On Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History
I should observe, in opening, that Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (2001) possesses the unique capacity to move an academic, and specifically one situated in the humanities, to archives and information management. In my case, Steedman’s work contributed to my decision to enroll in an archives management M.S. program in library and information science, after fifteen years as an adjunct and junior faculty member specializing in 20th-21st century Anglophone literatures and literary history. But the volume responsible for actually making archivists would, I think, be the text affectionately and acronymically known to professionals in the field as “DACS”: Describing Archives: A Content Standard, an annually updated publication of the Society of American Archivists, and one an archives management professor with whom I studied described as her favorite bedside reading. She was only half-joking, I think. If the careful, planned organization and management of institutions’, and other, usually absent people’s, intellectual property happens to be your thing, the implementation of DACS answers the need for a system that creates knowledge about, and through, that process. DACS enables archivists to generate particular, regulatory forms of “metadata” for collections of materials—and, metadata is, itself, a term one hears a lot when archivists, librarians, and information science professionals speak about archives, and somewhat less frequently, when scholars in the humanities do so.
As an archivist, you can be presented with the purposeful chaos of a metaphorical “junk drawer,” so to speak, of materials to organize, and create navigational tools for: a grouping of items whose complete contents the original owner(s) and donor(s) may or may not have been entirely aware of, having consigned them, instead, to a state of intentional, discreetly cordoned-off disorganization. Or, you might encounter the junk drawer’s antithesis—a collection of materials over which an owner/donor actively maintained a complex system of formal organization and preservation. Jon Ronson’s excellent documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (2008) captures this latter sense, as one of the best filmic defenses of the central archival principles of “provenance” and “respect des fonds,” and of the profession’s commitment, articulated through those principles, both to accounting for the unique derivations of individual instances of intellectual property, and to preserving the meticulous methods people adopt to organize their accumulated “stuff” (another useful term deployed in that documentary). But in either case—junk drawer, or Kubrick’s personally-designed boxes and creative filing methods—archival management acknowledges and reflects the labor of identifying, organizing, processing, and preserving, institutions’, and other people’s, accumulated stuff—while establishing comprehensive navigational tools that establish that stuff’s collected, knowable accessibility, for present and future publics.
As my use of the term “knowable” probably gives away, certain analogies can be drawn—and, in fact, have already been drawn—between what the organization of archives can do, and what the traditional novel form can do: that is, the novel’s rendering of “knowable communities” that Raymond Williams described, whose depiction serves as one consequence of the writer’s seeking to make intelligible the indirect, and beyond face-to-face, relationships between characters. The labor involved in making archival collections intelligible to researchers—through the building and coding of finding aids, and/or the digitization of print and other analog materials, with an eye to ensuring their online searchability—in one sense involves making the community of represented voices and partially-represented voices within a collection knowable, to newcomers. For example, you might find yourself processing a collection of assembled correspondence, wherein letter-writers occasionally refer to their recipients via terms of endearment (rather than proper names), with letters often casually referring to other people and concerns known to the writer and recipient, but not completely obvious to the outside reader. Consider how opaque a casual email you send to a friend, relative or even a co-worker might be, in terms of its references, nuances, and short-hand, mutually-understood terms, to a stranger viewing this document without any context. Overall, collected forms of e-correspondence represent a growing series of unique organizational challenges, particularly when working on institutional histories where email correspondence between colleagues has become the norm. Whereas time stamps and names are typically preserved with greater levels of precision over what one finds in traditional correspondence, the tendency in e-correspondence towards abbreviation, short-hand, and writing styles more akin to the memo pose specific problems to ensuring the knowability of a given archival collection’s community.
Carolyn Steedman in fact relies on two Victorian novels in the “knowable community” tradition Williams identifies as potent points of comparison in her study of “the archive” and the literal and metaphorical forms of dust that permeate it. But also, it is probably a good idea, at this point, to note that referring to her subject as the (singular) “archive,” and not the professional plural that archivists adhere to, proves one notable indicator of the disciplinary origins of her treatment—which I will call the humanities, since her approach here, as with her earlier, defining work Landscape for a Good Woman (1986), transcends location within just one specified field (like history, or literary study) in the humanities. I’m as susceptible as the next literary critic to her pivotal invocations of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872) and Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (1865) in tracing the genealogy of the archive—that susceptibility was, in fact, a crucial contributing factor in making me an archivist, and continues to possess a considerable hold that I will freely own. Yet now, as a newly-minted archivist performing, on a daily basis, forms of work that receive little attention in Steedman’s Dust, I also want to utilize the liminality of my position between professions to address the consequences of humanistic invocations of “the archive”—particularly as such invocations inform contemporary literary critical practice, notions of “postcritique,” and that curious convergence of technology, and what humanists talk about when they talk about assembling/maintaining/utilizing an archive, that currently goes by the name of the “digital humanities.”
