Working Paper 141

Fieldwork Between Folders: fragments, traces, and the ruins of colonial archives

Patrice Ladwig, Ricardo Roque, Oliver Tappe, Christoph Kohl, Cristiana Bastos

Department ‘Resilience and Transformation in Eurasia’

Year of publication

Number of pages

Working Paper 141

This essay conceptualises the colonial archive as a product of processes of ruination. Taking its inspiration from recent studies of archival spaces, the three case studies on Portuguese, French, and Guinea-Bissauan colonial archives explore the ruptures, discontinuities, and silences inherent in such archives. With reference to Walter Benjamin’s writing of history and its recent applications in anthropology and history, the authors investigate the conditions, possibilities, and limitations of fieldwork in archives. Fragmentation, ruptures, and decay are not only understood as negative, but as productive processes. This perspective helps to shed light on the relevance of the historical materials that have survived as colonial debris and can provide traces that allow for developing unusual perspectives on the colonial past. By proposing methodologies to deal with these fragments, and by pointing to parallels in ethnographic fieldwork, the essay emphasises the processual character of data collection in the archive and the materials and documents themselves. Archives are, in this sense, less the static places of where facts lie waiting to be rescued, but places of the recurrent regrouping and transformation of facts through on-going ruination and fragment accumulation.

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