Feminist Poetics of the Archive: A Forum – Edited by Karla Kelsey

Feminist Poetics of the Archive: A Forum
Edited by Karla Kelsey

We might evoke the term “archive” to describe many different holdings—for example, all that goes on-record via the Net, an institution’s official repository of valuable texts, or a culture’s canon. An archive might also be personal, housed in alternative architecture: a shoebox of postcards, a bookcase constructed of planks and cinder blocks, a recipe box. Regardless of application, all archives imply record-keeping and an insistence that such-and-such a thing is a document worth preserving.

While archives are historically aligned with gate-keeping, a feminist practice of archival work entails openness and an investment in valuing the undervalued, of preserving the over-looked, of raising to the level of the “archive” materials and architectures that have not previously qualified. Implicitly or explicitly a feminist approach offers critique of past paradigms’ exclusion. This always has been, and continues to be, crucial work.

The ten participants in this forum, Feminist Poetics of the Archive, actively engage in the transmission of fragile histories – through creative and scholarly writing, art-making, editing, publishing, translating, curating, teaching. I’ve invited them to wear any or all of their archival hats and to respond creatively or critically, briefly or at length, to three entries. By clicking on a participant’s name you can access a complete folio of their responses to all three entries. Our online gallery space presents visual art by three participants: Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Amy Elkins, and Ashley Lamb.

Working with these participants on Feminist Poetics of the Archive has been markedly affirming during these dark months of pandemic, police violence, and social unrest. By thoughtfully engaging the past, these responses suggest ways we can empower the future.

Folio Map:

I: “Individual Collectivities.” Here you will find my introduction to each participant’s body of work along with their response to a unique question about their engagement with archives.
II: “Collective Entries.” Here you will find each participant’s responses to the three questions I’ve posed to all participants, available to you below.
III: “Exchange Question.” Here you will find a question posed by a member of our forum, answered by the participant.

Collective Questions:

The Call of the Object

In Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives Susan Howe writes: “Often by chance, via out-of-the-way card catalogues, or through previous web surfing, a particular “deep” text or simple object (bobbin, sampler, scrap of lace) reveals itself here at the surface of the visible, by mystic documentary telepathy. Quickly – precariously – coming as it does from an opposite direction.”

With this idea the borders of what we might think archival material contains open to admit deep text and simple object, web-work and library time. Also opened: the process of engaging archival material, allowing us to see the material itself as animated and willful, “revealing itself.” It is as if material has a plan of its own. As such, Howe invites us to overturn a sense of orderly rule, orderly access, of patriarchal law that often dominates historical objects. The call of the archival object invites us to understand the power of texts and objects outside of ourselves to urgently speak.

Have you experienced such a “call” from an archival object or text that led you down the path of response? If so, please describe one such moment and how you responded to the call. Did this response result in a project? Do you now (or did you then) understand this call, or your response to the call, to challenge established systems of value and record?

If you never have received such a call what is your process for engaging historical material like?

The Ethics and Aesthetics of Archival Work

A feminist approach to the greater cultural archive engages aspects of history that have been overlooked, under-told, misrepresented, silenced. Some of these stories, as M. NourbeSe Philip articulates, must be told but, like the stories of the drowned African slaves for whom she writes in Zong!, “can only be told by not telling.” She elaborates on this tension, drawing attention to the importance of approach, the how of response:

What I feel strongly is that we can’t tell these stories in the traditional way, or the Western way of narrative—in terms of a beginning, a middle, and end. I think part of the challenge, certainly for me, was to find a form that could bear this ‘not telling.’ I think this is what Zong! is attempting: to find a form to bear this story which can’t be told, which must be told, but through not telling.

Consideration of this how seems to me important not only to narratives silenced by violence, but also to other archival absences—for instance the overlooked lives of plants, animals, and other nonhuman organisms. Or the often underestimated affective, relational expression that is an address book, a family photo album. Aspects of a life, any life, that are not part of the usual record.

What is one of the most powerful experiences that you have had as you’ve engaged an overlooked or silenced element of the archive? How were the practical, ethical, and/or aesthetic aspects of your research and response informed by the ignored or silenced status of your subject? What surprises does the underestimated hold? What techniques or advice do you have for culture workers interested in exploring the overlooked?

Preservation and Access

In the last chapter of Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader, Rubin recounts her quest for knowledge about lesbian history and culture during the 1970s. At that time even the search for a bibliography of lesbian texts proved extraordinarily difficult until she came upon the University of Michigan’s Labadie Collection, an archive she calls one of the “most extensive repositories of homosexual publications in the country at a time when most university and public libraries dismissed them as pornographic trash.”

Rubin celebrates late-twentieth-century formation of queer archives while highlighting the fragility of systems that make such collections possible. She urges us to care for and preserve the vulnerable, the marginal, locating in such material a resistance to institutionalization and to the gesture of conformity that lends itself to preservation. Nevertheless, “to paraphrase Marx and Marshall Berman, all that seems solid can vanish in a heartbeat, and to mangle Santayana, those who fail to secure the transmission of their histories are doomed to lose them.”

In the twenty-first century awareness of archival gaps has grown apace with user-friendly technology, giving rise to institutional collections development as well as online archives created by individuals. For example, Marysia Lewandowska’s online Women’s Audio Archive of interviews and public events features key female figures in the arts. Northeastern hosts Women Writers Online, a digital archive of pre-Victorian texts and Brown University Library houses a Feminist Theory Archive Collection in their physical library. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is housed in a physical location; The National Women’s History Museum is virtual.

If you could create any kind of archive you wanted, anywhere in the world, to house any kind of materials, what would you create? Would you consider this archive as part of a feminist practice? Alternatively, do you have a favorite archive of the overlooked that you’d like to share with readers? How does its form (virtual, physical, public, private, free, paid, etc) amplify or trouble its contents? All of you are engaged in archive-building through transmission of information in your own writing and creative work as well as through editing, publishing, translating, teaching, and curating: what models can we use to ensure both the security and freedom of materials?