Disruptive, thought-provoking, and downright peculiar are just some of the words that describe this ambitious book by Jenny Rice. Currently an associate professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital media at the University of Kentucky, Rice received her PhD in English from the University of Texas at Austin and has taught English at Penn State University and the University of Missouri. In Awful Archives: Conspiracy Theory, Rhetoric, and Acts of Evidence, she seeks to develop a new rhetorical theory that views evidence as an act (rather than a thing) and to identify effective responses to the “awful evidence” (p. 29) of conspiracy theories in a post-truth era. Grounding her analysis in the context of archives, Rice disorients our preconceived notions of what archives are and what they do in an effort to engage with the ways in which conspiracy theorists accumulate the evidence that underpins their internal, self-perpetuating logic. A timelier book for our current political climate would be hard to find.
The introduction lays out Rice's unusual methodology. Primarily written for an audience of rhetoricians, Rice describes the methodology of her work as anomalous and “gargoylian” (p. 26)—that is, not fitting into any current model of rhetorical analysis. Her attempt to juxtapose strange archival case studies is not obtuse; rather, it serves a purpose: “Making or seeing something new is my hope, and it is also the reason why I have chosen to work through a sometimes unsettling methodology” (p. 26). And unsettling it is. Topics broached in the book range from UFOs and the JFK assassination to Obama's birth record and the Sandy Hook massacre. The use of the term “awful” to describe the evidence for these conspiracy theories is a bit of a play on words, with Rice using both the commonly understood definition and the idea of archives as “awe-full” (or full of awe) interchangeably, thereby flipping the idea of “bad” evidence on its head “in order to highlight the multiple registers of evidence” (p. 27).
A telling moment occurred for Rice when she posed a question about the provenance of a photograph held at the Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem; she received a response from an archivist that resulted in a paradigm shift in her thinking: “The last sentence of the email struck me hard. We don't certify the authenticity of every photograph in the collection. I read it multiple times, ever so slowly losing my shit each time” (p. 138). As all archivists know, there's no way we could authenticate all of our holdings, but we've definitely heard expressions of surprise from our patrons, donors, and family members who are sometimes taken aback by this fact. The archives are certainly evidence or contain evidence of something, but evidence of what exactly? This is the central question of Rice's extended meditation on the meaning of archives and the evidence they provide.
I should note that Rice's definition of archives is much broader than what professional archivists would normally recognize. While Rice includes more traditional examples of materials from the National Archives and the CIA to illustrate her arguments, she also uses materials not typically housed in a formal archives (but that someday may) such as YouTube videos, ephemeral street flyers, and Instagram memes. Although this book was not necessarily intended for archivists (whom Rice rarely mentions) but rather those who study and practice rhetoric or engage in public debate, I believe that archivists can benefit from engaging with Rice's ideas. Dismantling our biases and expanding our notion of archives in service of widening what we collect and how we present information is vital to serving all of our patrons and making space for everyone in the archives.
Throughout Awful Archives, Rice is just as at ease with peppering her prose with curse words and personal anecdotes as she is with using rhetorical jargon, which makes for an interesting mashup of ideas and a sometimes dizzying, heady experience. The dense passages on rhetorical theory can easily be glossed over by readers who are so inclined, as I imagine most archivists are not necessarily interested in rhetorical ontologies or frameworks. Nonetheless, archivists will find the many case studies and questions that Rice poses to be intriguing and worth reading.
One of the refreshing aspects of Rice's book is how she enmeshes her own experiences throughout the work. She notes, “I include personal narratives here as a performative methodology. My narratives are not empirical evidence . . . I write performatively in order to ‘de-emphasize the epistemology of evidence' and instead stress its affectivity” (p. 27). Unlike most academic writing, archives can be deeply personal. Rather than wading through a jungle of dense prose, Rice's asides allow her readers to pause and take in her ideas on the nature of evidence and what it means rhetorically and archivally.
Chapter one focuses on the building of an archives, with Rice describing the various processes: “Reading, poring, making, collecting, packing, unpacking, constructing, deconstructing, archiving—these acts orient us in the world in particular ways, orienting our perceptions and modes of conduction” (p. 41). This act of “adding up” (or collecting) creates an “archival aura” that surrounds the archives, giving it a mystique outside of the archives' actual contents (pp. 28, 40). Basically, the sum of the archives' parts conveys a deeper meaning than any individual piece of evidence held within could. As such, the accumulated “archival aura” has weight. Rice notes, “Whether through loss or through the impossibility of ever getting total perspective, archives bleed, leak, and trickle” (p. 50).
One of the more interesting metaphors Rice explores in this section is the image of the archives as wreckage: “Fragments and wreckage exist in different registers. We do not rebuild from wreckage. Wreckage as such is a totality, existing only as itself, for itself” (p. 51). This view of archives as a whole (“wreckage”) versus a fragment is an interesting take on what gets saved and preserved in our institutions. We all know the record is incomplete and that archivists can't possibly save everything, but to view the flotsam and jetsam that are preserved as a whole “thing” is an intriguing perspective I had never considered before. That said, this is probably more helpful for researchers who must contend with what materials are available to them in the archives. As an archivist, however, this seems a rather passive approach to collection building. In an era when archives are trying to diversify our holdings to include more underrepresented groups, we can't afford to be so laissez-faire and fatalistic about what winds up on our shelves.
