On Trash and Treasures: Thoughts on “Global Archivalities: A conceptual workshop”

Today, I was fortunate to participate in the inaugural workshop of an exciting new project on global archivalities. The aim of the project, as I understand it, is to consider the meanings and uses of archives from cross-cultural comparative and interdisciplinary perspectives. At the workshop, presenters pointed out the need to reassess our assumptions that archives center around knowledge. Others suggested that we should look beyond imperial centers to consider the fringes of written and archival cultures. Some participants emphasized practices that run counter to the archival instinct such as the destruction of documents and trusting speech over writing. Collectively, we pondered the very meaning of an archive and the existence of “non-archival archives”: collections of documents that were not originally designed for archival purposes.

More than anything, participants returned repeatedly to the processes through which archives are created and preserved. These processes include both conscious and unconscious acts performed by a range of people including scribes, bureaucrats, antiquarians, and, of course, archivists. This emphasis on processes adds a dynamic and human element to archives that moves beyond viewing them as stable and static spaces. The Shōsōin collection (which, at the very least, eventually became something resembling an archive) fits in well with the broader theoretical discussions raised by the workshop.

The Shōsōin corpus–ten-thousand documents rediscovered in an imperial treasure house in the eighteenth century–was created through a series of processes that can be understood as continued reassessments of trash and treasure. Many of the documents contain records on both sides. What is now the verso of these documents was formerly recycled paper including bits of census records, tax registers, and other records from the scriptorium. These recyclables were cut apart and reassembled by scriptorium administrators to create new scrolls for record keeping at the sutra copying bureau. When the documents found their way into the Shōsōin, they had been reassembled as a collection of scrolls to meet the administrative needs of scriptorium officials. Their primary purpose at this stage, therefore, was administering a particular institution.

Things changed, as they often do, in the nineteenth century, when the documents were rediscovered and became an entirely new archive altogether. For nineteenth-century nativist antiquarians, such as Hoida Tadatomo, the Shōsōin documents were valuable less as a record of a scriptorium than as a collection of seals and documents related to the eighth-century bureaucracy. Here, what was once the trash of the sutra copying bureau became treasure in the eyes of Hoida and his colleagues. Hoida’s reassembling of the documents through peeling apart and pasting pieces together reshaped the physical contents of the archive, but his efforts also altered its perceived value and shaped research agendas for more than a century.

For most of the history of modern Shōsōin studies, scholars have pored over what had once been a recycled trash heap in search of census and tax data in a process that Sakaehara Towao has likened to “treasure hunting”: a felicitous phrase referring to the search for gems on the backs of now neglected scriptorium documents. Only in the last few decades have scholars in Japan begun to focus on the records from the Office of Sutra Transcription. While this new generation of scholars has recognized the value of census records and tax registers, they have also realized that the only reason these documents exist is because they were once thrown away and then reused. Attention now has turned largely to reassembling the documents into the form that existed before Hoida discovered them: namely, registers from a scripture copying bureau.

As I try to make sense of the archival processes that made the Shōsōin corpus a systematized and consciously organized collection, I envision a dialect between trash and treasure.  The archive was created through a process of rejection and reclamation. Some documents were preserved precisely because they were trash; or perhaps more accurately, they remain because they landed in a particular trash heap as opposed to others. These pieces of trash have outlasted many classic religious and literary works now lost forever to scholars. Other documents, now treasured by a new generation of historians, were viewed as rubble by the first modern archivists in charge of the Shōsōin materials. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure is another man’s trash and so on and so on. This has been the process that led to the creation of the Shōsōin corpus.

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