Visions from behind a desk? Archival performance and the re-enactment of colonial bureaucracy

Elizabeth V Haines

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)
186 Downloads (Pure)


Can ten weeks of archival research be considered a re-enactment of the daily life of black African clerks who created the records? What would such a claim entail when it is made by a white female scholar? Drawing from my experience of archival research in Zambia, and from recent enthusiasm in historical geography for ‘enlivening’ or ‘animating’ the past, I analyse what parameters would be necessary for this re-enactment to be considered a success. This paper explores how breaking up historical situations into units of gesture and experience affects the narrating of history. It asks what models of the self are implied by re-enactive historical investigation; in relation to the agency of historical actors, and also to the performativity of their original gestures. It argues that performative investigation of the social and cultural geographies of the subaltern sits uncomfortably with current scholarly practices in historical geography. This is in part because that work is largely carried out by lone scholars, but also because of the highly individualised, self-conscious and self-possessed modes through which the outcomes of performative research are narrated. Finally, borrowing the term ‘acts of transfer’ (from the performance scholar Diana Taylor), this paper proposes that this contemporary performance of clerical work is only one route through which the colonial past resonates, or acts, in the present. The lives of the colonial clerks were locked into structures of racial and socioeconomic inequality that survive outside my performance. Does ‘performing’ the past overwrite or obscure these other continuities? To avoid such an erasure, both the ethical consequences and epistemological goals of performative research in historical geography need to be more clearly articulated in relationship to the sociomaterial geographies of the present.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25–34
Number of pages9
Issue number1
Early online date30 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019


  • acts of transfer
  • archive
  • colonial history
  • material culture
  • re-enactment
  • Zambia


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