Convergence / International / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 3

Errata in retro-prospect

Mrs. Luce Ben Aben Arab School of Embroidery

Image Credit: Mrs. Luce Ben Aben Arab School of Embroidery, Alger, Algeria, French colonial postcard, 1910s.

“Some few mistakes in printing are here remarked; please forgive us for these errors.” This is a common opening sentence for errata notes. Such a loose sheet of paper inserted into a publication is a common way of saying, “We won’t let errors stand.” Although the printed errors cannot be physically corrected, readers are provided with their textual substitutes. Publishers and authors use the opportunity to separate the errors from what must otherwise be flawless research and scholarship. They often praise the author, whose virtues should be implicit, an author “who has done her/his best to rely on the most up-to-date sources and most factual material available,” and include notes of common wisdom about the precarity of error in any human endeavor. Errata deliver a reassuring message of accountability for one’s words and responsibility towards a certain readership, namely, those readers engaged in singling out errors in publication and who gain satisfaction at seeing errors amended. The readers these notes address are truth-guardians of the republic of papers: Attentive and knowledgeable, they are often thanked for finding errors and are encouraged to keep doing so. The assumption is that wrong inscriptions should be replaced.

Fig. 1. Errata, US Constitution

Fig. 1. Errata, US Constitution

Alongside errata notes, documents such as the US Constitution are also appended with their own amendments.1 While the former are meant to address typographical errors and small factual mistakes, the latter are meant to deal with political wrongs and supply needed reforms.2 Yet political wrongs cannot be fixed with more documents issued by some of the same actors who perpetrated the wrongs in the first place, whose right to do wrong—and now to right these wrongs through papers—has never been abolished. When violence is perpetrated both with and through documents, that violence lasts and is reproduced through the mediation of the archive. The provenance and trajectories of this violence are hard to track, as they are congealed in a regime of papers. Amendments to documents of violence—like the Amendments to the US Constitution, which claimed the land of Indigenous peoples—are meant to mark original injustices as if they are now sealed in the past, amended with another law, again decreed by imperial actors. In other words, these Amendments proclaim that violence is over, thus foreclosing victims’ efforts to determine what reparations might be and whether the initial violence is, in fact, over.

Errata in retro-prospect, I propose, are based on a refusal to accept the movement forward that imperial violence dictates, a refusal to say that the violence that was done is now ended. Errata in retro-prospect insist that much of imperial violence is reversible and that the prospects and opportunities that were stolen from others should be restored and can be recovered with the abolition of imperial rights. Errata in retro-prospect refuse the authority of the original, imperial document.

While errata and amendments are seen to have separate functions, they are mediated by the archive, the originary technology of imperial violence. The split between the two procedures and the different realms associated with them—the republic of papers and the realm of politics—turn scholars into readers and truth-guardians of the same documents that imperial actors manufacture and archive. Scholars are trained to consult documents to sustain their claims and to refrain from accounting for wrongs if they fail to find the specific documents that testify to an unjust policy or intention. They are commanded to handle all documents in the same way, regardless of the violence the documents naturalize, from stolen lands turned into sovereign states, to the life-worlds of others that they turn into private property. It is not about what individual historians are doing: It is about the protocols of professionalisation inscribed in archives that function as mechanisms of recognition. To say it simply, when a historian enters an archive and encounters papers of violence–such as the sale of a person–she is expected to translate her rage into a series of scripted hermeneutical procedures that cherish the sacredness of the documents and foreclose actions on them. This is while she knows, however, that no matter how radically she would interpret them, they will continue to perpetuate violence as long as they are considered and preserved as sacred.

Tamara Lanier with a photo of Renty Taylor

Fig. 02. Tamara Lanier with a photo of Renty Taylor.

Let me briefly present an example of an erratum that rejects altogether the authority of imperial archives to continue to hold what was taken with violence, and as long as it is held by the same institution, fuels the consequences of the same violence. This is not a daguerreotype, claims Tamara Lanier, descendant of the formerly enslaved Renty Taylor, in a lawsuit filed in March against Harvard University. Holding the photograph of her great-great-grandfather in her hands, Lanier shows the camera where he belongs: with his family. Her list of errata doesn’t end here. Renty Taylor’s photograph was not taken from him, as the common idiom goes, but was seized from him, as Lanier’s lawsuit indicates. This is important, because her lawsuit rests on the idea that imperial violence is perpetuated as long as the imperial right to seize and hold what was seized is not abolished. That is, Lanier’s claim should not be understood simply as the restitution of an object-document—a daguerreotype—but as an onto-epistemological challenge to the imperial archive itself. What is at stake is finally letting Renty Taylor be free from the hands of those who still refuse to relinquish what they seized under the protection of the legal language that slavery created, including the languages of art and history that transform violence into precious objects–-“a rare daguerreotype”—to be preserved in museums and archives. This is not a daguerreotype means that the archival inscription is not only incorrect but is also a historical wrong.

