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An archivist is a professional obsessive with an impossible task: to collect, preserve and organize everything within one’s chosen bounds. Julietta Singh is not an archivist in the typical sense: on the contrary, she says, she has “a long history of becoming discomfortingly overwhelmed in spaces that contain masses of information.” Instead, the obsession that propels No Archive Will Restore You is the idea of the archive itself, and what it might mean to behold one’s own body—in this case, a queer, multiracial one marked by experiences ranging from bulimia to childbirth—as an archive worthy of passionate study.
Her starting point is a quote lifted blithely out of context from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who maintained that the first step in developing a coherent philosophy was to assess oneself as “a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces,” which must be inventoried to achieve self-knowledge. Singh is somewhat more interested in the deposits left by her personal history than by Gramsci’s great river of world history, but she dips into broader forces as well: the body can be shaped by many things, not all of them strictly physical. She speaks with rare candor about the material conditions of her labor as an academic within a system that churns out legions of “underpaid adjunct laborers without access to healthcare, facing our mid-30s without a clear sense of what it had all been for.” There is a riff on the politics of vegetarianism, and a thread tracing how the wellness industry and medical establishment converge to steer women toward natural remedies and psychological explanations for life-threatening conditions.
This is not even a quarter of the ground Singh wanders across—impressive in a book that barely crests the hundred-page mark. (At times I did wish she’d dwell longer in one spot, sometimes with the desire to forestall the occasional lapses into theory-as-poetry but generally because even her briefest asides are compelling.) One obvious predecessor for the book’s digressive form is Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which No Archive both references and closely follows in its blend of the academic and the couldn’t-be-more-personal. Which is not to say confessional. No Archive moves so briskly between subjects that the larger narrative of Singh’s life emerges only in flashes, and even major events can blur at this speed. Undescribed family trauma and an unexplained injury, for instance, haunt these pages like a kind of muscle memory.
If Singh glances away from such details, it may be to avoid framing No Archive as solely a catalog of damage. Early on she rejects the idea of focusing on the bodily “imperfections” that women in particular “see magnified so acutely that when we look at ourselves we see not body but flaw… I do not want to gather a body archive strictly in order to convert culturally produced deficiency into historical value; to begin to love in other words, what I have been trained to perceive as a flaw.” She’s after something messier: a portrait of the body as not so much vulnerable as permeable, continuously exchanging signals and material with the world around it.
That exchange produces joy as well as pain. Singh describes finding both inspiration and animal satisfaction in the birth and parenting of her daughter, produced and raised in partnership with a queer best friend. The book is dedicated to Singh’s romantic partner, the trans filmmaker Silas Howard, who shows up here as the object of a rapturous new love forced by distance to progress largely via text message. (Singh amusingly dissects the “biochemical desire” for an iPhone’s chime to supply a fix of attention, and “the private drama that unfolds in me each time I send a text message and receive an emoji response.”)
It’s perhaps a measure of Singh’s commitment to the instability of our embodied selves that she ends a long section on her blissful relationship by fast-forwarding to its end so she can address her partner’s next partner: “I want to articulate to her my devastation in advance. But also, and crucially, to welcome her lovingly into this genealogy of womanliness to which she will belong.” What might happen to our various relationships should we adopt Singh’s view of the body as unbounded and bountiful archive? Maybe something like this remarkable renunciation of ownership, this invitation to discover novel forms of community among our shifting selves.
No Archive Will Restore You
By Julietta Singh
Paperback, 9781947447851, 118 pp.