A Handbook for a Haunted, Nomadic Age: Potential Material Histories

Mesoamerican archaeological objects and lifejackets from Lesvos, used by border crossers attempting to enter the EU. “Transient Matter,” Haffenreffer Museum, Brown University. (Photo by author)

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

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It is strange how intellectual and political paths sometimes intersect. I encountered Ariella’s thought, writing and practice several years ago, well before I started working at Brown and we ended up becoming colleagues and collaborators. It was through The Civil Contract of Photography[1], one of the progenitors of this book, and I was exploring then the links between photography and archaeology, my own disciplinary home.[2] Her project of unlearning the canon and dislodging the institutional apparatuses, at that stage proposed mostly within the fields of theory and history of photography, was already evident. Some of us were then engaged in similar struggles in archaeology, attempting to un-discipline the field[3] which, as we know, has been implicated in many of the processes of extraction, appropriation and objectification that Potential History traces. Like her, I was attempting to unearth practices of public and popular engagement with objects and things which were in operation prior to the establishment of archaeology as a disciplinary framework and as a modernist, epistemic and sensorial regime of museification: People, mostly living in the Ottoman Empire, caring for things from other times, sometimes ancient things, expressing affection or even veneration towards them, treating them as living, enchanted beings, as potent, agentic entities; these affective objects were placed at the centre of social and public life, in the midst of things, visibly embedded in houses, churches and mosques, not stored and exhibited in specialist institutions such as museums and archives. To the alarm of many of my colleagues who believe that there was no archaeology before the nineteenth century, I called these popular modes of engagement archaeological, as opposed to folkloristic, in an attempt to retrieve and valorise lost worlds but also connect with a range of ideas and practices which can inform and enrich our contemporary understanding of objects, things and landscapes.[4]

At the same time, I was studying photography as a device collateral with modernist archaeology, since both can be seen as exhibitionary practices of unearthing and making visible, staging, framing, capturing, objectifying and commodifying. I was reminded of these parallel lives when I saw, in the first few pages of Potential History, a text which has become the locus classicus of this collateral relationship between photography and archaeology, a text I have also cited a few times in the past: the 1839 speech by Francois Arago to the French Chamber of Deputies on behalf of Daguerre: buy this invention, he pleaded; imagine if we had this invention in 1798 in Egypt, how easy would have been to create pictorial records of millions of hieroglyphics, and how many antiquities we would have saved from the greed of the Arabs.[5] Photography became the novel, expedient form of capturing, appropriating but also reproducing and commodifying things from another time: objectified entities of epistemic and ocular-aesthetic value for the west, often living beings actively and multi-sensorially engaged with for the “greedy” Arabs.

Ariella’s thinking inspired me to reflect on photography as a social event, as an encounter which may or may not result in the production of photographic objects. That book and the one that followed, on the ontology of photography,[6] encouraged us also to reflect on absences, on things that happened beyond the photographic frame, on silences or perceived silences; on the tensions that are often erased from the afterimage; these books prompted us to attend to the aurality of photographs, or, to evoke Tina Campt,[7] tune in to hear the quiet sounds they emit, and the voices they have captured from their background.

As a part time photographer by necessity and one who is growing more and more suspicious of the practice and its impact in the world, that book helped me navigate my way through, forced me to ask, every single time, reversing W.J.T. Mitchell’s question: what does an object, a thing, a piece of rock, a human being, another sentient entity, want of me, every time I appear in front of them with a camera?[8] This work, amongst others, inspired me to conceive of the photographic process as a sensorial assemblage,[9] as a heterogeneous and contingent co-presence of diverse entities, from light and the photographic apparatus to the things or the people that are meant to be photographed, to the affects and memories that are produced and evoked in the encounter; an assemblage which may or may not result in photographic products, but which is inherently and by definition, as all sensorial assemblages, deeply political. It is also an assemblage that can lead to new emergences, it harbours potential histories.

I was reflecting on these early encounters and their impact on my work, writing, curatorial practices and thinking, as was reading Potential History. While much of this earlier thinking is there, illustrated with a range of new examples and instances, there is much more in this impressive tome. Indeed, the scope here is breath-taking: photography, archives, museums, migrations of objects, migrations of people, and the two thought of together, 1492, Ladino, and Algeria and France and Palestine, slavery, reparations, or rather, repair; a rewound future. And hope; there is still time; “The potential is there”, is the short, conclusive phrase, an ending and a beginning at the same time.