It would have been disingenuous to speak about imperial violence in terms of errors and their correction if the uniqueness of the economy of imperial violence did not reside so precisely in print culture. First and foremost, imperial violence rests in the manufacture of world-destroying documents through which the imperial right to force reality to mirror them is reproduced. As long as the sacredness and untouchability of the document in which those imperial rights are preserved through allegedly benign professions, fields of expertise, and archival procedures, the imperial organization of the world is protected. This is how imperialism is reproduced, including through our critical skills as scholars. Abolitionists or anti-imperialists, as some historians are in their use of, or withdrawal from using the archive, are expected to manifest in their practice acceptance of the protocols of the archive. Were academic disciplines to be committed to abolition rather than to imperial temporality (separation between the tenses and the invention of the archive as guardian of the separated past), to academic skills of “neutrality” and to the distinction between primary and secondary sources, the case for reparations would already have been settled, looted items would be restituted, stolen land would be more than just acknowledged, and racial taxonomies would be revised at the source.

Free Renty

Fig. 03. Free Renty!, all rights reserved by Shonrael Lanier, SVG on Demand

Time matters, since some of the wrongs perpetuated with and through papers should have long ceased to exist. Imperial temporality claims the right to state unilaterally when its violence ends. According to imperial timelines, Renty Taylor is free, as slavery has since been abolished. But Lanier rejects this timeline and demands Renty’s freedom. Renty, she says, is not free as long as imperial rights of the archive are not abolished and the world in which they could be exercised is not repaired. The proliferation of documents involved in slavery illustrate not only that a document could testify that a person was enslaved, but also that others had the right to manufacture documents of enslavement, manumission, and emancipation. These documents exerted, and still exert power over others. In this sense, W.E.B. Du Bois’s account in Black Reconstruction in America of the general strike of enslaved people that determined the Civil War and forced the abolition of slavery is the ultimate erratum: It abolished papers altogether. “They wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system,” writes Du Bois, “and to do that they left the plantations” (Du Bois, 1998, 67). The only two frames that exist in the archive (one by Timothy O’Sullivan, the other by David B. Woodbury) from what Du Bois describes as the general strike do not convey the mass flight of 250,000 enslaved. The fact that the archive does not contain more “authentic” images of this moment doesn’t mean they cannot be produced in order to refuse to let what “exists” visually in the archive determine what we see, what should be made visible–which is the role of the enslaved in smashing the regime of slavery. Substituting the image of a single family with that of a crowd may not be the best way, but it is one among other attempts to reject the authority of the archival ontology to have the last (visual) word. With “Bound by Harvard,” the phrase Lanier inscribed on the image of her great-great-grandfather, she undermines the basis on which Harvard continues to hold Renty Taylor as its property, and in doing so argues that the university hides behind the neutral language of museums, archives, and academia that themselves constituted slavery. Harvard’s seizure and archiving disrupt the completion of the project of freedom.

The archivist

Fig. 04. “The archivist”

Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation

Fig. 05. Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation

The General Strike

Fig. 6. The General Strike

But while Tamara Lanier’s lawsuit is the practice of errata in retro-prospect, the phrase is not about tearing papers to pieces, or smashing museum vitrines. It is a refusal to recognize the world-destroying categories that masquerade as neutral forms of scholarship and a commitment to undoing the regime of violence normalized through these institutions. These errata are in retro-prospect since they reject a major imperial premise: the right to destroy people’s worlds, extract their objects, and preserve these as precious documents, works of art, or historical artifacts that become the property and areas of expertise of imperial institutions. The practice of errata in retro-prospect cannot stop at a new interpretation of documents. Rather, it attempts to transform the structure of rights beyond what is written. It questions the original document itself and performs a commitment to repair and to reparations

Imagine errata in retro-prospect as a form of going on strike, of ceasing to be the respectable operators of the technology that keeps imperial archives in place, and refusing their temporal, spatial, and political commands. These are unruly errata that reject the rules of the game—that is, the truth claim of imperial categories.

