Queer Time, Archives Time

I was lucky enough to spend most of the day yesterday at a symposium put on by a group of UT graduate students entitled “Queer Archives, Queer Affect.” The symposium was the culmination of a seminar taught by Ann Cvetkovich exploring the intersections of queer theory, affect theory, and theories of “the archive.”  The presenters were graduate students from English, Women’s and Gender Studies, Radio/Television/Film, and the School of Information, and the day was capped off with a keynote talk by Heather Love.  It was a really great symposium, and a pretty wonderful way to wrap-up my life as a graduate student.

I am really fascinated by academic theories about archives, even as I am sometimes frustrated by them.  I believe very strongly that theory is important and useful, even when it doesn’t immediately seem that way.  Thinking theoretically helps me be much more intentional about what I do and look at things in exciting new ways, and I think that literary and cultural theories about the archive can help archivists do exactly that.  At the same time, though, many of the theorists who talk about “the archive” are so disengaged from what archives actually look like in the traditional sense that their arguments can seem totally foreign.  One of my classmates quoted the Princess Bride when discussing academic uses of the word “archive,” and it seems quite appropriate: “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”  The archivists I know often talk about needing to educate academics about what we do and what material archives are really like, and I agree that that’s important.  But I think in doing that, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we have a lot to learn from them, too.

As I was sitting in the symposium yesterday, I thought quite a bit about how queer theory’s interest in temporality is really relevant to what archivists do.  In the last decade or so, quite a few queer theorists have started to think about different ways of experiencing time and how a queer perspective changes what it means to think about the relationship between past, present, and future.  This “turn to temporality” has taken a lot of different forms, not all of which I fully understand.  It is fairly easy to caricature and dismiss out of hand the idea that queer people experience time differently, but for me, reading this work has been a really productive way of rethinking our relationship to history, which I believe is an important question for archivists.

Several of the papers yesterday referenced Carolyn Dinshaw’s distinction between “amateur time” and “professional time.”  Dinshaw argues that amateurs and professionals have different ways of focusing their attention and experiencing the time spent working on a project.  Because amateurs often feel deeply, emotionally attached to their work, they are free of the professional’s expectation of detachment, which fosters an ability to experience time in ways other than the purely linear, highly regimented temporality associated with modernity.  It is in that affective relationship to work and to the past that Dinshaw locates the “queerness” of this way of experiencing time, since it allows the amateur to create all sorts of attachments other than those required by work and the family.

This idea of amateur vs. professional temporality really resonated for me as a way of thinking about what it is like to work with archival records.  Isn’t it a very different experience to leaf casually through a box of records with no real purpose than to be actively scanning for one particular document or one particular subject?  And isn’t it affectively different to process a collection as quickly as possible to reduce your backlog, than it is to painstakingly remove every staple and unfold every crease?  I think it would be valuable for archivists to better understand the differences between a casual (or “amateur”) and a scholarly (or “professional”) use of our materials.  Does that lead to different interpretations of the material, on the part of both archivists and users?  Does it lead to different ways of valuing archival records?  How do our finding aids and the physical environments of our reading rooms encourage or discourage either amateur or professional ways of interacting with our records?  These are not explicitly questions of temporality, but I think that Dinshaw’s work is an inspiration to think more deeply about how both archivists and users experience working with archival records, and to admit that there can be multiple, very different experiences based on different positionalities.

I write this feeling very aware of how sketchy and unfinished this analysis is – how unexplored some of my assumptions are, how much deeper the engagement with queer temporality theories could be.  But maybe that’s appropriate – appropriate for me to engage with these ideas as an amateur theorist.  Trying to engage with these “high theory” texts is challenging for me, and I think for most archivists, but it is nonetheless one which inspires me to think more imaginatively about archival work, making it (I hope) a productive avenue for more exploration.

Dinshaw’s theory of amateur time comes from her book How Soon Is Now? : Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). It’s well worth taking a look at, especially if you enjoy medievalism.

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