The Scholarly Feminist: Archiving with Kate Eichhorn

EichhornWelcome to the first edition of The Scholarly Feminist, a bi-weekly series featuring interviews with feminist academics.  The aim of the series is to bridge the blogging/academic divide by linking discussions in academia to those taking place online. Today’s interviewee is Kate Eichhorn, Assistant Professor of Culture and Media Studies at  The New School for Liberal Arts.  You can learn more about Eichhorn’s work on her website . You can email any comments or suggestions for future Scholarly Feminist interviewees here. Enjoy!

1) You are currently doing work on feminist archives, tell us about that, and how you became interested in the subject.

My current research reflects an ongoing interest in questions of temporality and history, but my forthcoming book is also a deeply political and personal project. It started with an attempt to off load my own archive of queer feminist materials. First by chance and then somewhat more intentionally, I found myself accumulating a rather substantial collection. It included hundreds of zines collected in the early 1990s, but also six boxes of lesbian small press publications—a “donation” from a former professor. I’m not sure when, but at some point, I realized I was creating an archive of queer feminist print culture and started to look for a public home for my haphazard archive. That’s when I discovered that my archival impulse was not necessarily unique.

By 2006, there were already several substantial collections of girl zines that had been donated to university libraries, including the collections housed at Duke University and Barnard College . I decided to visit these collections. It was quite amazing to me that a zine produced by fifteen-year-old queer girl in 1994 in a print run of 30 or so copies could find its way, only a decade later, to a rare book library half way across the continent. There’s no history of such girls’ voices being remembered or valued, so how were their zines suddenly showing up in rare book libraries and archives? That’s where this project begins—I was interested in exploring why women of my generation, women who grew up during the second wave feminist movement—had not only carefully collected the documentary traces of their activism and cultural production but were, only a decade later, donating their collections to established archives.

So you might read my forthcoming book as a study on feminist archives, but it is also a response to those very tired debates about intergenerational tensions in the feminist movement. While most of us have moved on, these debates are still circulating. Only last year, Susan Faludi’s article published in Harper’s Magazine claimed that “feminism’s heritage is repeatedly hurled onto the scrap heap.” My book argues that this is not the case at all. Women of my generation have always been deeply committed to imagining what might be gained by returning, if only provisionally, to the partially completed social transformations of the 1970s and 1980s, and feminism’s “scrap heap” is one site among many where this work is being carried out. That’s what attracts me to the archival question—it’s partially about history but more crucially, the archive is a place where we can examine contemporary feminist activism in relation to an entire history of feminist thought and action.

2) You have a piece in that forthcoming book, Sometimes You Have to Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism , about the Riot Grrrl collection at NYU. The piece is titled “Redefining a Movement” – in what sense was the Riot Grrrl movement redefined through the archival process?

When I was first writing about riot grrrl in 1994 or 1995, I was theorizing the movement, like others at the time, as a type of all-girl subculture. In some respects, this categorization was correct, but it also missed the point. Riot grrrl was also a movement informed by the various theoretical discourses circulating in the academy and by earlier generations of avant-garde women writers and performers. In contrast to some of the existing collections of riot grrrl materials, which primarily contain zines, NYU’s Riot Grrrl Collection brings together the personal papers of several women who were integral to riot grrrl’s development in the early 1990s. This other story of riot grrrl—the story that focuses on riot grrrl’s status as a movement that was as much about ideas and art as it was about youthful rebellion—is very visible in the Riot Grrrl Collection at NYU’s Fales Library. This is partly due to who Lisa Darms, the collection’s archivist, invited to donate materials but it is also about proximity. Fales has a really amazing collection of materials related to New York’s downtown art and music scenes in the 1970s and 1980s and other collections focused on the history of avant-garde art movements, so locating the Riot Grrrl Collection in this context makes a very strong statement about riot grrrl’s intellectual and aesthetic lineage, which hasn’t yet been acknowledged. This is just one example of how riot grrrl is being redefined through the archival process.

3) (How) are current online feminist movements being archived? Do you see any evidence of the pull of the archives in current movements, such as the SlutWalk or in feminist participation in Occupy Wall Street? How might the shift to online activism change the way that future generations of feminists think about the archives?

