Archives and Power over Memory

I never gave a single thought on “institutional memory” before the Archives Congress (November 17-18, 2012) in Ateneo de Davao University. I was living with the illusory notion that we live in a static present, never minding the collective (and collected) memory that supposedly informs who we are as a people – in the realm of the historical and the aspirational. It may be said that I am not alone in this line of thought. We leave the lofty discussions of this nature to the academicians, theorists and professional brains and we continue on with our mundane and lay lives. For how could I (or anyone) ever be concerned with piles of documents that seat in lonely, cavernous halls collecting dust?

And as it is the determined nature of education to pull us out of our comfort zones and smash our heads with alien theories, talk grand and wake up at 3 am to write papers (i.e. a paper for my Qualitative Research class), I found myself keenly interested in how memory is set in public institutions and how collection and recollections work in an environment of power struggles. It is interesting to reflect about our own memories, yet it becomes more interesting still to think about how groups manage to store, document, and file memories that become official or unofficial history. The memory of man is indeed, a curse from the gods – too short to remember dreams, too long to forget our own pains.

The first time I heard “institutional memory”, I was reminded of George Orwell’s novel 1984. In it, he masterfully devised a fictional Ministry of Truth that controls Oceania’s media and literature, erasing past events from their archives, inventing lies that become official history, diluting the sense of individual identity to serve the whims of Big Brother’s dictatorship. I remember seeing those words in’s official twitter account, and thought about how one memory is instituted, how specific events and memory are advantaged over other memories, and in the face of a fluid march of time (and hence events), how do we single out moments that represent both the winning and losing powers as well as the multitude of the powerless caught in the elephants’ dance? The control of the archivist over truth becomes apparent. Instead of dust-collecting files, in my mind she now holds the fine line that makes us deny Orwell’s Party slogan: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery.”

The study of peoples through anthropology demands fidelity in our data and the erudition to scrutinize these collected information. Our relentless search for meaning in this world made up of different peoples and cultures, and thus memories, requires that archival materials are crucially included in our search. Although the primary method of anthropology is ethnography, archival materials offer us a wide range of understanding others understanding of the world, always underscoring the fact that materials we study are also products of their time and definite ethos. The movement of discourses is also movements in history. We see for example the 19th century evolutionary framework that sees people in a linear evolutionary movement from savagery to “high culture” brought about by western convergences with the “less cultured”. Contrast that with the present understanding that cultures arise out of more complicated causes defined by physical environment and meta-narratives and not simply a Marxist evolutionary march.

Archives are more than just text; they ascend out of sometimes differing contexts. This is very important for the anthropologist-researcher. As text, archival materials are snapshots of what was and offers us an understanding of what is and a glimpse of what will be. A Spanish era document, for example, on the Bikolano language may be studied to analyze how Spanish words became vernacular or how certain words were understood in the pre-colonial period in opposition to its current usage. We often use the word “alabado” to mean a street beggar but its original Spanish meaning is to praise as in “alabado seas mi Senor”. How did the meaning transform into a seemingly Frankensteinesque current usage? Is it symptomatic of a subversive attitude of that time – that to praise the catholic God is comparable to a beggar pleading for alms? Is this text caught in the context of the time? The researcher must be cognizant of these changing meanings and sensitive to the struggles happening in, within and beyond the texts in his hands.

A colleague asked me once about the “Bangsamoro” as a name, as a brand that hopes to establish a people’s identity. I told him that names (and by extension, words) have power and whoever controls the name-giving also controls history. Archives as texts, have power that control how we see ourselves in the present, and very much like name-giving, whoever controls the advantaging of one history over the other, controls not only the past (memory), but also the present (awareness) and the future (aspirations). We need not forget in our classical history, that the eradication of whole civilizations started with the burning of libraries (e.g. Library of Alexandria) and the killings of archivists (e.g. Mnemons of ancient Greece). The systematic burning of the “idols” and bamboo scrolls in the Bikol region during the Spanish conquest has led to a void in our history prior to the conquest. Look at our history books and there is a gaping hole between pre-history and colonial Philippines, as if pre-Spanish Bikolanos were empty slates, yet Bikolano-Spanish dictionaries documented during the first contact (i.e. Marcos de Lisboa dictionary), show a stunning technological plethora of words (especially on rice production and pottery) and a highly-organized society based on mutual respect and merits, evident of a flourishing river civilization.

Archives will be crucial for my own research with the T’boli S’bu of South Cotabato. Whenever someone asks me what my topic is, I answer him or her that I’d be writing on the T’boli, and they would often chide me and say “but there’s already a whole library written about them”. Oh good, show me the library. But really, the T’bolis are one of the most studied IP groups in the Philippines, but most of them on t’nalak weaving and musicology. As my thesis would center on climate change and risk perceptions, most of my data will be from primary, fieldworks information, yet archival materials on mythology, history and early ethnographies will be consulted for comparing collected data. It is also important to set the context first before analyzing the post-modern narratives of the T’boli. How were they defined by outsiders? In contrast to: “how did they define themselves?” and “how do they define themselves now?” Here, the discourse of archives and its power over memory hovers like a stinging bee.


4 thoughts on “Archives and Power over Memory

  1. Sometimes people are already content with textbook definitions. The beauty of anthropology is we find the nuances in things and we find means to study them, if not resolve them.

    I had a professor in the university once who said that history is about power (as you have said). Whoever holds power gets to control history. Look at the Egyptians. We know a lot about the lives of the pharaohs but not much about the ordinary citizens at that time (it’s a good thing though that archaeologists are finding more and more information about them).

    You are also right about label as a form of power. The term Bangsamoro, even though it unites the Muslims, it also blinds us from the diversity of the people who practice Islam. Some Muslims do not even want to take part in it (at least the Bangsamoro that the MILF and MNLF want to establish).

    Indeed, everything is about context. Just look at the life of Rizal. Different authors have different versions of his life.

    Btw, I did my fieldwork in Naga on my last year in Anthropology. I came across a book that mentions preHispanic Naga – especially the time of the Age of Trade. I can’t remember the title right now, but I can scourge for it in my digital archives and give you the title. 🙂

  2. Hi! Thank you for your comment! It’s nice to know people who are also interested in Anthropology and its many rigors. It’s really interesting that you did your fieldwork in Naga because my undergraduate thesis was also about the Pre-hispanic religion of Naga (I’m from Naga).

    Keep in touch! 🙂

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