“Middlemarch is made of fragments from an Unvisited Archive,” as Steedman argues in a central chapter from Dust. And, like the silently decaying bodies occupying unvisited tombs from which Steedman derives her description, the contents of the archive she depicts invite belief in a record of “incalculably diffusive” effects—though significantly without the attendant, hopeful faith in their consequent participation in the “growing good of the world.” Dust, after all, attaches itself to Steedman’s conceptualization of the archive in notable ways; in its most literal form, deteriorating leather bindings, accumulated crumbling “red rot” on volumes and in archival boxes, and other decaying constituents of bound volumes and documents indicate the “by-product of all the filthy trades that have, by circuitous routes, deposited their end-products in the archives” (27). This situation makes “the book and its components (leather binding, various glues and adhesives, paper and its edging, and decreasingly, parchments and vellums of various types)” a concentrated physical instance of “many of the industrial hazards and diseases that were mapped out in the course of the century” (22), thereby linking laborers and scholars in their common vulnerability to occupational hazard, via their tactile connectedness to these objects. The diffusive effects of these pernicious forms of dust, in turn, act upon the historian—that rare, committed visitor to the otherwise unvisited space—through the infectious effects of a literal and metaphorical hybrid, “Archive Fever Proper” (28): not the ailment associated with archived materials’ situation under “house arrest,” as Derrida described, but rather a conceptualization of fever that combines the possibility of literal pathogens exuded through archived materials’ dust with the fevered frustration of the visiting historian, “arrested” by the debilitating recognition that “there will be something left unread, unnoted, untranscribed,” even when one works merely with the “tiny flotsam that has ended up in the record office you are at work in,” and which floated in from “the great, brown, slow-moving strandless river of Everything” (18).
Yet in Steedman’s configuration, the archive’s capacity for undermining modernity’s tendency towards affixing a sense of place, and for challenging domicilization with the prospect of “boundless, limitless space” (83), both contributes to the scholar’s fever, and, significantly, offers a counterargument regarding the status of dust that challenges Dickens’ Noddy Boffin’s perspective. That is, dust may be the avatar of the archive’s undomiciled status, the mobile pathogen arresting and haunting the historian’s futile belief in the possibility of a finished project, the minute physical instantiation of matter’s ability to stretch out over and inhabit boundless, limitless space—but this terrifying capacity for incalculably diffusive effects also attests to Dust’s circumstance as, contra Noddy Boffin, the antithesis of Waste. Dust, in other words, isn’t an amorphous, excess sedimental stratum in which we can seek out suspended, isolated concrete instances of historical “stuff” to seize on, for our own scholarly purposes. Dust is the stuff itself—literally, the only stuff that matters—the testament to “circularity, the impossibility of things disappearing, or going away, or being gone” (164). Steedman ultimately invites us to resist distinguishing between archives and dust. If a found document within an archive allows us the time and luxury of interpretation, this is only because it has been preserved, momentarily, as a relatively more solid, formed instance of dust, in comparison to the minute particles that also remain, but do so in a state permanently impenetrable to knowability.
The archive is thus like Middlemarch’s concluding tombs, but the remains of the bodies that once housed hidden lives share some of the archived item’s attributes as well. Unvisited tombs and unvisited archives contain unintended fragments, bits and pieces that endure and occupy space not as a consequence of purposeful human endeavor, but rather as instances of diffuse matter radically disconnected from human intentionality, resisting connection back to either unhistoric or historic acts. Yet this situation offers a corrective to equations between dust and waste, and a recalibration of our sense of what is “arrested” in an archive: not really the archived objects themselves, but the perspective of the visitor, seeking out fragments that still hold out the possibility of interpretation, within a space that houses instances of dust in all its varied forms and sizes. To the extent that archives are treated as relatively unique spaces, in that they typically house materials not intended for shelf location and public circulation (in contrast to a library), not primarily intended for regular display (in contrast to a museum), and yet still committed to transparent models of navigability for visiting patrons (in contrast to, say, a private storage space—the large-scale version of the “junk drawer” mentioned earlier), Steedman ultimately suggests that these spaces effectively should transform our perception of what historical “matter” is:
The Archive is made from selected and consciously chosen documentation from the past and also from mad fragmentations that no one intended to preserve and that just ended up there…And nothing happens to this stuff, in the Archive. It is indexed, and catalogued, and some of it is lost. But as stuff, it just sits there until it is read, and used, and narrativized. (68)
The condition in which this “stuff” quietly rests, attesting via the presence of certain items to the considerably larger exclusions of others, “deflects outrage” (68). It is not anyone’s fault that certain things remain and others do not, and in a sense, affixing responsibility over what can be apprehended within a given hinged box proves about as futile as blaming the bodies resting in unvisited tombs for their varying, uneven levels of decay.
