The RE Project

Daniela Nofal: Liquid Archives 

Written by Daniela Nofal. Published on …

This essay draws on the imaginary of the seas and oceans as archives. It presents an attempt to move beyond the dominant structures and processes that constitute the modern archives, to explore alternative modes of remembering and evoking the past.

Let us direct our gaze outwards, towards the open seas and oceans. These liquid formations cover up to 70% of our planet’s surface. They have connected and separated lands over the ages, whilst their watery surfaces have witnessed the movements and crossings of peoples throughout history. Oftentimes, they have silently borne witness to the submersions and drownings that have pierced their surfaces. Their variegated depths are marked by the deposits of sedimentation of histories, cultures, and material traces. Underwater currents morph these fluid bodies into mobile vessels, carrying the remaining traces and fragments of the seemingly no-longer-here.

Seas and oceans, as with archives, emerge as mnemonic formations where traces of the so-called past have been and continue to be deposited. Under their surfaces lies a repository of memories, of fragments of time, of the long-dormant and forgotten. Now and again, a sudden revival takes place, as material traces unexpectedly are washed ashore, moving back once more into our frame of visibility. By following such a reading of seas and oceans as archives, the similarities between both can begin to sediment and take shape. In an attempt to look beyond the similarities, beyond the familiar, I will set out to navigate these watery territories to discover what new set of possibilities may arise from such a close reading: How can such an imaginary engender novel ways of reading and handling archives? And, importantly, how can thinking from these watery depths inform the ways in which we evoke the past, remember it, and carry it with us into the future?

PHOTO Daniela Nofal

Archives, Absences, and the Narrative of History

Archival institutions today are increasingly hailed to be the cornerstones of modernity tasked with the responsibility of preserving the past in the name of the future. Information that is held within their confines often undergoes processes of examination, categorization, classification, and documentation. By way of such processes that set out to regulate and reorder fragmented narratives, archives play a critical role in determining our knowledge of the past and gaining control over the retelling of History, thus deciding what it is that we remember and take with us into the future. The writing of History with a capital ‘H’ here is intentional. History, as we know it, is socially constructed; it draws on evidence and facts to neatly plot events against a linear timeline, one that extends from the past to the present and into the future. I draw on the poignant words of Saidiya Hartman, who aptly reminds us that “History pledges to be faithful to the limits of fact, evidence, and archive, even as those dead certainties are produced by terror.” Hartman’s words are a nod to the exclusions and omissions that arise from such a positivist orientation; an orientation that prioritizes the visible (evidence) and verifiable (fact) and overlooks the invisible, immaterial, and disappeared.

Missing Accounts

We must only enter the archives on slavery to notice the impossibility of the impartiality of archives. What we begin to notice is, on the one hand, the abundance of the violent accounts and statements by slave owners that legitimize the perpetration and violation of those they hold captive, and on the other hand, the striking absence of the accounts of the enslaved. When there is nobody tasked with receiving, recovering, and preserving the realities and memories of those captured, subjected, and killed, how can we, if at all, recall the fullness of their lives? The incommensurability of these divergent experiences, coupled with the impossibility of fairly presenting an exhaustive account of the lives of the enslaved through narrative alone, leaves us confronted by the gaping holes, the troubling absences, and the screaming silences that haunt our tellings of history. We begin to see that we are confronted by a hierarchy of discourse, one that is reinforced by prevailing methods of historiographic narration, that set out to fill in the gaps that disturb History’s retellings. Such processes inflict the same violence that was committed against those whose lives, histories, and modes of existence were forced to silently wither away. 

Exploring Blind Spots

When those of us that dwell in the archive find that the institutions that are tasked with preserving memory fail to recognize our histories and the histories of our ancestors as experienced by them, is this not then an insidious form of violence that is repeatedly committed against us? Are we not denied our right to access the past as we remember it? In light of this sobering reality, how can we then begin to attempt to retell subaltern, negated, and repressed histories sustained and suspended within the archive? How can we move away from such an evidence-based approach to historiography and begin to enact a methodology that tends to the unavailable, invisible and inaudible?

Reading Oceans

Let us abandon the shore and tread lightly in the water, sensing the waves’ ebbs and flows against our ankles. Unlike archives, which set out to preserve memory and hold on with an impassioned fervor to the material traces of the past, these watery territories have been demarcated for hundreds of years as sites of erasure and disappearance, where material histories and peoples have been thrust out of view and expunged from memory.

Regarding Policies

We do not need to look very far for evidence of this. Since 2014, the number of migrant lives lost to the waters of the Central Mediterranean Sea has reached 23,720, as per the International Organisation for Migration. European nations have actively and deliberately kept the Mediterranean Sea out of the frame of visibility, but they have also transformed it into a site of surveillance, territorialization, and policing. Systematically, hostile policies directed at those seeking refuge, as well as those involved in search and rescue operations, set out to ‘protect’ Fortress Europe from the ‘threats’ migrants pose. Not only are their movements made imperceptible, but also, through the use of such rhetoric, their humanity is denied and their lives devalued.

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PHOTO Daniela Nofal

Today, we must reckon with the painful reality that far too many innocent lives have been lost out at sea, out of view. Little to nothing is known about the individuals who die at sea, or about the families that survive them. Cruelly, the legacies of those that perish at sea live on in rising death tolls, which are instrumentalized by politicians globally and used to foster a collective memory centered around fear and trepidation. Just like that, their lives are reduced to an inanimate number, another addition to a record somewhere out there. Far too many of us are complicit in these atrocities that are committed, as we stand by and silently witness innocent people drown out at sea. Our humanity suffers every time we fail to see through the damaging rhetoric that is fed to us. When we fail to see beyond such singular narratives, not only does this shape what it is that we remember, but also what memories we carry with us into the future. This is perhaps why history is allowed to and continues to, repeat itself, time and time again.  What we remember, and how we remember, matters.

