Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Bodies That Matter": Searching for Queer Bodies in Queer Archives by Marika Cifor

It is the work of queer archives to “find and imagine an archive or collection of historical traces in spaces that have often been overlooked.”[1] The possibilities of queer archives “to conjure,” a term used by sociologist Avery Gordon to describe a “particular form of calling up and calling out the forces that make things what they are in order to fix and transform a troubling situation,” is central to creating radically open, contestable and contradictory archives that queer histories, queer people and their traces demand.[2] A (re)focus on the body has been one of queer theory’s most valuable and interesting scholarly contributions. Drawing inspiration from queer information studies scholar Jamie Lee’s working conception of a “Queer/ed Archival Methodology” (Q/M) to develop strategies aimed at ensuring that “complex, contradictory and non-normative histories have their place in society’s record” this post will look at the often overlooked place of the actual physical queer body in the queer archives. This search will point towards the larger need to conjure up the bodies and their traces that haunt the archives more broadly.[3] I ground my queer theoretical analysis in the pit stains of a t-shirt, literal traces of physical bodies of the gay leathermen that haunt the ONE National Lesbian and Gay Archives.
            The white cotton t-shirt in my hands features in small size on right breast and in large scale on its back the logo, a cowboy hat emblazed with the word “Stud” riding atop the classic black leather motorcycle boot, of the Stud.[4] The Stud on Melrose was a Los Angeles bar serving the gay male leather community until it was sold and renamed in 1988.[5] The gay leather community has a long history in Los Angeles, the home of the Satyrs Motorcycle Club, the first gay motorcycle club in 1954 and many of the earliest leather bars in America. This t-shirt, one of many hundreds in ONE’s expansive t-shirt collection bears the physical marks of its history, twin yellow stains of perspiration creep out from the armpits, marking this as an artifact that has lived a life beyond safety of the Hollinger box in which it now resides.[6] These perspiration marks are evidence not only of past wear, but also ask us to reckon with in the words of archival studies scholar Verne Harris “more than evidence of what is past,” in the artifact and archives there is also always story, imagination and future to consider within the trace that remains.[7]
            The story, the mostly unknown provenance, of this t-shirt begs me to imagine the queer body that wore it, that marked its surface, as well as the queer bodies that have touched in its second life in the archives. It calls for me to queer, to consider an object beyond what is considered normal, normative, legitimate, proper, or expected, my understandings of the place of bodies in archives.[8] Like Lee I see queering as a verb “working on and within the archive” intervening in the conventional, the proper and hegemonic power dynamics of many archives and archival practices.[9] According to Lee, “as a methodology, queer must relate to the epistemological and world-making endeavor of archives built specifically to represent voices and peoples that are often excluded from what is considered proper, professional, and traditional archives.[10] The ONE is such an archives founded to collect and preserve materials related to LGBTQ topics, issues, communities and individuals.[11] There are concerns about the cleaning up queer history, making it confirm homonormative values. Looking at and collecting the history of queer bodies, particularly the bodies of gay leathermen, ensures that queer history was never and will never be proper. The leathermen who challenged with their bodies, desires, and relations the legitimate, the normal and the normative deserve a queer consideration in the archives.
I use a queer method to argue that archives are haunted by the slippery presences and absences of physical bodies, of those the documented and undocumented, and of those who perform archival labors. Used to colloquially to describe the lingering, the poignant and evocative presences that make difficult to either ignore or forget them the idea of hauntings is central to queer archives and to my examination of the Stud t-shirt. A more theoretical take on haunting by Gordon in her seminal work Ghostly Matters describes it as “an animated state of unresolved social violence is making itself know, sometimes very directly, sometimes more obliquely.”[12] Thus hauntings for Gordon are the feelings or senses that something is happening out there that we cannot see or that altogether fails sight; ghosts are then the empirical proof of such hauntings, “that special instance of the merging of the visible and the invisible.”[13] She uses “ghost stories” as the means through which we make ghosts visible and by which we actually make worlds by narrating ourselves into a particular account of the world. Bodies, while not usually physically present in archival collections or our descriptions of them, nevertheless haunt them and creating a particularly queer kind of connection that transcends normative bounds of space and time, signaling towards an archives that is always still becoming.[14]