Here, however, I want to confess to a minor, diminished feeling, a distant relative of outrage, that emerges in response to the conditions of Steedman’s depiction: I’d call it annoyance, or irritation, or even, whatever feeling manifests itself in a brief professional eye-roll, over the idea that “nothing happens” to stuff resting “in its quiet folders and bundles” (68). Accession, indexing, appraisal, cataloguing, preservation, foldering, boxing, labeling, finding-aid construction, MARC record and other metadata creation, maintenance, item-level detail, efforts towards facilitating public access (beyond interested researchers), monitoring against tampering, theft, physical harm, and so on, are all forms of labor that “happen” to materials in an archival collection, and that continue to “happen” to them, so long as the collection remains accessioned and housed within an institution. Entirely additional forms of work then can also, periodically, “happen” to materials de-accessioned from one institution, and deeded to another. In any case, Steedman’s treatment frequently veers towards imagining that “the Archive” emerges as an entity, forming itself out of indestructible dust, in the absence of any kind of human volition or effort whatsoever; the “stuff” passively remains stuff until, significantly, “it is read, and used, and narrativized” by the infrequent visitor to the unvisited space—i.e., the historian. But the archivists who worked upon that stuff, in its transformation from accessioned property to collection, also read it, and contributed to its narrativization for public as well as scholarly access. Notably, archivists are actually professionally restricted from “using” collections in one crucial sense that Steedman describes—that is, archivists cannot use collections that they’ve worked on for personal scholarly endeavors, as their unfettered access to materials grants them an advantage over patrons, and compromises the profession’s larger commitment to fair public access. To say, in short, that “nothing happens to this stuff in the Archive” effectively ignores the other, non-scholarly forms of interpretive organizational work that go into the maintenance of archives as sites of public history for researchers and non-researchers alike. In other words, even unvisited tombs are still maintained by cemetery caretakers, municipal governments, law-makers working on public health, and public workers, and unvisited archives are still maintained by professional archivists, librarians, preservationists, private donors and/or public non-profit fundraisers, members, and public record-keeping ordinances. To assume that nothing happens in unvisited spaces presupposes that only visitors can ever effectively “happen” to such spaces.
The absence of the archivist as worker, within Steedman’s account, is somewhat surprising given her considerably nuanced attention to the many other workers affected by the varied stages of dust that archives maintain. However, her approach is, I would argue, fairly representative of humanistic imaginings regarding this kind of space, and indicative of some unanticipated effects of the recent “archival turn” in the humanities, in terms of how professional archival work is perceived—or misperceived, as the case may be—by academics situated within the humanities. With “’The Archive’ Is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies” (2016), Michelle Caswell addresses the curious absence of citation and interdisciplinary awareness regarding the professional history of archival studies, within recent critical works from Ann Cvetkovich, Ann Laura Stoler, Antoinette Burton, Diana Taylor, Carolyn Steedman, and (though to a lesser extent) Kate Eichorn. Her list significantly captures the scope of the archival turn’s effects upon how “archives” have been refashioned into “the archive” by academics located within the humanities and critical theory: the trend has extended to both viewing traditional archives through the perceived necessity of a critical humanistic lens and metaphorical refashioning (as Steedman has done), and to the newly-shouldered task of assembling of “an archive” (e.g., Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feeling) as a redefined area of critical practice and new disciplinary object for critical theory and humanistic study, now accomplished largely through scholarly publication, and the development of online archives and research aids within digital humanities frameworks.
