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Not long ago, I stole from the archive.

It wasn’t anything big. Nothing anyone would notice. In fact, it was a duplicate, one of two identical black-and-white photographs that had somehow ended up in this particular library collection.  It really was small. The photograph, a shoulders-up portrait of the individual whose archive the photo was housed in, was only a couple inches tall and wide, easily slipped between the pages of a notebook while the college-age archival assistants teased each other.

In the photograph, this individual, who will go on to become a successful scholar, is young. He gazes directly into the camera, and his gaze is soft, almost glazed-over. There is something serene about his expression, something very gentle, although from what I know about the scholar he has rarely been described as either of these things. He doesn’t seem happy, but he doesn’t look miserable, either. The man still lives; I have spoken to him once. But the man in the photograph is decades removed from the public figure he will eventually become, and appears as a complete stranger. I don’t know him and will never know him.

In the photo, he stares. I want to say it was the staring that made me want to have the photograph for my own; also, the fact that he had been desperately unhappy at the time the photograph was taken, unhappy in a “historical” way, i.e., he was traumatized. I knew this latter fact largely because of the letters he had written, which were also available in this university archive, full of syllabi, diary entries, press releases, and letters from deceased parents. Also, because of the books by and about him, which were not in the archive. It is an official archive – it contains his scholarly materials, the conferences he organized, the classes he taught – but also a record of his intimate, interior life. His has been a difficult life, punctuated and, in its way, punctured by the Holocaust. The individual survived, but many of his relatives did not. Also, he experienced serious romantic troubles. This I also know from the letters and books.

In this picture, though, he almost seems to smile. Some of the difficulty hasn’t happened yet. The past weighs on him, but it is still a historical past, a past he shares with many others, and not yet a personal one — the parts of his past I read about in books and letters have only partly transpired. In the photograph, there is still time for it all to go a different way.

I thought I might understand something particular about his unhappiness. As though in taking the picture, I was claiming it. As though in claiming it, we might meet.

I wasn’t stealing from posterity, I figured. I was hard pressed to imagine a future in which the fact of there being two of this photograph was particularly important. Future scholars would not deplore the loss of this photograph in lengthy, footnote-filled monographs. No one would be hurt, or even notice. And if he had wanted to keep this photo as a memento, an object that recalled his youth, he wouldn’t have donated it to a university.

What was I stealing from, then? Why did it feel so right, so pleasing, to simply take the photograph out of the folder I’d been examining, stick it between the pages of my notebook, and then leave with the notebook? What joy was I indulging in, besides the surface one of doing precisely what one is forbidden from doing? Was it sticking it to “the man,” a tiny act of resistance against the hulking institution that had taken stewardship of the scholar’s papers? (This, I decided, was an argument in bad faith – both because the scholar had expressly given the institution his papers, and because it was permitting me to make use of them, without a fee. In fact, I was hoping these papers would be the making of my master’s dissertation.)

And what did this desire mean, this fascination (hardly an eccentric or original one) with the archive? What was it about the archive that inspired desire in me, and was it political, or self-indulgent, or psychological, or something else entirely? If so, how? What does it mean to steal from an archive – not only this one, my petty theft of a photograph, but any archive, a different kind of archive?

This was one way of relating to the archive. I want to think about others.

                                                        *

Derrida would describe the desire, or fascination, I experienced as a fever. “We are en mal d’archive: in need of archives,” he wrote, in a book adapted from a 1994 speech he gave at the Freud Museum in London. This does not mean only to be ill. To be en mal d’archive is to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there’s too much of it, right where something in it anarchives itself. It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.

Here, as elsewhere in Derrida’s work, it is often difficult to distinguish between Derrida’s personal compulsions and those he ascribes to reality writ large. At times, he clearly conceives of the archive as a physical manifestation of state power; at others, he seems to be describing an extremely particular and even personal fixation on the autobiographical origin. Must we all be neurotic? Must we all search for impossible origins? But yes. He seems to be saying yes. When it comes to the archive, we all become ill, tormented by an impossible desire. It is a desire both small and enormous, a gaping wound of political-neurotic need.

This desire is like theft, because it has to do with compulsion and possession, completion and transgression. Even a relatively small archive like the one I visited is likely to have more documents in it than one person can reasonably cover. What I wanted was to take it all home with me, as though, in doing so, I might piece together some truer or better version of the past. I was haunted by the possibility that the document I needed lay just out of reach – in one of the boxes I had decided not to request, for example, or in the letters I lacked the time to decipher. I thought about open stacks libraries, and the importance of browsing. I wanted to stay in the archive for longer, to extend my research visit, to sleep there, maybe – but I also wanted to leave, immediately, as soon as the archive closed, because it was terrifying to think that each passing moment was a moment in which I could either find the document I’d been searching for for months, or pass over it forever, dooming myself to a wasted visit and an uninspired dissertation. Each new page was an answer, or else a wormhole to despair. I wouldn’t be coming back.

