Dust: The Archive and Cultural History

By Carolyn Steedman. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002. xi, 195 pp. Bibliography. Index. Available from the Society of American Archivists, $18.00 members, $23.00 nonmembers. ISBN 0-8135-3047-4.


Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 66, No.2, Fall/Winter 2003)


Before you sit down to read Dust, I strongly suggest you pour yourself a tall glass of favorite liquid refreshment, take a few cleansing breaths, or do whatever else might serve as your routine for instilling calm and forbearance. This little book will test you.

To begin with, Dust is heavily steeped in the academic brew of postmodernist semiotics. For the gleefully uninitiated, semiotics involves seeing human experience, in all its minute expression, as signs or symbols. The word “refrigerator” does not identify an appliance, it connotes humanity’s desire/need to safeguard food stuffs. To a degree, this perspective enlivens one’s insights on the world. But all too often, semiotics is to humanities scholarship what Schoenberg is to classical music. It is dominated by abstruse, disconnected passages that must be reread several times.

Author Carolyn Steedman is an historian at the University of Warwick in Great Britain. Her ample scholarly repertoire defies easy classification but centers mainly around eighteenth and nineteenth century British cultural studies. She has written on childhood, servants, legal structures, autobiography, national identity, and memory. Dust incorporates a patchwork of elements from these and other research interests, which might have been a fascinating and satisfying accomplishment if the connecting thread were truly visible.

One of the greatest challenges in reviewing this book is simply describing its contents. Looking at the synopsis offered by the publisher, I’m comforted to know it’s not just me. Perhaps the easiest way to characterize it is as a set of meditations on the act of deriving meaning from of the past and communicating it to others. Steedman begins with observations on Jacques Derrida’s influential 1994 paper (later book) Archive Fever, which she uses as a launching pad for a series of headfirst catapults into the muck of deconstruction. To wade through, she summons diverse, nuanced research insights on eighteenth century British judicial practice, the experiences of nineteenth century French historian Jules Michelet, George Eliot’s book Middlemarch, domestic space and belongings in Victorian England, the poetry of W. H. Auden, and more. But I would be on the thinnest ice if I were to try to portray the narrative more fully or to conjecture on its essential message. It’s perhaps more than ironic that the book’s last sentence is a question.

What Dust is not about (as is probably apparent by now) is the administration and development of archives. Nor is it even really about the use of archives by advanced scholars or others. Instead, it falls in the emerging genre of academic reflection on the purpose and nature of societal remembering. Archives, of course, figure into this picture as institutions and instruments of memory. And archives do figure into Dust – in fact, part of the book even does ruminate on the physical presence of dust among historical records – but archives are of less interest to the author than the individual historian’s reconstruction and telling of the past. Probably the most meaningful chapter from an archivist’s vantage point is “The Space of Memory: In an Archive,” though even here, the meaning will be much in the eye of the beholder.

Reading Dust is a bit like experiencing an overwrought Sunday sermon, where one’s attention is occasionally captured by a pearl but is usually sent adrift by verbiage and syntax meant to please the preacher more than the congregation. A prime illustration of this is the chapter “The Meaning of Rag Rugs.” Contained is a parable of the author’s realization of her own misassumptions in recounting history. Part way through, it includes the following passage: “The rag rug carries with it the irreducible traces of an actual history, and that history cannot be made to go away; but ways of writing it and wanting it (and what it represents) are actually somebody else’s story.” OK, I noted, this seems to be an elegant metaphor on the idea that the telling of history is more about the teller than about the past. But then the text meanders into a “coda” on the socio-economic history and “romance” of rags. And I was no longer sure I got the inspirational word, if there was one.

Steedman introduces the penultimate chapter of Dust with segments of Auden’s poem, “Homage to Clio” and adds the following commentary: “You can never be quite sure whether Auden has seen something of very profound importance, or whether what you have before you is an extraordinarily moving string of phonemes.” Substitute Steedman’s name for Auden’s and change “extraordinarily” to “occasionally” and you have an apt depiction of my ambivalence and discouragement in reading Dust. Archivists who have delved into previous postmodernist writings on the social phenomenon of memory will, I expect, find tantalizing bits to mull over. However, those who wish to experiment anew with this scholarship would be better served to start with the consciousness raising of archival colleagues such as Terry Cook, Heather MacNeill, and Brien Brothman (Archivaria 51, Spring 2001); Mark Greene and Tom Nesmith (American Archivist 65, no.1, Spring/Summer 2002); and Fran Blouin (Archival Issues 24, no. 2, 1999) and let that light the way.


University of Minnesota