Map of Palestine/Map of Israel

Fig. 7/8. Map of Palestine/Map of Israel

Let me offer another erratum. What would it mean to claim that this is not the state of Israel, and instead, that this is Palestine? Not Palestine to come, but Palestine as always already there. As an onto-epistemological transformation of imperial realities, errata in retro-prospect constitute a living formation under siege by imperial claims.

The document called “the declaration of Independence,” proclaimed a reality–the creation of the state of Israel. When it was proclaimed, this reality had already been manufactured through the expulsion of 250,000 Palestinians from their homes, the robbery of their lands and the destruction of the life-world of which they were a part. The expulsion of an additional 500,000 Palestinians during 1949 was facilitated by this document, followed by international recognition of Israel as a sovereign state. Through this regime of papers, recognized by international law and academic disciplines, Palestine was ultimately overdetermined by Israel’s discursive construction.

Declaration of Independence

Fig. 09. In May 1948, Israel’s declaration of independence was the declaration of the end of Palestine.

In the second and final part of my essay, I discuss this phenomenon alongside my personal journey through Palestine that continues to resist its alleged disappearance and delegitimization.

The expulsion of Palestinians from their homelands was effected by imperial documents that were invented to legalize expropriation and deny the dispossessed their rights, which had been previously inscribed in worldly formations of people, objects, landscapes, memories, and stories. Documents of this kind have names that tend curiously to mirror the names of the sacred documents of the US. This one is called the Declaration of the Independence of the State of Israel. It is, however, the document through which Palestine was proclaimed nonexistent.

The Signature

Fig. 9a. The moment of signature

As I have said and many have remarked, documents don’t simply record existing relations; instead, imperialism works through them. Further, though, alongside the primitive accumulation of existing resources such as lands and artifacts, imperialism generated a visual and textual wealth that makes document-based scholarship, regardless of its content, part of an imperial technology of violence. The invention of documents prompted the invention of different types of scholars and experts: historians, museum curators, archivists. These scholars are expected to relate to documents as neutral, as archives, while they are commanded to inhabit the temporal and spatial lines the documents draw, and respect them with utter factuality. Transgression of the document itself is intolerable: Who would dare to say that after 1948 this place called Israel is still Palestine? Interpretations, however, can proliferate. Offering alternate interpretations works to maintain the inviolability of the document thus made original.

The Great March of Return

Fig. 10. The Great March of Return, Shuja’iyya, Gaza City, April 6, 2018, photographer: Oren Ziv,

The Great March of Return

Fig. 10. The Great March of Return, Shuja’iyya, Gaza City, April 6, 2018, photographer: Oren Ziv,

Historians are free to interpret documents and write different histories out of them as long as they recognize the when, the where, and the who: the temporal, spatial, and political markers of the manufactured realities. To offer errata in retro-prospect is to practice potential history. Potential history in this case is the rejection of Israel as an object of research, and the assertion that Palestine exists exactly when and where it was said to have disappeared, and not only in these two areas called the West Bank and Gaza. In this sense, the Palestinian Great March of Return did not begin in March of 2018, when thousands of Palestinians from Gaza who proceed every Friday toward the border are being depicted as threatening the sovereignty of the state of Israel and repelled with teargas. It is a march without end whose origins are in 1948, when Palestinians opposed the UN resolution and refuted the creation of a Jewish state in their homeland. It is a march that remains extant whenever Palestinians assert their right to be in Palestine.

Marching Against Partition Plan

Fig. 11. Palestinians marching against the Partition plan

At the time the state of Israel was proclaimed, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were also expelled in order to reify what was inscribed in the document. Enabled by other documents laden with international legalities, Palestinian dispossession could be pursued through organizations such as the International Red Cross, who reassured the world that deportation is repatriation and that it was proceeding legally, according to the accepted documents.

nshowable Elderly Man

Fig. 12. A Palestinian refusing to be expelled, neither a prisoner of war, nor a refugee

The image of this Palestinian man was taken during one of these deportation operations. His image is still filed in the archive as that of a “prisoner of war.”3 In 2009, I asked the archivists at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to show it in an exhibition. The answer was unequivocal: I could show it only with its original caption. I declined. From the moment I saw this photograph, I had no doubt that he was neither a prisoner of war, nor a refugee, as Palestinians were depicted in captions of photographs taken during their expulsion around 1948. Anyone can go to the archive and view it with the ICRC caption. But as I was prohibited from showing it to you, I traced it. I am not an artist and this is not a drawing. This is an unshowable photograph that I use as a placeholder, as long as the photograph continues to be held in the ICRC under the caption, “a prisoner of war.” Errata in retro-prospect thus refuses the recognition of peoples in the categories provided through archival violence and preserved in archival documents. It is from this refusal that potential history originates.

