Rebels in the Archive – podcast

On International Women’s Day 2017 I was invited to speak at the British Library about feminism and archives. Other panel members were Jill Liddington, Abi Morgan and Heidi Safia Mirza and the session was chaired by Margaretta Jolly.

It was lovely event and a fascinating discussion and I feel very honoured to have been part of it.

The audio recording of the event has now been made available, and can be accessed below.

In the interests of accessibility, here is the full transcript of my talk:

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Hi everyone and welcome to the British Library, and hello to those listening or watching on the live stream and, finally, to anyone listening to the archive recording in a completely different time and place. Thank you to Rachel Tavernor, Polly Russell, Sarah Evans and Margaretta Jolly for the invitation to speak to you today.

In the past ten years or so, the meaning and value of the feminist archive has begun to change. To be clear, when I refer to ‘the feminist archive’ in this talk, I refer to collections established by activists from the Women’s Liberation and Black Women’s Movements from the late 1960s onwards.

Feminism, and the feminist archive, does not ‘belong’ to these historical actors anymore than feminists active in other eras. It belongs to all of us. That said, much of the feminist knowledge we take for granted today—the words that slip off the tongue, the thoughts that spring readily to mind, were hewn from the collective struggles of that era.

The writings and practical action of the WLM and the Black Women’s Movement are therefore significant in an epochal sense.

An aberration in the history of civilisation written—and archived by—elite, white men.

These movements posed a fundamental challenge to the established cultural, social and political norms that had ruled for centuries, if not millennia.

Similar struggles may have occurred at other points in history, as we have heard already this evening, yet what is unique about the Women’s Movements of the 60s onwards, is the extent to which their actions were written down.

Because these activists had a historical consciousness—they knew they were making history—they established archives in order to preserve this unique explosion of grassroots, revolutionary, world making thought and action. The materials we encounter in the feminist archive, therefore, form the bedrock, the foundation of feminist knowledge.

Yet the archive has not always been perceived in this way. The academic institutionalisation of feminist knowledge, the post-feminist backlash and the wider context of the neoliberal conservative revolution, conspired to obscure a meaningful collective relation with the feminist archive.

Partial, too emotional, activist, essentialist and unsophisticated were just some of the words used to contain, dismiss and create distance from the multivalent and unruly feminist archive. As such, its potential meanings became temporarily curtailed and its value—as a source of knowledge and a resource for imagining and constructing a different world—diminished.

In the past ten years or so, coinciding with a wider trend to historicise Women’s Movements of the 60s-80s, researchers, artists, community activists and others have turned again toward the feminist archive, to explore its contents and re-activate its traces.

Digitisation has played an important role in this process. Analogue artefacts have been given a ‘second digital life,’ images, words, videos and sounds from feminism’s recent past circulate as a reminder of the continuities and differences that connect feminist struggles across history.

The British Library’s Spare Rib digitisation project is an excellent example of this, but there are many other smaller archival projects that have used digitisation to widen access to feminist ephemera thought to have been forgotten, or no longer relevant.

Digitisation had a tremendous impact on archives too, and archives have become an intimate part of everyday life. Searching for information, for example, has become an integral aspect of how we navigate through the world.

Feminist archives have not yet, I want to suggest, fully exploited the potential of the digital archive.

One of most powerful affordances of digital technologies is the ability to link and make connections between data, assuming there is adequate and detailed description.

Like many community archives, feminist collections are described at a basic level. Funding restrictions and resource constraints make this situation wholly understandable—this is in no way a criticism of archives and archivists, who do an excellent job.

This means, however, that feminist archives, and other institutions with significant material, such as the Black Cultural Archive’s collections on the Black Women’s Movement, are often not connected at collection level, let alone across different institutional collections.

As a consequence we—the readers in feminist archives, the people who have the potential to care for feminist archives—are missing out, especially given the incredible possibilities to use digital archive tools to preserve, generate and strengthen feminist knowledge within the archive.

Strengthening feminist knowledge is important because it is still ‘in the making’. A relative infant in the history of ideas which, until the middle of the 20th century, systematically produced women and trans persons of colour, working class women and queers as archival objects, rather than archival subjects—if they appeared in the archive at all.

So to conclude this talk, I want to make two brief points we might want to consider as we make plans to build the feminist digital archive to come.

As mentioned earlier, digital archive tools can link information in dynamic ways. For knowledge that has been persistently marginalised within feminism, this function of the digital archive tools is very valuable. If we consider the writings produced by activists in the Black Women’s Movement, for example, they are often embedded within and dispersed across collections. Individual items are not always visible in existing catalogue records, but have to be found in a real life physical search. This makes these artefacts hard to find, digitally, and makes the knowledge created by activists in the Black Women’s Movement appear more fragmented than it really is.

With a concerted effort, it would be possible to make records for such items, organise them under similar terms or tags, so that they could be clearly linked and raised to the surface of the archive record. Readers in the feminist archive should also have opportunities to enrich the catalogue, through contributing annotations, enabling the archive to become a truly collective project.

Creating clear connections between items would help people to find them easily.

In the long term, the archive catalogue can facilitate the transmission of knowledge that has been marginalised within a dominant, white-centric feminism.

Of course, designing archival systems in this way no way guarantees that marginalised positions will be foregrounded in the future.

Nevertheless, without seriously thinking through the role of the archive catalogue—the information-architecture—as a site through which feminist ideas are formulated and discovered, there is a very real risk that the same images, the same ideas and the same historical narratives will be reproduced.

By constructing the digital feminist archive to come in a deliberate way, it is possible to address existing power imbalances that have shaped, and continue to shape, the transmission of feminist knowledge.

The final point I want to make refers to how we might use the digital archive as a framework to learn new skills and competencies.

‘Everyday’ people were passive witnesses to the digital revolution of the 1990s. As the infrastructure of the world was re-wired, humanity lost significant practical knowledge because, the logic suggested, computers are simply more efficient.

This loss might be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. For me, personally, this situation poses problems, especially when we look at how the world is run today. We do not know how to operate a lot of the infrastructures that govern our daily interactions. Furthermore, they are owned and controlled by large corporations – we exist in the thrall of rapacious, data-driven, surveillance capitalism.

Because most people do not know how to operate digital grammar, we lack vital knowledge about how to build alternative information architectures. Some people have this knowledge, of course, but it is an elite knowledge and by no means widely available to everyone.

I see the digital feminist archive as a site, therefore, through which we can learn these skills, so we can build the information-architecture we want.

Learning ‘how’ the world works and building alternatives from that knowledge is, I believe, a vital practical and theoretical legacy of Women’s Liberation.

If this seems ambitious, or even far-fetched, let us take inspiration from the woman who, inspired by the politics of Women’s Liberation during the 1970s, decides she wants to be a carpenter.

In her milieu, the public world of tools and structures was denied to her – at a physical level, the bodily sense of hammering, measuring and aligning were not part of her inheritance (as much as on a cognitive level, operating digital grammars is not part of ours). Against all odds she acquired this knowledge, through determination, action, hard work. She solved puzzles, and learnt how to build the world.

Building a society that is vastly different to the one we have inherited, the one deriving from what Angela Davis evocatively calls the dying cultures of racism, hetero-patriarchy and capitalism is, I believe, possible with the tools we encounter in the feminist archive.

These tools indicate that substantial social transformation is wholly possible, and that no apparently natural or technical law is inevitable.

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