The problem with these outcomes, for Caswell, does not really concern the question of their intellectual merit. Rather, as she observes, and in ways that have become frequent discussion points in graduate classrooms devoted to archives management, these studies come into being in part by lifting terminology from an entirely different professional field, and thereby find a willing audience within the academic humanities—where this terminology all sounds comparatively new. Such studies don’t seem to especially need, want, or seek out, professional archivists, librarians, or others working in information sciences, as interlocutors; moreover, audiences within the humanities tend to prove eager to seize upon a new disciplinary object and/or model of critical practice, partly because the humanities routinely require a new infusion of objects and practices. At the same time, in Caswell’s assessment these studies maintain minimal to no acknowledgment of the significant histories of professional debate within archival studies about defining concerns like records, provenance, value, and representation. She argues that “the refusal of humanities scholars to engage with scholarship in archival studies is a gendered and classed failure in which humanities scholars—even those whose work focuses on gender and class—have been blind to the intellectual contributions and labor of a field that has been construed as predominantly female, professional (that is, not academic), and service-oriented.”
I would add that the refusal Caswell identifies also reflects how humanities scholars simply don’t have to feel obligated to engage with another professional field’s history, in order to utilize hand-picked examples of its terminology and recast them for their own purposes. Moments when interdisciplinarity tends to prove unsatisfying, in critical practice, often reflect the problem outlined here: the profession serving as the source of the borrowed concepts is rarely called on to serve as the intended interlocutor or critical arbiter monitoring how those concepts can suffer, at times, from over-simplification, when jolted out of one long-standing professional history with its own arguments, debates, and conflicts, and then imported into a new disciplinary setting while suspiciously lacking that baggage. That being said, while the studies that Caswell focuses on work with a borrowed, and tweaked, “archive,” and focus noticeably less attention upon the professional disciplinary history responsible for “archives,” these studies still firmly situate themselves within the realm of critique. In contrast, Timothy Brennan’s recent assessment of the state of the digital humanities, “The Digital-Humanities Bust” (2017) unintentionally indicates another significant way in which conceptual terminologies tweaked and borrowed from library and information sciences, as well as archival studies, can be deployed to reinforce arguments in favor of “postcritique” in contemporary literary studies.
Brennan calls attention to some keywords within the digital humanities that have failed, in his estimation, to arrive with sufficient explication, and have subsequently received insufficient scrutiny from humanistic audiences:
Digital humanities has a signature style: technophilia crossed with a love for its own neologisms. Data are “curated” rather than assessed; information is “leveraged”; facts are “aggregated” rather than interrogated. Significantly, those terms are never defined, but there is no question that they expect their readers’ diffidence. […] The authors summarize the intellectual activities they promote: “digitization, classification, description and metadata, organization, and navigation.” An amazing list, which leaves out that contradictory and negating quality of what is normally called “thinking.”
The aggregation of terms that Brennan provides—which I am, at this point, actually going to interrogate, in spite of his prediction—are not, in the first sampling I’ve provided, “neologisms,” strictly speaking. Curating, leveraging, and aggregation are not new words, practices, or concepts; they all have had existences and other lives in other fields that predate their incorporation into the digital humanities. What actually has happened, I think, is that terms housed in other fields—like curation, for example, typically associated within museum studies, archival studies, and library and information science—have been imported into the digital humanities, frequently without attention to the provenance of these keywords, as I’ve previously emphasized, but still with an eye to more accurately characterizing what this field is attempting to accomplish, now, within the humanities. And, yes, these objectives prove significantly at odds with what has typically been defined as critique: to utilize a digital concordance to determine, for example, how many times the word “whale” comes up in Moby Dick (one of Brennan’s examples), and to conclude solely upon the revelation that it is significant that this word comes up, say, 1700 times is, to put it mildly, not criticism—it is counting, or rather, it is utilizing technology to do the counting for you.
Personally, I have a hard time believing that simple aggregation of information like this qualifies as legitimate critical work in the digital humanities, among DH specialists; after all, analog concordances existed before digital ones, no one has ever confused a print concordance with a critical work, to my knowledge, and most critics have used concordances as tools (rather than mistaking them for the end result), to get an accurate rendering of, say, the number and location of occurrences of a specific term in a specific text, in order to then contextualize said occurrences, and arrive at something like a keyword-level awareness of how these terms actually mutate in meaning and nuance, as a consequence of usage during the course of a single text. But, then, I’m also not particularly interested, here, in launching a “busted” assessment of the digital humanities. Certainly, established faculty in literary studies have proven more than willing to fill this apparent rhetorical void, for all of us. And one can always blame—as Brennan goes on to do—the 40+-year disastrous state of the academic job market, and/or the chronic absence of tenurable positions for 2/3rds of English teaching faculty in the United States, for the fact that new fields like DH seize hold—with accompanying opportunities for new jobs, grants, and definitions of positions—without the scrutiny that they need. To DH, or not to DH, is, I would argue, not the most useful question in this debate. I find it more notable that both self-appointed advocates of “thinking” critique, in the humanities, like Brennan, and archivists, librarians, and information science professionals, have found common cause, justifiable or otherwise, in disliking/mocking the digital humanities. One can learn something about what different intellectual fields value, in assessing what they have made a particular point of disavowing.
