Department of Critical Theory and Social Justice
- QUEER INTENTIONS
Women! Women of Los Angeles!
You can’t clean it up til you make a mess!
-Tracy + The Plastics, “Save Me Claude” [link]
This Scalar project is based on a course offered in the Spring 2016 semester at Occidental College in the department of Critical Theory and Social Justice in collaboration with the college's Center for Digital Liberal Arts and Center for Community Based Learning. [link] A Mellon Faculty Fellowship has afforded me the opportunity to develop this digital humanities archiving course from two previous iterations of a Los Angeles LGBT* cultural studies/social history offerings.
This course, “CTSJ 337: Queer LA: Cruising the Archive,” borrows its title from a 2012 ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archive exhibition, “Cruising the Archive: Queer Art and Culture, 1945-1980.” Actually, I don’t borrow the ONE's title. I steal it. Yet as Wilson Mizner, playwright, manager of LA’s famous Brown Derby, and native Angelino ne’er-do-well once said, “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” While holding ourselves to a higher ethical standard of scholarship, CTSJ 337 intends to use this queer sense of reference, homage, and magpie research to study and create a mixed-media archive documenting LGBT* life in the greater LA area.
Engaging both traditional archival research and emergent digital tools, this course forwards the idea of “cruising the archive” by placing the “digital” and the “queer” in conversation, each as implicit critiques of traditional methodological practices and brick-and-mortar containments of culture and history. Cruising implies both looking for sex (as well as improvised community, world-making, and identity) and looking for information in non-systematic ways. This irregular form of “research” has consistently informed queer theory’s interdisciplinary and often anti-disciplinary ethos since its inception in the early 1990s. (fn, Tea Room Trade, Sedgwick, Munoz, Cvetkovich, Murphy et. al)
CTSJ 337 is a team-driven and project-oriented course organized around building a hybrid archive/book in Scalar by the end of the semester. It is unclear what final form this product will take, but we imagine linking text, audio, photography, video, mapping, and timeline formats to external sites of other community organizations and archives, perhaps constructing a kind of archive of and about queer LA archives. We will be critically examining the potentials and limits of “the Digital Revolution” through such questions as: Who has more or less access to information in a shift from analog to digital forms? How does the movement toward the digital cast a nostalgic light on analog formats? How does any shift in technology and media provoke, invite, repress, or ignore extant systems of information storage and access? Are these effects accidental, market-driven, community-oriented, conscious, or (dare I say) unconscious?
My extraordinary partner and co-teacher in this endeavor is David Kim, a current Oxy Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow, an archival theorist, freelance archivist, and digital humanities scholar. We worked over a course of six months in advance to plan the class and continue to collaborate on constructing its interweaving seminar and lab structure (five units; three classroom hours led by me and one lab hour taught by Kim per week over fifteen weeks). With the goal to organically balance theory and practice, we did not write a conventional syllabus but rather built an “archive” of potential primary and secondary source materials, which far exceeds what students could read in a semester, with a few required texts in the beginning and a scaffolded schedule, allowing flexibility for how the students themselves might select materials and assign “readings” and teach session themselves as they hone their collective interests for the Scalar book and specific team interests for each chapter.
I write this introductory essay to our book/archive in three parts, starting here with section 1, “Queer Intentions,” in order to illuminate the beginning, middle, and end of our course-driven process rather than to frame the content or form of this Scalar project will become as a product. Our proposed audiences are the following (in no particular order), but we hope others will cruise our archive as well: users of Scalar interested in what the format affords; students and teachers interested in exploring the capacities of digital humanities and collaborative pedagogy; queers and feminists looking for information that they can cut, paste, and reassemble as they will; and less finally than expansively, all those interested equally in cleaning up messes (e.g. archiving, social justice) and messing up pre-ordained taxonomies (e.g. queering, critical theory).
To think the queer through the digital and the analog begs deep questions about relationality: between people, between people and things, and between things and things that people may never mediate. Here at the beginning, I want to imagine this project as a riff on the classic 1970s feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves, which provided crucial answers to questions that many could not even think to ask. Here we lead with a question: Our Archives, Ourselves? I leave it to this semester’s talented and engaged collective of young minds to provide more nuanced questions about how to tell both the story of queer LA and their experience of trying to tell it.
