emotional resonance and historical value’’ (2011, p. 6).

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Participatory appraisal by record creators and LHA collective members has

resulted in a large and unique collection including manuscripts, records, oral
histories, personal photographs and letters, zines and ephemera. Michelle Caswell
argues that multiplicity of formats in community archives ‘‘reflects an attention to
cultural difference that many mainstream repositories have historically ignored; by
recognizing oral, visual, and kinetic ways of knowing, community archives reflect
the culture, epistemologies, and values of their communities’’ (Caswell 2014b,
p. 313). They also reflect affective ways of knowing. At the LHA, the multiplicity of
formats has resulted in an ‘‘unexpected range of materials that archive emotion and
feeling’’ (Cvetkovich 2002, p. 269). The affects that are animated, evoked and
provoked by a record are what make that record significant and of sufficient value to
be worthy of archival intervention in this appraisal model (Cvetkovich 2003,
pp. 245–246). Such an appraisal process has created collections that are of deep
value and significance to their communities. These collections are aimed at doing
emotional justice to the experiences they reflect and memorialize (ibid, p. 269).
Participatory appraisal based on affective value may not be desirable, appropriate,
practical or possible for all archives. However, identifying and examining collecting
and appraisal practices that take affect into account highlights the potential value of
affect in archival appraisal for disrupting dominant power structures, collecting
underdocumented communities and experiences, and expanding cultural contexts
and ways of knowing.
Surfacing and positioning affect as an appraisal criterion means considering
records as ‘‘repositories of feelings’’ (Cvetkovich 2003, p. 7), as well as the affective
practices found in their production, reception and use, in ways not previously
concretized in archival discourse. Recognizing affect challenges in socially
transformative ways how, who and what is deemed to be of enduring archival
value. This reevaluation holds particular potential for working in new ways with
LGBTQ and other marginalized communities and their records. Looking toward
intimacy where it is found in LGBTQ archival records exposes the potential of an
appraisal approach that places value in affect. Intimacy is most simply defined as
closeness, a familiarity in knowledge, in action, in observation or in language, that
in the words of Berlant actually ‘‘builds worlds’’ (1998, p. 288). Intimacy—be it
psychic, emotional, physical, institutional or sexual—is central to every aspect of
queer relationships and lives from the bedroom and the bathhouse to the archives.
Cvetkovich observes that there is an ‘‘invisibility that often surrounds intimate life,
especially sexuality’’ not least because ‘‘sex and feelings are too personal or too
ephemeral to leave records’’ (2002, pp. 110, 112). If more often the result of
fortunate accidents rather than purposeful appraisal, there are records that contain
such queer intimacies in archives.
Looking anew at the often-overlooked material traces of queer intimacies opens
the possibility of reexamining how intimacy is experienced and felt, what material
traces it makes and its appraised value. There can be no singular model for when
affect—immediate or enduring—should be an appraisal consideration. However, I
offer a few examples to illustrate where enacting social justice principles requires
positioning affect as one of the primary values considered in appraisal. Maryanne
Dever (2010) exposes the queer intimacies of archival collecting, and the presence

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of love and intimacy in Mercedes de Acosta’s collection at the Rosenbach Museum

