10 May 2023 MD 2023/2 Editorial
A pebble on a beach is an archive of geological stories that “are gigantic, and reach realms well beyond human experience, even beyond human imagination. They extend back to the Earth’s formation – and then yet farther back, to the births and deaths of ancient stars.”1
The Earth itself is a repository that geologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, and sociologists ceaselessly study and categorize in search of connections to elucidate a 4.6 billion-year-old history. And when it comes to human beings, we late-arrivals on the scene continually create archives that record the passing of empires and generations, leaving footprints on the sands of memory. Or, as French sociologist Pierre Nora once described it, “shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded.”2
In theory, everyone’s story matters. Yet, history shows that power politics dictate what endures and whose stories are remembered. Consequently, as this issue of Media Development seeks to demonstrate, it is a matter of “archival justice” whose images and voices are recorded for posterity.
As is all too apparent, what is archived or retained in political, economic, and social structures – including language – tends to embody inclusions and exclusions, discriminatory attitudes and behaviours, one set of rules for the elite and another for the rest.
In the words of one expert commentator, “There should be a space for alternative realities, alternative ways of knowing, in the archive. There should be room for imagining a world in which justice not injustice triumphed.”3
Wittingly or unwittingly, archives reinforce social and economic inequalities. By so doing, they mirror the societies in which they were put together and, by their very nature, select, judge, and exclude. In this way and over time, they strengthen the dominance of the establishment, providing a powerful tool to frame and justify myths and policies.
Archives are an often overlooked dimension of current struggles against the legacies of colonialism and racism. Re-imagining archives becomes an intrinsic dimension of the right to memory and a matter of justice:
“In all communities and societies, the choice of what is recorded in the public memory and the way it is represented is not neutral but happens in accord with predetermined perceptions and policies. This politics of remembering or forgetting constitutes a struggle for power.”4
The mass media are a kind of public archive. What newspapers, television programmes, and films choose to cover constitutes a record of contemporary life viewed through many different lenses and subject to norms and practices that inevitably change over time. And, however transient, social media are a contemporary form of archive, largely unregulated and subject to inaccuracies, distortions, misinterpretation, and disinformation.
Archival justice is a claim, therefore, for fair and balanced representation in the public collections of information and data that frame society’s interactions with itself. The multiplicity of archives makes the task of regulating them extremely difficult. Yet there are general principles to do with human dignity, impartiality, equity, and truth that ought to apply regardless.
As one commentator on the politics of injustice notes, “We must confront history’s unfinished business… the preservation of the memories of slavery and emancipation is important for the knowledge and wisdom to be gained from such memories.”5 After all, everyone has a story to tell.
1. Zalasiewicz, Jan (2010). The Planet in a Pebble, OUP, p. xii.
2. Nora, Pierre (1989). “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory, p. 12. University of California.
3. Hazel V. Carby, (2020). “The National Archives” in InVisible Culture 31 (2020).
4. Lee, Philip (2010). “Towards a right to memory” in Media Development 2/2010, p. 10.
5. Dunn, Hopeton S. (2012). “The Caribbean: Preserving the Public Memory.” In Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice, p. 198. Palgrave Macmillan.