The queer body is an important focus for queer people, practices, lives and their archives. While not reducible to bodies and their desires, queerness often is lived in and articulated through physical bodies. In addition to intellects and affects, it is through their physical bodies and their excretions that many gay leathermen expressed their desires, sexualities, and in the coming together of bodies in spaces like the Stud built communities, identities, stories, and futures. The choices of these men to express through their bodies queer forms of masculinity, to have and to live out their non-normative, both within and outside of the gay community, desires, fantasies and practices calls needed attention to the urgency of documenting complex, contradictory and non-normative (queer) histories in the archives. These are stories that can sometimes only be told through bodies and their traces. Queer studies has always had a significant focus on bodies in their various states. These engagements range from the queer responses to neglect, dismissal, and erasure of our histories by dominant cultural forces to reclaiming a queer past and producing queer histories that account for the complex, non-normative, and even the contradictory.[15] Particularly notable is the work on sexology and its bio-political strategies for the control, management and disciplining of bodies and their non-normative desires and identities.[16] From the initial construction of modern homosexuality in the 19th century, the body has been central to both scientific and popular constructions.[17] The body’s features were examined, identified, measured and mapped to classify sexual deviance according to various typologies and to find the distinguishing features of same-sex desire.[18] Many queer historians’ efforts have reclaimed the examinations of the queer body for queer people. Other notable engagements with bodies include the work of queer theorists such as Judith Butler in Bodies that Matter on examining how the power of heterosexual hegemony forms the “matter” of bodies, sex, and gender arguing that power operates to constrain sex from the start, delimiting what counts as a viable sex and furthering her work on “performativity.” Bodies, and particularly queer ones, have been neglected in archival studies and practices.
The story of physical bodies and archives is underexplored territory for archival studies despite the central importance of the body in lived experience. The primary work on the relations of bodies and archives has been done scholars of performance, particularly dance and including queer performances. This work by scholars such as Diana Taylor, Laura Griffiths and Andre Lepecki has argued that in the context of performance the living physical body can even serve as an “archival document”, where the “lived, embodied traces of performances do not disappear but reside in the bodies…of those who encountered the performance.”[19] In addition to this work, there is a long history in archives of the contending with and of the collecting realia including certain bodily remnants and remains such as locks of hair, often kept and given as mementos of particular lives as was fashionable in the Victorian era.[20] More recently archival discourse has engaged with the idea of tattoos as archival records that cannot exist independently of the bodies they mark and as archival records challenging the norms of Western notions of archives.[21] The physical bodies and their roles in performing archival labors, doing research, processing, or providing access are also often ignored outside of the contexts of practical concerns such as the leaving of finger prints on the surface of archival photographs. Queering the archives opens it to new understandings and examinations of the physical, intellectual and affective dimensions of archival labors. Some queer stories are told through bodies be they in performance, bodies that suffer, or bodies that survive and leave their traces. Bodies, their remains, traces, and excretions tell unique and important stories the lived experiences of queer lives. Sanitizing queer histories of bodies by refuse the presence of bodily excretions point to the places where conformity to archival norms, though necessary at times, can also be “treacherous”[22] The catalog records for the t-shirt collection at ONE for example point to the sizes, colors, and inscriptions of the t-shirts, but ignore the bodies that once occupied them and the traces that remain. The absences of bodies, through sanitary efforts or benign neglect, point to other failings of the archives and archival descriptions to live up to their potentials. Bodies are also central to exploring the affective potentialities of the archives. It is through bodies and our slipping by and bumping up against other bodies, broadly defined, that we experience affect. Queer theorist Ann Cvetkovich has compellingly argued that “gay and lesbian history demands a radical archive of emotion in order to document intimacy, love, and activism—all areas of experience that are difficult to chronicle through the materials of the traditional archive.”[23] A deep consideration of bodies is needed to build queer archives.
Those two misshapen, yellowed and creeping stains of perspiration, those traces of queer bodies and their excretions are the ghosts that haunt the queer archives. It is high time to reopen the Hollinger box. By searching for the ghosts that haunt us, by conjuring up bodies and their traces we can queer, radically opening the archives. Opening the archives to queer bodies as evidence, and to stories they tell as well as the possibilities for the future they open up allows for an understanding of the archives that is always queer and always becoming.[24]

Works Cited

Calano, Mark Joesph. “Archiving bodies: Kalinga batek and the im/possibility of an archive,” Thesis 11 112, No. 1(October 2012): 98-112.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

DeSilvey, Caitlin. “Art and archive: memory-work on a Montana homestead.” Journal of Historical Geography 33, 7 (2007): 878-900.