and Library. The Library is a subsidiary of the Free Library of Philadelphia
Foundation, but maintains its own board and operates independently, collecting in
the area of literary and other creative endeavors. Dever rereads the ‘‘nothingness’’
found upon the long-awaiting opening of the embargoed cache of letters from movie
star Greta Garbo to de Acosta, the aristocrat turned screenwriter widely thought to
have been Garbo’s lover. Many had hoped that the opening of the collection, and its
imaginary and much desired cache of steamy love letters, would somehow ‘‘prove’’
at long last the romantic and sexual nature of their relationship. The opened letters
were read by many as despairingly devoid of the affective language of conventional
love letters. In the letters, telegrams, cards and other artifacts, Dever reads anew the
collection and its silences for affect. Intimacy is not to be found just in explicitly
articulated messages of love, but in the appraisal of the collection as a whole and in
very archival impulses that drove its creation. Cvetkovich’s work draws attention to
the potential found in considering the affects of record’s creators in appraisal.
Conceptualizing records as repositories of affect holds significant implications for
what might be deemed of enduring value. As a record creator, de Acosta engaged in
‘‘the obsessive assembling, ordering and preserving of the unfolding paper trail left
by Garbo’’ (Dever 2010, p. 166). She not only preserved for posterity letters and
telegrams from the star, but also the blank florists’ cards and the mailing labels that
had been addressed in Garbo’s hand (Dever 2010). In short, she saved anything
Garbo’s could be presumed to have touched. It is that body of papers that gives their
often tense, desirous, and deeply intimate relationship ‘‘a continuing material form’’
(Dever, p. 167). While the traces of intimacy such as the blank cards or mailing
labels would not be of archival value in every instance, here in the context of a
queer intimate relationship they surface a story that would otherwise be erased. The
enduring affects of the blank cards tell those who encounter them something vital
about what sort of person Garbo was, of the privacy she worked so hard to maintain,
and of how to she chose to convey her feelings for de Acosta—through flowers,
small favors, and the contents of packages long since disappeared. This instance
points to where more traditional appraisal based grounded purely in historical or
research value would likely have discarded such records. Queer cultures often leave
behind ‘‘ephemeral and unusual’’ traces, as they are communities formed around
intimacy, sexuality and other affects (Cvetkovich 2003, p. 8). Appraisal that takes
into account affective value should also consider the affective characteristics of
records and collections that emerge with intervening time, events and scholarship.
Institutional intimacies of LGBTQ life can also be documented through the
recognition and incorporation of affect into appraisal processes, thus enabling their
deployment for social justice. Melissa White (2014) analyzes the dossiers assembled
for LGBTQ asylum and family class migration to Canada as archives of both
intimacy and trauma. For family class migrants, these records include relationship
essays, photographs, letters of testimony and support from family, friends and
community members and documents charting joint economic holdings or debts. The
records are the results of careful and normative executions of documentation aiming
at proving queer relationships as ‘‘authentic’’ and worthy intimacies to the state. For
those LGBTQ persons seeking refugee or asylum status on the basis of their

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sexuality or gender identity, there is a need to prove trauma through testimonials,

documentation of past violence and external reports to articulate to the state that
they have a well-founded fear of persecution (White, p. 85). These records
materialize a ‘‘profoundly affective encounter between migrants and state bureau-
crats’’ (White 2014, p. 77) and systems. They document affective ‘‘mobilities and
attachments: the movement of bodies across borders of social belonging, the
movement of affect’’ within immigration and state bureaucracies, intimate
attachments between members of queer families, and the attachments that subject
migrants to the state in hopes of protection and escape from violence, persecution
and brutality. The stories of queer migrants multiply marginalized by political,
economic and social structures of power are frequently excluded from the archives.
Positioning affect as an appraisal criterion recognizes these dossiers as more than
functional bureaucratic records, acknowledging their value as evidence of queer and
institutional intimacies. This acknowledgment of affect and positioning it as an
appraisal criterion at multiple stages of appraisal processes together afford the
potential to challenge and change what and why records are collected and to grasp
traces of voices, affects and experiences of those denied by power that would
otherwise be lost to the archival record. Building an ‘‘archive of feelings’’ is
necessary in order to trouble dominant power relations and adequately reflect the
lives and meet the needs of the diverse communities that archivists document and
serve. Taking up Cvetkovich’s call for archives and archival practices that honor
emotion requires affective value to be recognized as an appraisal consideration.

Emotional justice and the ethics of witnessing

Archivists are witnesses (Punzalan 2009; Caswell 2014a) and as such are deeply
implicated in the relations and ethics of witnessing. As witnesses, archivists should
become instruments of societal justice aiding larger society in ethical and
meaningful witnessing processes. Witnessing is always an act within ‘‘the
framework of relationality’’ (Guerin and Hallas 2007, p. 10). Frances Guerin and
Roger Hallas write that, ‘‘The encounter with an other is central to any conception
of bearing witness’’ (p. 10). Witnessing, in their construction, is both a mutually
constitutive and a performative act. In order for witnesses to perform as such they
must ‘‘address an other,’’ a listener or viewer ‘‘who consequently functions as a
witness to the original witness’’ (p. 10). The act of bearing witness is thus a
particular kind of address to ‘‘an other.’’ Witnessing in Guerin and Hallas’
construction is not just the act of the original witness, but also of subsequent
listeners and viewers acting and reacting on emotional and experiential levels
(Caswell 2014a, pp. 129–130). Ricardo Punzalan (2009) and Caswell (2014a) have
argued that archivists are witnesses engaged in relationships of reciprocity with
archival stakeholders, including communities and users. Extending their work, I
argue that witnessing comes with particular responsibilities and responses, including
affective ones aimed toward emotional justice. The relationality of witnessing
‘‘frames the act of bearing witness as performative’’ and as one that ‘‘affirms the
reality of the event witnessed’’ (Guerin and Hallas 2007, p. 10). Witnessing as a

