Eat the Document.
BY Cathy Alter
[Editor’s note: This piece is all entirely true. Unlike most of what you see hereabouts, this is required and reflects actual research. Show some respect.]
Psychoanalysts sometimes speak of the epistemophilic instinct, an unbridled love of learning that grips scholars like fingernails in their backs. But when a reader at London’s Public Record Office literally ingested The Abortive Treaty of 1604 (after first ordering the Treaty of Union with Scotland as an appetizer), that was taking the passion for primary sources a little too far. And, according to Helen Wood, who recently received her Masters of Archive Administration and Records Management from the University of Liverpool, this sort of conduct takes place in archives all the time. Forget the tales of sexual politics in the faculty lounge — the kinkiest stuff occurs between the sheaves at your local library.
Wood’s dissertation, “The Fetish of the Document: An Exploration of Attitudes Towards Archives,” gives new meaning to Special Collections. Her essay centers around the participatory role the archivist has in creating and influencing fetishistic behavior — in themselves and in those who use, and sometimes abuse, archives. “We are all fetishists of some sort. It’s a normal state of mind,” admits the 25-year-old Wood, adding, “This phenomena is incredibly prevalent in the museum, archive, and library profession and I feel it is about time they realized it.”
In her dissertation, Wood first lays out her three primary models of fetishism: anthropological, Marxist (a far-flung definition of a commodity fetish which she soon abandons), and the hard-to-ignore Freudian interpretation. All three models, she writes, define the fetish as an object possessing a special energy, power, or independent life force. Yet only two, the anthropological and the psychosexual explanation, define the difference between okay and not-so okay fetishism. It’s one thing to venerate a first edition of Freud’s Die Traumdeutung, it’s another thing all together to shove it down your pants wearing little white gloves.
Anthropologically speaking, archivists use ritualistic methods in the preserving, promoting, managing, and displaying of archives. As preservers of heritage, this “acculturation” causes them to view the archives as sacred relics, the repository — especially if it has vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows — as a church, and themselves as priests. What’s more, according to Wood, “the archivist then imposes further value by restricting access, preventing certain people from using a document or preventing all from seeing it until a specified date. In doing this they create curiosity about the archive and install it as a fetish object. These ritualistic actions go some way towards maintaining the document’s uniqueness and mystique.”
Searchroom rules take it one step further. Whether the researcher is required to wear white gloves, use supports and weights to cushion the document, or refrain from speaking, they fetishize through the ritualized process of examining the document. Searchroom rules, which are often mandated by the archivist, also create an environment of heightened sensory perception and arousal — everything is focused on the archive and its user. Here Wood quotes 19th century English essayist Charles Lamb. Upon entering Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Lamb expressed “a desire to ‘inhale learning when walking amid foliage’ and to hear the ‘whispering of the leaves’ of a manuscript.”
Interestingly, says Wood, it is this special quality of the document that is transferred to the archivist, and reflects his or her own special-ness. Concluding the section on the archivist-as-fetishist she writes, “The document is central to their professional status…therefore the value of the document determines the value of the professional. It is a case of self-validation through object validation.” Archivists are fetishists, Wood reasons, “in order to secure self-image.”
Which is all perfectly acceptable behavior says Wood, because this kind of fetishism remains under official control. It is a sanctioned and ritualized construct of the profession. In other words, it goes with the territory. But there are those who fetishize outside of the box. Referred to as thieves and abusers in her dissertation, this crafty lot fetishizes outside the realms of the normal sanctioned processes. The same processes that, ironically, enable others to fetishize.
Here Wood introduces the intellectual thief. Usually an academic or an archivist, this crook “steals or ‘removes’ in their eyes, an item from a collection in order that they may possess it and take better care of it…” Wood describes the 1995 case of Anthony Melinkas, a 68-year-old professor of art and an authority on medieval manuscripts. While at the Vatican Library, Melinkas stole leaves from a 14th century manuscript that once belonged to Petrarch, believing that “they should be taken care of in the hands of somebody who really valued their significance.”
The professor was arrested eight years later, when he tried to sell his treasure to a dealer who got suspicious when Melinkas presented the leaves in a cheap plastic envelope — “a sign of irreverence not appropriate for a known lover of manuscripts.”
Wood goes on to recount the lurid tale of Darwin Yarrish, a researcher from Wayne State University who stole Herman Hesse papers to experience the joy of text. Yarrish claimed that he had no intention of selling the papers or allowing anyone else to look at them. With the bravado of a great lover, he charged all other archivists with having no real appreciation for the intrinsic value of the papers. Sounding like a bad pick-up line, Yarrish claimed that he was the only one capable of understanding the true inner beauty of the Hesse documents.
Philip Burns Peterson, another suitor and self-styled Edison scholar, swiped thirty-three cubic feet of archives from the Edison National Historic Site Archives. His motive was equally romantic. He stole because he “appreciated them more and could take better care of them.”
Wood points out that the Yarrish/Peterson thefts were not without precedent. She sites Charles Merrill Mount as the granddaddy of all intellectual crooks. In the mid-1960?s, Mount burglarized bits and pieces from the Library of Congress because he felt entitled to do so. His theft was so spectacular that it garnered mention in the Who’s Who of Obsessives—Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.
Up until this point, Wood has abstained from mentioning the sexual component of fetishism. But, like the elephant in the boudoir, it’s hard to ignore. Tipping her cigar to Sigmund Freud, Wood analyzes the libidinous shenanigans of a certain Mr. Newton. Posing as a member of the County Archive Research Network (CARN), Mr. Newton panty-raided through Wales, the Midlands, Lancashire, and Yorkshire, stealing post-war photos of girls’ netball teams who were all dressed in gym skirts, and vividly bringing the term Freudian Slip to life.
To a fetishistic thief like Newton, the legs and skirts of the schoolgirls were the last visual image he encountered before traveling upwards, only to be met with the trauma of not seeing a female penis. According to Wood, Mr. Newton stole the photographs, then, as a way of managing a castration anxiety.
That Wood relies on documented case studies known within the archival community instead of personal interviews to explain this particular brand of behavior is not surprising. “Because fetishism,” she writes, “has been the carrier of such negative ideological connotations mainly in sexual terms…archivists do not readily associate themselves with the concept.” Later, via e-mail, Wood admits that even though she examined the somewhat less “charged” areas of sensory pleasure, like seeing, touching, and smelling, she still “had to be careful about mentioning names in case I incriminate people.”
Yet, perhaps there isn’t anyone to incriminate. Maybe archivists have an office pool of crazies—like postal workers and government employees. And maybe, by treating an archivist who scarfs down the Abortive Treaty of 1604 not as an anomaly but as a fetishist, Wood is saying more about her own fetishism. Wood acknowledges that sometimes her work pushes at the boundaries of, well, good taste. “As a student, I wanted to break boundaries, challenge accepted ideas, cause a bit of discussion and controversy. I think that most students want to make an impact and I knew that with a topic like this, I would be remembered and recognized as ‘that woman who wrote about fetishism’.”
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