Today, it seems like everything is being archived, but whether or not all those pictures and tweets and updates are still circulating in another 20 or 80 years is a question we can’t yet answer. We have an excess of technologies available to document and archive movements of all kinds, but I worry that we may be spending more time documenting movements than participating in them. When I went down to Occupy Wall Street, I was overwhelmed by the number of people participating but only through the lens of a camera. But this doesn’t mean that the OWS is doing a particularly good job occupying virtual space—at least not the virtual networks that support the capitalist system they seek to critique, and at this point, occupying networks is more essential than occupying space. I also think we need to bear in mind that there is nothing inherently political about documenting and archiving movements.

To illustrate this point, it is useful to look back at feminist journals and magazines from the late 1960s to early 1970s. You’ll notice that there are very few photographs. I always thought this was due to the cost of reproducing images. While this may have been a factor, it was not the sole factor. Only last year, my colleague Ann Snitow, one of the founding members of the New York Radical Feminists , gave me a copy of Notes from the Second Year—yes, the issue where the “Bitch Manifesto” originally appeared. It was Ann who pointed out to me that one of the reasons there were so few photographs in the publication is that in the late 1960s to early 1970s, women were actively avoiding such documentary practices. At the time, the lens was still so closely linked to historical forms of objectification of women that rejecting photographic documentation seemed more important than leaving an extensive visual archive of the movement. Of course, the absence of a substantial photographic or video archive doesn’t necessarily mean that a movement will be less likely to appear in the historical record—it does mean that its presence there will take a different form.

So how we choose to document or not document a movement is something we need to pay attention to. If we are now documenting and archiving our every move, or so it seems, what does this say about our relationship to history at this particular moment? At the same time, we need to remind ourselves that the absence of documentation—the absence of an archive—may also be a way to make a powerful political statement.

4)  Do you have a few reading suggestions for Feministing readers who might be interested in the topics discussed here?

On the topic of feminist and queer feminist archives, there are some books that I am always coming back to, like Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings and Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds. I have also been really influenced by the work of my colleagues who are writing from the perspective of working librarians and archivists, including Jenna Freedman, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier. There are also some online exciting archival projects currently under development—in particular, watch out for Bobby Noble and Lisa Sloniowski’s Feminist Porn Archive.

If you are interested in exploring feminist archives and history, I also recommend an entire body of theorizing on queer temporalities—the work of people like José Muñoz and Judith Halberstam is important to this dialogue. In terms of thinking through questions of temporality, history, affects and activism, I’m also always coming back to Lauren Berlant’s theorizing.

Finally, since I’m a huge supporter of feminist small presses, I’ll use this opportunity to send everyone to Belladonna Books —a New York based avant-garde feminist press, which started modestly as a reading/chapbook series at Bluestockings Bookstore over a decade ago but keeps evolving and growing. From their relatively d.i.y. beginnings, they’ve managed to publish works by over 150 contemporary innovative women writers. The history of Belladonna Books reminds us that building a collective project under the name of feminism, like Feministing, is always difficult but also generative work.

Extra Credit!

Adding to the links above, below is a list of resources taken from the above conversation, where those interested in some of the topics discussed here can go to find out more.  You can add relevant resources in comments or send suggestions to scholarlyfeminist@gmail.com


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4 Comments

  1. Posted December 19, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    This was such a great article! Really thoughtful and interesting and full of history–PLEASE do more articles like this!

  2. Posted December 20, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    This was really great! So looking forward to more articles/interviews in this series!

  3. Posted December 25, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    typo in your item #4 above notes Lower East Side Librarian as “Jenna Freeman (sic)” this should read as Jenna Freedman*, (daughter of Mitch Freedman former ALA Past President)
    http://lowereastsidelibrarian.info/academic

    …”I have also been really influenced by the work of my colleagues who are writing from the perspective of working librarians and archivists, including Jenna Freeman, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier”

    cheers,
    Karen Weaver
    Pittsburgh PA

  4. Posted December 29, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful interview! It is interesting how Eichhorn is incorporating the personal into her academic work. I look forward to the book.

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