Thoughts on Queering the Archive
Kit Avery H.
Who hasn’t Googled “1950s lesbians” or “queer history,” clicked on the image tab, and looked for ourselves in the pictured approximations of our collective past? The archive poses a particular problem for the queer. Queerness (beyond its use as a personal political or identity marker) is a catch-all term for non-normative sexual and/or gendered practices and identities of any given time and place actively. Being so elusive and mysterious (and hot), the queer resists localization all together. We don’t see ourselves in the museums, in the libraries, in the family history books our grandparents print off their 2007 Dell desktops. These archival spaces are empty of gender-fuckery and girl-on-girl love. And that’s wrong, right? But when we think about it, where does one place the queer in the archive? Where do we belong? Do archives do anything for us? The problem of placement raises other questions: can queers of here and now ethically seek out historical counterparts in the archive? What does an archived representation of our beautiful sexual, gendered selves look like beyond our browser histories?
Queer theory proclaims that sexual self-conceptualizations are not simply claimed or mapped onto a body, but that produced through the push-and-pull of deployments of biopower. Queerness exists between ideologically mobile hegemonies and resistance to them. It takes the shape of historicized identities (lesbian, gay, etc.) that even within their historical moments tend exclude other possibilities. None of us are politically pure beings. As some identities and acts are normalized, the old, familiar tension of hegemony-versus-resistance creates new ground for the development of new identities and forms of resistance. While identities like lesbian, gay, asexual, genderqueer, and transgender are rooted in historical moments, queerness as a concept is ahistorical and metaphysical. We’re always the odd-one-out, and the “we” is always changing. The queer complicates attempts at physical categorization (do books about ancient Greek male-male love go in the “Gay History” section or the “Ancient History” section?) and the notion of categories themselves (what would “gay” even mean to Plato?).
Furthermore, finding queers in the archive is difficult because of the inability of queer bodies to reproduce heteronormatively. For example, one can trace their family genealogy through the archive matrilineally or patrilineally (but probably patrilineally) and claim Italian ancestry with little dispute. A queer person would have a much more difficult time tracing biologically unrelated people back through history to fashion a queer ancestry. This problem is both because queer communities multiply through “recruitment” rather than procreation, but also because the paper trail simply does not exist. As queer scholar Robb Hernández demonstrates, the queer is actively disappeared from the archive. The “scraps” of their existence, despite being evidence of the deep connections between queer people, are insufficient in the cataloguing methods that rely on “families” of documents and unbroken lineages*. The illegibility of the queer fragment as part of the family system reflects a broader social reality of the queer that is cast out; thrown out of our heterosexual families and our chosen family rejected by the same normative state powers that control most archives. The fragment does not meet the metaphysical requirements set forth by the cataloguing system.
The question of queer non-reproductivity pose a challenge to foundation decolonial archive critic Achilles Mbembe’s thinking on the archive. For Mbembe, the state commemorates the past through the archive, thus allowing those under its control to forgive its debts. Once forgiven, the state can start anew without taking reparative measures*. We’ve seen this in Chilé with the state’s self-pardoning of the genocide of leftists in the 1970s through the publicized “apology” for the events decades later and the release of some official documents. But the state did not create an archive of the AIDS crisis. AIDS victims were intentionally allowed to die and then actively vanished. Their documents were not kept by the state, perhaps because, in Mbembe’s words, a memory, unlike an archived commemoration, lives on the temptation to repeat the original act*. Archives may prevent the dead of some communities from stirring up the past in the present, but in a non-reproductive community the past can simply be waited out. Without the archive, the queer communities of the present or future may not even know about individuals with similar experiences of the past.
