- "The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out. A home has a perimeter. But sometimes our perimeter was breached by neighbors, by Girl Scouts, by Jehovah’s Witnesses. I never liked to hear the doorbell ring. None of the people I liked ever turned up that way."
- "What Fitzgerald said: Once the phial was full - here is the bottle it came in. Hold on, there’s a drop left there … No, it was just the way the light fell."
- "The wife watched her neighbor get fat over the next year. The Germans have a word for that. Kummerspeck. Literally, grief bacon.”
Ideally, these notes would have been up a week ago, immediately following the Radical Archives symposium at NYU. I’ve already written on my frustrations with scholarly trending around the term archive, so I’ll try to avoid straight up rehashing of those concerns here, beyond noting that all of those frustrations were provoked at various panels. Here are some of my questions/comments in response to the panels I saw:
- Ann Cvetkovich described the folks at the Lesbian Herstory Archives as “amateurs,” quickly clarifying that she was referring to the original meaning of the term as one whose love of the object provokes a desire to preserve. I’m willing to grant that in using the term amateur, Cvetkovich is surely not intending to dismiss the labor and expertise required in archival work; Archival work does require love and is not always expert in the sense of institutionally sanctioned. But when we romanticize archival work as itself a romance with materials, we occlude the labor, vexation and displeasures inherent in archival work. At the same time, it de-intellectualizes what they do, as Jenna Freedman has persuasively pointed out.
- I am not sure I agree with the alleged “slippage” of media that Cvetkovich described in the shifts from text (catalog) to object (tshirt) to image (photo) to text (digital artifact). Calling this a slippage seems disingenuous; There are other kinds of slippages in archival work, like the literal moving of books and artifacts beyond reach, the more figurative elisions of finding aids and archival description. Transformations of format involve labor and technological skill that actively resist slippage - it’s not magic when there’s metadata to tell you what happened!
- When Cvetkovich reminded us that the archive is a practice and not a thing, is that coming from recognizing the practice of archivists or of people who use the archives? A little precision here would go a long way in mitigating the tensions surrounding the suspicion that archival work feels more useful to these scholars as a metaphor than as a set of practices that are vital to their work.
- Zeb Tortorici and Daniel Marshall described their work in queer archives in Australia, using a convergence of images to talk about archival politics. They argued that when systems of classification and order are removed, what’s left is mess. This strikes me as deeply tautological. This recognition of mess seemed exciting to the authors as an invitation for meaning making, but once again, I was frustrated that this is presented as somehow new. Archives are both more and less messy than Tortorici and Marshall seem to (want to?) recognize – there are patterns, order imposed on mess. You wouldn’t want to use the archive otherwise! The mess of this work is addressed, managed, made legible through actual, physical labor.
- I am so grateful for Kate Eichhorn’s thoughtful recognitions that the archive as a metaphor has perhaps gone too far; that only some kinds of labor are being recognized in this discourse, and also her noting that when queer theorists refer to their work as an archive, it’s a methodological shorthand for something that merits articulation. The fact that she had to present these comments almost apologetically is indicative of how invested people seem to be in the figure of the archive.
The first day of Radical Archives was more engaging for me, it gave archivists and activists the opportunity to talk about their work with an interdisciplinary audience. But as they were talking, I couldn’t help thinking about how many of those organizations are struggling to continue operating. Given that so many of these archives exist in a state of financial precarity, it would be great if this interest in the archive were more than just rhetorical.
1. In the late summer of 2013, I attend a workshop at the Center for Urban Science and Progress. As a qualitative researcher and a woman, I’m underrepresented in the room. As an activist and Marxist feminist, I am all but inscrutable. But then again, so are some of the statements that are made in the course of explaining the different data gathering projects being conceptualized for a partnership between CUSP and a development project called Hudson Yards. I realize I am watching big data happen. Men in suits talk about the things they will measure with sensors: “We can monitor foot traffic and energy use! Trash consumption! Smoking! Sleep!” When I voice concerns of privacy, of alternate methods, of doubts that any of these things will in fact add up to the alleged goal of understanding whether people are happy, I am told, “our goal is not to have to talk to people face to face” and then, “you cannot improve what you cannot measure.”
