Accepted paper:

Archivophagy: an excremental politics of the machinery of memory


John Manton (LSHTM)

Paper short abstract:

Reflecting on a destroyed archive of postcolonial medical research, this paper considers the aesthetics and politics of archival failure, as a facet of the spectacular abjection at the heart of oil-fuelled political performance in Nigeria.

Paper long abstract:

If the archive operates as an apparatus of socialised memory, then its destruction is an active agent in the production of historical memory. The conditions which give rise to attenuation and destruction of datapower index a relation between the institution, the community, and the state. Postcolonial violence and developmental failure have been destructive, not only of the lives and livelihoods of individuals, families, and communities across Africa and Asia, but of the stake of the state in managing encounters with subject populations. Our encounter with the failed archive or the ruins of development raises significant affective and aesthetic issues. It foregrounds notions of nostalgia and disappointment, of beauty and the sublime, of relationships betrayed, of care and stewardship, as well as disrupting our recourse to narrative, and interpolating temporalities of decay, abandonment and abjection into the relations constituted around historical and ethnographic research. The aesthetic-affective dimensions suffusing the research enterprise need critical attention. My paper approaches this critical aesthetic labour through a consideration and contextualisation of the remains of the recording apparatus at the Leprosy Centre and Research Unit, Uzuakoli, Nigeria, neglected since the Nigerian Civil War, in a forgotten corner of an under-resourced hospital. It considers the ruination of these records as an active political process, interpreting their scattering, heaping, their (literal) consumption and excretion - archivophagy - as an agent in productions of the memory and trajectory of the African state. In doing so, it suggests strategies for constructive scholarly and public engagement with the detritus of development.

panel P44
After development: critical aesthetics of past futures