There is another key difference with the previous books, however. One could say that this one was written by a different person, not Ariella, but Ariella Aϊsha: a new, dual person who now carries her Arab grandmother with her, they both co-author this book. It was composed by a different author who brings Palestine with her across the Atlantic, and one who prompts us to think of that land and its people alongside the general strikers of W.E.B. Du Bois and the victorious revolutionaries of Haiti.

Unlike other readers, I was lucky enough to have found myself not only reading this book while at Brown, in the same intellectual environment as its author, but also hearing Ariella Aϊsha talk about it in many of our events, and seeing how she puts her words in practice, how she curates the future anterior, the repaired world she would like us to co-habit. More importantly, I found myself co-thinking and collaborating with her (and with Vazira Zamindar) in our Decolonial Initiative,[10] when we realized that our interests on reflecting on migrations of objects and migrations of people, converged.

I recall reading a piece by her four years ago: its title was, “The right to Live where one’s Culture is Museified.”[11] It came out in March 2016, and the argument was further developed in Potential History. Let me quote from that earlier piece:

Restitution claims for discrete objects, poorly addressed for years, are not enough to overcome the imperial temporality and spatiality that keep people in unbridgeable distance from their culture as it is showcased elsewhere. The artifacts preserved in European museums are not just exemplary masterpieces but also mummies of imperial violence that should be transformed. European citizens, acting against their governments to smuggle in refugees and assist them, are effectively arguing that these refugees represent a pristine opportunity for European citizens to transform the legacy of imperial violence into a different contract between descendants of the colonized and the colonizers. Art objects, so dearly preserved and appreciated by many, can be the first ambassadors of a different ground for the emergence of shared rights or rights-in-common. The right of access, or proximity, to the artifacts of one’s own culture. The Right To Live Where One’s Culture Was Museified.

I was in Lesvos, on the Greek-Turkish border, when this piece came out, a visit that was destined to be the initiation of my project on the contemporary archaeology and archaeological ethnography of migration.[12] At that specific time, in that specific place and instance, when I was spending my days meeting people from the Global South who were stuck at the gates of Fortress Europe and I was witnessing the detention and deportation practices of the Global North, that piece of writing struck a cord. It resonated with other writings and reflections which see this current moment of mass movement, not as a “migration crisis” which needs to be dealt with, but as a reception crisis,[13] as the latest episode in the long history of colonisation; as a haunting, and as a hauntology.[14] In other words, as a haunting that needs to be embraced, as a moment of deep reflection and opportunity. Ariella says to us that the objects from Syria and Afghanistan and Pakistan, and many countries in Africa, and Mesoamerica and South America, classified as art and hoarded in venerable museums and other institutions in the Global North, are not simply the material traces of imperial violence. They are also the non-sentient beings, “ambassadors” Ariella calls them, the beings that have transformed and remade their new homes, the museums in the west. This place-making role activates the right to proximity, allows the sentient beings with whom they are geographically and perhaps emotionally and culturally connected, to claim the right to co-habitation and co-existence. This is an argument that goes beyond claims for object restitution and return, in favour of reparation, world repair.

It is clear, however, in Potential History that the project of repair, requires the long and laborious process of unlearning the temporality, spatiality and the body politic of the racialized imperial and colonial order. I am particularly sympathetic to her calls to reject a notion of history as progressivism and as linear temporality in favour of history as experiential multi-temporality, as co-existence rather than succession, as multiple material histories of affect and world care. Moments, processes and events that conventional histories have declared as long passed, as instances ought to be just a matter of dispassionate study or anodyne commemoration, are still alive, Ariella tells us, they are still haunting us. And that’s a good thing too. This haunting activates an ontology of a past that has not passed yet, and a present that contains all its past moments, as durational, not imperial time.[15]

