Who cares for the feminist archive?

I submitted the text below to a special issue of Feminist Media Studies but they didn’t want it because it wasn’t quite right for them. I don’t know if I can be bothered to re-work it as a normal essay so I’m publishing it here!

With the very real threats to the security of London’s Feminist Library, the question of who cares for the feminist archive is a pressing one.

Do we have the resources – economic, conceptual, technical – to do this work? Aside from a shed load of money, what other armories need to be employed?

I also discuss these questions at length in my book Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission: Theory, Practice and Cultural Heritage.

***

The future of feminist knowledge lies in media. In a digital environment, media is always already archival and, therefore, the site through which transgenerational knowledge is exchanged.

In a digital environment the meaning, practice and mobilisation of the archival has fundamentally transformed (Wolfgang Ernst 2012).

When I say ‘archival’ I do not mean the front end of a website that the public may add content to through comments fields or modes of collaboration. I mean elaborate information management systems within which entities are described, annotated and categorised.

In general, the exterior technical milieu—its tools and techniques—must be interiorised if knowledge is to survive in the long term. What and how are both important. Feminism is not immune to this process. Feminism is also not reducible to the general exterior technical milieu; feminism has its own transmission trajectories, storage procedures and archival practices.

The digital skills that are required for people to be able to take of archival resources are not yet widely socialised within society—they are perceived to be the province of software experts, corporations and algorithms.

In a digital environment, we must look behind the screen to understand how the world operates.

We must become information managers (Yuk Hui 2015).

Information-architectures fundamentally shape how we discover and encounter ideas (Ronald E. Day 2014). This issue is accentuated within a digital information environment. The connection between information management < > library science < > knowledge must be raised to the level of technique. Digital information architectures mediate feminist knowledge.

Information architectures—a space to house, locate, negotiate, discover and mobilise information so that it may become something other than mere information.

Is it any wonder that the Italian Women’s Library call their feminist search engine an epistemological machine?1Dalla trappola del silenzio …’ From the trap of silence feminist knowledge must emerge.

It is often thought that

Knowledge (emerges from information)

and

Information (emerges from data and offers the condition for knowledge)

and

Data is raw, un-processed, energy; algorithm, non-human intelligence, potential – BIG

And that knowledge is always best, will overcome, endure, etc.

This can no longer be assumed.

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Feminism is defined by the problem of categorisation, both too much and too little. In the media and in academic communities there is an overemphasis on categorisation, resulting in short-hand descriptions that mediate the complexity of feminist knowledges (Clare Hemmings 2011; Iris Van der Tuin 2014).

In feminist archives across the world there is not enough categorisation: large amounts of feminist archival material are under-catalogued. In an overwhelmingly digital information environment, these resources may as well be invisible.

To take care of feminist knowledge is to insert its varied epistemic resources—the archive as trope, the archive as material, the born-digital archive, the digitised archive—in adequate systems of reference, annotation and indexation.

These actions, writing and processes are digital.

The archival object need not be digital, but the record must be.

We have to re-imagine the tropes of accessibility that hang close to the digital archive. We must do better.

Does accessibility mean short-term, instant online access to a limited range of ephemeral, digital archival data stored in soon-to-be obsolete formats?

Or does it mean utilising sophisticated digital information management techniques to create a formidable catalogue that enables the breath-taking diversity of feminist archival resources to be discovered and widely used by scholars, policy makers, activists, artists, politicians and curators?

A feminist digital archive for the long term—a feminist information architecture—what would this look like?

These resources—feminism’s already-there—are the condition for the transmission of feminist knowledge (Deborah Withers 2015). We must build, and re-build feminism’s information architectures in a digital environment. This must be done with thorough understanding of how feminists inherit their knowledge via information systems that have been organised, categorised and, therefore, transmitted.

The terms of categorisation will change. As feminist knowledge evolves, so do the modes through which ideas are mediated, shared and adopted. The question: who and what are the subjects of feminism? acquires renewed urgency in a digital information environment—the subject meaning here both the field of description and categorisation in library science and an embodied site for exerting political agency.

How do we describe feminist information entities, what mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion operate in such practices?

How will emergent modes of gender diversity and identification, and the necessity for trans*feminist solidarity, be accounted for within feminism’s information-architectures?

Archival terms of description and categorisation are best worked out by and within user communities. Who are the users of feminism’s archive?

How can this user base expand? What conditions are necessary for enabling more people to deliberately and deliberatively care for the information architectures that produce them as inheritors and transmitters of feminist knowledge?

The history of feminism’s information architectures—its categories and modes of description that change over time—need to be documented. They mark the historical evolution of feminism as an epistemic field.

Creating, contributing and tinkering with information architectures are integral process that may ensure the longevity and circulation of feminist ideas re-produced by digital medial-archival information architectures. Information-architectures are epistemic engines to experiment with the production of new forms of feminist knowledge arising from modes of connection and association, digital techniques enabling emergent archival proximities.

These systems do not yet sufficiently exist. We need to build them, together. We are only as strong as our information architecture.

Data, in the neoliberal information economy, is information without knowledge. The hyper-industrial, neoliberal information environment strips data of semantic richness.

DATA <raw, un-processed, energy, algorithm, non-human intelligence>

Information

feminist knowledge

Those profiting from this primarily economic environment care only for the quantity of data produced. When the data is big the content is irrelevant. Data is valuable as a commodity, ripe for data mining and social control in a culture of anticipation (nudging, targeted advertising, etc). These quantities of data grow exponentially. Need more data? You have most probably been asked this recently, haven’t you?

Do not be seduced: This information environment cares little for knowledge—especially feminist knowledge. It is short-termist and toxic. The sole aim is to maximise profit and make the digital proletariat work for free, simultaneously socialising the widespread destruction of attentive consciousness (Bernard Stiegler 2010a, 2010b).

These are the profound sites of political struggle defining the digital feminist archive as it seeks to be relevant in an information environment that cares little for it.

Who cares for the feminist archive?

Notes

1 http://cercatrice.women.it/cgi-bin/search.cgi

Bibliography

DAY, RONALD E. 2014. Indexing it All. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

HEMMINGS, CLARE. 2011. Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Storytelling. Durham: Duke University Press.

HUI, YUK. 2015. ‘A Contribution to the Political Economy of Personal Archives’ edited by Greg Elmer, Ganaele Langlois and Joanna Redden. Compromised Data: From Social Media to Big Data. London: Bloomsbury.

Van DER TUIN, IRIS. 2014. Generational Feminism: New Materialist Introduction to a Generative Approach. New York: Lexington.

STIEGLER, BERNARD. 2010a. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. Trans. Stephen Barker. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

——————————. 2010b. For a New Critique of Political Economy, trans. Daniel Ross. Cambridge: Polity,

WITHERS, DEBORAH. 2015. Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission: Theory, Practice and Cultural Heritage. London: Rowman Littlefield International.

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