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Karen Sánchez-Eppler: “In the Archives of Childhood”
April 14, 2011 @ 2:00 pm - 3:30 pm | Humanities 1, Room 520
Karen Sánchez-Eppler is Professor of American Studies and English at Amherst College. She is the author of Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body (California, 1993) and Dependent States: The Child’s Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Chicago, 2005), and a founding co-editor of The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth. She is spending this year as a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center where she is completing a project on manuscript books entitled The Unpublished Republic: Manuscript Culture of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century United States, and beginning a new one, In the Archives of Childhood, which probes the relations between our different ways of holding the past. Her talk at Santa Cruz draws from the introduction to this new project, examining the intersection of archival practice and childhood studies in an effort to illuminate the attractions and limitations of both.
“Archive Fever” as Jacques Derrida describes it, epitomizes the infectious desire to locate and possess origins. For scholarship in the humanities the “archival turn” proves to have much in common with the study of childhood. Both have been there all along: the repositories of our cultural and personal pasts. In many ways, for each of us, childhood is the archive, a treasure-box of the formative and the forgotten. Yet until the last few decades both our archives and our childhoods have remained largely under-theorized sites of origin. My talk will examine the intersection of archival practice and childhood studies in an effort to illuminate the attractions and limitations of both. Childhood manuscripts and documents demonstrate the potential of archival work for gaining access to children’s voices, experiences, and everyday life. Looking beyond this utility, I hope to suggest how an attention to childhood may help rethink the nature of archival records, organization, and purpose itself. The traces of childhood found in archives tend toward the ephemeral—the scrap and the scribble far more likely than the tome—and thus puts pressure on the claims and nature of preservation and valuation. What constitutes the trivial as trivial? If childhood is ephemeral by nature—a stage to be outgrown—then what can it teach us about the archival tasks of keeping and cataloging? Age is not generally a classificatory category for archival holdings, a fact that exemplifies the expressions of power at stake in the way knowledge is organized. Children tend to appear in archives in two ways, on the fringes of collections of individual or family papers, a residue of domestic life that accompanies the valuable work of adults, for whose prominence these materials have been saved; and in the records of those institutions charged with the protection, punishment, and education of the young. Thus to think about childhood in the archives is to think about the tensions and collaborations between individual and institutional frames, affection and control, fame and loss. This will be a speculative discussion, but one that theorizes from particular childhood stuff.