Irene Hilden | Absent Presences in the Colonial Archive

30th September, 2022 in Author’s corner

It is important to approach the colonial archive from different perspectives and, if feasible, collaboratively. For only then—if at all—does a post- and decolonial approach to colonial sound archives and their legacies become possible.

In Absent Presences in the Colonial Archive Irene Hilden examines sound objects and listening practices that render the coloniality of knowledge fragile and inconsistent, revealing the absent presences of colonial subjects who are given little or no place in established national narratives and collective memories. In this Q&A Hilden explains more about her research, what inspired her and which three important lessons may be taken from the book.

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.
The book is about the Berlin Sound Archive (Lautarchiv) and its colonial collections. Compiled for scientific purposes in the first half of the 20th century, the archive consists of an extensive collection of sound recordings. Recorded on shellac are stories and songs, personal testimonies and poems, glossaries and numbers. The book pays special attention to the historical situation in which particular sound recordings were produced according to prescribed and scripted modes of speaking. By contrasting the historical situations with distinct contemporary modes of listening, the book attempts to side-step the disciplinary and normative logics of the archive.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?
The Voices of the Other was the title of a seminar that sparked my academic interest in sound and initiated my exploration of the history of the Berlin Sound Archive. Since then, my concern with the post/colonial legacies of sound collections has not diminished. I am deeply indebted to Britta Lange and Anette Hoffmann—the instructors of the seminar—for their extensive and thorough research, which has been a rich and motivating source for many—and certainly for me—over the past years.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?
The readings I would like to suggest relate to different topics and perspectives relevant to my writing. As a result, they are very diverse. Like many students of colonialism, I was influenced by key works on colonial histories and archives such as Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past (1995) or Ann L. Stoler’s Along the Archival Grain (2009). I was also inspired by the perspective of a postcolonial anthropology of Europe and its decentering––see, for instance, Jens Adam et al.’s Europa dezentrieren (2019). It was important for me to discuss the Lautarchiv against the backdrop of discourses on collections that had been described as sensitive (Berner, Hoffmann and Lange 2011), but also on heritage discussed as difficult (Macdonald 2009) or contentious (Hamm and Schönberger 2019). There is wonderful recent work on Berlin sound archives by Anette Hoffmann (Kolonialgeschichte hören, 2020) and Britta Lange (Captured Voices, 2019/2022). Last but not least, I was influenced by strands from the field of sound studies, namely Jonathan Sterne’s classic The Audible Past (2003) and Nina S. Eidsheim’s latest work entitled The Race of Sound (2019).

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?
Since the book aims to pose the big question of how to work through post/colonial discourses by means of thinking with and through sound, it was an accompanying paradox for me that I engaged with sound, the acoustic, and practices of listening through the medium of writing. This also relates to my ambition to grapple with—and write about—the Lautarchiv’s gaps and voids, silences and absences; in other words, that which has not been recorded, either in sound or in writing. Moreover, in a physical sense, the absence of the speakers and singers in the sound recordings is final—since they are dead, their bodies no longer exist. In a meta-physical sense, however, their absence has been transformed into a sonic or medial presence. If not the actual, unmediated presence of their voices, it is this medial presence that, I hope, extends to find expression in my writing.

What would you like readers to remember about your book?
What I try suggest in the book, and what I would like readers to remember, is that when engaging with sound objects from the past, one ought to detach oneself from both the archival objects themselves and the recorded historical subjects, and instead focus more on practices of listening—on listening then and now.

In negotiating my position with regard to the contested discourses on Germany’s colonial past, I understand the book’s case studies and different modes of listening as a way to develop a stance towards the present and the future of the country’s colonial legacies. I see three important lessons that may be taken from the book. First, it is essential to reflect upon and problematise the limits of the Western institution of the archive, and to decentre its position. Second, it is crucial to pay close attention to archival forms, to historicise practices of listening, and to consider ambivalence and ambiguity. Third, it is important to approach the colonial archive from different perspectives and, if feasible, collaboratively. For only then—if at all—does a post- and decolonial approach to colonial sound archives and their legacies become possible.

Your book is published open access thanks to the partial support of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access. How did the open access publication process go? What makes open access so attractive for you/your book? Have you thus far noticed that your book reaches a wider audience?
I humbly hope that through open access, this book will reach a broader international audience and encourage more critical and reflexive engagements with the colonial holdings in and of historical sound archives. I am grateful for the support of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access, the Open Access team at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about? Would you consider publishing the book open access?
As a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, I am fortunate to be able to continue my research and writing on both tangible and intangible colonial legacies. My interest in (sound) collections and museum practices allows me to further examine Germany’s colonial pasts and presents, with a focus on transnational mobilities and the unequal structures of colonial entanglements throughout history.

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