BKS2000H – First Oral Presentation

ARTICLE: Records and their Imaginaries – Imagining the Impossible, Making Possible the Imagined

AUTHORS:  Anne Gilliland and Michelle Caswell

KEYWORDS: Affect – Archival Imaginaries – Cultural studies – Evidence – Human Rights – Imagined Records – Impossible Imaginary Archives –  Imagined Records 

KEY PASSAGES: Reading Notes


Wild Nights with Emily


“We argue that the roles of individual and collective imaginings about the absent or unattainable archive and its contents should be explicitly acknowledged, in both archival theory and practice. What we are calling impossible archival imaginaries and the affect associated with the imagined records produced within those imaginaries, offer important affective counterbalances and sometimes resistance to dominant legal, bureaucratic, historical and forensic notions of evidence that so often fall short in explaining the capacity of records and archives to motivate, inspire, anger, and traumatize” (56).


Arjun Appadurai: “The world we live in today is characterized by a new role for the imagination in social life… The image, the imagined, the imaginary—these are all terms that direct us to something critical and new in global processes: the imagination as a social practice… The imagination is now central to all forms of agency, is itself a global fact, and is the key component of the new global order ” (58).

Jean-Paul Satre: “We treat imaginary objects as if they are real and ascribe all sorts of affects, beliefs and characteristics to them” (58).

“Sartre identifies four features of imaginative consciousness that distinguish the imaginary from perception and conceptual thought”(58).

The imaginative consciousness:

(1)  is a consciousness that makes present through reflection something absent;
(2) quasi-observed (i.e., it is imagined in its entirety);
(3) can be nonexistent, absent, existing elsewhere, or neither existing or non-existing;

(4)  and spontaneous (58) .

Claudia Strauss: “Psychologists, psychoanalysts, and psychological anthropologists have delineated a variety of forms of cognition and awareness between knowledge of indisputable facts and complete lack of knowledge. These include explicit knowledge of imagined facts, implicit cultural beliefs, and dissociated, repressed, and fantasized knowledge, as well as experiences that are not internalized because they cannot be assimilated to any previous schema”  (61).


Archival Imaginaries: “the dynamic way in which communities creatively and collectively re-envision the future through archival interventions in representations of the shared past. Through the archival imaginary, the past becomes a lens to the future; the future is rooted in that which preceded it. Through the archival imaginary, the future can be conceived through kernels of what was possible in the past” (61).

Impossible Archival Imaginaries are similar to archival imaginaries but  “[impossible] archival imaginaries may work in situations where the archive and its hoped-for contents are absent or forever unattainable” (61).

Impossible archival imaginaries are impossible in the sense “that they will never result in actualized records in any traditional sense” even if they exist in relationship to actualized records (61).

As Gilliland and Caswell note, even if these impossible archival imaginaries might never be rooted in actualize material, “impossible archival imaginaries can be discerned at both psychological and social levels through personal, community, national, and societal imaginings” (61).

Examples: (1) Archives held by the Roswell UFO Museum in New Mexico, and (2) the archives related to the Cooper’s Donuts riot of 1959.


Example: the non-existent body camera footage of  Michael Brown’s murder.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown — an unarmed Black man — was murdered by police officer Darren Wilson. Wilson was acquitted.  Brown’s family started a campaign to mandate that all police officers be obligated to wear body cameras. They argued that if Wilson was wearing a body camera, it would have been impossible for him to be acquitted. 

Brown’s grieving parents created an “imagined record” — the imagined record is the footage from Wilson’s non-existent body camera.


 See Saiduya Hartman’s article “Venus in Two Acts”.

“Through critical fabulation, Hartman seeks both to disrupt the authority of existing evidence and ‘to imagine what might have happened to might have been said or might have been done’ (p.11). In this way, the figure of Venus becomes the author of a new, impossible and imagined archive, one in which she can tell her own story in her own voice. Thus even as Hartman laments the absence of a single autobiographical account of the Middle Passage by an enslaved woman, she simultaneously conjures up such an account as an imagined record authored by an imagined Venus that fills a crucial gap in the historical narrative. Here, the limits of the archive point to the current constraints (and future possibilities) of records as evidence; if Venus’s imaginary narrative can be willed into existence, Hartman seems to ask, can’t it also serve as evidence?” (67).