June 22, 2020
In her study of the Afro-Trinidadian writer and revolutionary C. L. R. James, Laura Harris introduces the evocative idea of an “underground undocument.” The undocument refers to the ambitious literary project James was invested in during the forties and early fifties, when he lived undocumented in the United States. Drawing on his left-behind manuscripts and notes, Harris shows how the project—which would become more widely known through the posthumous publication of American Civilization—turned out to be “an incomplete attempt to invent or invite a new form of authorship that would give full expression to a new mode of sociality emerging within and against the political life of the citizen.” James wanted to facilitate a collaborative and fully co-authored work together with the “American masses,” which would enable a new form of insurgent sociality and radically undermine the noncitizen-citizen divide. Reconceiving citizenship from a black revolutionary point of view, he imagined nothing less than a “general remaking of both work and the work of art.” As James sought to undermine his own authorial position, every draft was just a deferral of proper documentation and “a proposal for its own unmaking.” In a contradictory aspiration, James imagined a work that “would be fully realized only through its own unworking.”
Even if James’s project turned out to be an incomplete attempt of radically reconceiving work and the work of art, the idea of the undocument is something that has stuck with me ever since I read Harris’s fascinating study a few years ago. Writing my dissertation on “community archives” with, by, and for asylum seekers and undocumented people in Europe, I have often asked myself how James’s undocument might reverberate in the present moment and outside the American context. Even if the projects I’m mainly interested in—like the Noncitizen Archive in Sweden, Asylum Archive in Ireland, and Archive of Migrant Memories in Italy—tend to “document for posterity” and use the archive designation themselves, James and Harris compel us to consider how they might also exceed conventional documentation, the strictures of institutional archives, and even the archive as such.
Rather than replicating the structure of a state archive—in which administration is a central aspect of record-keeping—vernacular archives, collections, and repositories organized by migrants and refugees seem to hold the potential for something radically different. Admittedly, projects like those mentioned above tend to, by necessity, set up frameworks that regulate and control the conditions of emergence of statement-events, to speak with Foucault. In this regard we might still be talking about archives, even if they are “counter-archives” or “archives of counter-documents.” By way of undermining their own institutional regulation, however, they also engage in practices that might be termed anarchival, which is to say collaborative and experimental practices that draw from—but are in excess of—the archive. This is where the idea of the undocument might help us to imagine new practices and better describe those practices already taking place.
For precarious migrants and those who live in conditions of statelessness, undocumentation might show up as the refusal of imposed hypervisibility at internal and external state borders or as the struggle against intrusive and reductive questioning in legal processes. In addition to such evasion of the administrative archive, undocumentation also tends to come with its own assertion of the right to look when state institutions and border authorities claim that “there is nothing to see.” In Asylum Archive, for example, the central issue at stake is the public secret of an asylum housing system whose inhumane living conditions are disavowed by the Irish government. The project shows what is “hidden in plain sight” and could be said to reconfigure the distribution of the sensible. This is not to say that undocumentation merely makes “visible the invisible” nor that its function is necessarily to disclose and recontextualize state records to seek calculable results (even though that might be part of an overall project). Undocumentation rather dwells in the margins and aporias of the archive itself and reveals its materiality and conditions of possibility. As Amy Sara Carroll puts it, “the un- of undocumentation indexes a mode of erasure operative in the act of documentation proper.” The undocument bears traces of such erasure.
Found object in Kilmacud House, Ireland, 2013. Courtesy of Asylum Archive / Vukašin Nedeljkovic
In addition to images of run-down buildings where asylum seekers are forced to live, Asylum Archive gathers images of ephemera as traces of lived experience and state archiving. Among the objects portrayed are administrative documents such as redacted registration records and vaccine reports. As seen above, the torn paper sheets accentuate the material substrate of the bureaucratic document and—by way of the fragmentary and barely legible dates and notes—gesture towards the process of archival inscription itself rather than any particular informational content seen on the page. Far from a naïve idea of liberation through direct inclusion and visibility, these undocuments make “disappearance appear as such, which is to say, as an intolerable governmental practice premised on the dismembering of particular subjects from the realm of both legal protection and public memory.”
To be clear, the undocument, as I think of it here, is neither the same thing as undocumentation—the process of unsettling the state archive—nor its direct representation. In fact, undocumentation cannot be visualized or contained in an object. Rather, undocumentation departs from the document and leaves traces in the undocument, much in the same way that anarchiving “needs documentation—the archive—from which to depart and through which to pass,” but “is never contained in any particular archive or documentation element contained in an archive.” While “products are produced . . . they are not the product. They are the visible indexing of the process’s repeated taking-effect: they embody its traces.” Once the undocument is congealed as the embodiment of traces, it can be distributed as a document to disturb the conditions of its own production — and a new process of undocumentation might begin.
Undocumentation does not only reveal the inclusions and exclusions of the state archive; it also acts as a productive corrosive of such archival logics. Despite the fragile, fugitive, and always unfinished effort of undocumentation, it is a practical deconstruction that holds the potential to unsettle the structural integrity of the archive from within. Consider how the following short visual poem—itself a kind of undocument—transgresses the state archive and infuses a nonlinear temporality into the experience of waiting before the law.
As an undocument, “I Wish Grapes Would Ripen” reintroduces that which is excised from the legal archive and state reason. It is, in some ways, the return of the repression that structures “good citizenship” and orderly conduct. The undocument, then, seems to hold the potential to unthread the very fabric of the state archive. Even if undocumentation itself is elusive and transitory, the undocument both generates and bears traces of this destabilizing process, which disassembles and reassembles an altogether different disposition: “The undocument seeks and enacts a new world operating within and against this world.”
 Laura Harris, “The Subjunctive Poetics of the Undocument: C. L. R. James’s American Civilization,” Criticism 58, no. 2 (2016): 207. See also Experiments in Exile, Harris’ book on C. L. R James and Hélio Oiticica.
 Yates McKee quoted in Rebecca M. Schreiber, The Undocumented Everyday: Migrant Lives and the Politics of Visibility (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 13.
 Harris, ”The Subjunctive Poetics of the Undocument,” 226.