Coda: Shame about That Microfilm

For Mass Capture, microfilm is everything. The thousands of documents upon which this book is based exist only as microfilm. As was the practice in “preservation microfilming,” the originals were destroyed. They can be remembered but only as the result of their destruction. This paradox of their material memorialization raises questions about the relationship between microfilm and photography. When I first began to present papers on the CI 9s, papers that focused on what I saw as the incredible power of the identification photographs attached to each certificate, I was invariably asked by astute listeners about the existence of the originals. Did they exist? Could I detach the photograph from the certificate in order to look for the stamp of a photography studio, or other information that might further illuminate the ways in which these images were produced and circulated? Were there photographic negatives? My answers were always a disappointment. No, I did not think there were any originals. Yes, I was still hopeful that some might emerge. No, I have never touched an original CI 9, and could not even imagine what riches might lie on the other side of the photograph, much less in the materiality of negatives.

In terms of its claim to be a project about the relationship between photography and citizenship, the loss of the original certificates cast, for me, an air of fraudulence over the entire enterprise. Could this really be a discussion of photography when there were no physical photographs at the core of the investigation? The question seems less about what might or might not count as a photograph than about the kinds of expectations and desires that attend to critical work on photography. So much of that work demands looking in ways that are deeply tactile. The present work attends to the image as object. It takes up other ways of looking by looking deeply, askew, and all around. Archival work in particular involves a deep-seated desire for what Tina Campt calls “thingyness” (2012, 128). Campt credits Ingrid Pollard with this term, who commented to her: “There’s a ‘thingyness’ to an image … a thingyness you feel incredibly strongly when you work with negatives.” For Campt, the thingyness of the photograph enables an engagement that exceeds the seeming limits of two-dimensional visuality. It is no longer just about looking. It has everything to do with – and I borrow from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick advisedly here – touching feeling. “While the affects of photographs are certainly produced through their visuality,” Campt writes, “they also resonate in equally profound ways through their materiality and through the haptics of their thingyness” (ibid.). Campt’s claims for the power of thingyness will resonate with anyone who has ever stepped into a humidity-controlled room, slipped on cotton gloves, and picked up a photograph from a time outside of the one that they currently inhabit.

How, then, to understand the affective power of the CI 9 photographs, and their existence as photographs, in the howling absence of their thingyness? There are two moves. First, it is worth exploring the affective materiality of microfilm itself. Second, we also need to attend to the curious distinction between microfilm and photography. Let me take up the latter move before turning to the former.

Microfilm and photography emerged into the world simultaneously. As Jonathan Auerbach and Lisa Gitelman point out, “The first ‘microphotography,’ as the medium was long called, was done in England in 1839; the same year Louis Daguerre first made photographic reproduction practical” (2007, 748). Auerbach and Gitelman distinguish microfilm from photography, marking the birth of the microphotograph as separate from, albeit temporally adjacent to, the daguerreotype. This distinction is curious and is repeated throughout discussions of microfilm history, including Frederic Luther’s (1959) Microfilm: A History, 1839–1900. Even though both technologies relied on nearly identical apparatuses and processes – camera, film, development – the scholarship on microfilm tends to emphasize its distinctiveness from photography rather than its alikeness.

Not only does microfilm circulate as separate from photography, it also occupies a position that situates it as alternately the salvation of, or purely supplemental to, photography. For example, in “A Positive Approach to Negatives,” Ruth B. Kerns identifies microfilm as the technology that saves photographs when she talks about the experience of the special collections and archives at George Mason University preserving nearly 9,000 deteriorating photographic negatives – mostly materials from the Library of Congress Federal Theatre Project, which had been one of the four Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects launched during the Depression. Among preservation archivists, microfilm is still the medium of choice despite the many, many moves towards digitization. It is an incredibly stable technology with an established track record of longevity. High-quality microfilm, produced with silver-halide development processes, will last in excess of five hundred years. It is hard to imagine any digital platform that can reliably make such a claim.