- NOTES IN MEDIA RES: ROPES, RIGGING, AND QUEER MAPPING
At this point in the semester, I suppose it is worth confessing my prior fears while not yet giving away my greatest hopes. Had things gone badly, I would have by mid-term abandoned both digital technology and democratic pedagogy. I would currently either be reverting to a version of traditional reading-assignment-grading class structure or be panting on the shores of the digital humanities -- the equivalent of a shipwrecked captain, blaming only herself, while uselessly stuffing a hand-written note in an analog bottle: “Please. Send. Help. New World of Digital Humanities off map. Provisions running low.”
Well, I am proud to say, that these fears of digital and democratic disaster have not come to fruition, due mostly to an amazing crew. Even as I instantly have a critique of my own colonial discourse, I will nonetheless extend my metaphor in the name of anti-hegemonic adventure. The ship has changed course but with better destinations in mind, even as these lead us through queerer and more harrowing waters.
Our crew of nine student voyagers started with a map and an archive for readings instead of a standard syllabus. To get out of port, we read together Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons’s popular history book, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians.” (fn). Here we traced the originating courses of social historians who had traveled before us, adding to this mapping the alternative charts figured by the likes of Moira Kenney, Daniel Hurewitz, and Karen Tongson. As we gathered now common information about the LGBT* history of the Los Angeles area, we quickly became more interested in what paths have been less traveled by these public/social/cultural history forebears. Whereas initial study of queer LA started with a booster ethos offering that “US gay history happened in LA first,” scholarship has evolved into a more nuanced version suggesting that what happened in LA challenges what we think of as standard LGBT* historiography, and even how said “gay” geography might revise urban studies. (fn) We found ourselves at sea in multiple discourses that refused to align into a longitudinal/latitudinal matrix. We only had distant landmarks of disciplines and swirling eddies of keywords to guide us: suburbs, oral history, lipstick lesbians, cultural studies, transgression, cognitive mapping, sociology, bohemia, gentrification, the police, community organizations, HIV/AIDS, etc.
Yet starting always already as pirates -- having once stolen our very course title from the ONE Archive, then further pillaging information from Faderman and Timmons -- we then moved on to sweeter and dirtier lucre – theory. Here the crew found a different navigation system set forth by the many privateers who had come before. To be fair, Dr. Kim initiated our idiosyncratic course on the first day with a presentation on his own queer (in every sense of the word) archiving experience and a rumination on Michel Foucault’s famous preface to The Order of Things:
This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1970) xv.
I did not anticipate to what extent Kim’s presentation would serve as something like the allegorical, presaging sermon of Father Mapple, a whaler turned preacher, in Moby Dick or how Foucault’s shattering laughter would become our siren song. We have, indeed, come to work the ropes and rigging of the stark impossibility of thinking the limitations of our own system of thought.
On first entering these seas of impossibility, we read John D’ Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity” and Marlene Manoff’s “Theories of the Archive” to steer our ship.
Waters became troubled with José Estaban Muñoz’s 1996 “Ephemera as Evidence,” the introduction to a special issue of Women and Performance on the topic of “Queer Acts,” written five years after Joan Scott’s essay “The Evidence of Experience,” published in Critical Inquiry. Muñoz and Scott were not in direct conversation but shared the winds of three influences at their backs – earlier historical gay and lesbian studies’ “ancestor recovery”; newly minted “queer theory,” variously informed by Freud, Foucault, and all things “post-structural”; and the biopolitical devastations of HIV/AIDS. We discussed how Muñoz and Scott could be construed as disagreeing with each other but concluded that they rather complicate the burden of the empirical in archiving queer experience. When Scott claims that “[e]xperience is at once always already an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted,” (fn) Muñoz implicitly says, yes, but then asks whose experience is even recognizable for interpretation and how? “Instead of being clearly available as visible evidence, queerness has instead existed as innuendo, gossip, fleeting moments, and performances that are meant to be interacted with by those within its epistemological sphere – while evaporating at the touch of those who would eliminate queer possibility” (6).
