Daily Archives: May 19, 2021

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On my final project, “Reading John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath

For my final project I will propose to mine John Ashbery’s papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library to produce an online companion and bibliography to Ashbery’s second published collection, The Tennis Court Oath. I’m particularly interested in The Tennis Court Oath because it is, by my reading, one of Ashbery’s most hermetically-sealed books, which resists bibliographical or biographical reading. There is relatively little scholarship dedicated to the book, although it was enormously important to a group of New York School and Language poets whose work is the subject of much study; Bill Berkson said, in a Jacket interview “The Tennis Court Oath was the most important of John’s books for my generation of poets.”

My project will attempt to answer the following questions, to whatever degree is possible: what material did Ashbery consult when he composed The Tennis Court Oath? What processes did he apply in its composition? Ashbery composed the book while studying the works of Raymond Roussel in Paris—did Roussel’s work make an impact? How? Beyond these questions, what I really hope to examine with this project is: what are the limitations of bibliographical or biographical readings of poetry? What are the affective differences between close and bibliographical readings, and why do those differences matter in the context of poetry?

In addition to the online companion, I will propose to produce a lyric essay that details my experiences and inevitable disappointments in the archives, and my struggles with the above questions. In this class we have discussed “disappointment” as an affective mode of engaging with archival material. I believe that John Ashbery’s archive might be a productive place to investigate archival disappointment, not only in a sense of what is not available in the archive, but also in a sense of what extant archival material cannot say about Ashbery’s work.

Ashbery’s copyright is strictly managed, and I imagine it will be difficult or impossible to publicly reproduce digitized annotations, letters, notes, and manuscript papers pertinent to The Tennis Court Oath. For this reason, my project will follow in the footsteps of Jeff Twitchell-Waas’s Z-Site (“A Companion to the Works of Louis Zukofsky”) in that it will not be a repository, but rather a scaffolding of named resources around The Tennis Court Oath to further inquiry or scholarship.

Digitization and Racialized Expropriation

In his American Periodicals article “Chronicling White America,” Benjamin Fagan discusses the cottage industry that has sprung up around the for-profit management of nineteenth century Black periodicals archives. He writes, “Those interested in researching, teaching, or simply reading black newspapers must climb paywalls of databases controlled by for-profit corporations.” Fagan identifies two basic problems that this for-profit siloing poses. For one, he attests, it limits possibilities for individual work on American Black periodicals: “My experience working at two flagship public institutions has shown that even relatively well-funded public university libraries will subscribe to one, and very rarely, two such databases.” Fagan implies that limitations around access disincentive individual scholars to analyze Black newspapers, a fact that presumably ripples into the available scholarship in the field. At least as importantly in Fagan’s analysis, uneven access to historic Black periodicals can program racial bias into large-scale digital projects, by skewing racial representation in the datasets they rely on. For an example, Fagan considers the Viral Texts project housed at Northeastern University, which studies ‘virality’ of nineteenth century news stories. Viral Texts uses datasets largely culled from freely accessible databases of periodicals; because, as Fagan identifies, most databases of Black periodicals are set up behind paywalls, the news stories contained therein are not represented. Thus, the Viral Texts project can be said to have whiteness programmed in. Or, to decenter whiteness in that formulation, the Viral Texts project unintentionally reifies the “erasure of black voices” from scholarship in American print history.

Fagan posits this as a technical impediment to digital work, and his article is largely a technical analysis. He does, however, lean on metaphor in his conclusion, writing “There is something particularly disturbing about the modern-day ‘capturing,’ buying, and selling of newspapers produced by and for black men and women who lived in a white supremacist country that equated blackness with chattel.” This important insight offers an invitation to think not only how the imposed limits act as an impediment to racial equity, but also how it came to be that archives of nineteenth century white periodicals are freely available, while nineteenth century Black periodicals are locked behind extortionate paywalls.

