Guest Lecture: Michelle Caswell

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 12:00pm to 1:00pm

Ehrlicher Room, North Quad

Imagining Archives Against Annihilation: Data, Theory, Practice


In the 1970s, feminist scholars first proposed the term “symbolic annihilation” to describe the ways in which women are absent, underrepresented, or misrepresented in mainstream media. Taking this concept as a starting point, the first part of this talk will examine the ways in which mainstream archival practice has symbolically annihilated communities of color and LGBTQ communities. In the face of such symbolic annihilation, minoritized communities have formed their own independent community-based archives that empower them to establish, enact, and reflect on their presence in ways that are complex, meaningful, and substantive. Based on empirical interviews and focus groups with dozens of community archives founders, staff, and users, Caswell will propose a tripartite structure for assessing the affective impact of such archives on the individuals and communities they serve: ontological impact (in which members of minoritized communities get confirmation “I am here”); epistemological impact (in which members of minoritized communities get confirmation “we were here”); and social impact (in which members of minoritized communities get confirmation “we belong here”). Moving from the empirical to the theoretical, Caswell will then examine the relationship between symbolic and actual annihilation. Symbolic annihilation both precedes and succeeds actual annihilation in that minoritized communities are rendered nonexistent, invisible, or expendable before they are subject to violence, and then, after violence, such acts are often rendered invisible or expunged from the record, magnifying and mimicking the violence itself. Finally, this talk will engage the speculative, ending with a provocation for archivists to “imagine otherwise,” that is, to conceive of and build a world in which communities of color and LGBTQ communities are fully empowered to represent their past, construct their present, and envision more just futures. 

Speaker Bio

Michelle Caswell, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Archival Studies in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), where she also holds a joint appointment with Asian American studies. Her work in critical archival studies engages how individuals and communities activate archives to forge identities, create robust representations, and produce feelings of belonging. Caswell directs a team of students at UCLA’s Community Archives Lab, which explores the ways that independent, identity-based memory organizations document, shape, and provide access to the histories of minoritized communities, with a particular emphasis on understanding their affective, political, and artistic impact. In 2008, together with Samip Mallick, Caswell co-founded the South Asian American Digital Archive, an online repository that documents and provides access to the stories of South Asian Americans. She is the author of the book Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory and the Photographic Record in Cambodia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), winner of the Waldo Gifford Leland Award for best monograph from the Society of American Archivists, as well as more than three dozen peer-reviewed articles. In 2014, she edited a special double issue of Archival Science on archives and human rights, in 2017 she co-guest edited a special issue of The Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies on critical archival studies, and she is currently co-editing a special issue of Archival Science on decolonization. Her work has defined and refined core concepts in critical archival studies, including archival imaginaries, community archives, imagined records, radical empathy, survivor-centered archives, and most recently, feminist standpoint appraisal.