To continue with a keyword sampling Brennan draws from another DH study: “digitization, classification, description and metadata, organization, and navigation” would not sound particularly amazing—or, even, “amazing” in Brennan’s intended sarcastic tone—to an archivist working on building, say, a digital repository of searchable collected images and texts. I happen to think, based on experience as both an academic literary critic and an archivist, that these listed practices involve intellectual labor—or“what is normally called ‘thinking,’” to use Brennan’s phrase. But I also think that their imagined, convenient conflation with literary critical work in the humanities should engender a moment of, at the very least, questioning, perhaps along the lines of Amanda Anderson’s assertions in favor of self-awareness about “the way we argue now.” A state-of-the-discipline critique of the digital humanities is definitely warranted, if only to re-establish what we are, in fact, arguing about, now, and to get a better grip on what we presumably were arguing about before. I would prefer, however, that the critique come with the cumbersome, but necessary, baggage of input from the unacknowledged field(s) that have served as a source of its not-really-new, purposefully-repurposed terminologies.
With The Limits of Critique (2015), Rita Felski suggests that the turn to “postcritique” reflects a need for alternatives to the suspicion, and paranoia, that she associates with critique’s overwhelming tendency towards symptomatic, interpretive reading. Felski stresses the need for alternatives to both “ideological” and “theological” modes in criticism: “a reduction of texts to political tools or instruments, on the one hand, and a cult of reverence for their sheer ineffability, on the other.” With suspicious readings lodged in the ideological camp, in her assessment, and reverence affiliated with both aesthetic appreciation and New Critical practice, Felski turns to models like Franco Moretti’s “distant reading,” and Sharon Marcus’ and Stephen Best’s “surface reading,” as postcritical ways beyond the ideological/theological double bind. To these exempla I would add the archival turn in the humanities associated with Steedman et al, and the repurposing of archival, library and information science terminologies accomplished through the digital humanities; both prove tailor-made, I would argue, to answering the humanities’ perceived need to skirt both ideologically- and theologically-driven modes of critique. The actual move to build “an archive” via a published work of scholarship, in distinction from what are termed “actually-existing archives”—with histories of affect and feeling, specifically, frequently linked to this need for an archive beyond what already exists—claims to achieve, via the practice of finding, collecting, and organizing cultural records of chosen affects and feelings, a critical mode that transcends suspicion, and the ideological reduction of collected materials to a specific politics. I want to stress that professional archivists and librarians would not, I think, concur with this reading of archival creation and management as above ideology—much has been written, in the theoretical literature associated with archives management, and library cataloging and metadata, about, for example, the political and cultural biases embedded in cataloging categories, finding-aid organization, and the necessary re-definitions of provenance in postcolonial settings required by the existence of colonial collections acquired as property by former colonizers. But my point is that the version of “the archive” that the humanities have devised addresses itself, as a kind of symptom of the current state of the humanities, to conveniently side-stepping ideological and reverential pitfalls. By the same token, the digital humanities’ repurposing of certain terminologies from archives and library science also seems geared towards avoiding suspicion, in interpretive practice: “digitization, classification, description and metadata, organization, and navigation,” in this configuration, work with surface study and assessments of considerably larger amounts of data than one critical mind could sift through on its own, and in so doing, aim for a measure of neutrality equated (correctly or not) with automated pattern-seeking over many texts.