Black studies scholar Jackie Wang’s post-Marxist analysis of racial capitalism might be a useful to consider in this context. In Carceral Capitalism, Wang writes, “Rather than casting slavery and Native genocide as temporally circumscribed events that inaugurated the birth of capitalism in the New World (“primitive accumulation”), [scholars and activists have shown] how the racial logics produced by these processes persist to this day” (Wang, 115). Wang’s analysis of racial capitalism focuses partly on “racialized expropriation,” the process by which Blackness becomes a site for looting by the hegemonic capitalist state. To illustrate this idea, Wang provides, among other examples, an analysis of extractive policing in Ferguson, MO, prior to the unmotivated police murder of Michael Brown. Wang shows how police actively shored up the city’s austerity budget by extracting as much money as possible, in the form of fines, from Black citizens during forced police encounters. This sequence of events, from extractive policing to murder, shows, Wang writes, how under racial capitalism “Black racialization. . .is the mark that renders subjects suitable for—on the one hand—hyperexploitation and appropriation, and, on the other hand, annihilation” (Wang, 122).

Wang’s theory of Blackness as a site of hyperexploitation in a post-slavery, racial-capitalist United States might offer some insight into how and why records of Black history have come under private ownership and exploitative management, limiting liberatory possibilities in scholarship, while white history, at least in the form of nineteenth century periodicals, moves freely in publicly available digital archives.

Blog Post 2: On Speculation

A key point of inspiration for my final project is Danielle Brathwaith-Shirley’s “BlackTransArchive”: In this work, Brathwaith-Shirley, who is a Berlin-based Black trans artist and game developer, creates a digital, interactive archive in the form of a video game, designed in collaboration with Black trans coders and artists as a way to center Black trans lives and fight against the erasure of their history. Here, she attempts to ensure that the Black and trans people who enter her virtually-created world on the archive are given a dedicated and safe space, by presenting a series of initial questions to the user, which then designate the parameters of their interaction and accessibility to the content, depending on their identity and the levels of privilege they are afforded. The BlackTransArchive entangles difficult concepts such as opacity, consent, and other ideas by indexing different lines of play, prompting user interaction, and creating fantastic digital imagery that prompt the user to question where they lie in contemporary structures of power, and how that affects the way they experience both the world and Brathwaith-Shirley’s work itself.

I read BlackTransArchive less as a an expansion or reconfiguration of the archive than as a mode of critique that ruptures the traditional conceptions of the archive, whereby the latter’s epistemological and political contribution tends to be marked by empiricism. To read this work as a kind of critique is to heed David Kazanjian’s call in “Scenes of Speculation”: To attend “less to the wills, desires, and voices of the historical subjects in question and more to the speculative work done by the textual traces they have left in the archives… that which might not be the expression of a subject’s will, desire, intention, or voice but might still be readable by us, today, as a powerfully political text.“ For I would argue that by refusing the familiar tropes that characterize the archive as a repository of of information and evidence, Braithwaith-Shirley, in the BlackTransArchive, calls not only the archive itself but also the liberal notions of justice—inflected with assumptions of “expressions of humanity understood as willful, desirous interiority” that follow the longue durée of post-Enlightenment thought (see: Towards a Global Idea of Race by Denise Ferreira Da Silva)—in question/speculation. The artistic production of this work, as such, can be read as a speculative theory of justice. The BlackTransArchive’s series of questions (“Are you Black & Trans, Trans, or cis?”; “How will you help us?”) and demands (“Use your privilege to help us”, “You must agree to center Black Trans lives”) read to me as less a gesture to empathize with Black Trans lives as to reach towards liberal inclusion that it is a speculation on what reparations, allyship, and memory means and should politically positioned.

