Touching the void: Affective history and the impossible

The contention of this essay is that historical research is an affective experience of such intensity that it has been able to withstand the challenges of post-structuralism and postmodernism. While the intensity of the archival encounter is not often admitted in print, it continues to motivate the efforts of individual historians. The abstractions of theory cannot intrude upon the physical experience of holding a piece of the past. It demands our attention. But the intellectual consequences of the physicality of the archival encounter need to be effectively theorised: what is the role of touching and feeling in the pursuit of knowing? The archive is the place where historians can literally touch the past, but in doing so are simultaneously made aware of its unreachability. In a maddening paradox, concrete presence conveys unfathomable absence. In the archive, researchers are both confronted with the absolute alterity of the past and tempted by the challenge of trying to overcome it. It is suggested that this impossibility underpins the powerful attraction of the historical endeavour. Without an understanding of this attraction, theory and research will continue to talk at cross purposes; the one insisting that the past is unknowable, the other unable to ignore the vitality of its sources.