The Non-Human Archive
Remarking on a photographic record of a 1903 Delhi Durbar procession by James Kerr, Vanja Hamzić notes how it has been “photobombed” by a “lone canine pariah” (2014, 193). He writes, “… early photographs of Indian pariah dogs are notoriously rare. Unlike tigers, elephants, monkeys, snakes and other animals typically associated with India, pariah dogs are captured by the colonial-time photographer’s camera almost exclusively by chance” (ibid.). Such non-human traces can be said to constitute an accidental archive. Defined variously as “unintended,” “unruly,” “ephemeral,” “anarchival,” the accidental archive is stumbled upon by happenstance and serendipity in unlikely places, and contrasted to ideologically inflected institutional archives, carefully contained, even if contaminated by delirium and dust.
Curatorial logics of archives often work as filters that simultaneously enable and hinder access to the accidental ephemera that is present in all archives. Following José Esteban Muñoz’s (1996) famous emphasis on ephemera’s “anti-evidence” and “anti-rigor” in “queer acts” of reading, Alanna Thain (2017) gestures toward the anarchy inherent in the archive that queer or feminist readings can unravel not so much in terms of what is missing in the cache but what we failed to read previously because of dominant structures of thought. In the manner of subaltern historians who read colonial texts such as police records and legal documents against the grain of empire to reveal agential native subjects, anarchival reading can be subversive acts of resistance.
Can we extend such a reading to the non-human subject? In her deconstructivist reading of the colonial archive, postcolonial feminist Gayatri Spivak (2016) explains that “traces” in French, contains the word “spoor”—the tracks of wild animal dung, often used to hunt them down. Like trackers, who pursue wild animals from traces as diverse as pugmarks, butterflies, to yes often spoor, can we follow the scent of the non-human animal in the archive? The thing about animals, especially strays, is that they often wander into the pro-filmic by accident and end up being part of the film or image. How to read this accidental archive of animals? One way is to literally change the filters on existing archives—what if we now look in the archives not for memories, star bodies, and locations but for non-human animals?
Animal vestiges in the archive are essentially human records of their presence in objects, diaries, notes, ephemera, paintings, photographs, and films and are as such entangled with human histories of representation, exploitation, labor, or domestication. Thus, animal traces may be found in taxidermic hunting trophies, expensive ivory and fur, bones in objects of everyday use, in the racing track as speculative bids, as hybrid therianthropic figures in gargoyles, as representations in Indian temple art, or in family albums as companion species.
Then, quite literally, non-humans can be agential archival agents too. The shift toward recovering the “anarchival materiality” (Smith and Hennessey 2020) of film archives, for example—magenta film stock, mold and decay that accrue to celluloid —are recent turns in archival reading practices. Films like Lyrical Nitrate (Peter Delpeut, 1991) and Decasia (Bill Morrison, 2002) draw attention to this by celebrating decay and making the combustible nitrate film stock itself the subject and material of the films. Juan Rodríguez calls for a “mycological study” of the bio-deteriorated image in the decomposing Havana film archive in terms of the unintended effects of non-human micro-organisms—effects such as chromatic flares, which artist Alexandra Navratil in her work on the presence of non-human actants in the archive, refers to as the “metabolism of images.”
Following Mahesh Rangarajan’s (2014) caveat against reading animal evidence directly or uncritically off oral and visual texts, we can read archives more as process than evidence, in order to see how real-world conditions, policies, and cultural attitudes to non-human life congeal as texts. In the example that I began with, the stray dog constitutes an accidental element in the frame—ignored amidst the hustle and bustle of the city’s elaborate arrangements for the coronation ceremony, overshadowed by caparisoned elephants and a sea of bystanders waiting for the durbar procession to pass. Such a rare sighting of the image of a pariah dog in the archive can enlighten us about, among other things, the largely benign human attitudes toward the stray dog in colonial India. Paired with other such archival images, and juxtaposed with legal, urban, and municipal colonial archives as well as the embarrassing riches of the extensively documented ornamental durbars, we may attempt to reconstruct a history of animals (in this case the pariah dog), animal-human entanglements, and animal protection laws in historically feral cities. Such “zoomorphic” (Pick 2011) readings, which emphasize the non-human in the animal-human dyad, will help us to write new histories where non-humans are the event rather than the accident of the human archive.
Alanna, Thain. 2017. “Relay Conversation Reading Room #17—Anarchival Practices (part 1).” Instrument Inventors Initiative, December 9. Accessed June 1, 2023. https://instrumentinventors.org/post/relay-conversation-reading-room-17-anarchival-practices-part-1/.
Delpeut, Peter. 2012. Found Footage: Cinema Exposed. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Hamzić, Vanja. 2014. “The (Un)conscious Pariah: Canine and Gender Outcasts of the British Raj.” Australian Feminist Law Journal 40 (2): 185–98.
Liptay, Fabienne. 2018. “Alexandra Navratil—Die ultimative Atomisierung des Körpers.” Kunstbulletin 10. Accessed June 1, 2023. https://www.artlog.net/de/kunstbulletin-10-2018/alexandra-navratil-die-ultimative-atomisierung-des-korpers.
Muñoz, Jose Esteban. 1996. “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts.” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 8 (2): 5–16.
Pick, Anat. 2011. Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film. New York: Columbia University Press.
Rangarajan, Mahesh, ed. 2014. Shifting Ground: People, Animals, and Mobility in India’s Environmental History. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Rodríguez, Juan Carlos. 2018. “Towards a Film Micology? Biodeteriorated Archival Images of Havana as Incurable-Images of the Cinematic City.” Public 57: 171–83.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2016. Preface to the translation Of Grammatology, xxvii–cxii.
Trudi Lynn Smith, and Kate Hennessy. 2020. “Anarchival Materiality in Film Archives: Toward an Anthropology of the Multimodal.” Visual Anthropology Review 36 (1): 113–36.
 In fact, the connection is even more visible in the German language, where Spur is the word for trace, including that of animals, just like in the Dutch word spoor. The etymological origin of these Germanic words is literally ‘footprint,’ related to e.g. Sanskrit sphurati (eng. he kicks, dances).