With all this in mind, I wonder the following: Given the rise in speculative fiction and literature as a mode of imagining new possibilities, what is speculation’s impossibilities and limits? Here, I am thinking of Saidiya Hartman’s warning in Scenes of Subjection regarding the “difficulty and slipperiness of empathy”: “Empathic identification… cannot be extricated from the economy of chattel slavery with which is at odds, for this projection of one’s feeling upon or into the object of property and the phantasmic slipping into captivity, while it is distinct from the pleasures of self-augmentation yielded by the ownership of the captive body and the expectations fostered therein, is nonetheless entangled with this economy and identification facilitated by a kindred possession or occupation of the captive body, albeit on a different register.” With this in mind I cannot help but wonder the ways in which Kazanjian’s mode of reading the “scenes of speculation” in the archive is always-already enmeshed in the humanist entanglement of political desire and an objectivist logocentric project, whereby speculative works are incessantly assumed to be acts of resistance and agency—not to productively configure a political project, more than it is to feed into, what Frank Wilderson describes as, “the kinship, or communal, structure of feeling that [is presumed] to exist ab initio.” What are the ways in which liberal hegemony paradoxically requires resistance as a signifier of human singularity? I appreciate Kazanjian’s essay a lot, which is why I surface these concerns.

DPLA Take II

I posted my initial blog concerning the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection, a collaborative project hosted by the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), prematurely. My initial impression of the site was one of great excitement that such an extensive national organization valued Black women’s history to the point where they wanted to foreground their involvement in the suffrage movement. This was a movement that lead to the ratification of the 19th amendment which has typically been historicized as a White women’s movement. Initially, White and Black suffragists were able to stand and fight back against patriarchal systemic inequities in solidarity, however the movement became racially polarized when the right to vote was decidedly a race between Black men and White women.

Needless to say, I was excited by the site: the apparent diversity of the DPLA team, the aesthetically pleasing layout, and the many photos of women I recognized from my Black feminist genealogy, historical leaders like Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell and Charlotta Bass. And I must say, the collection of papers and artifacts they have for these three women are impressive. However, as I took a deeper dive into the site after my initial post, I was disappointed. The other collections, The Featured Primary Source Sets, are drastically diluted. Of the six collections, one is announced with a picture of a group of white women marching and the collection contains several pieces of suffrage memorabilia from the white community, another promises artifacts pertaining to Black women’s involvement in the Black Power movement, signaled with a beautiful piece of artwork, but the artifacts primarily pertain to men. The Equal Rights Amendment collection features Alice Paul and other white women, and I could go on.

The Black Power Movement
Courtesy of DPLA

I was hoping not to sound overtly disparaging when two representatives from the DPLA came to give a talk in class. I was able to point out the disconnections between what the archive promises and its delivery, and the representatives were very gracious in receiving feedback. Their efforts in curating the collections are ongoing and to be commended. Take away: Collections have to be monitored for accuracy, especially 1) when you are dealing with artifacts from and of people that have been historically marginalized and minoritized and 2) when you have many partners contributing to an archive or from many different sources.

This course in archival encounters has been very inspiring. Upon arrival to my PhD program in English (and maybe even sooner), we have been encouraged to consider occupations outside of academia. I think archival management may be a possibility higher on my list.

Artistic Practice in Archives

Artistic engagements with archives have inspired and informed my final project. The notion of speculative work as described by Kazanjian in “Scenes of Speculation” is directly related to artistic practice. In the article, the example of the letter written by a formerly enslaved black American settler in Liberia in 1858 shapes and questions our understanding of freedom – to recover the past and to look toward the future. Freedom is not objective, rather, it unfolds, changes, and is open-ended. 

Odumosu’s example of the photograph of the Afro-Caribbean crying child in “The Crying Child: On Colonial Archives, Digitization, and Ethics of Care in the Cultural Commons” is another scene of speculation which has the potential to unearth representations of colonization. Odumosu asks “how can we extend concepts of caretaking and custodianship beyond institutions toward reparative strategies proposed by artists, activists, and other agents of change?” The image of the crying child has been found alongside other photographs in albums of Dutch families of the Caribbean in the early 20th century. Different meanings arise depending on the other photographs surrounding the child, one album shows Caribbean people dressed in their Sunday best, another album shows the crying child alongside a posed and confident “nice girl”. In this case, the acts of curation and cutting/pasting (as in a collage or photomontage technique) reflect similar artistic practices done by artists. Artist La Vaughn Belle’s intervention of placing her own family photos beside photographs of the Danish West Indies from the Royal Danish Library collection (including the crying child) become a reformative act, a way of building community, and connecting her family to history, “The narratives embedded in the images become collapsed, converted, contested and re-imagined in the simple gesture of juxtaposition and/or adding captions to the images.” Belle has created her own type of archive, one that has more meaning than viewing digital material from the library collection on its own.

