Interview with Kate Eichhorn, Author of The Archival Turn in Feminism

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We don’t usually think of archives as sites of political or scholarly activism. A few weeks ago, while browsing on the website of Temple University Press, I came across the book, The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order by Kate Eichhorn. I was intrigued by the idea of something so old-fashioned and sedate (archives) being used by feminists to support a vibrant style of scholarship. I didn’t really associate cataloging and preservation with young feminist activists. What was all this about? I wrote and asked for an interview with Dr. Eichhorn and this is the result.

First of all, Kate, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start with a little bit of terminology. Could you please tell us what you mean by “second wave feminism” and “third wave feminism?” Could you please provide some names for both groups and perhaps significant books and articles representing each?

When I refer to “second wave feminism,” I’m referring to an entire cluster of practices, theories, and modes of cultural production that were ignited by the Women’s Liberation movement in the late 1960s. Of course, these practices and ideas and interventions are still present today, and I think that my book and many other recent publications – Clare Hemmings’s Why Stories Matter, Victoria Hesford’s Feeling Women’s Liberation and Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds – all make this point.

The Archival Turn in Feminism by Kate Eichhorn
The Archival Turn in Feminism by Kate Eichhorn

“Third wave feminism” is a term I have much more ambivalence about adopting. At times, I use it in my book as shorthand for 1990s’ feminism, but I use it with reservation, because for me, “third wave” does not capture everything that was happening in that decade. I think about “third wave” more as a label or brand of feminism that emerged in the 1990s than as an era. To be clear, I admire the work of some of the women synonymous with the so-called “third wave,” but at times, the ideas and practices circulated under the auspices of this label have lacked critical rigor.

The image transmitted in popular culture of archives is of quiet, somewhat dark, thinly populated places – musty and with shelf upon shelf of heavy volumes of rarely used materials curated by soft-spoken staffers. But you make them sound like redoubts of the revolution, “The archive is where academic and activist work frequently converge. Indeed, the creation of archives has become integral to how knowledges are produced and legitimized and how feminist activists, artists, and scholars make their voices audible.” Could you please tell us about your own first and most recent experiences in archives and how things have changed in between those experiences?

Over the years, I’ve entered archives in all sorts of roles. As a graduate student, I worked as a research assistant – at one point, in Record Group 10 at the National Archives of Canada. I was gathering evidence of settler-aboriginal alliances. Most of the other people working with RG 10 materials – to clarify, these are documents from what was once called “Indian Affairs” – were First Nations people gathering evidence to support land claims and other current struggles in their communities. The historical archive, experienced through this lens, can be read as nothing but a site of contemporary political struggle. This inaugural experience of archives and archival research no doubt shaped my understanding of the archival apparatus on many levels. But as a writer and curator, I’ve also engaged with archives on a much different level – for example, adopting it as a curatorial space.  Most recently, I’ve been in archives as a researcher, but not simply as someone accessing documents. I’m always also there as an ethnographer. I’m interested in the entire institutional context – the relationship between the boxes and files and the people who work in archives as archivists and researchers. Documents act only insofar as they are put into order and put into proximity with other documents. This is why I’m interested in the entire archival apparatus. 

You use some fairly warlike language to in your book such as, “feminist scholars, cultural workers, librarians, and archivists born during and after the rise of the second wave feminist movement are seizing the archive as an apparatus to legitimize new forms of knowledge and cultural production…” Have you experienced any pushback from archivists, male or female, in response to that rhetoric?

Is it really “warlike”? Who knew! I have not received any pushback, but I’m sure if you talk to the archivists and librarians featured in my book, they would all have somewhat different perspectives on their collections and how they came to be. If I’m interested in telling stories about institutional spaces and the circulation of documents in these spaces, they’re in the business of keeping these spaces operational. These are two very different perspectives bound to produce different types of archive stories.

You mention that the archive has functioned as “theory, curatorial trope, poetic form, subject of inquiry, and site of research.” Could you give us some examples of what you mean by each?