Both critique, and postcritique, in the humanities, have thus needed to borrow, and tweak, certain selected aspects of archives management and library science in order to refashion, once again, their objects of study and methods of practice. Throughout, I’ve attempted to call attention to these borrowings, reflect upon their consequences within contemporary literary critical practice, and also highlight my own susceptibility to metaphorical renderings of “the archive,” like Steedman’s. But it should be possible, I think, to engage in an analysis of these borrowings without necessarily falling back on the critique/postcritique dichotomies that Brennan and Felski represent. Part of the timely allure of Felski’s approach—or at least, of the approaches she cites, like Best’s and Marcus’—would be the critical humility presumed to attend non-ideological and non-reverential interpretive practice and “thinking”; and, anyone who has engaged in literary critique at length over time might actually feel far from masterful over the texts she’s interpreted, and far from certain while engaged in such thinking (though I could just be speaking from personal experience). And, part of the criticism that the digital humanities have provoked seems less tied to the unacknowledged disciplinary borrowings from other fields that I’ve tried to reveal here, and more a reflection of concern about what all that aggregation and classification amounts to, as critical practice, and what that practice in turn does to the position of the practitioner. As a graduate student in English, I remember finding Casaubon a particularly discomfiting figure; once, in a seminar-break discussion over who would make the comparatively less repellent partner in a marriage, James’ Gilbert Osmond, or Eliot’s Casaubon, I was probably the only person who opted for Osmond. Better someone hateful in clearly-identifiable ways that still seem safely alien to me, I reasoned, than someone whose repugnant attributes identify so closely with hyperbolically misguided scholarly interpretive endeavor—exactly the sort of interpretive work I was hoping to avoid, in my own future thinking life. But some of the recent critical disdain for the digital humanities seems akin to this kind of instinctive, unreflective Casaubon-hatred—as if Casaubon’s scholarly methods, in their endlessly aggregative, collecting and processing mode, and simultaneous commitment to an improbable navigational “key” for it all, have simply been digitally-enabled and enhanced via the digital humanities, while preserving the same lack of self-awareness about the value of such practices that Casaubon maintained.
Casaubon’s uncomfortable proximity brings me back, via Middlemarch’s affinities with unvisited archives, to Carolyn Steedman’s Dust and the making of archivists. But in the end, we might want to also make note of ways in which actually-existing theoretical work in archival management and practice can address, and even challenge, the current accepted paradigms for critical practice that I’ve briefly outlined here. Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2007) offers an early rationale for “curating” in critical practice that both anticipates her current arguments in favor of the unexpected value of “thin” (as opposed to thick) description, and provides a context that notably predates both the postcritical turn and the digital humanities—while also remaining more engaged with the efforts of archival and museum studies than most writers in the humanities currently seem inclined to do. In her allusion to Henry Abelove’s reading of Allen Ginsberg’s elegy for poet Frank O’Hara, “City Midnight Junk Strains” (1966), in Deep Gossip (2003), Love emphasizes how Abelove articulates a relationship with the queer past that calls for “curating” it. Ginsberg depicts O’Hara, a former Museum of Modern Art employee, as a “curator of funny emotions,” and Love calls attention to how this specifically curatorial relationship to a history of “funny” emotions “contrasts sharply with curing” that past, since “[t]aking care of the past without attempting to fix it means living with bad attachments, identifying through loss, allowing ourselves to be haunted.”
Here we have, in a sense, a definition and rationale for the importation into the humanities of terms like “curating” that Brennan was looking for, and claimed was lacking; and yet, the term also possesses a specific pertinence for queer theory and its curation of the past. Taking care of the past without claiming responsibility over the need to fix it has, in one sense, been one long-term, overarching professional rationale for academic literary criticism across the board; the “great tradition” model for the professing of English defines its labors in terms of looking backwards, identifying what needs to be curated, and specifically not opting to correct what one finds—if Henry James needed fixing, or if definitive formal flaws present in his works could potentially be deemed morally or ethically pernicious to those who feel some attachment to them, James would never have made the cut, so to speak, if we follow Leavisite logic. But the question of curing or not curing an identifiable, collected tradition, and the need for a way beyond these options through “curating,” comes up primarily when criticism moves beyond justifying its existence merely in terms of the preservation of the “great” and the past, in the face of contemporary innovation and/or other forces that might obliterate them, to preservation designed to collect, maintain, and provide navigable guidance through histories, affective and otherwise, that should be neither lost nor, strictly speaking, celebrated. Criticism-as-curation articulates a needed working compromise, in Love’s configuration: a way to acknowledge and preserve the “backwards,” regressive, debilitating, yet still critically instructive affective effects of “funny emotions,” or what Love terms “impossible loves,” which serve as models for queer historiographical practice (24).