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social act and relation in the contexts of reckoning with human rights violations,
conflict and other oppressive pasts has been addressed in archival studies literature
(Harris 2014; Caswell 2014a). Oppression and its inequalities and injustices are
often forms of trauma with deep emotional resonance. Despite vital acknowledg-
ment of affective issues such as the grief of Cambodian genocide survivors, victim’s
families and the national community by Caswell (2014a), and the burnout
experienced by human rights archivists by Harris (2014), archival literature has
not explicitly acknowledged affect and affective implications in the acts, outcomes,
formations and sustainment of individuals and communities around witnessing.
Affect theory thus adds a new facet to this discourse, providing needed support and
theoretical framing. Building on the work of Sara Ahmed, a feminist cultural
theorist of emotion and race, it becomes possible to intervene into archival studies
discourses by shifting understandings of how communities are built, sustained and
torn apart. Extending Ahmed’s work on witnessing to an archival context critically
challenges accepted conceptions of bodies, the work of emotions, temporality and
ethics in the field. Ahmed makes clear that remembering, while important, is not
enough. I argue that for us, as archivists and scholars, to engage ethically in
witnessing in archival contexts, we must promote emotional justice.
Ahmed begins The Cultural Politics of Emotion with pain. Pain is normatively
understood in Western culture as a private bodily sensation. Despite this
construction of pain as personal, the pain of others is continually evoked in public
discourse as that which demands our response, individually and collectively (2004,
p. 20). By analyzing the pain of others, Ahmed demonstrates how even emotions
that are immediate to an individual are not merely feelings one has, but are instead
‘‘feelings that open bodies to others’’ (2004, p. 15). Emotions are at the center of
what aligns us with ‘‘some others and again against other others’’ to build, sustain
and break down communities. Here, this process is in ‘‘moving towards or away
from those we feel have caused our pleasure and pain’’ (Ahmed 2004, p. 28). It is
not just collective bodies that are shaped by emotion, it is through experiences like
pain that we come to understand the surfaces of our own bodies, to understand
where they collide with objects and others to set ourselves apart (2004, p. 26). In
other words, pain, like all emotion, is social. Even the supposed privacy of
experiencing pain is actually part of this sociality. As Ahmed writes, it is actually
‘‘the apparent loneliness of pain that requires it to be disclosed to a witness’’ (2004,
p. 29). We cannot know precisely what another’s pain feels like while it is their
private experience. Yet that impossibility creates a desire to know what the other’s
pain feels like and to have others we care for acknowledge how we feel. It is asking
for another to witness our pain that grants it the status of ‘‘an event, a happening in
the world, rather than just ‘something’’’ felt internally by someone (Ahmed 2004,
pp. 29–30). Expanding upon Guerin and Hallas’ definition, it is the relationship of
witnessing that gives pain a life beyond the fragile, vulnerable borders of an
individual body and that authenticates its very existence (Ahmed 2004, p. 30).
The Bringing Them Home Oral History Project was developed out of
recommendations from the Bringing Them Home report on the Stolen Genera-
tions—the Indigenous children forcibly removed from their homes, families and
communities between 1905 and the 1970s under assimilationist policies in

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Australia. Undertaken between 1998 and 2002, the project consists of 340 taped oral
testimonies with persons involved. Two important shifts were made away from the
report’s recommendations for archives. First, the federal government insisted on the
inclusion within the archives not just of voices of Indigenous people, as called for in
the report, but also of white Australians involved in the removal (Kennedy 2004,
p. 55). Second, the report recommended that the responsibility for creating an
archives be given to an Indigenous organization. Australia’s federal government
instead made it the responsibility of the National Library, raising concerns about the
importance of community and community ownership for healing and reconciliation
processes (Kennedy 2004) to take place. Examining these particular conditions,
including their affective components, through archival scholarship and in practice is
necessary to create the possibility for hearing the testimonies.
Ahmed uses the Bringing Them Home report as her primary case for theorizing
‘‘how pain can shape worlds as bodies, through the ways in which stories of pain
circulate in the public domain’’ (Ahmed 2004, p. 15). The report is made up of
individual testimonies about the pain of separation, hurt, mourning and loss, which
together form both the document and the archives. The violence and pain inflicted by
the separation of generations of Indigenous children from their families and
communities as part of a brutal policy of assimilation was not just inflicted on the
individual bodies of those taken away, but also on the body of the Indigenous
communities that were torn apart by these acts. Ahmed raises a number of important
questions for archival studies scholars and practicing archivists when entering into or
analyzing the relations and ethics of witnessing the pain of others, serving their
communities, and creating the conditions for the societal reckoning. She asks, ‘‘how
am I affected by pain when I am faced by another’s pain?’’ and ‘‘because we don’t
inhabit that body of the other, does that mean their ‘pain has nothing to do with us?’’’
(Ahmed 2004, p. 29). Extending Ahmed’s work to an archival context illustrates just
how complicated witnessing is as a relation between individuals, communities, and
societies, and the difficulties of negotiating empathy, compassion and action.
There is no doubt that the testimonies of the Stolen Generations need to be
witnessed, to really be heard. The report insisted on the importance of testimony for
healing and the reconciliation process. It states that ‘‘devastation cannot be
addressed unless the whole community listens with an open heart and mind to the
stories of what has happened in the past and, having listened and understood,
commits itself to reconciliation’’ (HREOC 1997). This construction fails to take into
account that remembering does not inevitably bring with it healing (Harris 2014,
p. 217). Just being heard is not enough. Being heard does not mean being heard
justly. The report and subsequent archival project raise troubling questions about
just who is doing the healing and who is being healed (Ahmed 2004, p. 35). All too
often narratives of reconciliation are closely ‘‘bound up with making others fit into
the white nation or community’’ (Ahmed 2004, p. 35). The acknowledgment of the
pain of Indigenous persons by the white nation and community can easily be elided
into larger narratives about national pain that erase meaningful differences. Such an
approach also encourages the appropriation of another’s pain by non-Indigenous
witnesses as their own and turns white persons and the (white) nation into those that
need to be healed. In the context of another settler-colonialist state, Canada, Paulette