“GAR0876.” ONE T-Shirt Collection, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries, University of Southern California.

Gordon, Avery F. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination.
Mankato: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Griffiths, Laura. “Between bodies and the archive: situating the act.” International Journal of Performance Arts & Digital Media 9, No. 1 (2013): 183-195.

Harris, Verne. “Genres of the Trace: Memory, Archives and Trouble.” Archives and Manuscripts 40, No. 3 (2012): 147-157.

Lee, Jamie. “Beyond Pillars of Evidence: Exploring the Shaky Ground of Queer/ed Archives and Their Methodologies.” In Research in the Archival Multiverse edited by Anne Gilliland, Andrew Lau, and Sue McKemmish, Forthcoming.

Los Angles Leather History. “Los Angeles Leather History Timeline.” Accessed June 5, 2014.

Lutz, Deborah. “The Dead Still Among us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry and death culture.” Victorian Literature and Culture 39 (2011): 127–142.
Marcus, Sharon. “Queer Theory for Everyone: A Review Essay,” Signs 31 (1) (2005): 191-128.
ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives. “History.” Accessed June 5, 2014.

Terry, Jennifer. “Anxious Slippages between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’: A Brief History of the Scientific Search for Homosexual Bodies.” In Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture, edited by Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. 129-169.

Wright, Kirsten. “Recording ‘a very particular Custom’: Tattoos and the Archive.” Archival Science 9 (2009): 99–111.

[1] Jamie Lee, “Beyond Pillars of Evidence: Exploring the Shaky Ground of Queer/ed Archives and Their Methodologies,” from Research in the Archival Multiverse, Anne Gilliland, Andrew Lau, and Sue McKemmish, eds. Forthcoming, 26.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, 6.
[4] GAR0876, ONE T-Shirt Collection, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, USC Libraries, University of Southern California.
[5] The Stud was sold to new owners who named it The Zone, which became Griff's about six months later and stayed open for 5 years. It was sold in 1993 and re-opened as The Faultline in 1994.” Los Angeles Leather History, “Los Angeles Leather History Timeline.”
[6] The author is indebted to Rebecka Sheffield’s off-chance mention of stains on another t-shirt in the collections of the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives that sparked this search.
[7] Verne Harris, “Genres of the Trace: Memory, Archives and Trouble,” Archives and Manuscripts 40, No. 3 (November 2012), 153.
[8] Lee, 6.
[9] Ibid., 11.
[10] Ibid., 6.
[11] ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, “History.”
[12] Ibid., 18.
[13] Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Mankato: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 24.
[14] Lee, 7.
[15] Lee, 2; Sharon Marcus, “Queer Theory for Everyone: A Review Essay,” Signs 31, no. 1 (2005), 201.
[16] Lee, 15.
[17] Jennifer Terry, “Anxious Slippages between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’: A Brief History of the Scientific Search for Homosexual Bodies,” in Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture eds. Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 129.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Laura Griffiths, “Between bodies and the archive: situating the act,” International Journal of Performance Arts & Digital Media 9, No. 1 (2013), 186.
[20] Caitlin DeSilvey, “Art and archive: memory-work on a Montana homestead,” Journal of Historical Geography 33, 7 (2007), 878-900; Deborah Lutz, “The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry and death culture,” Victorian Literature and Culture 39 (2011), 127–142.
[21] Kirsten Wright, “Recording ‘a very particular Custom’: Tattoos and the Archive,” Archival Science 9 (2009), 99–111;  Mark Joesph Calano, “Archiving bodies: Kalinga batek and the im/possibility of an archive,” Thesis 11 112, no 1(October 2012), 98-112.
[22] Lee, 13.
[23] Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings:  Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003), 241.
[24] For more on the archives as always in a state of becoming see Jacques Derrida, Archive fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 11, 91.

No comments:

Post a Comment