Over the past two decades, critical theory has had an ongoing preoccupation with the archive. Theorists now use “archive” as shorthand for a rather broad range of texts, repositories, and cultural phenomenon.  Some of this theorizing, however, adopts the notion of archive a bit too loosely in my opinion. Archives are also increasingly being adopted by artists and curators. In some cases, the notion of the archive offers a structure to bring together otherwise eclectic objects. There are also many examples of artists going into collections and bringing forgotten materials to the surface. Then, there are artists like Zoe Beloff, who create imagined archives with found materials of various origins. But one has to ask, is the fiction of these artist archives any more or less real than the stories circulated in many “real archives,” including most state archives? This is also a question I’ve explored extensively in my own poetic work, including my first book, Fond. But of course, despite all these interventions, there are actual people working in archives as archivists and researchers, and this is something that needs to stay at the forefront.

Could you please elaborate on this statement, “…contemporary theorizing on the archive has emphasized the archive’s status as a historiographic rather than a preservationist technology.”

Recently, more and more archivists have started to sign their finding aids. Historically, finding aids were nearly always anonymous – as if penned by a ghost or some omnipresent categorizer! But writing a finding aid is a tremendously difficult and time-consuming process and of course, it’s ultimately very subjective, however hard an archivist might try to avoid being overly subjective in their descriptions. The recent appearance of authored finding aids says something about how pervasive this understanding of the archive has become – after all, it appears to suggest an appreciation, not simply among theorists but also archival professionals, of the archive’s status as a historiographic technology.

You write that, “…it is by no means surprising that the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s was accompanied by a sharp decline in feminist cultural production in the 1990s.” Given that the Great Recession eroded many of the claims of neoliberalism, has there been a concomitant increase in feminist cultural production since c. 2008? Or has feminism become so much a part of mainstream academia that activity by academic presses has negated the need for an explicitly feminist publishing industry? Your own book, for example, is published by Temple University Press.

First, I think it is too soon to say whether or not the recent recession in the US and the activism it eventually gave rise too had a specific impact on feminist activism. Also, to be clear, I actually agree with you – feminist publishing has never been a single entity – there was a great deal of academic feminist publishing in the 1990s.

When I talk about the decline in feminist cultural production in the 1990s, I’m talking about the decline of small press publishers and feminist community newspapers and the closing of feminist bookstores. Not all but many of the institutions that were established in the name of a more radical feminist or lesbian separatist politic in the 1970s to 1980s did not survive the 1990s, and I don’t think this was simply due to volunteer burnout or infighting or obsolescence.  In Canada, many feminist presses and journals relied on government funding. By the mid 1990s, most of these organizations had lost their funding, making it difficult to persist. More broadly, across North America, feminist small presses, like all small presses, struggled to respond to a changing book market. After all, if you’re only publishing a print run of 500, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to fill orders for big box bookstores or online distributors. Small presses, including the feminist and lesbian small presses established in the 1970s, were part of a publishing network that included independent bookstores. In the increasingly profit-driven book industry that developed in the 1990s, both these publishers and these small distributors and retailers suffered.

Finally, in response to the last part of your question, I’m also not convinced that feminism became “part of mainstream academe.” Yes, there was an institutionalization of feminism via the development of Women’s Studies and Gender Studies programs in the 1970s onwards, but since the late 1990s, many of these programs have struggled to keep their funding and few have expanded. I would also say that many feminist scholars of my generation have actively pursued positions outside Gender Studies precisely because feminist scholarship, at least in some institutional contexts, continues to be marginalized.

You write, “The feminist publishing movement was not only committed to controlling who was involved in the production and distribution of texts; at least in the case of radical feminist publishing, there was a strong belief that cultural production must transform both the process and the product.” But with human beings being what they are, wasn’t it inevitable that as female scholars progressed in their careers, they naturally gravitated towards bigger, more prestigious publishing houses that could offer them larger platforms and greater numbers of readers? Is neoliberalism really to blame if some women acted pragmatically (and self-interestedly) when it came to their writing and professional advancement?