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Regan calls for the white settler community to feel, recognize and come to terms
with their dominant society’s infliction of injustice on Indigenous persons and
communities (2010). It is the settler majority that must shoulder the collective
burden of the history and legacy and take seriously the collective responsibility for
the ongoing pain and injustice (Regan 2010, p. 2). Affect theory as developed by
Ahmed offers tools to disrupt the dangerous rhetoric of whiteness and challenges
archivists and scholars not to forget the pain of others. This is a particular kind of
remembering that asks us ‘‘to learn to hear what is impossible,’’ to learn to hear and
respond to pain that ‘‘we cannot claim as our own’’ (Ahmed 2004, p. 35).
Thinking through pain with Ahmed has much to contribute to practices and
conceptualizations of witnessing across archival contexts. The pain of others in the
archives is not simply theirs; it has something to do with us as archivists, scholars,
users, and social justice advocates. There is an ethics of responding to pain that
Ahmed argues ‘‘involves being open to being affected by that which one cannot know
or feel’’ (Ahmed 2004, p. 30). As archivists, scholars, users and above all as
witnesses, we should let it hurt to hear words such as those contained in the
testimonies. Following Ahmed, we have an ethical obligation to witness, while to
ignore or to forget would be a repetition of the violence and injury of the subjugated,
marginalized peoples who have not yet had their pain (and other affects) recognized
(Ahmed 2004, p. 33). The recognition of injustice makes others visible, but more than
that it is ‘‘about claiming an injustice did happen; this claim is a radical one in the face
of the forgetting of such injustices’’ (Ahmed 2004, p. 200). This kind of witnessing
responds both to overt violences and to the oblique ones that permeate the everyday
lives of marginalized persons—racism, poverty, sexism, cultural domination and
privilege. Building on Cvetkovich’s work on trauma, in which she describes
witnessing as ‘‘fraught with ambivalence’’ rather than as a relation ‘‘fulfilling the
melodramatic fantasy that the trauma survivor will finally tell all and receive the
solace of being heard by a willing and supportive listener’’ (2003, p .22), Harris
argues that we in the archival field need to rethink healing (2014, p. 223). Following
Harris, we need to encourage ‘‘retellings of story, as opposed to the one telling that
brings closure’’ when contending with trauma and its communities (ibid). The
conditions of such witnessing challenge normative understandings of temporality in
archival contexts. In order to witness this way, archivists and scholars must learn to
understand that the past is ‘‘living rather than dead,’’ while the ‘‘past lives in the very
wounds that remain open in the present’’ (Ahmed 2004, p. 33). This echoes Harris’
call for healing in and through archives to be achieved through an ‘‘active engagement
in the politics of now,’’ reframing archival work ‘‘with trauma as a contribution to
making the future rather than ‘dealing with the past’’’ (Harris 2014, p. 223 citing
Cvetkovich 2003, p. 22). It is by embracing wholly the role of witness in ways that
‘‘speak to truth’’ and ‘‘repair broken trust,’’ (Regan 2010, p. 2) that as archivists and
scholars we can set ourselves on transformative pathways, recognizing and enacting
our responsibility in aiding in the larger process of witnessing on a societal level.
Archival relations and records are affectively charged. The complicated relations
of witnessing in the archives, such as Caswell’s work with the collection of mug
shots taken by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng prison, demonstrate how affect is

