The Gould (I) Files #2

Posted on March 9, 2019 by

What’s the ‘I’ for you ask?

It’s Friday night. TGIF folks.

I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss archival work because I’ve caught archive-fever, as it were.

I recently read “Blue Years: An Ethnography of a Prison Archive” by Angela Garcia (Stanford University) published in Cultural Anthropology. Actually, I was fortunate enough to listen to Garcia discuss her own work yesterday while observing Helen Longino’s class “Feminist and Queer Methodologies and Theories Across the Disciplines.” Garcia answered questions from the students on her literary and ethnographic methodologies, as well as how she uses them to challenge the victimization of women drug users by revealing the authorship of their own lives. Garcia’s paper engages in an ethnographic account of archived prison letters exchanged among three generations of women in order to “understand multigenerational heroin addiction and its relation to colonial history” (577). She not only searched through letters, but also met and personally engaged with these women—ethnographies are systematic studies of people and cultural phenomena tracking the experiences and the complexities therein. I especially enjoyed how Garcia referred to the collection of letters given to her as archives, which serves as a way to critique the typical notion of archived work—catalogued, protected, and administered by an authority in one way or another. I was struck by the similarities and differences of her experience with archived work when compared to my own experience in the Gould files.

Garcia identifies the function of ethnographies as a way to “integrate narrative, history, and analysis to open up questions about social life” (573). A social life and social world that, in effect, have something to say. Ethnographies involve methods of participant observation and call for sensory-openness of the observer to avoid too narrow a focus, but a focus nonetheless, as far as I take it. These methodologies can convey some form of knowledge production, admittedly partial. But isn’t all knowledge production partial anyways!

While my direct focus has not been questions about social life per se, though I am interested in scientific communities and how they function of course, I am often distracted by correspondence tracking the interactions between Gould and members of the public, as well as between him and well-known prominent figures like G.G. Simpson and Simon Conway Morris. Not only have I begun to shape a picture of Gould’s personality in my mind that is different from what I had been told previously, I’ve also found a way to start situating his work in an historical context including those who both inspired him and challenged his ideas. This has, in effect, resulted in a narrative construction on my part—the meaning of these relationships insofar as they are tracked in print (mostly faxes, copies of emails, and timing of publications) is coloured by my own presuppositions of what I care about.

Some examples of the questions I care about are: Who and what inspired Gould’s writing and ideas, and to what extent? Why did he so strongly believe in the power of approaches that unite humanities and sciences? How did he feel about the common caricatures of his work?  Gould’s ideas were often taken and skewed by creationists, and he was accused of fueling that enterprise with his challenges to panselectionism, and with his critiques of microevolutionary theory’s power to explain macroscale patterns. However, Gould very publicly worked against equal time in the classroom for creation “science.” He was challenged in public and rather nasty ways, in addition to letters containing personal attacks, yet he continued to push his views and express a certain level of shock and dismay over how some of his work was received and used in those ways. The paper trails that track these interactions have captivated much of my attention.

In her paper “Blue Years,” Garcia argues that the relationships among those women are materialized in their letters. I take this to mean that the letters are a manifestation of relations among persons. The physical manifestation is what makes those relationships tangible to outsiders. This in turn not only reveals the nature of those relationships as externally accessible, but also demonstrates their availability for use in an instrumental fashion: for writing, for one’s own career, etc. Of course, there are all sorts of ethical concerns in engaging with archives that Garcia does admit to, like the use of suffering and isolation for her own writing and the like.

Garcia’s concerns helped me to articulate some of my own challenges when uncovering exchanges of great value that might serve the social and historical contexts of very public debates and disagreements that were sometimes not just about ideas, but personal integrity attacks of committing various academic sins. There are other exchanges that have nothing to do with the publicly popular, but are very personal in nature, about Gould when he was young, for example. I identified with Garcia’s words because I too feel a level of hesitation. On the one hand, some of these people in the very public debates are still around (see the letter from Crick to Watson as a warning to the wise, though notably Watson was writing a book about his friends and I’ve never met Gould). On the other hand, there are what I would view as quite private statements about Gould especially when he was young. This is enjoyable because it humanizes such a prominent figure, and while I both chuckled and cringed reading them alone, I wouldn’t consider sharing the information beyond a close circle of individuals who I know appreciated Gould and his work. Frankly Gould dealt with enough ad hominem attacks and I see no need to fuel that particular fire.

I admit that at first approach I did not view the Gould archives so positively—positive in the sense of productive material manifestations, rather than remnants or traces left behind in need of reconstruction. Generally, I think the former positive view Garcia emphasizes casts archival work in a way that highlights availability and potential instrumentality with a story to be discovered rather than created.  However, to think of archives as remnants or traces left behind shines a different light. In the latter case the narrative is constructed rather than recovered, which carries with it all kinds of normative dimensions concerning the user, such as the interests of the user, whether the individuals of interest are still living, and availability to give social and historical context beyond what can be inferred.

One of my favourite themes in Garcia’s paper is how the archived work she accesses is not of the typical sort. Some might instead think of those letters as personal artifacts rather than archives, but the traditional notion of an archive is exactly what she pushes against. These are letters provided to her by Bernadette—a central person of her study—which were previously sorted not only by Bernadette, but also by Garcia herself. I’ve often wondered to what extent Gould’s files were organized by himself, his partner, and what I assume are numerous librarians and archivists thereafter. Certainly I can tell just by the differences among folders in various boxes that some are carefully grouped either by paper, book, or theme, while other boxes seem to present a haphazard lack of organization that does not make much sense, at least not to me. That said, the entirety of those boxes contents still fits within a large scale scheme connected series of boxes. Maybe this is a sort of historical epistemic contingency where past interactions with the files constrain and direct future use and knowledge.  This combined with the unpredictable element to what the files contain (despite the careful and admirable cataloguing skills of the archivists) sets up for a full-blown contingency-type analysis that is not about the history of life, but about the remnants of the history of one life, Gould’s, his network of interactions with others, the access I have to all of that, and what sort of knowledge can be produced at the end of the day.

Such epistemically contingent factors present (sometimes inaccessible) layers to my own investigation and ability to cite and reproduce that work. In Garcia’s case there is local access where direct lines exist for receiving user permissions, for example. After a certain point I see Garcia herself as something like an authoritative gatekeeper to and user of the collections. This obviously reflects my struggle to understand how to gain access to copyright permissions from the Gould estate and to find out how fine-grained those permissions must be. It is in this moment that my archive fever turns into archive envy. It appears, then, if I run with the “due diligence” clause in attempting to gain appropriate copyright permission without success, I should proceed. However, in the corner of my mind there is trepidation: If (or when) I say something that perhaps someone doesn’t like, or it steps on the toes of those who have previously interacted with Gould, then the permissions overseer might come knocking down my door with a fury of the K-T mass extinction.

Regardless, Gould would certainly appreciate the contingent nature of these records, of the files and impressions they give, and how they serve as traces of the past, even if in this case what’s left behind are not stony-type fossils.



Garcia, Angela. “The Blue Years:  An Ethnography of a Prison Archive.” Cultural Anthropology, 3 (4): 571-594.

Letter from Francis Crick to James D. Watson, April 13th 1967, Box 75, Folder PP/CRI/I/3/8/4 Correspondence Concerning Publication. The Francis Crick Papers, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine. Reproduced:

Photo Credit: Box 482, Stephen Jay Gould Papers, M1437. Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, Calif.