(joeshlabotnik via Flickr)
2. I’m on a G train in Brooklyn, the year is 2011. On one side of the train, I see advertisements for Google’s Good to Know initiative, which informs users on issues of privacy, security and netiquette. More than anything, the ads remind me of seemingly well-intentioned and yet always-already obvious PSAs. I turn my head and see on the other side of the train, promotions from the Metropolitan Transit Authority simultaneously documenting and advertising progress on various station, line and service improvements. It occurs so me that these ads are doing the same thing, which is to say presenting institutions as infrastructure. These ads want to reassure us that these companies are continuing to work for our benefit, safety and convenience, but less, perhaps, as consumers than as constituents of a particular kind of public. They are also invested in presenting themselves as integral to our daily lives of travel, online and off. This conflation is all the more disconcerting when we think about flows of information and data that are gathered by institutions as if they are infrastructure.
3. It’s the summer of 2004 and I have just moved to New York. On my first night in the city that will be my home for the next decade, I go with my new roommate to the Metropolitan. It is only when I read a Sleater Kinney lyric scrawled on a bathroom stall door, that I realize two things: 1. I’m in a lesbian bar and 2. I can make a home out of this city. Writing this now, I realize that this is my first memory of reading New York. In her book Metropolitan Lovers, Julie Abraham unpacks the history of this kind of reading, writing that “anxieties about the legibility of buildings and streetscapes, about being able to interpret the cities and versions of cities that we see … are also an extension of the anxiety about legibility … It is a [modern] anxiety about the ‘facades’ of individuals rather than of buildings, about the artifice of urban life undermining the legibility of persons in the city. Post modern anxieties about the reading of urban structures echo the anxieties of the denizens of great cities about the readings of persons.” It is worth returning to these anxieties (as my colleague Kate Crawford has done) in concerns of big data and legibility. Big data will help us sense beneath the facades, it could even help us measure and improve human happiness, or so the promise goes. And yet, legibility can function both top down and bottom up. Queer women make themselves and their spaces legible to each other and create a sense of home, even as we simultaneously become legible to those who would do us harm. Legibility has been a rallying cry of historically marginalized groups for a long time; I am cognizant of the need to honor those efforts, even as they come with new concerns when relationships to data are centered first on prediction and never on interpersonal contact or context.
(kindofindie via Flickr)
4. Just two months shy of my nine year anniversary, I leave New York for Boston. The same week of my departure, the city installs CitiBikes, its bike share program. I feel an unexpected sense of relief that I do not have to see (or bike through) the city this way. One of my favorite things about urban biking is the feeling that I am no longer bound by subway lines and bus routes, that I have a far more expansive set of spatial possibilities. Basically, that the city can feel like play. Citbikes, which incidentally represent quite neatly the collapse of institution and infrastructure, are bound temporally (to 30 minute rides) and spatially (no bikes for Queens, the Bronx or Staten Island). They are also binding cyclists in datasets that become public but not transparent. Big data is tied to cities in that density is necessary for analysis; outliers and patterns only become visible with adequate normality of surrounding datapoints. In this way, legibility of data is not only (and in fact, not at all) individual, it is collective. These layers of legibility – between institution and infrastructure, between legibility and enclosure, between individual and collective, are what make it increasingly difficult to retain a sense of play in one’s daily movements through city space.
(Linh Nguyen via Flickr)
And perhaps this is my main point – I want the city to be a place where play is still possible, even fostered, and it’s going to take more than censors or providing a zip file of our own datapoints. As researchers and technologists, we must commit ourselves to making these processes of data gathering more visible, to articulating consent clearly and honestly rather than wearily surrendering to the highest-common denominator of legal language, to supporting complex and even contradictory desires for mobility as well as stasis, different political arrangements of the right to work as well as play.