Outside the circles of preservation archivists, microfilm may not typically circulate as a technology of photographic salvation, but its function as supplementary is not a surprise. As Allardyce Nicholl notes, “microfilm has been used up to the present as a supplement, not as a fundamental basis. We have been accustomed, as individual scholars, to turn to microfilm only when the particular library in which we are working does not possess a copy of some particular text we require; similarly, many libraries have endeavoured to make their collections complete by obtaining photographic copies of excessively rare (perhaps even unique) exemplars elsewhere” (1953, 62). Nicholl writes as a Shakespearean who must work with texts that are always at risk of disintegration, but his point regarding the format’s secondary or supplementary nature highlights an enduring attitude to microfilm. The microfilm is a copy. It contains, seemingly, none of the aura of the original. It is the medium of second choice. No scholar, given the choice, would choose to work with microfilm over the original. And, unlike digital images – which do seem to offer some genuine advantages over the original even in their portability and searchability – microfilm is frustratingly analogue yet stripped of the pleasures of the analogic object. Its thingyness eludes us because it registers first as cumbersome, awkward, and, dare I say, vaguely shameful. I will say more about these affective registers of microfilm later. For now, let me note that it was not always the case that microfilm would function as a supplement, as a copy of a copy, as that source of last resort, turned to only when all else has failed or been destroyed. Indeed, microfilm was once glamorous.

Microfilm came into the world as a jewel: microphotographs were inserted into jewels for Queen Victoria (Luther 1959, 27). At what must be the height of microfilm’s claim to glamour, it was central to practices of espionage, both real and filmic. Rebecca Lemov observes the unique anxieties engendered by microfilm in her description of the 1943 noir detective film Sherlock Holmes in Washington: “Passed from a dying British secret agent to an American debutante, its tiny texts ended up stored in her ‘V for Victory’ matchbook, where they sat, hidden in plain sight, producing anxiety in the audience every time someone lit up a cigarette” (2015, 88). Similarly, in their consideration of the microfilm and the Cold War containment narrative, Auerbach and Gitelman discuss Cary Grant’s memorable line to Eva Marie Saint in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959): “I see you’ve got the pumpkin” (2007, 745). Grant refers not to a squash but to a figurine stuffed with microfilm of state secrets, which the spies must now carry across “the brows and necklines of Mount Rushmore,” staging the way in which the state intersects with the microfilm on scales that are both gargantuan and intimately diminutive. While Auerbach and Gitelman are absolutely right to suggest that microfilm “graphically dramatizes questions of scale” (746), it is their observation about the paradox of microfilm’s relationship to memory that helps me to think through the CI 9 photographs and the construction of non-citizenship.

Microfilm preserved the CI 9s and it was also the reason for their destruction. The final lines of the LAC descriptive record for the CI 9s reads: “These records were filmed by the Department under microfilm authority M6-62 in 1963 from originals which were then destroyed. Many of the images are of poor quality.” Microfilm authority M6-62 – even the name, both austere and seemingly arbitrary, suggests the contradictory nature of the imperative it contains – was responsible for the simultaneous safeguarding and obliteration of hundreds of thousands of original records relating to immigration, including “juvenile report cards” (reports of children sent to Canada by various agencies), ships manifests, individual entry forms for settlers arriving between 1919 and 1924, records of migrants entering Canada from 1865 to 1961, and, of course, the CI 9s. As Auerbach and Gitelman understand, “microfilm simultaneously promised preservation and destruction, security and risk. Under the emerging technocratic aegis of professional librarianship, ‘preservation microfilming’ came to mean destroying original documents in order to preserve them on film, a practice that continues today” (2007, 749). This paradox is not unique to microfilm. Anne Carson would remind us that the earliest practices of technologies of memory, dating to Simonides’s invention of the art of memory itself, were deeply attuned to the ways in which memory demands forgetting and loss: “Remembering brings the absent into the present, connects what is lost to what is here. Remembering draws attention to the lostness and is made possible by emotions of space that open backward into a void” (2002, 38). That memory necessitates destruction is not new, but the connection between this paradox and the nation-state is uniquely modern, and here microfilm shines. With reference to Susan Stewart’s work on the miniature, Auerbach and Gitelman note that the metaphors for miniaturization that tended to herald the advantages of microfilm – “‘The whole archives of a nation might be packed away in a snuffbox’” – function as “prosaic celebrations of microfilm reduction ratios [that] work by emphasizing contrasts in scale between bourgeois interiority on the one hand and the national public on the other. They recur as triumphal images of domestication and preservation directed at the public record, safeguarding made all the more imperative by the threat of war” (2007, 748). Thus, in Sherlock Holmes Goes to Washington, it is significant that, in addition to the anxieties about the microfilm being obliterated in an unknowing puff of cigarette smoke, it is the secret of the state itself that is at risk. Storing these secrets right next to the very incendiary device that could destroy them, a device that is literally imprinted with the promise of the victory of the state, perfectly encapsulates the way in which microfilm is poised at the intersection of the wildly, gigantically public (Mount Rushmore! V for Victory!) and the terribly intimate and secretive. Here, the secret of bourgeois interiority plays out against the very public history of the trafficking of the secrets of the state.