Since the last decade and half has provided an explosion of research on the general story of "Gay LA," I decided upfront to organize our inquiry into four more specific fields: initially these were 1) Silver Lake: Rise and Fall of a Gayborhood; 2) Queer Art in LA; 3) The Queer LA Punk Scene; and 4) REACH LA. This last category marks our class's partnering with this community organization, whose name is a rough acronym of Realistic Education in Action Coalition to Foster Health, specializing in supporting youth of color at risk for HIV/AIDS. Our intention is to help REACH LA process some of their raw collections of ephemera and born-digital material from their hosted competitive drag "ball" events, a phenomenon popularized by the 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning and Madonna’s appropriation of its dance styles in her song and video “Vogue.”
CTSJ 337's academic readings and archival research have narrowed our focus to a study of subculture, a traditional subject of inquiry for Cultural Studies. Starting with Dick Hebdige’s classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style then engaging texts by Judith “Jack” Halberstam, Tavia Nyong'o, and others has provoked us to test the thesis of what counts as subculture. (fn) So far, we have yielded a handful of productive questions: Can older hermeneutics of subculture still inhere in the age of the digital? How do aspects of style, place, and minoritized identities define what counts as a subculture? How does the ideation of subculture interface with the dynamics of the subaltern? Although our class discussions have revolved around more specific concerns, I pointedly frame these queries in general terms to afford the students an opportunity to grapple with them in detail in their writings within each chapter.
This testing of subcultural theses has reorganized our chapters, expanding some, honing others, and further queering all. Given the legacy of Hebdige's classical study of punk as subculture, the authors of the queer punk LA chapter have been blessed and burdened in two ways: with an ostensible punk "control group" for our study and as our leaders in theories of subculture. The implication of analogy between the subversive aspects of punk and queer, best analyzed by N’yongo (fn), dissolved quickly because the early LA punk scene did, in fact, involve a lot of extra-identitarian homosexual action.
As is evident, the latter theoretical concern intoxicated all of us and made us think differently about our overall goal and the imperatives of the separate chapters. Our original dialogical framing questioned whether we could at once archive the queer and queer the archive. Now, this chapter's authors, Brita Loeb and Casey Diaz, are concerned with how a parallel construction of punking the queer and queering the punk renders dialogue, influence, and genealogy moot, such that Poly Styrene’s infamous punk answer to a queer/feminist question only implicitly asked -- "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" – is a better index of how we must shift the very form of the whole course’s inquiry. Perhaps the answer comes before the question.
Loeb and Diaz have decided to respect this queer-punk or punk-queer tradition that well exceeds any containable temporal or geographical scene by focusing on the archival and historiographic technology of the "zine" as an organizing principle. I will say more about our amazing zining workshops led by Kelly Besser at the end of this essay, but suffice it to say, Diaz and Loeb intend to make Scalar work through the form of zining, with digital links to information and analysis branching off from their own analog cut-and-paste zine design. The case study of the early LA punk scene's "urban," queer, and co-ed transformation into a suburban dude fest via the west coast birth of Hardcore has commanded the entire class to reconsider aspects of location, aesthetics, and temporality in the ideation of queer subcultures.