Of course, this was the case for many women writers, but feminist publishing in the 1970s and 1980s also included many other voices, and they certainly were not all academics or professional writers. Years ago, I met a woman who told me about running away from home in the 1970s at the age of 14 or 15. She ended up at a lesbian feminist commune where she was trained to operate a printing press. As it turned out, she ended up working for both The Women’s Press and eventually, for Press Gang. These presses, which no longer exist and haven’t since the 1990s, were both operated by and published the work of an entire range of women. Their output was equally diverse–anthologies by first-time editors and writers, self-help guides, collections of experimental poetry, and sometimes the work of academics committed to publishing outside the university press context. Reaching an audience with shared political goals was often more important for these women than reaching a mass audience. I think I have always remembered this woman’s story because it says a lot about the integral role that the small presses once played in radical women’s politics and communities. The presses were about making books, but they were also structures that held communities together and sometimes tore them apart. There was a lot of politics and emotion and sweat equity involved in these initiatives. Neoliberalism made this sort of utopian and mostly, unprofitable work more difficult.

You discuss quite fascinatingly some of the tensions among scholars, archivists and librarians about nomenclatural matters such as what constituted a collection, an archive, a library, a special collection, and a personal collection. Could you provide some examples of how these matters sometimes impeded feminist scholarship?

These distinctions may not be important to scholars, but they are important to professionals in the field because books and one-of-a-kind documents are housed in different types of collections and are subject to different types of classification than books. I don’t think that housing different types of documents in different types of collections is an impediment to any type of scholarship, but I do think that it’s important for scholars to recognize that the library and archive are active in the production of somewhat different regimes of truth, and this also means that the kind of activism that can be carried out in the context of the library and archive varies. Most obviously, because libraries and archives impact knowledge production in different ways, researchers need to understand and appreciate this in order to enter these worlds as investigators.

Has the rise of crowdfunding helped alleviate some of the problems you mention here, “an economy that is hostile to the production and circulation of works produced quite literally at the cost of profit?” Are you at all hopeful that crowdfunding may help to generate funds for feminist-oriented archival projects? Or do you see crowdfunding as overly hyped when it comes to helping to solve some of the funding problems in the arts and scholarship?

Crowdfunding only works to the extent that you have access to a community with money that is willing to support your cause. Radical politics and marginal cultural practices have historically been a hard sell and of course, marginalized communities rarely have a lot of money. That said, I’d argue that long before we started to talk about so-called “crowdfunding,” a lot of radical institutions were already doing just this. Dykes have historically had very little financial capital, with the exception of a few mythic anonymous spinsters (I have yet to meet one), but despite this marginal economic position, between 1985 and 1990, the Lesbian Herstory Archives saved enough money to buy a brownstone in Brooklyn. It’s important to point out that the LHA has long had a policy to only accept donations from the community rather than look for money from outside foundations. The women at the LHA were arguably crowdsourcing and crowdfunding decades before Indiegogo. I think it is important to recognize that while concepts like crowdfunding may appear new, their roots can often be found in pre-digital radical communities of practice.

You tell your readers that your book at least partially grew out of your own experience as the owner of a substantial collection of feminist ephemera and your need to find an institutional home for all that material. Could you please tell us how you came by that material and the practical problems of finding a scholarly home for it? Are there any plans for the digitization of it?

Some of these materials I collected in the context of earlier research projects. Then, as I started to be identified as a younger feminist interested in a previous generation’s writing and cultural production, I started to receive “donations” from older friends who were clearing out their book collections and archives. Eventually, I came to appreciate that I was amassing a sort of history of feminist and queer print culture from the mid 20th century onwards, and as a result, I started to actively fill in the gaps by acquiring specific items and collections. But at some point, it seemed like a shame to have this sitting in my home. The opportunity to leave Toronto, where most people have a lot of personal space and storage, for New York, made relocating all these materials urgent. The York University Archive and Special Collections agreed to take the materials in 2008, and I am happy to have them housed at a university known for its commitment to queer and gender studies research.

Could you please tell us how you would characterize your book? You write, for example, “….my work in these archives was approached not as a historian but, more precisely, as an ethnographer and cultural theorist….” Please tell us about the role of ethnography versus history in the study of feminist publishing.

I know that I am not a historian. Many historians have told me so over the years – not always in friendly terms! But I am an archaeologist and genealogist in the Foucauldian sense. I’m interested in how history is made and how historical claims are deployed.  But I also think about myself as an ethnographer. Although I have spent much of my career in and out of literary studies, in my early years of graduate school, I worked closely with many ethnographers – ethnography is part of my formal training as a scholar. I bring all of this to bear on my research in archives and textual communities. I’m always investigating how texts circulate in the world, and this means remaining attentive to discursive relations, to power, and to the sociality of documents.