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present and where further addressing it would aid archivists and scholars in thinking
through these relations. Caswell analyzes the social history of the collection,
showing how archivists, survivors and victims’ families have strategically deployed
the images in legal testimonies, documentaries and in creating new photographs of
people with the mug shots. The latter action creates new records documenting
Cambodians in the midst of witnessing the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and the
testimony of the victims (Caswell 2014a, b, pp. 7, 129). Cambodians have thus used
these records to powerfully ‘‘supplant a narrative of victimhood with a narrative of
witnessing, transforming records that document an unspeakably violent past into
agents of social change for the future’’ (Caswell, p. 7). Part of what those persons
who are subject to historical injustices deserve is emotional justice—a justice that
acknowledges pain in the service of social justice. Caswell never explicitly
references affect in her book—but it is filled with it. In a key intervention, Caswell,
drawing on Punzalan’s work, analyzes the implications of the relation of witnessing
for the collection’s archivists. She writes, ‘‘As secondary witnesses to the violence
of Tuol Sleng, archivists become transformed into advocates for justice’’ (Caswell,
p. 130). In this context, archivists become more than ‘‘‘co-witnesses’ to the event,’’
they are ‘‘accomplices to witnessing and, as such, political actors’’ (Caswell,
p. 130). It is the relation of witnessing ‘‘By asserting that the violence happened,
that it will be remembered, and that it should not be repeated,’ that allows ‘‘these
records of witnessing to perform human rights in the face of a local and
international political climate that favors forgetting’’ (Caswell, p. 160). Archivists
have a responsibility for ensuring that dominant society cannot simply move beyond
injustice after superficial acknowledgments and apologetic rhetoric, it must also
ethically witness injustice, thereby confronting and contending with society’s
(in)actions and structures of power. It is this that makes space for critical collective
Doing justice means surfacing and listening to marginalized voices in the
archives. Caswell’s work powerfully points to the need to center the community of
the survivors of human rights atrocities and victims’ loved ones in archival work.
Affect is central to what makes that community, and to acknowledging, addressing
and meeting their needs as communities and as users. Affect theory as developed by
Ahmed both complicates and strengthens the case that communities are built around
feelings and that their feelings must be considered as part of archival relations. As
she concludes,
‘The call of such pain, as a pain that cannot be shared through empathy, is a
call not just for an attentive hearing, but for a different kind of inhabitance. It
is a call for action, and a demand for collective politics, as a politics based not
on the possibility that we might be reconciled, but on learning to live with the
impossibility of reconciliation, or learning that we live with and beside each
other, and yet we are not as one’ (Ahmed 2004, p. 39).
Ahmed calls on us as archivists, scholars and persons implicated in complex
power relations to witness and to do the difficult work of negotiating collective
narratives of pain, past and present, in the archives and far beyond it.

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Cruel optimism, or life under neoliberalist ideologies

Theorizations of affect offer more than the possibility of fully conceptualizing the
relationships between archivists and communities in new ways. Affect theory offers
important insights into other attachments, individual and collective, to objects,
systems, worlds and ideologies. Power is manifested through economic structures
and systems. One of the key tenets of social justice is to create a society where the
distribution of opportunities and resources is equitable (Dunbar 2006, p. 116).
Despite their acknowledged centrality to social justice processes, economic
inequalities are underexplored in archival literature. Archives are an important site
to engage with the ‘‘legacies, epistemes, and traumas pressing down on the present’’
(Eichhorn 2014, p. 5). Since the 1980s, neoliberalism has become an increasingly
pervasive ideology of social, political and economic practices and processes.
Neoliberalism, according to David Harvey, proposes ‘‘human well-being can best be
advanced by the maximization of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional
framework characterized by private property rights, individual liberty, unencum-
bered markets, and free trade’’ (2007, p. 22). The role of the state becomes one of
protector for such presumed freedoms, liberties and rights. Neoliberalism has
profoundly restructured economic, political and social life in ways that focus on
individual responsibilities, reduce state interventions and funding for them, draw
attention away from systemic oppressions, use ‘‘chronic underfunding, disaster, and
state failure’’ as excuses for ever increasing privatization, and ‘‘obfuscate or render
invisible forms of labor that are deemed undesirable’’ (Caswell and Cifor 2016;
Held 2014). It is an ideology that creates conditions of social injustice, furthering
‘‘the interests of some groups at the expense of others in the distribution of material
goods, social benefits, rights, protections, and opportunities’’ (Duff et al. 2013,
pp. 324–325). Neoliberalism both employs affect in its service and has affective
The collective attachment to neoliberalism has archival implications. Neoliber-
alism profoundly shapes the government and academic structures in which much
archival work takes place. This plays out in numerous ways including in new
emphases within public administration on ‘‘cost efficiency’’ and ‘‘profitableness’’
(Kormedy 2007, p. 173) and in the reduction of public resources. A prime example
is the increasingly pervasive rhetoric about engaging archival users as ‘‘cus-
tomers’’—the ‘‘entities receiving and/or using the products or services produced or
provided’’ by archives like the National Archives and Records Administration
(NARA), and that require the provision of ‘‘proactive’’ and ‘‘positive’’ ‘‘customer
service’’ based on private sector models (NARA 2014, p. D-1). Impacts of
neoliberalism in archives also include increasingly pervasive privatization such as
the shift of the control over public data from birth certificates to biometric identifiers
into the hands of private corporations. Neoliberalism also figures into eroding
support for community archives that calls on them to collapse or conform. This
often takes the form of reduced funding from the public sector (Flinn 2011, p. 14).
The outright loss of federal funding and support for community archives in Canada
through the elimination of National Archival Development Program in 2012

