the archival turn in feminism: outrage in order
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Kate Eichhorn situates feminist archival histories through contemporary Western paradigms of queer feminism and lesbian reworkings of archival politics. Eichhorn paves pathways for reparative readings of feminist pasts to reconsider, regenerate and redefine what she calls ‘radical accidents’ in the archive. In Eichhorn’s book, we start in the 1930s and travel forward to Elizabeth Freeman’s contemporary uptake of Lauren Berlant’s adherence to the productivity of feminist political failure as temporal drag. This is combined with Ann Cvetkovich’s claim of the archive as a potential site for reworking normative generational narratives.
Eichhorn explains the purpose of early archival practices through the World Centre for Women’s Archives (New York) and International Archives for the Women’s Movement (Amsterdam). These archives provide an example of an intentional rationale to document the feminist activism of earlier eras based upon methodologies specific to pre-second-wave feminism. Travelling forward through the Women’s Educational Resource Centre of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Lesbian Herstory Archive, Eichhorn extrapolates the shift these two later archives afford not merely as sites for documenting feminist activism, but also as facilitating network links for feminist researchers and activists before the digital era. These latter archives engaged in processes of ‘documentation for social change’ (p. 44). They shared ‘addresses and telephone numbers, project descriptions and announcements of meetings and other events’ (p. 45), pulling the productivity of the archive focussed on past events into the present tense.
The Zine Collections at the Sallie Bingham Centre, Duke University, provide Eichhorn with recent and text-based focusses, elucidating the inescapable importance of the feminist publishing industry and the counter-actions taken against its decline since the late 1980s through Riot Grrrl zine production. Combining investigations into ‘discursive activism’ with Clare Hemmings’ critique of ‘interlocking narratives of progress, loss and return that oversimplify complex history’, Eichhorn contends that Riot Grrrl zines provide a radical continuity for, rather than refusal of, historical feminist narratives (p. 56). Feminist archives, then, not only afford connections to the past and activate the present, but act as sites of retrogressive potentiality, fostering alliances across generations in spaces of assumed generational divides. Rather than suffering under rules of institutional assimilation, the archive becomes a ‘parasitical’ and reparatory tool, retroactively creating an avant-garde (p. 90).
Critiquing mainstream appropriations and intentional misrepresentations of feminist events, experiences and histories, Eichhorn further complicates received feminist histories surrounding the Riot Grrrl Movement. This enables her redefinition of Riot Grrrl as a cultural force rather than a dismissible ‘teenage’ rebellious phase through her narration of the Riot Grrrl Collection at the Fales Library & Special Collections in New York. Authorial production and representational politics are problematised through contradictions between, on the one hand, perceptions of the movement as being for every grrrl. On the other hand, this history has been historically situated in Olympia, Washington, DC and Minneapolis in the early 1990s, centred prominently around the production of Kathleen Hanna. Eichhorn’s archival analysis of feminist influences on Hanna’s own Riot Grrrl production lends a challenge to ‘the assumption that Riot Grrrls ever really acted naively’, asserting instead creative connections with ‘the innovative literary and art movements that preceded them’ (p. 117).
Radical DIY politics inform Eichhorn’s engagement with Jenna Freedman’s ‘grassroots anarchist activism’ as the interventional intent of The Barnard Zine Library (p. 133). This enables Eichhorn to connect contemporary ‘communities of practice’ as legacies of ‘1960s countercultures and radical social movements’ (p. 133). Eichhorn shifts focus to interrogate the Library of Congress Classification (LCC) system as ‘one of the most widely used library classification systems in the world’ (p. 135); a ‘rational system’ of categorisation ‘contingent on ignoring or at least obscuring certain knowledges—namely knowledges that emanate from the margin rather than the centre’ (pp. 135–136). Citing Sanford Berman, assistant librarian at the University of Zambia in the late 1960s, Eichhorn explains, ‘For Berman, the LCC … was a system with great potential to be living, changing and dynamic’ (p. 137). This resonates with Stuart Hall’s (2001) assessment of the African and Asian Visual Artists’ Archive, through whose constitution Hall mapped parameters for the ‘living archive’. Similarly, Berman’s interventions into cataloguing systems sought to ‘radicalize LCC subject headings’ (p. 138) tackling the sexism, racism, homophobia and classism implicitly embedded within. The naming, then, of the ‘Riot Grrrl Movement’ as an ‘official Library of Congress subject heading’ (p. 143) through Freedman’s accidental archival activism functions as a counter-measure to the ‘impossibility to think’, whereby the power of naming the impossible paradoxically exposes ‘the stark impossibility of thinking that’ (p. 151). One critical aspect Eichhorn does not address is a legacy of Western feminism that continues to place ‘white subjects’ as the only subjects of the story without examination. Nonetheless, Eichhorn brings the inescapable point home of just how important feminist publishing is and how easily it can be undermined, erased and foreclosed.