April 2019

The Living Archive: unlearning to recognize



I have written elsewhere about the archive as a living organism, about following archival rhythms, as well as the psychosocial intensities of archival worlds. (see, The Archive ProjectMy experience of being in the field in Lesvos however, has far surpassed the archive fevers I have lived through so far. I landed in Lesvos on March 25 and on the same day 188 refugees came by boat, comprising the highest number of people arriving at the island from the beginning of this year. Apart from being Greece’s National Holiday, March 25, was also the day that 30 people were rescued from drowning, while one smuggler was arrested. These are amongst the typical daily news on the island I have come to realize. How did I learn about them? Not just by walking around, visiting places, taking photos, reading local newspapers and talking to people who I have met here, the usual ethnographer’s craft, but also by following the Aegean Refugee Observatory website, as well as a number of social media posts and pages from the different institutions and groups working about and many times with the refugees and migrants currently residing in Lesvos. There are therefore at least two levels of ‘the real’ here in Lesvos. The material real, both visible and invisible to the eyes, since ‘access’ to many sites is both restricted or highly regulated and the virtual real, which is a complex network of on-line connections, websites, images, announcements, as well as a plethora of social media pages. As the Aegean Refugee Observatory has pointed out: ‘The islands of the Eastern Aegean, and in particular Lesvos —an island that received more than half of the refugees and migrants who entered the European Union during 2015– have emerged as the geographic focal point of the largest population movement in Europe since the end of the Second World War.’ (ARO/Population movements in the Aegean) In this light the Refugee Observatory, as the only university institution in the Aegean archipelago has taken over the highly urgent and important task of documenting and archiving the Aegean mobility assemblage, not just in terms of its segmentarities, territorial discourses and bordering practices, but also in terms of its deterritorialization, its lines of flight.

How does it feel to live such archival instensities, both real and virtual? Apart from being dazzled I have been trying to unlearn how to see and how to listen. Lyotard has suggested that ‘to learn to see is to unlearn to recognise’ (Discours, Figure: 114). So my problem as a genealogist is not how to enter the archive, as I am already thrown into it, but how to get out of clichés, discern and follow lines of flight, create conditions of possibility for mapping the complex grid of visibilities and invisibilities, which is the task par excellence for writing histories of the present. Listening as a political activity that enables us to live-in -the-world-with others is also crucial here. According to Susan Bickford, ‘both speaking and listening are central activities of citizenship’ (The Dissonance of Democracy4). But listening is a complex practice: while we focus on the speaker, we never listen in a void, but within a background that we have to map and understand. In the same way that we are situated speakers, we are also always, already situated listeners: we always listen from somewhere, no matter how open or willing we are to move from our position. My research started as a way of challenging nomadism and has been unfolding as an on-going process of seeing, listening and understanding, including the desire to collect some traces of women’s history in the making.

Following past trails in my work I therefore act as both an ethnographer and a genealogist. Genealogy turns my attention to specific regimes of truth that may elude the knowledge terrain of the ethnographer, but yet they are part of the scientific discourses through which I recognize the objects of my ethnographic inquiries and analyses their emergence, constitution, and function. But while genealogy traces the black squares in the ‘order of things’, accommodates the invisible, creates uncertainty, and points to exclusions, ethnography illuminates the present and scrutinizes the visible: it creates the background of understanding for listening to women’s stories including their silences. The rhythm of genealogy and ethnography vibrating together once again, resonates with the contrast between visibility and invisibility, the sayable and the unsayable, pointing to what has been hidden or muted and what has been allowed to emerge or sound.


Please reference as : Maria Tamboukou (2019) ‘Diffractions, April 2019, https://mariatamboukou.org/revisiting-the-nomadic-subject-2/reflections-and-diffractions/april-2019/