Notably, these are secrets that must be mediated through a machine. Microfilm can only be read with the aid of mechanical intervention. Even safeguarded from accidental incineration and ferried across the face of national monuments, microfilm is useless without a microfilm reader. The paradox of its function as a technology of memory is thus further compounded by its reliance upon a secondary technology of reading, one that highlights the absurdity of microfilm as a medium of secrecy: in order to be read, the microfilm must literally be blown up, and it can only be blown up with the aid of outside intervention. The anxiety telegraphed by Sherlock Holmes Goes to Washington extends far beyond the possibility of the microfilm’s destruction ignited by every puff of cigarette smoke. It reaches into the compromises engendered by the success of a secret transmission. Even when the secrets have been safely deposited, they must be threaded through a machine, shot through with light, and enlarged to the point where a safe and private viewing will only be notional. The intimacy of the microfilm lies in its promise to always betray the secrets that it holds.

Although they are far removed from the allure of noir detective films and the thrills of Hitchcock, the CI 9s do, in their positioning of that which is both remembered and forgotten, preserved and destroyed, reveal something about the secretive intimacy, and betrayals, of the state. It wanted and needed these migrants at the same time that it had to engineer a massive system of bureaucracy to make known their supposed expendability. This system begins in the legislated racism and discrimination of the head tax enshrined in the multiple iterations of the Chinese Immigration Act between 1885 and 1947, but its execution lies in the technologies and mechanisms of the certificates themselves. In their original form and function, the CI 9s make visible the secret of a state that wanted Chinese migrants even though it hated them. In their current material form, preserved and destroyed as several thousand metres of microfilm neatly spooled in the beige metal drawers of the third floor of Library and Archives Canada, they make manifest the way in which public histories are rife with secrets that perpetually threaten to undo the foundations of the state. Unspooling the microfilm one certificate at a time, the CI 9s reveal again and again and again (and again several thousand times) the ways in which the achievement of contemporary Canadian citizenship rests upon the perpetual construction of non-citizens.

This construction has a materiality. I want to turn now to the thingyness of microfilm through a consideration of its affective registers. In doing so, I want to return to the sense of fraudulence that attended my early presentations on the CI 9s. That worry exceeded the usual stuff of impostor syndrome. There was, I now realize, a sense of shame that I experienced at not being able to give the “right” answers about these images as photographic objects. And it was a shame that persisted even when I learned that I would never be able to give the right answers, because the original CI 9s had all been destroyed. As the magnitude of the destruction of the original CI 9s really began to sink in, this sense of shame telescoped outward well beyond my own personal scholarly dilemmas, towards the problem of national memory.

