'Reading the Institutional Archive' – a talk at the UEA Modern and Contemporary Seminar

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Dr Emma West is giving a talk on Wednesday 17 March at the University of East Anglia’s Modern and Contemporary Seminar.

Reading the Institutional Archive

Over the past few years I’ve spent many hours in hushed reading rooms, poring over minutes, memos, correspondence and reports as part of my postdoctoral project, Revolutionary Red Tape: How state bureaucracy shaped British modernism. During this time, I’ve become fascinated not just by what official documents say, but how they say it. Records are not like the brash manifestos or magazines we usually read as modernist scholars; despite their formal, supposedly objective language, minutes and reports are often overly brief or euphemistic: one has to read between the lines to uncover the conflicts and collusions obscured by the formal conventions of bureaucracy. Drawing on recent theories of reading, in particular ideas of ‘surface reading’, I’ll argue that official documents hold immense possibilities for literary scholars: far from just being sources of information, these documents are a fascinating genre in their own right.

I’ll take as my central case study two accounts of a 1944 conference organised by the Artists International Association (AIA) to promote international cooperation in the postwar world. These differing versions of the same event, one a verbatim account of the speeches given, and the other a condensed and more official set of minutes, give an insight into the AIA’s internal politics, and the politics of reconstruction more broadly.

To join the seminar via Microsoft Teams, please contact Katherine.M.Cooper@uea.ac.uk.