CICR Original Caption

Fig. 13. CICR Original Caption

In a nation-state, the birth of a citizen is already mobilized to turn others into “refugees,” “infiltrators,” or “ the stateless.” The endurance of these categories is premised on a citizen’s recognition. To errata these categories cannot be separated from the citizen’s offering an erratum to their own national identification, in my case, “Israeli.” When I offer this erratum to my own citizenship, striking against the archive–meaning, neither searching for nor finding “Palestinian infiltrators” in the archive–the Palestinian man in the unshowable photograph becomes a person in common with me, rather than “my” object of research into bygone times. To do so meant that I also had to question my identity as a scholar, which is shaped through the commitment to “newness” and “new interpretation.” This is an approach that would have turned him into an object that preceded me, thus foreclosing his claim to remain in his homeland. These two configurations of identity—the national and the professional—are not only related, but are also fused in a disturbing way that often undermines and betrays scholars’ nuanced considerations of their positionality.

Despite having left Palestine seven years ago, whenever I am either interviewed or invited to present my work in academic venues, I am often surprised to see this fusion of identities preceding my name: “the Israeli scholar.” No matter how much labor I invest in dropping the “Israeli” qualifier from who I am, and also in explaining the complicity of academic disciplines in the reproduction of imperial power, these qualifiers keep appearing. My request to change this qualifier is often understood as if I no longer carry an Israeli passport, meaning that I had returned the documents delivered to me by the state. I have not. These documents are useful in moving through a world striated with imperial borders. The refusal to identify myself with and in these documents and qualifiers, however, is an onto-epistemological erratum in retro-prospect, one aiming to create the conditions under which this Palestinian man and I can coincide in time, space, and the body politic. I oppose the destruction of Palestine together with him and against Israeli Jews who endorse this destruction even today.

Procession of expellees

Fig. 14. Procession of expellees

This was planned from the start as a refugee caravan. When these expellees are on the move, the violence of substituting the “old” Palestine with the “new” Israel is less perceptible, and we are expected to recognize embodiments of the category “refugee” in such constructions. Among the accessible photographs taken when Jews expelled Palestinians, this is the only one I know in which a Palestinian’s opposition to being deported was not filtered out of the archive. It is not about finding proof of Palestinian resistance. It’s obvious that they did resist as much as they could. I single it out to avoid mistaking it for a photograph of a refugee, and choose instead to attend to this moment of his resistance to becoming a refugee, this moment when his claim had not yet been forced to occur in the past. (As archival users, we are doomed always to come after imperial temporal and spatial divisions that have been drawn.) As scholars, we are expected to assume that the storm of the procession of expellees resumed, but we can instead attend to his refusal and join him, to act in chorus. His action shows that the movement of substituting Palestine with Israel was and is stoppable and reversible. We should insist on the right to always be present at moments when imperial violence pretended that opposition is gone forever; we should offer an erratum in retro-prospect. Even if the man was forced to continue to walk, as the people who surrounded him seemed to want him to do, we should not be misled by success those people have not realized.

In the midst of this procession of people doomed to appear in, through and beyond the archive as refugees, this man crouched. He may have been fatigued, but this cannot be enough to explain his action—or rather his withdrawal from action—nor can it explain the gesticulations of men around him trying to resume the flow of deportees, for at the moment he crouched, what was meant to be unstoppable was halted. Firmly grasping his cane while holding himself as closely as possible to the land without losing his grip, he looks back, straight into the eyes of the man who dares to touch his shoulder while begging him to stand up and leave. With or without words, this Palestinian man refuses to follow what has been scripted for him—to move forward and inhabit the status of refugee. He refuses to let the archival violence be a fait accompli: He refuses to let the document proclaiming the sovereignty of the state of Israel transform him into a stateless person, a refugee, a threat to the world of “good citizens.”4

He and many others refused, and so to yield the required result of turning him into a refugee from the bygone past, hundreds of thousands of children born “Israeli” were needed. I am one of them. Many of them have grown up to inhabit professional positions based on different bodies of knowledge that since 1948 have existed as Israeli–-Israeli art, Israeli dance, Israeli music, etc. These bodies of knowledge either confirm the disappearance of Palestine, or absorb and incorporate whatever was there before they were manufactured.