Potential History also engenders a future: Imagine going on strike, we are told, as photographers (and perhaps as photograph users and viewers), museum professionals and museum goers, archivists and archive users, as scholars, as citizens of nation states. A strike that is not simply a withdrawal of labour but a positive move to unlearn, to dislodge, to refuse to accept the conventions that allow institutions grounded on imperial and colonial order, to operate. But this is also a strike about language and acts of speech. “Imagine our mouths go on strike, refusing to speak the imperial language that reduces our co-citizens to the ‘refugee’, to the ‘undocumented,’” Ariella writes. Yet, some of the people currently on the move want to claim and maintain, at least temporarily, the status and the label of the refugee, understanding only too well the documentary and legalistic devices which are finding themselves entangled with, in this case the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. But that’s their struggle, especially vis-à-vis asylum authorities and border patrol agencies. Ours is different: to decolonize language and speech, to re-distribute the sensible, to imagine a different future that is at the same time a past and a present. If we now live in a new, haunted world, in a new nomadic age,[16] then this book is an indispensible handbook for it. The potential is there. There is still time.

Yannis Hamilakis is Joukowsky Family Professor of Archaeology and Professor of Modern Greek Studies at Brown University. He works on the politics of the past, on sensoriality, on the links between the photographic and the archaeological, on the materiality of contemporary migration, on decoloniality, and on the archaeology of Greece from the Neolithic to the present. His recent books include "Archaeology, Nation, and Race" (Cambridge University Press, 2022, co-authored with Rafi Greenberg), and "The New Nomadic Age: Archaeologies of Forced and Undocumented Migration" (edited volume, Equinox, 2018).

[1] Azoulay, A. 2008. The Civil Contract of Photography. Trans. By R. Mazali and R. Danieli. New York: Zone Books.

[2] E.g. Hamilakis, Y. 2001. Monumental visions: Bonfils, classical antiquity and 19th century Athenian society. History of Photography 25(1): 5-12 and 23-43; Hamilakis, Y., A. Anagnostopoulos and F. Ifantidis 2009 Postcards from the edge of time: Archaeology, Photography, Archaeological Ethnography (a photo-essay). Public Archaeology 8(2/3): 283-309; Carabbot, Ph., Hamilakis, Y. and E. Papargyriou (eds) 2015. Camera Graeca: Photographs, Narratives, Materialities. London: Routledge.

[3] Haber, A.F. 2012. Un-disciplining archaeology. Archaeologies 8: 55-66; Hamilakis, Y. 2008. Decolonizing Greek archaeology: indigenous archaeologies, modernist archaeology, and the post-colonial critique. In Damaskos, D. and Plantzos, D. (eds) A Singular Antiquity. Athens: The Benaki Museum, pp. 273-284.

[4] Hamilakis, Y. 2011. Indigenous Archaeologies in Ottoman Greece. In Bahrani, Z.,Çelik, Z., and E. Eldem (eds), Scramble for the Past: Archaeology in Ottoman Lands, 1740–1914. Istanbul: Garanti/and University of Texas Press, pp. 49-69.

[5] Arago, F. 1889 /1839 Report on the daguerreotype – speech to the Chamber of Deputies. Translated by J. S. Memes. American Journal of Photography 10: 238–248.

[6] Azoulay, A. 2015. Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography. London: Verso.

[7] Campt, T. 2017. Listening to Images. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[8] Mitchell, W.J.T. 2006. What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

[9] Hamilakis, Y. 2017. Sensorial assemblages: affectivity, memory, and temporality in assemblage thinking. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 27(1): 169-182.

[10] https://blogs.brown.edu/decolonialcollective/

[11] https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2551-the-right-to-live-where-one-s-culture-was-museified

[12] See for some of the results the on-line exhibition, Transient Matter: Assemblages of Migration in the Mediterranean: https://blogs.brown.edu/transientmatter/

[13] Christopoulos, D. 2016. Europe’s solidarity crisis: a perspective from Greece. Interview with G. Souvlis” Roar , 8 June. Available online: https://roarmag.org/essays/europe-refugee-solidaritycrisis-greece/

[14] Cf. Derrida, J. 1994. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. London: Routledge. Translated by P. Kamuf.

[15] I am evoking here the well-known ideas of Henri Bergson, further developed by Deleuze, on duration, and on matter as memory and as the embodiment of multiple temporalities. I have worked through these ideas in my book on sensoriality: Hamilakis, Y. 2013. Archaeology and the Senses: Human Experience, Memory, and Affect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[16] Hamilakis, Y. (ed.) 2018. The New Nomadic Age: Archaeologies of Forced and Undocumented Migration. Sheffield: Equinox.