Authors Juan Daniel Calzadillas and Gavin Haffner have renamed their chapter on Silver Lake "The Swish Alps" to acknowledge the neighborhood's campy 1970s moniker. They also mean to disrupt the sanitizing memorialization recently conducted by the City of Los Angeles's historical landmarking of the Mattachine Steps and the Black Cat Tavern (fn), even as gentrification draws white, heterosexual, and affluent families to the area and drives out extant and future LGBT, ethnic, and working-class residents and businesses. Their questions include whether Silver Lake's queer community was the result of subcultural disidentification with homonormative West Hollywood in the 1970s or a part and parcel of the area's longer status as "bohemian Los Angeles," as claimed by scholar Daniel Hurewitz. How accurate is the oft-told story that Silver Lake has featured a pernicious tension between Latinx families and white gay men, the latter commonly understood to be the stylish renovation-oriented spearhead of gentrification? Is the decline of queer retail presence in the neighborhood the result primarily of gentrification, gay assimilation, or digital dating apps like Grinder.com? Are there still a number of queers in residential spaces that are not reflected in “gay retail?” Do young queers even need the always already ideational space of a gayborhood? This chapter will draw heavily from primary source material of oral histories with Silver Lake residents. (fn)
No researchers/authors have chosen to grapple with this question of whether queer subcultures are bound to space as intently as the former "Queer Art in LA" students, who -- well, let's just say, got super interested in gay male motorcycle clubs and the art of Tom of Finland, whose foundation thrives in contemporary “bohemian Los Angeles.” This fascination started with Lindsay Weinberg and Declan Creed’s distraction from the task at hand (a laudable queer archival practice). Said task involved a whole group field trip and assignment designed to interpret the first three years of the Christopher Street West parade archives at the ONE in order to determine why it stopped in 1974. (See the annex chapter of the whole crew’s amazing work of archival analysis). In addition to mining the ONE, Creed and Weinberg have gotten in touch with willing community archivists, namely those at the Satyrs Motorcycle Club and the Tom of Finland collection. This group’s questions include: If LBGT* constitutes a subculture, how do we document and theorize sub-subcultures in terms that are not easily subsumed under the rubric of identity politics? How and where do gay leather/Levi bars, actual motorcycle clubs, and BDSM communities overlap or draw boundaries? Why shouldn’t gay motorcycle clubs be considered in a spectrum of other kinds of biker clubs? How do archivists and archival researchers navigate such taxonomies of sexual identity, sexual practice, bounded club membership, and style?
These concerns about style, spectacle, and belonging have influenced the evolving tasks of the REACH LA team and its analysis of the local House and Ball community. Our greatest hope is to provide the organization with an archival survey of its raw materials, currently stored in the REACH’s on-site closets and hallways. On our fieldtrip to REACH, our guide, board member, and music director, Joe Stewart , mentioned that REACH LA has been working too fast toward its core mission to have time to record its own history. Given the controversy about representation around Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning, this team is interested in how non-profit mediation and hosting of drag balls variously controls, defines, or fosters extant or emerging subcultures – and how archiving REACH’s materials will map their future narratives.
In addition to executing these tasks of actual archiving, team members Maggie Mather and Promise Li are engaging in a broad set of theoretical questions, including: how Foucault’s wariness about taming “the wild profusion of existing things” applies to pragmatic archival service for an active organization versus innovative queer analysis of these materials; how to think archival practice and research relative to queer of color theorists’ claim that any black sexuality has always already been construed as queer in the US, thus challenging even standard intersectional understandings of identity, archival sedimentation, and experiential legibility; and finally, how the theories of spectacle might inform how to analyze and preserve the born-digital video records of the ball scene (when everyone has a video function on their phone, how does one mark author or consent to be recorded?).
In media res, I am so impressed by these students’ work toward researching, constituting, critiquing, and thinking the warrens and explosions of queer LA archives. As the chapters get more specific toward actually completing our archive/book, Kim has provided technical pedagogy, while also using the expansive organizational principles of Scalar to push students to think about how their archives and critical interventions might organically shape the structure of each chapter. Our CCBL supported “Education in Action” coordinator Adrienne Adams and I work between the teams to help flesh out each team’s archives and bibliographies while trying to theorize the technical and conceptual connecting tissues between the chapters. While not contributing directly to the writing of these four chapters, Adams will contribute a “coda” chapter to this book/archive, reflecting on how this queer LA course has informed their past, present, and future work on their ongoing study of oral history, archival practice, and affect studies in queer theory.
No matter how fair the winds and currents, all hands on a vessel mid-ocean are both vexed and invigorated by their exposure and a desire to find a happy port. As a captain, I am continually anxious about becoming a sort of Ahab. Yet given that we did not leave port hoping to find a white whale or a New World of digital humanities that would subsume analog ways, our journey will have at least been interesting (says the captain in her log).