After last week’s post, I decided to further explore the “rabbit hole” of porn in the archives. In “Digital Archives and the History of Pornography,” Sarah Bull argues that porn historians must “become archival magpies” to glean information on “authorship, material production, and consumption” (402). Mixed animal metaphors aside, Bull casts digital technologies as a tool through which historians can – in a sense – accession, process, trace the provenance of, and publicize their materials. Historians can act as historiographers and amateur archivists.
These symbiotic roles beg the question – why/how are historians of taboo/obscure topics (e.g., pornography) forced to chase down either seemingly nonexistent materials or riffle through unidentified primary sources? Why/how have our social stigmas, cultural norms, and political regulations (e.g., homophobia, Puritan ethics, censorship) shaped the way we compile and organize our archives?
Bull examines the way online databases and physical archives resolve issues of research overlap. Academics tend to poorly cite their archives; Bull observes that they also “rarely describe the full body of materials examined, or how to locate them” (403). Historians must engage in a free exchange of bibliographies to fill gaps and, arguably, build an informal “archival community.” Comparable to what Mark Greene suggests in “The Power of Archives” (fortifying an archivist identity), historians must discover a greater sense of collectivity – “the labor involved in researching pornography’s past could be significantly reduced if scholars pooled information about where and how to find extant primary sources” (404). Social media, sharing sites, and databases allow for more expediency and communication.
However, archivists would no longer be obliged to mediate exchanges between scholars. Besides “digital spaces,” what else can archives and archivists do to bring scholars of a particularly under-recognized field and their work into “closer conversation with one another” (404)?
“Photographs are not yet mediated by a database form that attempts to pin down the stories they capture” (115).
McKinney concludes that digitization must be “improvisational, open to revision and critique, and willfully imperfect in its management of considerations such as metadata” (117). Searching for “sexuality” might yield no results; searching for “porn” might produce images of sex wars protests; searching for “erotica” might generate images of sex with a “specious aura of antiquity” (125). Archival classification and the definition of “what is pornographic and what is fit for public consumption” goes beyond issues of presentism (125-6). Archives determine access, draw connections, and define borders. The act of processing – naming and arranging – shapes censorship policies, and will shape the ubiquity of sexual imagery. And what about the ethics of processing with respect to pornography? Issues of provenance, consent, publicity/privacy, access restrictions, and confidentiality must be negotiated.
"Raiders." The Atlantic. Accessed September 16, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/raiders-of-the-lost-web/409210.
What does it mean to “archive” the Internet? “Archiving” is usually reserved for the act of backing up digital information, not the work of preservation in a physical repository. “Digital preservation” is itself an oxymoron depending on how you interpret it. Preservation ensures material is available in the long-term, but digital formats are finite. Digital preservationists are charged with maintaining both reformatted and “born-digital” content. As Helen Willa Samuels observes in our reading, “Who Controls the Past,” “changing technologies and communication patterns” continually alter the nature of our records and force us to fathom and gather material in a variety of formats (111). Thus, “archiving” the Internet – preserving it in its digital format – would include backing up digital information.
In her article “Raiders of the Lost Web,” Adrienne LaFrance discusses the significance of the Internet Archive and the necessity of re-conceptualizing the seeming perpetuity of digital information. Archivists must be mindful of their resources. The cost of digital storage (maintaining servers and databases) is much greater than the “passive” storage of materials in, for instance, a warehouse. “There are now no passive means of preserving digital information,” LaFrance quotes writer and digital historian Abby Rumsey. Web content is inherently ephemeral; the Internet was founded as a communications system, not as a place to store information.
Yet the Internet has become a place where information is stored without physicality (e.g., “the Cloud”) even while no concrete means exist for digital collections to be acquired and preserved. LaFrance points out that “in the print world, it took centuries to figure out what ought to be saved, how, and by whom.” What was lost in that time? The contents of the early web, our web, will likely disappear and be forgotten in the same manner.
On issues of representation in archives – whose materials (whose perspectives) are available, represented, retained and maintained?
In her article “Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman studies the pervasive symbolism of the Black Venus in the archive of Atlantic slavery. Through oppressive archetypes (e.g., “A sulky bitch. A dead negréss. A syphilitic whore”), the white patriarchy constructed a sexually gratuitous commodification of black women’s bodies to justify and assert its power (6). Yet, the failure of the archive, which is almost singularly composed of the contextual perspectives of slavers, is the retrospective disempowerment of a people through a lack of resources. Black women in the Atlantic world are cast as voiceless historical actors who are objectified by a white male gaze.
While researching the murder of two captive girls (one of whom was called Venus) aboard a slave ship, Hartman concedes that because she had very few sources to inform her discussion, she opted to say very little at all about Venus, glossing over the major problem of inherent bias in the archive. Looking back on this decision, she realizes the flaw of her method. Hartman’s approach towards historical gaps and omissions (or rather, her avoidance of them) ended up covering over a complex and contested past — an issue itself worthy of discussion in conjunction with her topic. Upon reflection, she arrives at the question: “Is it possible to exceed or negotiate the constitutive limits of the archive?” (11).
Hartman comes to the conclusion that historiography must engage loss — to acknowledge that we, in the present, will never know the full story (“the words exchanged,” “the furtive communication” of excluded historical actors) — and find comfort in our discomfort (10). By trying and failing to capture the complete narrative, we can demonstrate the tangle of history through the limitations of historical writing. In seeking to convey a full historical picture, Hartman is highlighting its unattainability. As a consequence, she encourages us to see this impossibility as that which shapes our understanding of the past and sparks our efforts for an improved future (a “free state”).
Hartman effectively discusses the place of the archive in historiography — its ‘violence, silence, scandal, excess, boundaries, discrepancies, and promiscuity’ — by bringing it to life through vivid descriptions of her dilemma. She characterizes the archive as alive, a continually evolving entity that both shapes and is shaped by the oppressive power dynamics that characterize our history. The agency of historical actors to participate in a collective narrative is revealed through the limited contextual evidence produced by the archive (primary sources) and, in turn, informs the ability of historians to re-construct events. “The violence of the archive” is, in essence, the reduction of history into a simplified, quantified, and seemingly “objective” account. The erasure of a people’s history is rooted in the inherently biased (as well as the nonexistent) contents of the archive and in the interpretations layered upon them by academia.
This year marks the 85th anniversary of German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld’s visit to San Francisco, and the announcement cropped up in my newsfeed this past week. Hirschfeld co-wrote Different From the Others and had himself pioneered queer, cross-cultural archival work in the early twentieth century. Who knew that one hundred years later, the GLBT History Museum – home to one of the country’s largest repositories of queer archival materials – would be throwing an event in his honor? How have we gone from a society that would destroy these works to one that would revere them?