I recently visited a small exhibition at the Met, “Pictures, Revisited”. On view was Lorna Simpson’s 9 Props. In it, Simpson recontextualizes portraits taken by photographer James Van Der Zee who took pioneering portraits in Harlem in the early 20th century. Instead of portraits of people, Simpson fabricated the objects in Van Der Zee’s portraits, photographed them as the subjects and included descriptive captions describing Van Der Zee original portrait and the object’s place in it. Through this work, Simpson critiques what can’t be seen in either photograph – issues of class, race, and culture. This work depends on, and even demands, the viewer’s engagement to imagine new narratives. Although she doesn’t refer to it as an archive, I consider Simpson’s 9 Props to be a type of archive – gathering, re-making and re-assembling historical images. 

Following these examples, my final project attempts to recreate these artistic practices and translate them to a digital stage. Considering archives can take many forms and have different aims, there is room for experimentation in how we build archives for particular audiences. Perhaps, instead of the main consideration being which platform to choose (Omeka vs. WordPress, for example), we can also contemplate how the viewer interacts with the archive, ways of engaging the viewer, how to use emotion as part of the archival experience, and how the physical form of the digital archive relates to the content itself.

Expanding Definitions of Archives

My ideas around archives, what they are, what they look like, what they include (and don’t include) have been shaped by the readings and experiences of the semester. Coming into this class, my limited view of archives were things (objects, books, papers) that were organized in boxes, stored in libraries, accessed by researchers, and sometimes digitized for the public. Although I have used archives before and have even been involved in organizing archives, I am a dilettante when it comes to actual archival work. I was never exposed to the various forms of archives or thought about how their organization could structure knowledge. 

One of the early readings “What Do you Mean by Archive? Genres of Usage for Digital Preservers” introduced theoretical archival concepts by Foucault, Derrida and Kittler and Wolfgang Ernst – that the archive has a role in society, it is an idea, it is the entirety of history. This expansion of the definition stayed with me. When I visit a museum, I now look at exhibitions as archives. The curator’s job of assembling works, placing them in specific positions on the walls, providing historical context in the object descriptions, is a type of archival work. Exhibition catalogs, art books, and other types of non-fiction books can therefore also be considered archives – they gather objects, provide information and knowledge in the form of essays and writing. This translates online, as well, as shown in the Colored Conventions project, which separates the records from the exhibitions. Certainly, the records themselves are important, but for someone like myself who was unaware of these political meetings, the exhibits provide knowledge, understanding, context, and meaning. 

But, it is not only the act of archiving or what is archived that is important, it is also how it is accomplished. I am reminded of readings such as “Archival Encounters: Rethinking access and care in digital colonial archives” and other projects we reviewed such as the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection and the Barnard Zine collection whose creators shared their processes of care in dealing with sensitive materials. They showed that empathy and not necessarily objectivity is crucial to assembling and maintaining archives; that there is bravery in confronting past injustices; that archives provide questions and not answers.

Lastly, throughout the semester, I’ve been taking note of various descriptive words about archives that have interested me. I list them here with no explanation and will let the words speak for themselves: recognize, redress, reorient, produce, reproduce, acknowledge (not obscure), question (not define), quantify, qualify, interrogate, recover, discover, disassemble, reassemble, deconstruct, reconstruct, reconfigure,  articulate, enrich, remix, decentralize, provoke, rethink, reform, speculate, interpret, complicate, challenge, restructure.