Love’s defense of curating offers an important, anticipatory qualification to Rita Felski’s subsequent treatment of the same term, in her more recent blueprint for the re-composition of the humanities. One way to distinguish their repurposings of curating would emphasize that Felski actually needs the new-old category of “the humanities” in order to provide an intellectual home for the housing of post-critical practice, where (in her depiction) curating combines with “conveying, criticizing, and composing” in the humanities’ re-composition. For some reason, even though most current writing devoted to the defense of postcritique can be attributed to academics professionally located in English, modern languages, and comparative literature departments, housed in journals devoted to the professing of English and to literary study in modern languages across the board, no one humanistic discipline seems particularly inclined to “own” postcritique as necessary to its particular practice: postcritique is deemed necessary to “the humanities” tout court, not specifically to English, comparative literature, modern languages, etc, and needs “the humanities” in order to have a field of operation. In contrast, Love’s importation of curating draws upon the combined transformative, and questionable, practice of metaphorical re-castings of archives, libraries and museums that I’ve represented via Carolyn Steedman’s Dust here. But the curating she describes significantly should be viewed as a critical act, as well as one particular to queer studies’ disciplinary history—and as an act that expands the conceptualization of critique and criticizing beyond what Felski’s assessment allows. Taking care of the past, in Love’s configuration, also involves critical self-consciousness about the chosen objects of one’s care, not mere preservation for preservation’s sake; caring for what one wishes one didn’t need to care about, for artifacts that one knows to be both instructive and damaging, and recognizing the need for strategic distance from these objects even as one cares for them, all involve work beyond the mere equation of curation with preservation of the past.
In her concluding paragraph to Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives, Carolyn Steedman introduces a term that reflects this need to retain curation for critical, as opposed to post-critical, purposes. Steedman famously ends with a defiant emphasis upon working against the impulse to “celebrate” the psychologies she has pieced together from the fragments of another unvisited, ignored archive—the “secret and impossible stories” of her childhood with her politically-conservative, working-class mother. Instead, she seeks “a structure of political thought that will take all of this,
[…] recognize what has been made out on the margins; and then, recognizing it, refuse to celebrate it: a politics that will, watching this past say ‘So what?’; and consign it to the dark. (144)
The model for Heather Love’s conceptualization of curating, as Feeling Backward will ultimately suggest, is Steedman’s tricky deployment of “consign,” here. The implicit antithesis of celebration, with regards to these assembled, otherwise neglected fragments, is recognition coupled with consignment: formulating and acknowledging the impossible archive, thereby making it possible and knowable, only to then entrust it permanently to the custody or trusteeship of another entity—in this case, “the dark.” This defining intellectual problem, then, persists in a way that Steedman will eventually revisit in Dust: nothing ever goes away, but developing a navigable, knowable form for what remains also raises the inevitable question of what to do with this re-formed instance of dust, once you feel that you have it. Consignment indicates a strategy that challenges the reduction of curation to either preservation of the past for its past-ness, or care unmoored from the assignation of a carer: someone or something beyond the initial visitor to the unvisited archive must be designated as the eventual repository, so to speak, the new caretaker, the entity capable of housing what has been made knowable in both its instructive attributes, and in its damaging volatility. The naming of such a trustee releases the visitor from the responsibility of further caring, and thereby addresses the reality of caring as potentially unending, attention-sucking labor, if one isn’t…well, careful about how one chooses to critically attach oneself. The ability to say “so what?” can sound callous, but allows one the measure of freedom to determine new objects of attentive care, and relies upon the existence of a profession that can take over, once saying “so what?” is all one can do.
To consign so much formally knowable dust to the dark indicates a desire to return these fragments to the unvisited archives/tombs where they were found—but with a difference. Now, these fragments possess a kind of collected being analogous to that of Frankenstein’s creature: a life narrativized into a version of wholeness that didn’t exist before the visitor arrived, that now rightfully insists on some form of recognition, with archivists, in a sense, in a professional position to confirm its knowability. So to return to DACS, and the refuge of the practical, non-metaphorical professional training of archivists with which I began: consignment—without the specific designation of “the dark” as one’s trustee—remains the defining archival turn, the first, vitally necessary and critical move to acknowledge the need for care beyond what the initial assembler of fragments can realistically provide. Whether one is handing over a junk drawer, or a meticulously, personally-organized array of materials, the decision to consign materials to another’s custodial care acknowledges the open-ended, unfinished situation of what has been collected, and the need, for whatever reason, to transfer the critical work of maintenance to a new custodian. If Middlemarch suggests a composition of formed dust, as Steedman argues, surely Casaubon, in his attachment to his life’s perpetually unfinished work, represents that novel’s most ardent, tediously-suffering witness to the endurance of dust—despite the narrator’s hopeful suggestion that its significance will “vanish as the waters which come and go where no man has need of them.”  But, more ominously, Casaubon attests to a thinking human’s need to insist upon consigning unfinished intellectual work to the trusteeship of another. Of course, if an archivist with a copy of DACS by her bedside happened to be in the area, and had been granted the role of such a trustee, Dorothea might have been happily spared the inheritance of such an unwelcome consignment. Moreover, the prospect of both critically recognizing the work of aggregating mythologies, and getting to the point where one can say “so what” to so much dust, might have been professionally possible, without enlisting the lives of “the young” who “need not to extend [their] lives by watching,” and who will otherwise be left with the unwieldy burden of such care.
 Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), 165-166.
 Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2001), 102.
 See Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2003); Steedman, Dust; Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2003); Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2009); Antoinette Burton, Ed., Archive Stories: Facts, Fiction and the Writing of History (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2005) and Kate Eichorn, The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 2013).
 Michelle Caswell, “’The Archive’ Is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies,” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, 16, no. 1 (2016): accessed December 1, 2017, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7bn4v1fk. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece by Alice Dreger, “The Delicate Art of Dealing With Your Archivist” 64, no. 39 (3 August 2018): accessed August 2, 2018, succumbs, rather obtusely, to the perceived gender stereotypes that Caswell outlines—though, to be fair, Dreger divides archivists into “types” that spread the hypothetical researcher’s virtuous contempt fairly equally, along gender lines. Among the female archivist stereotypes we find: the “the mensch” (the archivist who “knows the collection’s material well enough to truly help you, and trusts you enough to let you lead”); “the distractor” (the overly helpful archivist with five cats who really wants to help the researcher and keeps getting in the way—mostly because she needs company, and who wouldn’t desperately hope for an academic as company?); and “the heiress” (the archivist who would prefer that the archives where she works remain mostly unvisited, and who has hidden valuable items from the collections close to her, as she’s inhabited office space near them for so long that she feels like they rightfully belong to her). Among the male archivist stereotypes we find: “the snob” (an academic-wannabe who needs to demonstrate that he is smarter than the visiting researcher, and treats the archives like his personal department-of-one); “the mooch” (a combination of the distractor and snob, who truly seeks name-dropping bragging rights and will attach himself to the researcher if there’s hope of an acknowledgment line in the eventual book); and “the bureaucrat” (who moves at a “glacial” pace since he doesn’t care what you are working on, and doesn’t need to move any faster to serve your researching needs—he’s “here for the health insurance,” primarily). Dreger’s piece prompted several letters, including a fairly balanced one from the current president of the Society of America Archivists, Tanya Zanish-Belcher (“Allies in the Stacks,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 August 2018) which emphasized the fairly obvious point that Dreger’s reductive attempt at cutesy humor relied upon the implicit belief that archival work simply isn’t work—intellectual or otherwise—but is rather a tedious, gatekeeping impediment to the actual work that academic researchers hope to accomplish. Her suggestions regarding how to deal with the best-case scenario archivist, “the mensch”—“bring her the occasional coffee, leave her a pad of fun sticky notes on a Friday afternoon, share with her your juiciest find, and make sure you thank her in the acknowledgments”—remind me of the memorable moment in the pilot episode to Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, when the lead secretary, Joan Hathaway, explains to the new secretary, Peggy Olsen, how to appease the members of the “nerve center” in the office—the telephone-board receptionists, a group of rather pointedly less-attractive women who exist in a tiny closet of an office, yet possess enormous power among secretarial staff. If you bring them candy and flowers, they won’t impede a secretary’s access to executives—and Dreger’s approach, which positions an academic researcher always in quest of “what lies beyond that archivist,” underscores this simplified, gatekeeping assessment of what archival work is.
 Timothy Brennan, “The Digital-Humanities Bust,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 64, no. 8 (15 October 2017): accessed December 5, 2017, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Digital-Humanities-Bust/241424.
 Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015), 29.
 Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007), 43. See also Love, “Close But Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History 41 (2010): 371-391.
 Rita Felski, “Introduction,” New Literary History: Recomposing the Humanities—with Bruno Latour 47, nos. 2-3 (Spring/Summer 2016): 216.
 Carolyn Kay Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1986), 144.
 George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. Rosemary Ashton (New York: Penguin, 1994), 422-23.