Orienting oneself in the archive

by | 30 Jan 2023

“Let us then make up our minds to go forward untrammelled by the narrow and transient interests of nationalism in civil aviation towards the wider and more lasting goal of international welfare. If this Assembly achieves no more than to inculcate a lasting devotion to that spirit and outlook, we shall have laid a cornerstone on which an enduring edifice can be built – an edifice which would become a homing beacon to navigators through the present international fog which surrounds us. We have the opportunity; let us not fail in the realisation”.

W.C.G Cribbett, Chairperson of the UK delegation to the first ICAO General Assembly, 1947

Methodologically, for the past year I have found myself in the archive. Not the archive of white gloves and microfilm, but a digital reservoir of DjVu files (yes, as in, déjà vu). The developer’s obvious wink at history and memory: DjVu is used for scanned documents and can preserve lengthy historical papers in small file sizes. These files live in the archive of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a specialised agency of the UN that develops standards and recommendations to govern international civil aviation. ICAO’s meetings, attended by delegates from diverse Member States, have been meticulously documented since the 1940s. The archive’s files number into the thousands, with some individual documents stretching over a hundred pages. These files cannot be searched using Control+F; rather they require the scanning of the eye and the slow scroll of the mouse, parsing the antiquated font through the lens of my research questions. 

I think of method as entailing a certain degree of movement, momentum. Propelled by our research questions, method is the procedure by which we find out what we don’t know, what we are lacking. If movement, in simple terms, means to change one’s position within space, then our methods are part of what carries us from our position of having a question, to one of having findings, or at least, having found things – insights, “data”. Method then is driven by our questions, and our questions by our desire. This desire is directional – it orientates us – and sets us in motion in relation to what is already known and what we seek to learn. Over time, our questions and our methods change course, leading us to places unexpected. I would not have anticipated that the digital archive of a UN technical agency would pass any methodological Marie Kondo test, and yet, I find myself here, reflecting on the pleasure of researching in the ICAO archive.

Within an archive that could be considered technical, dull, and administrative, not to mention imperialist, US-centric, and epistemologically lop-sided, I find passages that are alive and affecting. Expressed in the delegates’ lofty dreams are not just techno-fetishist fantasies of human mobility through the skies but hopes that international movement and travel on a large scale would generate a more tolerant and interconnected world. Their grandiose aerial statements are both captivating and absurd – I’m pulled in directions that extend far beyond my carefully articulated research questions, with innumerable open files cluttering my screen. 

The stenographers of the day were fastidious, many of the discussions and debates appear to be recorded almost verbatim. The flavour of the discussion, the flowery language, the masculine posturing, and the imperial geopolitics barely repressed beneath the surface of what is sayable – all make for rich reading. The trauma and oppression of military air power hangs heavily in the meeting rooms, from the imperial bombings and aerial policing of colonies through to the air campaigns of European wars.

Nonetheless, in the hopeful climate of postwar liberalism, ways of being international were being made, in part through these institutions and their world views. I read the ICAO meeting minutes for delegates’ relationship to technology, to globalism, to imperialism, to markets, to futurity. I read for hope and anger and fear, marking particularly potent passages. I also highlight sections that I know I can never use, beyond sending them as entertaining screen shots to friends: jokes and jabs, pleasantries and little asides – delightful, discarded parts of the archive. 

The challenge in this extensive trove is how to not get lost. How to draw the line between productive meandering and going astray. To gradually clear (and write!) a unique path through the forest of things that one could possibly discover within the archive. 

*Angela is a Phd candidate at UNSW, working on political geographies of migration, imperial histories, and contemporary security practices.


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