This passage is extremely intriguing, “contemporary activist librarians, through their tactical interventions at the level of the library catalog, are altering the visibility of otherwise marginal knowers and knowledges.” One doesn’t ordinarily think of the library catalog as a locale for activism. Could you please tell us more about this?

This is a really important point – one that took me years to fully appreciate. In the world of library science, cataloging is integral, but it is something few readers, even few scholars, have given much thought to. When a book arrives in a library, it is given subject headings (these headings have been approved by the Library of Congress). Sometimes, librarians also enter item-level descriptions for specific books and documents. As readers, we rely on these headings and descriptions to access books. As I discuss in my chapter on the Barnard College Zine Library, if it wasn’t for someone like Jenna Freedman deciding to catalog feminist zines, access to riot grrrl and third wave feminist discourses would be notably more limited. If you do a key word search on a interlibrary catalog like WorldCat, which is a meta-catalog – a catalog of catalogs – and you type in riot grrrl, for example, thousands of hits come up. If you look more carefully, hundreds of these items are zines not books, and they are housed in the Columbia University Library system, so you know they are at Barnard.  In short, this seemingly banal gesture – one librarian’s decision to catalog zines, which usually aren’t cataloged because they aren’t books or journals or magazines and don’t have an ISBN, and to carry out item-level description for these zines–radically altered our ability to research feminist activism and cultural production in the 1990s.

On a related note, you use a term new to me, “reinscription.” You write here, “the act of reinscription (tagging) may hold even greater potential for social change than the act of media transfer (digitization).” How so?

When you catalog a document, you’re giving the document a tag – you’re creating another layer of text that is attached to the document – a layer that makes it visible and retrievable in a larger system. I suggest here that this has more potential for social change than digitization of individual documents, because rendering a document visible in a meta-catalog means that that single document now has the potential to become visible in a myriad of different contexts. By contrast, one can digitize a document and make it available online, but as we all know, if the document is not properly tagged, it will never be retrieved, no one will see it. If archival and library-based activism is at least partly about access, then the tagging of materials – be it a material document or born-digital item – is critical.

Given the arguments being made in the library and Digital Humanities communities about the need for and importance of digitization projects, I was quite surprised in your book to read this, “…a recognition that item-level cataloging of marginal materials holds more potential for subversion than simply digitizing the same materials.” But wouldn’t many scholars regard that as inappropriate gate-keeping? And is subversion really what archives should be emphasizing? Is that really the mandate of an archive or of a library? How has your book been so far received in the library and archival communities?

I agree that that is a provocative statement, but by the time I completed my book this is the conclusion I had reached.  Making materials available in digital form online is important, but as noted above, if these materials can’t be retrieved, they are as accessible as a box of photographs or documents locked in a personal storage unit.

You write of your desire to “take seriously the possibility of the archive and special collection as central rather than peripheral sites of resistance.” Again, does militant rhetoric play well among librarians in general (as opposed to those that already agree with your positions) and with the funders and university administrators that they have to work with?

One of the surprising and perhaps, depressing conclusions I reached while working on this book was that private universities, especially universities we might consider more established or elite, also appear to be more amendable to accepting large activist collections. The reason is simple. They have the money and resources to process and promote these collections.

One thing I found fascinating about your book is your point that the development of feminist collections tended to grow of out the decline of First Wave feminism. That is, many of the pioneers of feminism grew concerned that the legacy of the movement was in danger of being lost. Could you please tell us a bit more about that? I was struck by this phrase, for instance, “this cycle of accumulation, collapse, dispersal, and redeployment…”