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(Canadian Council of Archives 2012) following a long period of ‘‘inertia and

retrenchment’’ (Yorke 2014) is a poignant example of a much larger problem.
Chronic under-resourcing has a disproportionate impact upon smaller and more
geographically remote archives, including many archives serving Canada’s First
Nation communities (Yorke 2014). The few remaining funding streams for these
community archives are focused only on short-term goals and emphasize above all
the need to create revenue and demonstrate economic value (Yorke 2014). Funding
concerns also have a particular impact upon those community archives, which, in
carving out spaces of self-determination for social justice work, resist corporate
funding models. Without possibility of public funding, they must devote much of
their precious resources to seeking out individual donors (Punzalan and Caswell
2016). In spite of the numerous ways, conceptual and material, that neoliberalist
ideologies shape archives, inquiries into neoliberalism have only just begun in the
Neoliberalism and the structural inequalities it perpetuates have affective
dimensions. Affect theory crucially addresses the questions of why it is that social
transformation is so difficult to achieve and why relations of power are frequently
‘‘intractable and enduring, even in the face of collective forms of resistance’’ (Ahmed
2004, pp. 11–12). It is in addressing attachments to and investments in unjust social
norms that affect theory can intervene in the developing scholarly and professional
discourse on neoliberalism. Literature scholar and feminist theorist of affect Lauren
Berlant theorizes about how ‘‘our senses and intuitions are transformed in relation to
property, to labor, to presumptions about being deserving, and to enjoying the world’’
in the midst of the collective crisis of neoliberalism (Berlant 2012, p. 2). In her view,
the ‘‘conditions of ordinary life in the contemporary world,’’ even for those living in
relative wealth in the USA are the ‘‘conditions of attrition or wearing out of the
subject’’ (Berlant 2006, p. 23). This view has important implications for thinking
through the ‘‘ordinariness of suffering, the violence of normativity,’’ and that which
keeps these processes steadfastly in place (Berlant 2006, p. 23). Living under
neoliberalism impedes the desire for a different way of life and even the ability to
imagine one. Harris has described challenges, including affective ones, of navigating
societal oppression and its aftermaths in archives. In post-Apartheid South Africa,
Harris describes the affective experience of being ‘‘worn down and stuck’’ as
archivists performing difficult memory work (Harris 2014, p. 224). It is not just in the
aftermath of glaring human rights atrocities that such conditions now exist.
Experiences of burnout and being stuck in such states promise to become only more
prevalent in the archival field in the face of gross inequities, inequalities and
oppressions that neoliberalism perpetuates.
Berlant’s work with affect shows how, as people living in such damaging
paradigms, we become attached to the very structures of our subordination and,
therefore, why it is so difficult to extricate ourselves from neoliberalism and its
structures (Berlant 2011, p. 2). In particular, Berlant’s concept of ‘‘cruel optimism’’
describes the affective attachment of persons to a state of affairs, mode of living or
object that promises a good life, but that is actually an obstacle that prevents them
from flourishing. ‘‘Cruel optimism’’ is a concept that is useful for envisioning and
enacting a critical archival practice and professionalism in neoliberal times. It is a

