This Book Came to Me Like a Gift

An object of potential history. (Photo by author)

This essay is from the larger Verso roundtable, "Unlearning Imperialism: Responses to Ariella Aïsha Azoulay's Potential History."

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There’s so much I could say about this book, as regards history and photography and objects and violence, but I think given my unique position among Potential History’s many companions, here, it might be most interesting for me to speak not in my capacity as a scholar or as a historian but rather, as an editor.

An editor’s job, as I understand it, is to help a writer realize the best version of the book they want to write, the version that most effectively conveys what it is most important for the book to convey, the version that can conjure up the public the writer wants to address and bring it into being, the book that tells most precisely what the writer wants most desperately to say. And I am of the school of editing that believes that the integrity of writing resides in the degree to which it is necessary for the writer to write, and how well that necessity is transmitted to the reader.

So, then:

The first thing to say is that this book came to me like a gift.

One of the striking things about Ariella’s scholarship—one of its starting places, I think—is her deep love for objects: the wooden box held in the hand, the statue smooth and sculpted, inscribed with the rights of the world from which it was created, the photograph tender with what it cannot tell.

To me as an editor, manuscripts are objects too: they record the care and labor and devotion of their creators, and carry within them the worlds from which they come and those they aim to imagine or repair. The manuscript, remember, is not yet a published book but instead an invitation: an invitation to collaboration, to response, to editing; the manuscript, in other words, always has potential.

And so Ariella’s manuscript arrived to me as, literally, potential—Potential History, 1/3 longer than the finished version; her first book written originally in English, her third? or fourth? language; and written, she told me, in spirals rather than as linear argument, with over 100 separate images. A daunting challenge for any editor.

But to me it felt like a gift. First, because it promised an intellectual collaboration around things I already deeply cared about in my own scholarship and writing: photography, imperial violence and the possibility of its narration, the politics of the archive and of history. But even if I hadn’t happened to have had a similar intellectual background, the real thing that came through for me in the manuscript—the thing that made me want to work with Ariella as an editor—was how fully her insistence on world-repair came through in the text. This signified, to me, that this manuscript was the best kind of thinking and writing: that is, a great act of love.

So when I say that the book came to me like a gift, I mean it in a kind of Mauss-like sense, a gift that requires something of you, a gift that connects. Editing the book was a lesson in unlearning and a test of potential history: if the point of the text is to take apart concepts, ways of knowing, question linear narration and modes of understanding—how could we possibly put together a coherent book out of the faulty, limited, and deeply imperial tools at hand: language, narration, the linear imperative of the sentence, sequential structure?

Technically, what did this look like?

We did, I think, four rounds of edits. Ariella revised the full manuscript she submitted at the point of acquisition and cut two full chapters, and then each remaining chapter went through two to three rounds of line edits between the two of us. The first round felt like finding the skeleton of the argument: we did big cuts, re-ordering of the chapter’s many sections, played with signposting phrases that could help the reader move through the book easily. The second round was for grammar, cadence, rhythm, and sense, and to make sure we had done the first round well. The third round, sometimes, was for addressing knotty problems of meaning and story, sometimes where I had misunderstood Ariella’s meaning or where something was lost in translation.

What we found: unlearning imperialism is exhausting, granular, time-consuming work—I would guess nearly 60 hours per chapter of my time, maybe more.

It’s for all of you to say, really, the extent to which we succeeded. But here are a few of the choices Ariella made, that I implicitly endorsed and sought to emphasize in the text:

1. Unlearning requires repetition and circling.

The text repeats itself, finds multiple ways in so that what you thought you understood inherently if you went to college or graduate school in the 1990s or 2000s (of course archives, history, museums, the academy are imperial—we knew that already right?) is offered up transformed, differently seen.

Technically, this is accomplished through repetition and elaboration; the introduction of a concept and set of terms that are then reworked in each chapter like a theme and its variations. This is why chapter one has so many introductory concepts that seem unnecessary or overly technical: “the triple dividing line” and “rewinding” and “regime-made disaster” and “the differential principle,” “unruly objects” and “unshowable photographs.” They all circle closer and closer to the core of what she is trying to convey. One singular direction could not winnow so cleanly.

2. Talking about what is not seen requires detail, specifity, clarity, and definitive direction.

We are in a moment now where I have started to see scholarship in the humanities trying to work in experimental ways, trying to tell beyond what our current social theories will allow, playing with autofiction, the speculative. It is in fashion. This is, largely, good, or at least fine.

But—these projects often go wrong when they rely on vague research or just spin around pretty language. To talk about something unseen or barely grasped at, to write a different way of knowing, takes rigor and application and a grounding in the object, the artifact, the archive, the humans that give it life. It means the hard work of interpretation and detailed reading, sifting and connecting, the labor of saying as clearly and precisely as possible what you mean. This should not, ever, be easy work.

You will notice in Ariella’s text that the book is written in several voices: a personal one, a theoretical one, a militant one, a narrative one, and that there are moments when the theorizing stops and a story is told around one photograph, one companion, one wooden box. This is intentional: we worked hard to emphasize these moments so that the reader would have a world in which the thinking could operate, could envision the violent landscape of war-ravaged Berlin and the fear of women hiding in the basement, because Ariella had done the work to map it precisely.

The camera shutter, which serves as both metaphor and literal object of study, was something we developed together as a framing device for the reader, to have a concrete way into the book and to introduce its more abstract ideas. You will also notice that sections, chapters, paragraphs, open and end with what we hope are clear summaries, phrases, lines that stick in the memory: this is the work Ariella did to clarify for the reader what they need to take from the book.

So, to repeat: clear thinking and phrasing is a necessity for unlearning, and pretty words mean nothing if they are not direct. Direction and purpose is needed to do the work of repair.

3. Unlearning requires a militant imagining of what one wants to recover or bring into being.

The book has a series of very short, descriptive or manifesto-like chapters, in which Ariella calls on museum workers, archivists, historians, the governed, to go on strike from imperial ways of knowing.

We decided to break these out into distinct sections, sandwiched between the other longer chapters, and to set them off visually from the rest of the book. We wanted them to be easily accessible.

We also discussed making them sound and resonate differently than the other chapters, to feel like “calls,” as Ariella puts it. Here, I remember pressing her for specifics: what would it be like if museum workers went on strike? What physically would happen in the space we now call “museum,” how might people act? And she tried writing this out, and we both really liked it. What these sections do, when they most succeed, is to concretize the potential in our everyday for the unlearning and repair we most want to see.

That is, it is the imagination—the militant imagination—that makes the call real. We can never just critique.

4. The work of collaboration is a small form of repair, of being-in-common.

Editing and publishing, as I understand it, is the work of care: attending to the work of others and carefully integrating it into the world (or, better for activist books, forcing the world to integrate around it). In the best of circumstances, I think editing—like teaching, like research collaboration, like a good conversation—can repair the isolation scholarship and writing is said to require, and teach us how to think and be and say and know together with others; it can teach us that our thinking and being and saying and knowing is, in fact, not up to us at all but rather—always shared.

And so I want to thank Ariella, here, for opening up this gift.

Jessie Kindig is an Editor at Verso Books.