I was entirely unaware of this history when I started writing the book, but yes, what I discovered was a repeated history of accumulation, collapse, dispersal and redeployment. The World Center for Women’s Archives was established in the US in the mid 1930s. Rosika Schwimmer wanted to collect the documentary traces of early twentieth-century feminist activism, because she recognized that so much of this history was already being forgotten, and at the time, no university archives had a mandate to collect women’s papers. Simultaneous to the World Center for Women’s Archives being established in the United States, a group of women in the Netherlands started the International Archives for the Women’s Movement (IAV) with a nearly parallel mandate. It’s unclear to me how aware the organizations were of each other at the time, but by 1939, both archives had collapsed – the WCWA collapsed due to lack of funds as financial supporters diverted their donations to the war effort and the IAV was shut down and later looted by the Nazis.  But both of these seemingly failed archival efforts also seeded contemporary feminist collections. The dispersed materials from the WCWA ended up at various women’s colleges around the US, which now have women’s collections. The IAV was re-established after the war and then over fifty years later, the looted materials from the original archive were found in Moscow and eventually repatriated to the IAV’s descendent, The Aletta Institute.  The legacies of the WCWA and IAV/Aletta are not legacies of preservation, which is what one would expect from archives.  Ironically, both of these archival projects proved most interesting and effective in their acts of dispersal. They seeded future archives with materials and arguably, with inspiration. After all, before the WCWA and IAV, the idea of a women’s archive, let alone a feminist archive, was unthinkable – they made the idea documenting women’s histories of struggle thinkable and that was what mattered most in the end.

I must admit to complete unfamiliarity with “zine” culture. Could you tell us about what zines actually looked like, what the average publication lifespan of most of them was, where they were sold or distributed and what key texts originally  appeared in zines?

Zines have been around for decades. They are usually photocopied, distributed for free or just a few dollars, and distributed by mail or handed out to friends.  In addition to fanzines, which focus on a specific musician or band, there’s a tradition of sci-fi zines and zines dedicated to various esoteric issues. Some people use the term “perzine” to talk about personal zines. Generally, zines are made as an ephemeral gesture – a printed document meant to have a limited shelf life, which is why preserving them is so difficult and arguably, so important.

Could you discuss the attitudes of many in the zine community about the presence of zines in library catalogs and the matters of legitimacy and visibility?

In 2005, when I started doing research on zine collections, I expected some zinesters to be very upset. Zinesters often choose to make zines rather than blog, because they want to tightly control the circulation of their texts. For all these reasons, it seemed inevitable that there would be some backlash to these collection efforts, but in fact, the librarians and archivists who oversee zine collections report few critiques. Occasionally, a former zinester asks Jenna Freedman at Barnard to pull a zine from her collection or catalog, but this is a very rare occurrence, and because Jenna is also a zinester and involved in the community beyond her work at Barnard, she just removes the zine or in some cases, removes the zinester’s name from the catalog.  But most zinesters seem happy to have their work in circulation in another context, even if this was not their original intention. It is important to recognize, however, that with the profile of feminist zine collections, many young zinesters today now send copies of their zines to collections when they are produced, so some zinesters are also producing zines with an expectation that they will be housed in a library or archive.

You write, “…archival proximity is about the uncanny ability to occupy different temporalities and to occupy temporalities differently.” Could you please tell us a bit more about this? Can the Digital Humanities facilitate this phenomenon or is it something that can really only be experienced during a personal visit to an archive?

This is a great question and one that I continue to grapple with.  When I talk about archival proximity, I’m talking about the way knowledge is produced when archival documents are brought into contact with each other. For example, when I was working at Duke University, my research was shaped by Kelly Wooten’s suggestions that I also look at earlier materials.  Reading a riot grrrl zine from the 1990s against a feminist collective’s newsletter from the 1970s changes how you read the zine and the newsletter. Most notably, read side-by-side, you can no longer ignore the lines of continuity across these documents, which include rhetorical, aesthetic and material continuities. But is this sort of proximity possible in digital archives?

In material archives, there are typically rules about how many boxes or files you can access at one time, so the structure of material archives limits our ability to bring documents into proximity.  In theory, then, the structure of the material archive restricts archival proximity, but in my experience, archivists often help us break these rules and because they know their collections so well, they often facilitate proximities that may otherwise not be staged by researchers.  Digital archives should, in theory, make just such proximities possible – if there is no fear of documents getting mixed up (literally, no fear of documents ending up in the wrong file or box) – we should be able to view all sorts of documents side-by-side, but this is not necessarily how digital archives work. Typically, archives only digitalize parts of their most highest use collections, so what we encounter is limited – the opportunities for proximity are always already constrained by decisions that predate the researcher’s encounter.