In doing this work, I realized I needed to offer myself an erratum. This onto-epistemological erratum opened the door to reclaim my mother’s identity as a Palestinian Jew, from before the creation of the state of Israel. This identity was categorically denied to her and other Jews in 1948, in exchange for the imperial citizenship that was given to them. The fact that she didn’t revolt against this bargain cannot mean that this right is forever lost to me, and that I should comply with the proclamation of Palestine as nonexistent. When “Palestinian”—as in, a Palestinian Jew—is restored as a shared adjective, exactly as it once was, the shared lives of Arabs and Jews is no longer a question or a matter of “solutions,” but is rather a matter of fact. This is the Palestine that the state of Israel was established to destroy. Given that this catastrophe did occur, it now requires return, repair, and reparations, not misleading diplomatic negotiations and agreements. “Israeli” scholars, like “Israeli” citizens, regardless of what they do or research, are manufactured to be guardians of this regime-made disaster, to be truth-guardians of the archival violence that keeps Arabs and Jews apart.

For years I associated the separation of Jews and Arabs with the particular variation of the archival violence implemented by the Israeli state. When my father passed away seven years ago and I discovered that he had deliberately concealed his mother’s name from us, I started to see this form of archival violence as a major thread of the global imperial project that goes as far back as the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain in 1492. I was familiar with the insidious effects of granting citizenship to Algerian Jews (“non-Muslim Algerian”) with the Crémieux decree (1870), but I could not anticipate how much impact this actually had within families, my own included. The name that my great-great-grandparents chose to give their daughter—my father’s mother, my grandmother—who was born in Algeria in 1895 only twenty-five years after this decree, was an Arab name: Aïsha. Its French variant—Alice—by which my father referred to our grandmother (of whom we saw very little), seems to me, in retrospect, to be an invention. I was always saddened by the fact that my father interiorized the colonial gaze and aspired to be a colonial figure himself. When after his death I discovered his plot to impede our knowing his mother’s name, I enjoyed a moment of bliss.


Fig. 15. Aïcha

His parents’ and grandparents’ resistance to becoming good citizens of empire was more deeply rooted in him than his self-deception that he was French, and this fact was passed to me through this name, a name that is at once both proper and concealed. But like many colonized subjects, he was ultimately lured by imperialism to turn his back on his ancestors and substitute their world with the one created by imperial documents.

With my grandmother’s name now mine, the violence of the adjective “Israeli” as my identity is even more revolting. Reconstructing it as my family’s Judeo-Arab legacy, however, is yet another way to refuse to inhabit this imperial weapon called “the Israeli scholar.”

The onto-epistemological project of errata in retro-prospect constitutes the abolitionist work of repair and return. It is an indispensable tool for righting the wrongs inscribed in the world, whose repair cannot be fixed with more documents.

Works Cited
1 The errata note was inserted by Jacob Shallus, who also hand wrote the Constitution, see Arthur Plotnik, 1987. Jacob Shallus – The Man Behind the Quill, National Archives Trust Fund Board.
2 Hilary Parkinson, “Constitution 225: To Errata is Human,” National Archives, September 14, 2012
3 Let me ask this bluntly: How can a person forced to be a refugee not pose a dilemma for researchers who often embrace the newly made “refugees” with the discursive apparatus of “refugees’ narratives?” Why is the fact of one’s “refugeeness” not questioned? Or, in other words, why is research often based on imperial political categories (e.g., refugee, prisoner of war) and time-and-space divisions that have been manufactured through violence?
4 The presence of several photographers and outside observers in this particular deportation was allowed since it was planned as imperialism’s oxymoron, as an operation with no violence. An agreement with other imperial actors in neighboring states meant to inscribe this disaster of deportation as “repatriation,” i.e, the transfer of people to their “right” place, and be recognized as such through the pursuit of law and order.

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