The anxiety of losing evidence queer people, places, and acts has led many queer folks to create their own archives as well as search out queer pasts in the margins of extant archives. The Lesbian Herstory Archive was born out of the desire to keep scraps of lives that may be destroyed by the heterosexual families of lesbians. Archives formed in bedrooms, closets, and under beds do the spatial work of excluding evidence of the past from all viewership, like a state archive does, but as an act of self-preservation and protection against normative violences. While the practical effect is the same, the who that is excluded reverses dominant structures of information access that privilege biological and legal relationships (like HIPPA) over emotional, extralegal bonds. These emotional archives help subjects viewing them articulate senses of gendered and sexual identity and place. Other queers, myself included, have looked for ourselves in Googled images of Oscar Wilde, in history books that desperately piece together the life of Sappho, in the community college LGBT History class. The queer subject viewing the archives develop their own identities and experience by cross-identifying with the queer archived objects.
Queer archives, like state archives, attempt to establish a more secure future by containing and protecting specific versions of the past. This project can be important for the queer community whose objective existence in any present is up for debate. But queer theory has also produced discourse claiming that archives feign reproductivity and that it could be more politically advantageous to embrace ahistoricity. Queer Negativity scholars like Lee Edelmen* and Stephen Best argue that a sense of belonging based in historical dispossession make for unstable politics that mourn lives that were not our own. Indeed, the inverts of the 1930s are not the non-binary dykes of the 2000s. Our lives, contexts, and conceptions of self are hugely different and historically dependent. In fact, asserting that they are somehow essentially and transhistorically similar requires first translating people’s own identities or acts into an already biased contemporary “universal” (like that of “lesbian”) that produces the crisis in the process of cataloguing that has already proven entirely inadequate to contain our infinite uniqueness. Queer Negativity suggests that marginalized people can and should embrace a hyper-immediate isolation as a political basis. While this may be effective, it also recreates the trauma of involuntary isolation actively experienced by contemporary queers. Others suggest that “fixing the labels” in the cataloguing system will be enough. But we, as contemporary queers, know that identities are not forever. We cannot take away the autonomy of historical actors (our “queer” predecessors) and reproduce the lived trauma of the denial of agency and self-definition that sexually marginalized people know too well.
Queering the archive can mean producing emotional and heavily romanticized depictions of past “queers” that can give queer people a false sense of security in the present and future. It can also mean reproducing the trauma of existing as a marginalized sexual deviant to expose the limitation of the archive, but still negatively affecting the individual queer subject that comes in to research. Neither type of solution may be entirely ethical. However, both do reflect the core tenet of queer theory: that queerness exists within the tension between hegemony (and the desire for inclusion in the archive) and resistance (and the desire of subjective self-definition in the past, present, and future).
Hernández, Robb. "Drawn from the Scraps." Radical History Review 2015, no. 122 (2015): 70-88.
Mbembe, Achille . "The Power of the Archive and Its Limits." In Refiguring the Archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton, 19-26. Dordecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002. 24.
Edelmen, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke University Press: Durham and London. 2004.
Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures
Lee Edelmen, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive
Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route
Alana Kumbier, Ephemeral Material: Queering the Archive
ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives: Cruising the Archive: Queer Art and Culture in Los Angeles, 1945-1980
Achilles Mbembe, "The Power of the Archive and its Limits"
Saidiya Hartman, "Venus in Two Acts"
Mel Hogan, "The Archive as Dumpster"
Anjali Arkondekar, "Without a Trace: Sexuality and the Colonial Archive"
Alfred Lopez, "The Plantation as Archive: Images of 'the South' in the Postcolonial World"
Dina Georgis: "Akram Zaatari's Queer Radical Hope: On Being a Curious Archivist/Artist"
Robb Hernandez: "Drawn from Scraps: The Finding AIDS of Mundo Meza"
Stephen Best: "On Failing to Make the Past Present"
Derek Walcott, The Sea is History (poem)
The Watermelon Woman (film)
Toni Morrison, A Mercy (novel)
Arkadi Zaides - Archive (dance)
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Kit Avery H. is a Ph.D. student in religious studies who wants to spread the good word that time is broken. They study historical sexual deviancy and Mormonism at Columbia in NYC. They crave the flesh of the rich and the liberation of files unjustly imprisoned by JSTOR.