Chapters two and three look at what she terms “prolific archives” and “empty (or ‘missing') archives” respectively. Prolific archives (such as the quantities of “evidence” amassed by 9/11 truthers) imbue a sort of qualitative evidence by their sheer size. The fact that there is “so much” evidence necessitates the conspiracy theorist's belief in a theory's truth. Prolific archives can also act as a burial ground for evidence, as in the infamous “document dumps” made by legal professionals to flood their opponents with so much evidence they are unable to sort through it all (p. 99). My own institution is at the center of a persistent conspiracy theory involving an insurmountable preponderance of evidence. Allegedly, United States Senator Stuart Symington once requested information from the military on behalf of a constituent who became concerned about the existence of subterranean superhumans after mistaking a novel for nonfiction.1 Unfortunately, without a name or date for this supposed constituent, it's hard to verify whether this truly occurred. There are more than 1,800 folders of constituent correspondence in the senator's collection,2 so knowing where to begin searching is nigh impossible without that information.
Empty or “missing” archives, on the other hand, speak to the fact that some evidence that “should” exist, doesn't or has been lost. The example Rice uses is that of the missing Apollo 11 footage shot by NASA during the 1969 moon landing. Rice notes, “The archives operate even beyond their fidelity to facts or authenticity. The ‘empty archives' (empty because they are either missing or not authentic) are not empty of referential power” (p. 107). For conspiracy theorists, the missing footage indicates that the moon landing was surely faked; otherwise, why would the US government “hide” the evidence? Just because something isn't there doesn't mean it lacks meaning. From my own experience, I once processed the papers of a woman journalist3 who greatly sanitized her papers before donating them, largely donating only congratulatory professional correspondence while leaving out documentation of any conflict or messiness. What was missing from this collection said more about her than what she had preserved for posterity, giving the impression that she was image conscious; the evidence of this “empty archives” was perhaps more telling than she intended. The recent disclosure of the Secret Service's deleted text messages from January 6, 2021, is also sure to create its own type of meaning in the months and years to come.4
In chapters four and five, Rice seeks a “fitting response” to conspiracy theories, noting that “counter-evidence does not always persuade those who make extraordinary claims” (p. 129). Rice believes that the best response is not one of argumentative debate, but rather one that disfigures, unmakes, and reinvents, thus leaving the door open for ongoing discourse. She writes, “[The response to conspiracy] is more like a wedge, holding open the door through which future conversations, questions, and ideas can pass before the matter is closed once and for all. The fitting response is not a conclusion. It is a tactic that forestalls conclusions” (p. 151). Perhaps the best example of this type of response is Rice's book itself, in which she poses several open-ended questions that she hopes spur conversation for readers but that she is not necessarily interested in answering herself. I believe this is a worthwhile strategy that can be used in all manner of discussions (not just those regarding conspiracy theories), as changing minds is much easier before ideas, beliefs, and opinions calcify and harden. Rice knocks readers off our feet, and I think that's a good thing.
Throughout the book, Rice argues that “evidence and archives are figurations” (p. 130), meaning that both are acts of invention rather than remembering. By engaging in the disfiguration of archives, archivists can shatter the preconceived ideas we have about our work and what it means for archives to engage the world as acts of evidence as opposed to sites where evidence is held. In doing so, we can invent “new theories of a given moment” (p. 171). This idea that archivists are in an ongoing conversation with the future and continually inventing the archives profession can be seen in the ways that history is being reinterpreted through the lens of BIPOC communities, rather than remaining centered on whiteness. This is not easy work. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes in An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, “The provincialism and national chauvinism of US history production make it difficult for effective revisions to gain authority. Scholars, both Indigenous and a few non-Indigenous, who attempt to rectify the distortions, are labeled advocates, and their findings are rejected for publication on that basis.”5 Archives are at the center of these kinds of reinventions and re-envisionings. It is vitally important that archivists recognize the role they play in creating and preserving historical narratives and consider the biases they bring to their work.
The crux of the book for me as an archivist is in gaining the perspective of archives through an outside discipline. While it does seem like archives are fetishized throughout the book (e.g., “archival aura hovers,” p. 46) and the author's focus is on examining the philosophical nature of evidence and how best to respond to conspiracy theories (spoiler alert: “You don't,” p. 173) versus engaging with archival issues, this does not preclude archivists and those from related disciplines from using these ideas to discuss what constitutes an archives. Archives touch all aspects of society, worldviews, and experiences—they aren't created in a vacuum, and they don't operate in one either. Much of archival history involves operating as a tool of the state, thereby becoming entangled with ideologies of power at the expense of those without. As archivist Randall Jimerson notes, “Historians and archivists work in a public arena, which is unavoidably political.”6 The inherent politics at the core of what archivists do means we need to continually reexamine our motives and presuppositions and “do better.” The current emphasis on reparative and inclusive description within the profession is one such example of necessary change and the need for reinvention.7
Reexamining what constitutes the archival profession is always a worthwhile endeavor. Early in the book, Rice writes, “Archives buzz and fidget with activity that does not quite correspond to any aspect of memory” (p. 18). Archives are not static but living entities, and their contents speak differently to us across time; this is not a new concept for most archives professionals, but it's a point worth reiterating. Rice's insightful work jars archivists out of their complacency with the status quo and lets us grapple anew with our role in the wider and undeniably weird world we inhabit.
W. Stuart Symington Papers (C3874), The State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-Columbia.
Gloria N. Biggs Papers (C4077), The State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-Columbia.
Ken Klippenstein, “Secret Service Deleted Jan. 6 Text Messages after Oversight Officials Requested Them,” The Intercept, July 14, 2022, https://theintercept.com/2022/07/14/jan-6-texts-deleted-secret-service, captured at https://perma.cc/X3NP-9XAQ.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014), 13.
Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (Chicago, IL: Society of American Archivists, 2009), 131.
See “Inclusive Description,” Society of American Archivists, https://www2.archivists.org/groups/description-section/inclusive-description, captured at https://perma.cc/S9AD-XAUE.