                                                            *

In 1833, the nineteenth-century French historian Jules Michelet, documenting his first days in the Archives Nationales of Paris, described his inhalation of the literal detritus of the archive as a kind of resurrection: “[A]s I breathed their dust,” he wrote of the “nameless dead” whose papers he touched, “I saw them rise up.” He’s being literal, kind of – there’s a lot of dust in this archive, seated in the cracks and surfaces of papers that haven’t been touched in years. But there’s also a figurative angle to it, of course. Recounting this episode in Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (2002), British scholar Carolyn Steedman writes that Michelet typifies a certain understanding, on the part of historians, of their relationship to the past. Through reading and writing about these papers, and the countless deceased individuals whose lives they document, the historian has the power to reanimate. It’s a powerful idea: the idea that history can bring back the dead, or at least conjure a kind of ghostly image of them for long enough to teach us something.

But then Steedman flips the script. Maybe, she writes, in combing through the papers of the dead, the historian also brings death to himself. After all, we might as well be more explicit than Michelet in describing what, precisely, the historian breathes in. What kind of dust was this? Perhaps it was “the dust of the workers who made the papers and parchments”; and also, maybe, the dust of “the animals who provided the skins for their leather bindings. … the by-product of all the filthy trades that have, by circuitous routes, deposited their end-products in the archives.” Tellingly, in Steedman’s imagining, the dust emanates from entirely different kinds of bodies – those of the working class, and the animals through whose skins they perform their labor. And behind all these references, of course, Steedman wants to speak, though very faintly, of the enslaved, those individuals transported and deposited by the “filthy trades” of nineteenth-century Europe. Their dust, above all, fills and sustains this archive, suffuses it and pervades it. Might not this dust, then – the dust of the oppressed – get under the nails of the (now explicitly marked) historian, seep into his lungs, settle somewhere close to the skin? Might we not wonder whether “it was not life that he breathed into ‘the souls who had suffered so long ago and who were smothered now in the past’, but death, that he took into himself, with each lungful of dust”? Roland Barthes believed Michelet really ate history; did it make him ill? What will it do to us? And what of the photograph at the bottom of my desk drawer, surely emitting its own imperceptible particles with each passing day?

Moving up to the present, Steedman sketches out a scenario that she believes historians, especially those working in English history, will likely recognize. The fever, she tells us, occurs toward the end of the historian’s visit, perhaps the second to last day in the record office. Lying in bed that night, the historian thinks, “I could get to hate these people [the ones whose documents are stored in the archive]; and then: I can never do these people justice; and finally: I shall never get it done. … You know you will not finish, that there will be something left unread, unnoted, untranscribed.” The historian cannot sleep; she burns up. She is consumed by the thought of this archive, by her work. Yet Steedman is wryly describing a literal illness, “epidemiology … not metaphor.” (Although it is highly unlikely, she notes, that “the medical condition of ‘archive fever’ … has ever been experienced by anyone, especially she who claims it.”) Breathing in the literal dust of the archive, the researcher becomes literally ill. It’s a joke, but also a way of pointing to the intimacy between bodies across time. That which is made from the bodies of the past can still hurt the present-day body of the researcher. Steedman’s reading of the archive, then, emphasizes the curious life-in-death of archives, their ongoing participation in contemporary cycles of violence and political turmoil. But also because it is an intentional reading of history as active and changing, with consequences for the present day. History, Steedman reminds us, is not merely something we impress ourselves upon – “recovering,” “discovering,” and “reanimating” the stuff of the archives – but something that impresses itself on us, every day, in ways explicit and implicit. Sometimes, very literally, it makes us sick.

The archival experience that Steedman, Michelet, and Derrida describe, of course, is not universal. (Steedman notes this in the beginning of her book, but goes on to make generalizations anyway.) It is what happens when you look for white people in the archives.

