From May 15-22, I had the pleasure of visiting eastern Cuba for the annual meeting of the Canadian Anthropology Society, which was held this year in Santiago de Cuba and organized by the University of Victoria. This was my first time in Cuba and it was an amazing experience - from the history and culture, to the wonderful people and incredible music!
I had the pleasure of being on a panel with Dr. Larisa Kurtović (UOttawa) and Dr. Saulesh Yessenova (UCalgary), entitled "Implicated by the Archive: the Political Work of Activist Archives."
My paper was entitled: "Remembering the Radicalism of Communism: Archival Ontology and the Production of History in the former Yugoslavia." Here's the long abstract:
In order to read archives “against the grain” (Benjamin), anthropologists and historians have reminded us that all archives are constructed. They do not simply exist in untainted form; they are sometimes swept up, collected, but most often produced and subject to the hegemonic knowledges of a particular historical period (Farge, Stoler). Much of the scholarship in ‘the archival turn’ has focused on situating documents with the place and moment of their production (Stoler, Dirks). These documents are then re-interpreted while taking into account co-temporaneous power relations. Hegemonic knowledge itself is imbued with stability and permanence in relation to the document. Rarely do we historicize the status of hegemonic knowledge however – that is, rarely do we attempt to understand the changing status of archives – their biographies - and therefore the instability of archival documents’ meaning. What is hegemonic in one period rarely remains so over the longer course of societies. In particular, archival documents detailing political activism and radical political engagement are subject to changing regimes, and therefore differing approaches to knowledge and narrative.
In this paper, I examine the history and uses of one set of archival documents from Bosnia and Herzegovina: a collection of over 1000 memoirs of Yugoslav Communist Party members from the 1930s and 1940s. I argue that the meaning of these documents and their history can only be understood by considering all of the three major regime shifts since the 1930s in south-eastern Europe; these memoirs’ differing meanings under each political reality influenced their production, circulation and today, their inevitable destruction. Each period reveals not only the changing demands of the reflexivity required to interpret activist archives and agendae, but also how fragile and fleeting document status and interpretation can be even in an incredibly short period of time.
The memoir collection in question traces the experiences of Yugoslav Communist youth in the 1930s and 1940s, describe their integration into illegal Communist activities and their transition from civilian political activists to paramilitary officers in the anti-fascist Partisan army (NOV) in World War II. The production of these memoirs began in the 1930s when Communist youth had to actively hide any evidence or trace of their political activism. However, they were also recorded, circulated and emplaced into archives after World War II on the authority of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugsolavia, as part of a larger state-wide memoir-gathering project. Although once described as illegal and dangerous in the 1930s Kingdom of Yugoslavia, this Communist activism was extolled, and memoirs of heroism, transformation and radicalism became normative and hegemonic in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Today, these documents remain critical as their future is in question. Upon the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords and the creation of a federated Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, two ethically-based territorial entities were also created: The Federation (of Croats and Muslims), and the (Serb) Republic of Srpska. Mirroring state structures, archives have also been divided along ethnic lines over the past twenty years with documents ‘re’patriated across entity lines to create ethnically homogenous archives. And so, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s archival documents, like its citizens, have been ethnically marked, divided and territorialized into their new post-Dayton archives. This collection of Partisan memoirs is a particularly crucial set of documents for it contests new nationalist histories being written in Bosnia and Herzegovina through their insistence on labour mobilization across ethnic lines. The narratives in these memoirs are negated in the former Yugoslavia today. As a result, thousands of archival documents across the country, such as these memoirs, are not being properly conserved and effectively being allowed to ‘disappear’ through institutional yet politically motivated ‘neglect.’
If not only documents, but also archives are so unstable in their relationship to knowledge and power, how are we to understand the status of both normative and radical politics? What is their relation? Are all attempts to interpret political activism actually counter-archival in that they must necessarily recognize archival ontology as emergent from an “incomplete and unstable repository” (Kashmere)?