Oceans as Archives

I turn to the work of Renisa Mawani, whose research explores the centrality of archives and historical records to histories of law and legality. In a paper titled “Archival Legal History: Towards the Ocean as Archive,” Mawani expands on the notion of the ocean as a legal archive. She writes, “Oceans expand law’s archive from words and texts to objects, artifacts, specters, and spirits. As an aqueous domain that materializes the tension between what can be known and unknown, the sea calls forth a productive mode of writing archival legal history, one that moves beyond the positivist orientation of retrieval and recovery.” These watery territories thus present us with a site for navigating the tensions between what is recorded and what is forgotten, between evidence and absence. It points towards the limitations of memory, as well as that of the archive. As with archives, the seas and oceans emerge as sites of struggle and contestation. Tacitly, such sites call on us to engage in radical and unconventional modes of remembering and rewriting of histories to unlock counter-narratives that dismantle and question the objectivity of dominant historical discourses and narratives. Herein, lies the possibility for liberation.

Residence Time

Now, let us go deeper. Let us submerge our bodies in the water and swim out to the horizon, where the water meets the sky. In contrast with the archive, which is presented within a fixed temporal frame, where the temporal register of the past is neatly organized, packaged, and closed off, the fluidity of seas and oceans alike points towards an unconventional, but perhaps also a necessary way of reading time. Here, I am accompanied by the important and pertinent work of Christina Sharpe. In her seminal book titled, In The Wake: In Blackness and Being, she discusses the notion of ‘residence time’ with Anne Gradulski, Associate Professor in Sedimentology and Stratigraphy at Tufts University. According to Gradulski, ‘Residence Time’ is “the amount of time it takes for a substance to enter the ocean and then leave the ocean,” and human blood, she goes on to add, has a residence time of 260 million years. Significantly, this brings us to reckon with the material reality that, contrary to what we are led to believe, the bodies and histories banished to the no-longer-here continue to exist and move with and through us. Although invisible, unreachable and most likely no longer in their original forms, their spectral presence is undeniable. This beckons us to recognize that water remembers. Water has memory. This vibrancy and fluidity of the waters then also reminds us of the instability and mutability of history, as fragments of the past emerge and resurface over time. 

PHOTO Daniela Nofal

Drifting with this understanding, that the present is inhabited by the past, we must revert our attention to the archive once more, to critically call into question the histories, narratives, and conditions that it proclaims to have in fact ended in the past. Once more, I am guided by Christina Sharpe’s writings, where she animates the metaphor of ‘the wake’, drawing on its multiplicitous meanings: ‘the wake’ meaning “the keeping watch with the dead, the path of a ship, a consequence of something, in the line of flight and/or sight, awakening, and consciousness.” By way of her interrogations of the present, she critically demonstrates the many ways in which we continue to live in the wake of slavery, that “to be in the wake is to occupy and to be occupied by the continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding.” Continued disasters, contemporary maritime migrations, colonial extractivism, and foreign interventions are but a few of the many ways in which we inhabit the afterlives of slavery, which is still unfolding today. Sharpe illustrates the various ways in which the tragic loss of life to the Mediterranean Sea is rooted in a long history of slavery when millions of Africans were thrown, dumped, or even jumped overboard in the Middle Passage. Are we not then confronted by and witness to the stark reality that, until this day, some lives are more valuable than others? Are we not still haunted by the legacies, logics, and arithmetics of colonialism and racism, which are proclaimed to have ended long ago? Importantly, this asks of us to revisit held convictions that our entry into modernity has signified a break with past violent histories of colonialism and racism, and instead brings about a necessary and overdue realization that the present is fundamentally structured and built upon those very foundations that we believed to have let go of long ago.

Archives Re-imagined

By turning to the seas and oceans as dynamic sites of memory and remembering, my intention has not been to argue against archives, but rather to point to their unevenness and constitutive limitations as well as the shortcomings in dominant historiographical processes of narration. What begins to become apparent is that we are confronted by a need to materialize forms of memorialization that bring about necessary reparations, that prevent the reinforcement and repetition of all-too-familiar forms of violence. What this necessarily calls forth is the myriad of ways of writing counter-histories that challenge the singular authority of the archive and counter the mainstream discourses of History; where the universal alone does not take hold but allows for a pluralization of histories and archives for multiplicities to exist; where alternative evidentiary forms can be incorporated, which allow us to recuperate forgotten truths and aid claims to justice; where we can engage in what Hartman calls ‘narrative restraint’, where we respectfully refuse to fill in the gaps and provide closure; and where blinding temporal frameworks can be dispelled, allowing us to respond and resist the ongoing and invisibilized subjection in the present.

I regard such efforts to be, what Christina Sharpe calls ‘wake work’, which encompasses the myriad of ways to write, read and think in “new ways to live in the wake of slavery, in slavery’s afterlives.” Thinking with the seas and oceans then grants us access to traces and fragments of the no-longer-here; access that not only helps inform our understandings of the past but also, importantly, sheds light on how they touch upon the present and inform our desires for a liberated future. To read the archive from this aqueous perspective then, where the seas and oceans are defined by their fluidity, movement, and vibrancy, can unsettle the solid law of the land. It teaches us how to tend to the invisible, the absent, and the spectral, to open up generative spaces from which we can begin to look, see and feel the world differently. These watery bodies provide an ideal foundation to reflect on the conditions of the archive, its limitations and to point to alternative modes of remembering and evoking the past.