This is a striking phrase, “putting our outrage in order.” Could you please discuss this and its implications for librarians, in particular? You write, “…is important to recognize that simply collecting the documentary traces of an activist movement is not necessarily a subversive act.” I was not sure how to read that. That is, many librarians do not want subvert anything. They simply want to serve patrons. You seem to want librarians to be more like activists than many of them are comfortable being. Any thoughts on that?

This term, “outrage in order,” was really an attempt on my part to think about affect in a different way than it has been taken up by some queer theorists of archives.  I’m not suggesting that queer and feminist archives are at all about containing affect, including rage, but I think it’s important to recognize that queer and feminist archives can simultaneously be about affect and order. To date, there has been a tendency among many queer scholars to pay more attention to loosely-based collections and eclectic community archives than to archives housed in more established venues where order and preservation are the first and foremost concerns. So in fact, I agree that archivists and librarians, even those who bring a radical politic to their work–for example, at the level of their collection mandates–can be and usually are committed to order. My intent was to disrupt a perception or assumption among some queer and feminist scholars that the most radical collections are somehow resistant to order. This is simply not the case, at least not any longer.

Continuing on the subject of librarians, you write about “the invisibility of the scholarly work carried out by librarians…” Do you think your book may change that?

This is one of my hopes.

You make the interesting point that, “private institutions are paradoxically better positioned than public institutions to engage in collection development that represents some degree of political risk.” Could you give examples of such political risk and how it played out at a public institution?

A few years ago, I brought some of my graduate students to Clayton Patterson’s personal archive. Patterson is an artist and activist who has lived and worked in New York’s Lower East Side for the past three decades, documenting the community through various crisis and most recently, a startling gentrification process. His personal archive, which is in his gallery and home, includes an estimated half a million print photographs and hundreds of hours of video tape in all sorts of formats, as well as a myriad of artifacts from art works to political fliers. When I asked him about where he would like his archive to go, I was initially shocked to hear him say that he’d like the materials to go somewhere like Harvard. Why would someone who has dedicated his career to documenting outsiders – the homeless, drug dealers, squatters – and the political struggles of people living on the margins in his community want his archive to be housed at an elite private university? From Patterson’s perspective, the choice was clear – private institutions have more money and better facilities to process and preserve large collections, but they are also free to take risks in a way that publically-funded institutions sometimes are not. I couldn’t argue with him. All the feminist collections in my study also happen to be housed at private universities. This is not to say that there are not amazing collections at public institutions, but as I mentioned earlier, it is remarkably difficult for public institutions to take on major collection and preservation initiatives.

There is some discussion in your book of the library-related and literary-production aspects of the Occupy Movement. But was there really much that was feminism-related in that movement? Wasn’t it primarily focused on economic inequality?

I drew the comparison, because this was unfolding as I completed the book, and particularly in New York, the library and archive were important parts of the movement. That said, I agree that gender and sexuality issues were not necessarily on the table in this movement–I know that this was one of the critiques raised by many people on the ground.

Do you worry that so much feminist literary production is online-only these days that there will be less to deposit in paper-based archives for future generation to consult and that blogs, etc. may turn out to be prone to link rot and other forms of deterioration that paper zines are not?

I don’t think there will necessarily be less paper to deposit in archives in the future, but I do think we need to think seriously about how to archive born-digital materials. Even the most well-funded archives are still struggling to develop long-term digital collection strategies.  Technologies become obsolete and so do formats. Links vanish and texts shift meaning as a result. The afterlives of born-digital materials are still very much a matter of speculation.

Is there a danger that young feminists of today will spend so much cataloging zines of the past and otherwise documenting the feminist heritage that they won’t create a vibrant, non-derivative feminism of their own?

Collecting and archiving are forms of cultural production, or at least serve as a catalyst for it. All the collections featured in my study, for example, have already given rise to new scholarship, exhibits, and other forms of cultural production. That’s my argument – the archive and special collection are not repositories for the detritus of past movements, cultural and political, but rather spaces where social and cultural transformation are always in process.

Thank you for your time.