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relation of cruel optimism that forms our attachments to increasingly unattainable

fantasies of ‘‘the good life’’—including upward socioeconomic mobility, job
security, enduring intimacies, and social equality—in spite of the undeniable
evidence that liberal-capitalist societies simply cannot be counted upon to provide
us with any of these (Berlant 2011, pp. 1–2). A good life in archives includes
abundant resources and opportunities, equitable access for all, archival job security
and fair compensation and societal recognition of the value of archives. It is cruel
optimism that engages those in the archival field in an unending search for these
measures of security and prosperity against the specter of their impossibility within
present systems. Cruel optimism also names that affective investment which gets us
stuck, and which prevents us from resisting neoliberal structures and pursuing
alternative, more just social and economic arrangements. Within the confines of
neoliberalism, resistance can take the form of small acts of imagining and believing
that systems can actually be changed. Identifying and calling out cruel optimism
marks an important first step toward challenging oppressive conditions. Berlant
provides the tools for scholars and archivists in neoliberal archival contexts to think,
act and live differently by changing the dynamics in our thinking and relations to
realize what is, what is stuck and what is possible.
Utilizing Berlant’s cruel optimism as a conceptual lens to think through one
archival issue in a neoliberalist paradigm gestures to the larger importance and
potential for such models in rethinking archival studies and practices for social
justice. Recently, there has been an increase in the collecting, digitization and
subsequent placement of archival records into privately owned, managed and for-
profit subscription databases. I argue that the form of optimism held out by these
databases to archives is often cruel. The promise of such databases is offered up as a
way toward a better future for archives, but with growing social inequality, private
and intellectual property rights, unencumbered markets and free trade, more costly
academic publishing and ever-increasingly expensive and therefore more inacces-
sible higher education, this optimism is often denied the possibility of achievement.
Instead, it refocuses the blame cruelly back onto the disadvantaged archives that do
not achieve their aspirations of access for all. Subscription databases now hold
digitized records ranging from those documenting Jewish life in America from the
American Jewish Historical Society (Adam Matthew Digital) to resources on
women’s suffrage in Britain and its colonies in the National Archives, UK (Archives
Direct). The controversy stemming from an incident where an employee of attempted to dispose of documents he was supposed to be scanning
under contract at a NARA facility (O’Neil 2015) has brought this archival practice
to wider attention. Crucial discussions about procedures and policies for who, how
and under what supervision public records should be handled are just beginning.
This digitization and database practice has become increasingly pervasive in the
face of neoliberal conditions of de- and underfunding of archives and other
institutions of the public good and rising expectations for digital access among
users. It is a practice that stems from practical issues as well as affective investments
in neoliberalist ideologies. These private databases offer archives the alluring
promise of making available previously difficult to access records to a broader user
base. Access is the object of our collective desires, a ‘‘cluster of promises we want

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someone or something to make us and make possible for us’’ (Berlant 2006, p. 20).
As Berlant writes, any ‘‘object of optimism promises to guarantee the endurance of
something, the survival of something, the flourishing of something, and above all
the protection of the desire that made this object or scene powerful enough to have
magnetized an attachment to it’’ (2011, p. 48). In archivists’ techno-optimistic and
affective attachment to the good life fantasy of access for all, we are binding
ourselves uncritically to private corporations. Flirtations with privatization should
not be taken lightly. The digitization and hosting of materials is not without social,
political, ethical and affective cost, replicating and reifying systematic power
differentials. It is likely that archives will be seen to bear the blame for the failures
of such digitization efforts. These digitized records are made accessible to a select
set of privileged users only behind very expensive paywalls curtailing access, use
and intellectual freedom. As John Drabinski has written in regard to a collection of
archival records on slavery from the American Antiquarian Society digitized and
made available to subscribers in a Readex database, ‘‘[my] deep concern, is that the
memory of slavery is rendered a commodity in and made property’’ by the project
(2014). It is the property only of the privileged and excludes the often-marginalized
communities that may have deep attachments to and whose lives are implicated in
the records and their use. Far too little attention has been devoted in archival
literature to the ramifications of the commercialization and commodification of
archival spaces through such neoliberal practices. That is not to say that such
digitization models have been accepted without question, there has been significant
pushback, especially from archival communities in the Global South, against
extractive, corporatized efforts (Masinde and Rajan 2008). Clearly, the economic
survival of and provision of access to archives is necessary; however, operating
uncritically within the status quo is not the best response for archives or society’s
long-term thriving. It is an affective investment in neoliberal ideologies and
structures, a relation of cruel optimism, that focuses archivists efforts on the
immediate benefits of such plans and in so doing, it ignores the potential negative
ramifications of these neoliberal practices and rhetorics.
As Berlant posits, affect has a significant role in creating the stickiness of
neoliberalist ideologies. It is that stickiness that has us all caught up, burned out and
stuck in our thoughts, actions, and feelings to an oppressive and damaging
paradigm. Archivists and scholars are trapped into thinking that this oppressive
paradigm is the only way of living, working or just plain surviving. Lois Yorke
identifies ‘‘complacency and acquiescence with the status quo’’ (2014) as a defense
mechanism for community archives in neoliberal times. While acknowledging the
tangible and harsh realities faced by many in the archival field, we as archivists and
scholars must begin the search for viable options and alternatives in ways big and
small, including those offered by queer and other community archives. Simply
identifying and naming the affective relation that traps us marks an important step
forward toward social justice goals. Berlant’s theorizations of affect and it figuring
into ideological attachments also gives us the theoretical tools to (re)consider ideas,
circumstances or conditions in terms of both ‘‘what can be or what should be’’
(Dunbar 2006, pp. 111–112). Before we can begin to interrogate and counter its
impacts in both theoretical and practical terms, and to strategize alternative funding