More generally: it is what happens when you look at an archive the way the creators of the archive intended you to. This is the point that historian Jennifer L. Morgan makes in her afterword to a special issue of the journal Social Text on “Slavery, Freedom, and the Archive.” Morgan, whose work focuses on gender and the black Atlantic, finds Derrida useful (to some degree), and recognizes the beauty of Steedman’s work. But she finds that there is something missing from their work that she wants to draw out: it is the weight of responsibility, under which Morgan and her colleagues who work on “people and places that are understood as outside of or marginal to the archival project of nation building” have long labored. They, too, suffer from “archival maladies,” Morgan writes, but these maladies have more to do with the political imperative for their work to correct archival erasures and right endemic wrongs. There is so much to be corrected. For them, the archive is a complex site not only of power but of “the counternarrative, or at least … its possibility,” always an opportunity or necessity to confront exclusionary power head-on. Is responsibility an affect? Steedman’s illness – the kind of affect she attaches to the archive, an exhaustion and desire to compile that will always be rendered impossible by the sheer, overwhelming amount of material – is not universal. My photograph existed. Yet for historians of the black Atlantic, Morgan writes, the prevailing emotional state of the archive is non-emotion, a rebuff to emotion. It’s a disappointing numbness defined by the absolute scarcity of archival information, the process “of turning page after page of a record book from a seventeenth-century probate court scanning for the word negro or woman in a kind of stupor that threatens to render you intellectually dead.” In this case, Morgan writes, “the flotsam is not indefinite heaps as much as lethargic silence, as failure after failure to find the people you were looking for – even as you know, absolutely and assuredly, that they were there.” Fever motivates, produces its own mania; Morgan’s stupor, however, is depleting and flattening. It poses an existential threat to the scholar, without offering the urgency or energy of fever.

This is not – or not quite – where Narungga poet and scholar Natalie Harkin ends up in her forthcoming book of theory-poetry, Archival-Poetics, but it’s closer than what Steedman offers. Harkin’s conditions aren’t quite the same, of course. There is material in the archives, which, in this case, are the early twentieth-century colonial archives of Australia, although it is disturbing material that tells the story of twentieth-century Australian colonization from the colonizers’ perspective. Scanning the pages of this archive, full of dust that surely lingers in her lungs, surely leaves its mark, Harkin searches for signs of life. “I sit between 200 pages,” she writes, on one side of the page, “file-note archives / a portion of a life / under state control.” In its own column, separated from the first by the expanse of the page, this life begins to take shape: “she is rarely named / simply their ‘girl.’” As she continues to delve, Harkin develops a sustained portrait of a young Aboriginal girl, separated from her family and forced to work as a maid in a white woman’s house. Stripped of her land, her language, and her community, the girl comes to lose even her legal status as an indigenous person,

The girl is not really one girl, of course; she is an amalgam, a false unity, both the hypothetical union of all the material at the margins of archival documents and the outline of a real person who must have existed. Mostly, she exists in documents, which fill the pages of Archival-Poetics, much as they do the archive itself. There are documents presented in quotations, in scanned images, in repurposed lines; documents full of commonplace violences, plainly written out: “The problem of dealing with the aboriginal population,” one Royal Commission from 1913 states, “’is … now one of assisting and training the native so that he may become a useful member of the community.” This quote rests below a series of job titles and honorifics, each one separated from the other by a vertical line, so that we begin with “Aborigines Department” and end with “Archivist.” The message is clear: the distance between these two administrative positions is very small, at times nonexistent. The archivist works within and is an extended arm of an old colonial system, one whose information Harkin badly wishes to excavate. But to reach inside it is also to endure an image of herself, and of Aboriginal women in the twentieth century and now, represented as the State once saw them, as perhaps it still does.

My photograph, as I like to think of it, meant little to me, apart from the context. I didn’t see myself in the archive from which it was taken, although I did wonder about certain aspects of the scholar’s youth – what it would have been like to live in Europe as a Jew after the Holocaust, what my relatives would have looked like in similar photographs. Still, if anything, it was the lack of self-reflection that made it appealing. When I took the photograph, I entered myself into the archive. Petty theft created a bond that had not existed previously, something to tie me to those papers and the person who had collected them. The instinct was not unlike that of taking a souvenir – an act that is often akin to a kind of theft – and the bond it created was similarly one-sided. To the seller, the buyer is merely another tourist who wishes to take back something of the place they are visiting; to the buyer, this object may be the one lasting trace of a place one now feels a meaningful relationship to. This disparity is even more troubling if the place you are visiting should belong to you in some way, if it is in fact the place you have come from in some way, a place you feel is yours. Many books, of course, document the experience of the immigrant’s descendants, both near and distant, who return only to be greeted as strangers. In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the descendants issue not from immigrants but from enslaved people; when Nettie, Samuel, and Corrinne travel to Liberia as missionaries, no one they meet there will apologize or recognize them as kin.