Shame, as Elizabeth Povinelli and Elspeth Probyn understand, is deeply political. More than that, shame can be central to the construction of citizenship and national belonging. As Povinelli so powerfully outlines in her essay on the political uses of shame and Mabo v. Queensland (No. 2), a decision of the High Court of Australia that recognized native title for the first time, “the fantasy of shame and reparation created an experience of intimacy – intimate holding, intimate understanding, intimate knowledge – between those who control the access to and those excluded from critical rights” (1998, 598). In its decision, the court demanded an engagement with a national sense of shame around the issue of Indigenous land rights: “The High Court’s claim in Mabo that the common law was shamed by its own history and an international gaze should be placed within the context of these other contemporary national mortifications” (597). In this affective move, the court also put into motion a rhetoric of national shame that was quickly co-opted by right-wing political interests claiming to be ashamed (for example) of the ways in which Australia buckled to international pressure. This discourse revealed “how institutions are claimed to have feelings and how these feeling institutions translate liberation struggles against them into their own legitimation” (598). As I have previously argued with respect to the connection between the inauguration of the Canadian Citizenship Act on 1 January 1947 and the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act a few months later, citizenship does not emerge free of the baggage of national history.[1] The parliamentary debates in the months leading up to the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, and thus the end of the era of Chinese head tax and exclusion, were completely bound by precisely the same kinds of considerations that Povinelli tracks in relation to Mabo. Broadly speaking, a majority of parliamentarians began to struggle with the realization that the explicit racism embedded within the Chinese Immigration Act was no longer compatible with the vision of Canadian and Canadian citizenship domestically, and also internationally. It is not an exaggeration to say, after reading the text of the debates in the Canadian House of Commons in the months between January and May 1947, that shame was one of the primary motivations for granting Chinese people access to Canadian citizenship.

The connection between the uses and abuses of this national shame and the CI 9s specifically can be found at the intersection of interiority and publicity that microfilm so perfectly inhabits. As a central part of the mechanism of mass capture that constructed Chinese migrants as non-citizens, the CI 9s reveal not just the shameful secret of a state that ruthlessly exploited thousands of people by harnessing their labour and putting in place legislation that would leave them separated from families and communities for most of their lives. While this story of the effects of the head tax and exclusion on Chinese families is well known, the CI 9s open up individual stories and experiences of exclusion. Here, in each certificate, we can read the details of an existence in Canada that tells of years, often decades, separated from family and loved ones. We can track histories of violence in the scars and other identifying marks recorded by customs agents. Even though we know that these men laboured alone and in terrible conditions for decades, the CI 9s put a literal face to that loneliness and those conditions.

However, there can be a productivity to this shame and it lies in the thingyness of the CI 9 as microfilm. Here, I am coming full circle. Where I began with some sense of shame over the fact that all of the primary materials for this book exist only as microfilm, I want to now close with a more complex understanding of shame as something that is not only about bad feelings. I want to bring that complexity to a way of understanding the thingyness of microfilm, and of the CI 9 microfilms in particular.

In the case of the CI 9s, the entire geography and physical architecture of Library and Archives Canada serves only to amplify this shame. The building sits at the end of the nation’s most geographically symbolic streets. Its immediate neighbour is the Supreme Court of Canada and, next to the courthouse, Parliament Hill itself. That is, the archives are housed in a location that signals their importance as being adjacent to, and second only to, the highest court of the nation and the seat of national governance. Once inside Library and Archives Canada, researchers undergo all the rituals of divestment central to the experience of any archival visit. Your personal belongings must be placed in a locker. You are permitted to carry in only materials that can fit into a clear plastic pouch issued by security. No pens. In order to access the CI 9s, you must ascend the marble steps of the building to the third floor. You will first walk past a beautiful reading room that is flooded with light from a wall of windows overlooking the Ottawa River. There will be serious-looking people doing what you think of as real archival work in this room. They will be at the tables, boxes of precious materials neatly stacked around them. They will be wearing gloves. You will look at them with longing, knowing that, for the length of this research trip, the only time you will spend in this beautiful room will be when you take a break to check email. You keep walking into a room full of long flat metal filing cabinets. There will still be windows here, and the view of the river is still spectacular, but you know that this is only the room where you pull at the smoothly greased bearings of drawers containing reels T-6038 to T-6046. You take three or four reels to start and proceed to the next room. In this one the blinds are always drawn. There will be a clerk who gives you a perfunctory nod. There will be rows and rows of machines. You will have your pick. You are almost never alone – one or two unfortunate others will also be bent over these machines – but you often wonder why you can’t do work that allows you to be in the serious and beautiful room.

This acknowledgment of the strange shamefulness of the whole experience of an archival trip devoted solely to the supplementariness of microfilm forced me to consider why I was so devoted to a project whose central materials were a source of disappointment, frustration, and, yes, shame.