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structures that reflect social justice aims, we need to acknowledge the cruel
optimism already at work in archives. This first step is a significant challenge under
neoliberal structures and in the broader human condition of living and working in
the midst of the affective. It is work like Berlant’s that enables us to step back, to
drag ourselves out of the trenches even just momentarily, to really look at critical
issues in a broader perspective. Affect theory therefore offers crucial tools to get
ourselves unstuck, to move forward from being affectively overwhelmed in our
practices and professionalism and to make steps toward ending a bad relationship
and making social justice and change a reality.


The work of Ann Cvetkovich, Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant contributes to and
intervenes in the archival field by making visible, complicating and opening up
greater possibilities for more just archival practice, scholarship and professionalism.
Affect is a crucial dimension of envisioning and enacting social justice across
archival contexts, and affect theory is key to identifying and examining the
conditions, personal and societal, which have created injustice and oppression in the
past. Affect theory also offers theoretical tools for engaging in the present to
improve the ways we perform, to deepen our analyses and understandings, and to
contest and reinterpret archival functions and concerns, including appraisal,
witnessing and access and use, in the neoliberal period examined here. Finally,
affect theory offers needed avenues for challenging dominant normative structures
through which power, privilege and oppression are enacted, helping to ensure more
equitable and just futures in archives for all of those who are implicated by them. In
order to meet the needs of archival constituencies—individuals, communities,
institutions—past, present and future, as archivists and scholars, we must critically
consider affect and its theorization in archival practice and scholarship.
There is much more work to be done in conceptualizing how affect theory may
help us to reexamine archival scholarship and practice within social justice
frameworks and beyond. In particular, research is needed in developing what affect
means for relationships between archivists and communities, archivists and users
and archivists and record creators. More theoretical and applied work in particular is
needed to engage as well with the ‘‘ontological strain’’ of affect theory that uses
affect to describe the nature of reality, of being. This strain holds potential for
archival and other information scholars and practitioners particularly with regard to
the affects of surveillance (Ellis et al. 2013) and the transmission of affect (Brennan
2004) in archives. It is also important to note that there are distinct lines of
psychological inquiry into affect, also described as ‘‘affect theory.’’ Such work is
shaped by disciplinary expectations that are often focused on the categorization of
affects and operationally defining contours for particular sets of affects (Gregg and
Seigworth 2010, p. 7) with aims that are centered on the human psyche. It is a
potentially fruitful approach for nascent research examining the relations and
possibilities for collaboration between psychology and archival studies (Wallace
et al. 2014). Finally, multiple case studies are needed to explore how affect theory as

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approached through appraisal, witnessing and neoliberal ideologies can actually be

enacted in real world environments. This paper is but a first step in what I hope will
become a rich trajectory of research and practice on the intersections of affect
theory and archives.

Acknowledgments The University of California, Los Angeles’s Graduate Summer Research Mentor-
ship Program generously funded this research. The author would like to acknowledge Michelle Caswell
and Anne J. Gilliland for their mentorship, and along with those of Jesse Deshayes and Mario H. Ramirez,
for their critical and constructive suggestions. Comments from two anonymous reviewers were
instrumental in strengthening this piece and developing its social justice focus. The author would also like
to acknowledge all who have contributed to the ‘‘Archives and Emotion’’ bibliography begun by Kate

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Marika Cifor is a Ph.D. Pre-Candidate in Information Studies at the University of California, Los
Angeles (UCLA), where she is also pursuing a Concentration Certificate in Gender Studies. Her critical
archival studies research explores affects in and of archives, community archives, queer and feminist
theories, and collective memory. Her work has been published in Archival Science, American Archivist,
and TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Cifor is guest editor of the special issue of Archival Science on
‘‘Affect and the Archive’’ with Anne Gilliland and an editor of InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education
and Information Studies. She holds a MS in Library and Information Science with a Concentration in
Archives Management and an MA in History from Simmons College.