Postmodernism and Logical Positivism in Archival Thought

The term postmodernism first came into existence in a 1939 article, “Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the General war of 1914-1918.” by famed British Historian Arnold J. Toynbee to describe the post WWI era. Philosophically postmodernism would be put on center stage in 1966 when Jacques Derrida a French Algerian born philosopher delivered a lecture at John Hopkins University challenging the underlying premises of structuralism (unofficially ushering in the era of postructuralism). While the effects of postmodernism have been felt in all of the arts and sciences, archival science has been slow to embrace it. Part of the problem lies in archival sciences attachment to logical positivism and empiricism (part of the reason for this, is archivists deal with physical documentary evidence within the confines of a laboratory like setting, not unlike some physical sciences). There can be no doubt that postmodernism has created epistemological dilemmas that have shaken the foundation of the sciences, archives being no exception.  In this blog I will contrast two prominent archival thinkers: Terry Cook and Luciana Duranti. Terry Cook explores the dynamics of postmodernism, while Luciana Duranti delves into its antithesis-Diplomatics. Both explore how their respective theories influence archival epistemology and methodology. Terry Cook lays out a strong case for using postmodernism and having it replace (or override) aspects of archival empiricism (informational and evidential analysis); I differ in that I see it as another tool to be incorporated into the archivists skill set.

The two articles (authored by Cook) titled: Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts and Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives presents several archival paradigm shifts revolving around postmodernist modification of society and culture. While postmodernism has been around for several decades, it has not affected archival thought until at least the last 10 years (I would argue that many archivists are still oblivious to its effects). One new role espoused by this philosophy is to view records now as dynamic objects as opposed to static (they never were static but that is for another blog), another is how postmodernist’s rebellion against the notions of universal truth and objective knowledge, has affected archives and their function in society. This blog will focus on the latter.

Before we continue, I will digress to explain a little of postmodern thinking. As mentioned before, postmodernists distrust any belief in obtaining “truth.” The postmodernist trusts nothing at face value and questions all societal constructs as unnatural and in need of being deconstructed or analyzed to reveal their true meaning. It becomes more important to analyze power group’s, then actual facts or acts.

Postmodernism in archives addresses the point that all documents or artifacts are not neutral evidence but formed by societal context and the creator’s prejudices. But more then this, the document is not objective because it represents society’s power over memory and over the future. It is the state’s (or any entities) power, as contended by postmodernists, who control how the future will be told. Therefore it is more important to study macro- contexts then the content itself. Macro-appraisal theorists are representative of this form of thinking.

[Critics of postmodernist thought label postmodernist historians as “theory-mongers” who pass off a-priori theories for rational thinking. The subjective interpretation of the past becomes more important then the places, persons, and events. (One of the best critical accounts of postmodernism is Alan Sokal’s, Fashionable Nonsense.)]

On the other end of the spectrum lies the logical positivist school (The basic affirmations of Positivism are (1) that all knowledge regarding matters of fact is based on the “positive” data of experience, and (2) that beyond the realm of fact is that of pure logic and pure mathematics.). Luciana Duranti, Professor of Archival Science at the University of British Columbia, best personifies this philosophy within the archival framework (known as Diplomatics). Luciana Duranti bases her beliefs on the ability to use principles of documentary analysis, to derive truth from documents, that are universally valid and objective regardless of place. (See: Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science, to read more about this theory.)

The criticism of this theory is that it does not take into account the political and cultural contexts. Its basis in universally valid principles does away with historical and sociology circumstances. Instead it concentrates on the legal doctrine and juridical context of the creator, and the documents it analyzes.

These two ways of thought provide a dichotomy that is false and has really no reason to exist. Both theories have merit and neither can stand on its own (I contend that many of the analytical features of postmodernism have been used by archivists already but remain difficult to completely implement do to the physical, fiduciary,  time, and labor constraints).  Postmodernist thought in archives deems to have archivists rely on functionality and the contextualization of records creation (and societal contexts). While diplomatics provides content analysis tools devoid of any “prejudices,” and which lead to certain truths. When I examine these theories, I see two very different forms of methodology but both seeking the same objective, truth within a certain parameter.

Both of these forms of investigation can be reduced to deductive (beginning with a general concept or rule and working down to specific conclusions) and inductive methods (is a process of using observations to develop general principles about a specific subject or theory). Postmodernist’s represent what I believe is the deductive school. By starting out with general a-priori theories, regardless of the actual empirical data found in records, then move to decide what records are valid for permanent historical reasons. The inductive method personified by the logical positivist archival school clearly uses the available records (observations) and derives general acquisition and appraisal policies from such.

As mentioned before neither method can stand on their own. Understanding contextuality of both society and organizations that create records is highly needed, especially when the size of the documentary region is daunting. When trying to make acquisition and appraisal decisions for large series and record groups this theory proves to be a powerful tool in the archivist’s arsenal (also useful in relating records to other series and record groups in the description process).  However, knowing and analyzing content at the record level (diplomatics) is also very useful when seeking form, legal and historical authenticity of records. More importantly it also gives archivists tools for reappraising collections and making future deaccessioning decisions. (This is a very limited analysis of both within an archival framework, the uses of both have yet to reach their limits.)

Theories are very useful and both of these are no exception but archivists must always move beyond theory to applicability. The archive is the great historical laboratory where all theories and their results are played out. The question that should always be asked and one that I feel carries with it an aspect of objectivity that can guide us when decisions must be made with one eye on the budgetary bottom line (along with time, labor, and space) is, what records had and have the greatest effect upon society or geographical region (or describe events, places, and ideas better within the same societal and geographical context)? And how can these theories aid in answering that question? In the end, immediate physical realities play a much greater role then any theory.

[Another area of criticism by postmodernists is the lack of historical representation of all disenfranchised groups within archival holdings. While valuing all histories is admirable and should be archived if possible, to actually accomplish what postmodernists advocate is NOT feasible. If we are to believe that a collection of documents that describe for example: ethnic gardening methods, (regardless of how good their resultant creation may be) have the same value as the records of Standard Oil…. to even contemplate the thought… is ludicrous.]