Of course, the CI 9s are profoundly important. Of course, as this book argues, they make visible the relationship between photography, surveillance, and the construction of non-citizens. But beyond this obvious importance, there is also a simple, straightforward, and intense interest. From the moment when I first saw these certificates in 2009, I could not take my eyes off them. I could not stop looking. As Elspeth Probyn charts in Blush, the relationship between looking, interest, and the productivity of shame runs deep.

Someone looks at you with interest and you begin to be interested, only to realize she’s looking at someone else. Or, as [Silvan] Tomkins notes, “One starts to smile but found one was smiling at a stranger.” If you’re interested in and care about the interest of others, you spend much of your life blushing. Conversely, if you don’t care, then attempts to shame won’t move you. Shame highlights different levels of interest … interest is the key to understanding shame, and shame reminds us with urgency what we are interested in. Shame reminds us of the promises we keep to ourselves. (2005, x)

Probyn’s account tracks the quiet, almost often erotic, charge of shame. Fittingly, this account turns upon looking and, more specifically, upon the misdirected look. What is more, this misdirected look emerges only because the observer thought she was the object of attention. She thinks that interest has been directed at her, which excites her interest, and then, blushing, she realizes that her interest has been misplaced. Probyn outlines the strange circuit of shame wherein its subject must be initially passive. This economy of interest, where the subject of shame is doubly shameful not only because she has misplaced her interested gaze, but also because she was brought to interest through the mistaken belief in herself as an object of interest, perfectly models my own encounters with academic research itself in a broad sense, and this project in particular. As I confess in the preface, I wasn’t looking at all for this stuff. It found me. In my case, I owe a debt to Johanna Mizgala, the archivist who, in 2009, first handed me a CD-R (speaking of outdated technologies of memory) of over two thousand CI 9s that archivists at Library and Archives Canada had scanned in their own time. It was actually handed to me. I was just minding my own business when this research came along. But when I started to look, I realized that I was looking at it all wrong.

Where for Probyn shame comes from misperceiving oneself as an object of interest, the CI 9s pose a converse problem. Even though they demand to be looked at, and to be examined in great detail, it would be a mistake to overlook the way in which they look out at those looking at them. As I have noted throughout my analysis of these certificates, without fail and in the absence of a formal demand, the people in these photographs are all photographed facing squarely into the camera. As I argue in chapter 5, they anticipated the demands of identification photography for citizens long before such demands existed. I have, in other words, considered the way in which the subjects of the photographs can be looked at. But these are not subjects who are content to be observed. They look back. They look back in ways that unsettle, that haunt, and that commit the full force of their interest.

In suggesting that part of the productivity of the shame of these photographs lies in the way that their subjects look back at those looking at them, I gesture, only partly in jest, to the old Scooby Doo joke about the painting with the moving eyes. That gag turns upon the idea of being unknowingly watched by something that is itself meant to be looked at, and the secret animation of the animate. However, this is a trick of the eye. The painting does not move. No part of the painting (eyeballs or otherwise) moves. The direction of the viewer, and of the perception point of the painting, does not actually move the painting. As researchers in the field of optical perception note in their analysis of perception and paintings, “the pointing direction is invariant, and it is always orthogonal to the picture plane (as an object in pictorial space), exactly as the painter painted it” (Koenderink et al. 2004, 527). The perception that the eyes in the painting move tells us more about those who do the looking than that which is being looked at. This is the story of the CI 9 photographs. They seem to tell us so much about their subjects, but an equally important story is the one they tell us about the need of the state to look, and to look so obsessively, at those it works so hard to exclude from the sphere of citizenship.

Shame, as Probyn teaches us, comes from mistaken interests. For Mass Capture, these photographs are not simply a record of the shameful treatment of their subjects by a state that accepted decades of their labour while shamelessly denying them access to citizenship on the basis of race. The CI 9 photographs also inject the shame of mistaking, and misreading, the interest of the subjects into those who will look at them. From the immigration agent who first formally encountered these photographs, to the mid-twentieth-century librarians who destroyed the original documents in the name of committing them to national memory, to contemporary researchers like me who have been so fortunate to have been held captive by their complexity, the CI 9 photographs compel because there are so many ways to mistake their interest.


  1. Please see “Redress Revisited: Citizenship and the Chinese Canadian Head Tax” (Cho 2013).

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