Harkin is intimately linked to the many women in the colonial archives, who are separated from her by archivists, institutions, and, of course, time. Through the course of the book, she begins to assume the voice of these women, who are also one woman, who is really a girl. “State Lady facilitates my movements,” Harkin writes. “State Lady observes: she is very fond of her own people and is looking forward to going home.” State Lady tells Harkin’s “I” to carry ID everywhere she goes, State Lady sniffs at her kitchen. State Lady’s diaries are available for Harkin to view in this colonial archive, but the “I” of this fragment, the woman whose movements are recorded and desires regulated, is available only as State Lady’s maid, a maid who may become white. A scanned form from 1941 on the preceding page shows us the viability of this option: [Redacted] has, on the 20th of October, been “exempted from the provisions of the Aborigines Act, 1934-1939”; [redacted] shall now “cease to be an aborigine for the purposes of the said Act” (25). Later, even more explicit: “The whole question of how to transform these people, who are gradually becoming whiter, into a useful race who will be able to maintain themselves, is a very difficult and serious problem,” writes W.G. South, the “Chief Protector of Aboriginals,” in 1922.

Harkin is intent on reclaiming this girl/woman, writing, in a poem entitled “Ode to the Board of Anthropological Research,” “she’s not your hybrid-‘between-world’-wonder nor your noble-wretched-girl … shoot her body once again down the barrel of your camera drag her image through your lens. you will never know her fully.” In prose-adjacent verse, Harkin describes the many ways in which indigenous Australian women’s bodies have been violated, in the flesh and in print, by missionary, scientist, lady-of-the-house, photographer, doctor, and historian. The violence has not ended, Harkin wants to make clear. The poem is addressed to a “you,” and while the “you” is ostensibly an archaic one – the Board of Anthropological Research no longer exists – Harkin’s urgency is contemporary. There is a way in which she finds herself in the archive, a way in which she asserts her kinship to the buried women/woman/girl, but it’s a twisted and distorted image of herself, at times utterly unrecognizable. The kinship is fraught and heavily mediated. Such images, of course, have the power to reinscribe.

Which brings me back to theft, I think. “she’s not your hybrid,” Harkin writes. “we’ll recover I’ll reclaim no you will never know her fully never know us never know you will never know her fully never know.” I think of the shoplifter, fueled by a sense of injustice: this should be mine. What history does to us, all that dust in our throats, lingering under our fingernails, in our noses, tickling something in the backs of our throats. History is made of bodies, of course, is nothing if not a body count. Once, after a music festival, I spit black spit and wondered what had reached up inside me, what was now coming out the only way it could. What kind of dust do we breathe in every day, and where (or who) does it come from? How does it make itself known? At a public talk at my university, an English professor asked a geologist what she would find in the soil of a plantation field, what to look for among all that marked dirt and roots. I don’t think she was looking for bones, but something else, the natural traces of what had happened, what had been done, traces no human could fully erase or talk away. What does the soil retain? I think this might be a meeting place between Derrida and Morgan, the search for roots – literal roots – a tracing back to something you can touch. What other ways are there to reassemble the girl, to not reassemble the girl, to think about the desire to reassemble the girl and never be able, finally, to really reassemble the girl.

“It is much too late for the accounts of death to prevent other deaths,” writes literary scholar Saidiya Hartman in her groundbreaking essay, “Venus in Two Acts,” “and it is much too early for such scenes of death to halt other crimes. But in the meantime, in the space of the interval … our lives are coeval with the girls in the as-yet-incomplete project of freedom. In the meantime, it is clear that her life and ours hang in the balance.” Hartman is a scholar of African-American literature and history, and her archive is the archive of slavery, her girl the “dead girl named in a legal indictment against a slave ship captain.” Hartman calls her Venus, Black Venus. “The barracoon, the hollow of the slave ship, the pest-house, the brothel, the cage … turn out to be exactly the same place and in all of them she is called Venus.” Venus is hundreds of thousands of girls, Venus’ stories are not about Venus but about something else. Venus defies narrative, because the stories about her are few, and almost always written by the people who enslaved and abused her.

Most crucially, Hartman’s essay grapples with the likelihood that merely by attempting to tell such a story, she risks reinscribing it. The “Aborigines Department,” if followed to its logical end, will bring us back to “archivist.” Venus is un-put-back-together-able, a long string of lost people in history. But there must still be a way to learn something, a way to redeem Venus. Is narrative its own end, Hartman asks? For whom? Her silent archive is a project based on loss and desire, but also a search for a way to respect and even accommodate this knowledge of irreparability and impossibility. Archival work, for Hartman, is an experience in waste and nothingness, an “intimacy … with the lives of the dead.” She seeks to imagine a “free state, not as the time before captivity or slavery, but rather as the anticipated future of this writing.”

There’s something so poignant about the archives being a search for a lost girl, a girl no one can find again. I think of all the times I nearly lost that photograph from the archive, all the times I tucked it into one folder or another and forgot about it for months. There was something I wanted from that photograph that I would never get from the man who had once been its subject, something lost, and I never did find it. I look at it still to remind me that I was there, that I breathed in and continue to breathe in the dust of America and its crimes – and also, perhaps, that things really do make their way back out of the archive.

Jacqueline Krass is a writer and PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison