On Forgetting as a Queer Archival Practice
“The wall keeps its place,
so it is you that becomes sore.”
—Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 2017
“I don’t know her.”
—Mariah Carey about Jennifer Lopez, from 2000 till 2020
According to Sara Ahmed, the histories of majoritarian groups have been hardened by their constant repetition into institutions. “Those hardenings of histories into barriers in the present” are so persuasive because they often do not have to present themselves as ideology and still win consent (Living a Feminist Life 136). They are hegemonic in their invisible claim for a universal truth. But those hardenings of history accommodate only a particular group of people and their specific needs. For those accommodated, the walls are often invisible. They became habitual, embodied and, hence, unacknowledged in their ideological particularity, such as white, cishet, able-bodied, middle class, and male. Critiquing institutions as a blockage and unaccommodating can quickly trigger defensive reactions in those denying the ideological particularity and existence of the wall. Those hardenings of histories have been established by fading out their complicities in multi-dimensional forms of oppression along the axes of class, race, gender, and sexuality. By giving the historiography of majoritarian groups such a haptic dimension, we can begin to understand what Ahmed means by reflecting in her writings on brick walls as an experience of queer-feminist and anti-racist diversity work, and the frustration and violence that diversity workers have to experience when institutions are showing themselves resistant to meaningful transformation and refuse to challenge regimes of coloniality in the present. My text wants to ask how minority knowledge producers (Bilge 320)—those groups who have been historically denied a history—can navigate and challenge those concrete walls of memory institutions without becoming sore through their practice?
Jack Halberstam has conceptualized forgetting in his book The Queer Art of Failure as a queer practice of remembrance for minority groups: “Forgetting, when directed at a dominant narrative rather than at subaltern knowledges, could become a tactic for resisting the imposition of colonial rule. […] [I]n order to remember and recognize anticolonial struggles, other narratives do have to be forgotten and unlearned” (77). Taking my own experience of working as a forgetful queer in an ethnographic museum for several months into account, my text seeks to address if we can use forgetfulness as a conceptual framework to disrupt the normative order of the knowledge production of ethnographic collections without further silencing under-represented histories of archival objects within white, cisgender, heteronormative, and able-bodied memory institutions. Hence, I want to ask if we can conceptualize forgetfulness as a strategy for queering archival practices in order to open up spaces for new imaginaries of decolonial thought and kinship that challenge persisting systems of oppression in the present. What can we do with archival materials (and the staff working with those archives), so that we can productively detach them from the epistemic grip that majoritarian narratives have upon them? Is the only legitimate response to a lack of history to create new histories through a critical engagement with the materiality of historical archives?
For queer readings of historical archives, those questions are of particular concern because historical queerness is often transmitted covertly, indirectly, fleetingly, and without leaving material evidence. José Esteban Muñoz describes:
Queerness is often transmitted covertly. This has everything to do with the fact that leaving too much of a trace has often meant that the queer subject has left herself open for attack. 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)
Hence, Ann Cvetkovich argues for shifting the attention from the materiality of archives towards a radical archive of emotions:
Lesbian and gay history demands a radical archive of emotion in order to document intimacy, sexuality, love, and activism – all areas of experience that are difficult to chronicle through the materials of a traditional archive. Moreover, gay and lesbian archives address the traumatic loss of history that has accompanied sexual life […] and they assert the role of memory and affect in compensating for institutional neglect. (241)
The emotional component of working with archives is often ignored, although different groups have very different emotional stakes in engaging with the past. Heather Love puts it adroitly: “For groups constituted by historical injury, the challenge is to engage with the past without being destroyed by it” (1).
Lazy Identification Patterns in Archival Engagement
Gloria Wekker describes in her book White Innocence that interracial encounters are often grounded in a racialized common sense that has been established through four hundred years of imperial rule and still plays a vital, but often unacknowledged part in processes of meaning-making today. Following Edward Said, Wekker explains this racialized common sense as a cultural archive which is centrally located in our feelings, our minds, and our institutional realities (19). Colonial representations were designed with oppressive missions in mind. Many objects stored in ethnographic collections are not only the material result of violent colonial power relations but often also carry these ideological missions indirectly, which, I argue, cannot easily become nullified by discursive means—like writing a better critical essay about them; the materiality of these colonial artifacts has been used for such a long time in the process of creating distorted representations that shape our affective economies. Hence, these archival materials are never innocent and, relating to a deeper racialized cultural archive, they can easily trigger affective responses in audiences that lie beyond any discursive, curatorial control.
During my time working in an ethnographic collection in Germany I have often encountered what Gloria Wekker calls lazy identification patterns (170). Many white colleagues working in memory institutions follow these patterns in their inquiry of the past, which lead them into the production of new historical narratives where they try to redeem white history as good and benign—or at least as “not entirely bad”—by excavating a good white in colonial archives in order to delimit those from the bad whites. Ahmed has identified this identification pattern as a crucial aspect of progressive racism that recenters white heroes (“Progressive Racism”).
Whiteness manages to recenter itself as a dominant frame of discursive power in moments of pursued change and self-critique. This pattern is a way of reconstructing a benign self-image of white identity for a progressive milieu in order to re-establish a problematic sense of centrality often in moments of a “disequilibrium in the [white] habitus” (DiAngelo 103) triggered by anti-racist critique questioning this very centrality. Racial bias is largely unconscious and conversations about race seem to conflict with a progressive self-image of being benign that hinders the recognition and accountability of whiteness as a “terrorizing imposition” (hooks 169). Many anti-racist scholars and activists have taught us: it is not a question of if we are racially biased but how white supremacy as a structure shapes our perception about the past, about the present, and the institutional reality we have inherited to keep whiteness as a structure of discursive and material power in place.
Forgetting as a Politics of Refusal
During a TV interview in 1998, writer Toni Morrison describes how several reviewers of her books have accused her of not writing
about white people:
I remember a review of Sula in which the reviewer said, this is all well and good, but one day she, meaning me, will have to face up to real responsibilities and get mature and write about the real confrontation for Black people, which is white people. As though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze. And I spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.1
Jennifer C. Nash quite similarly shows in her analysis of the institutionalization of intersectionality in women’s studies programs in the U.S., how Black feminism is often used in narrow terms as a corrective to white shortcomings of the discipline’s past and present. Nash describes this as a limited position offered for Black feminists in academia and as an intellectual banalization that refuses to give Black intellectual thought the depth and complexity it deserves outside of a direct relationality to whiteness (57) and its institutionalized requirements. For the context of art history, Mimi Sheller, following Gina Athena Ulysse, has also noted that “the violence of refusing to allow [B]lackness to be self-referential reiterates the white supremacy of Western art because it leaves only the aspiration to be included in white institutions” (Sheller).
Morrison, Sheller, and Nash remind us about the importance of claiming centrality for minority knowledge projects that refuse to stay in a fixed and limiting position as a corrective for white problems and canons. I see the forgetting of these dominating frames as a productive way to decentralize a fixed relationship with dominant knowledge formations that can destabilize the false sense of centrality around them. Working as a minority knowledge producer for a majoritarian memory institution often leaves scholars with an inner conflict of being forced to strive for the recognition and validation by those majoritarian institutions while trying to negotiate ways to escape the centrality of hegemonic principles developed within those spaces for majoritarian people and their particular needs.
Resume: Toward Affective Breathing Spaces
I have argued that sometimes forgetting hegemonic principles can become a politics of refusal in order to resist engaging with hardenings of history. Forgetting in a productive way can create new affective breathing spaces that refuse to partake in entrenched and exhausting structures of power that often recenter majoritarian concerns and feelings. Decolonial options are achieved, according to Walter Mignolo, through epistemic disobedience, which is a transdisciplinary method that strategically betrays epistemically correct reasoning and interpretation (205–206). But the process of “strategically-not-conforming” to institutionalized norms through disobedient methodologies is often a privilege that many people cannot afford without paying a heavy prize, for example, in terms of personal career trajectories. Sirma Bilge has shown how “scientific cloning,” disciplinary coherent methodologies, and neglecting transformative epistemologies are often the main path offered for minority knowledge producers of color to become institutionalized in the neoliberal university (323). But performing institutional norms and trying to blend in can be an extremely stressful survival mechanism for many minority knowledge producers—one that comes along with a high cost as well, because it takes a massive amount of mental energy and constant self-surveillance to fit in and inhabit that institutional norm. Not everybody has the ability to do so. And more importantly, nobody should be forced to endure it!
Why should minorities not claim the centrality of their own experiences, emotions, habitus, knowledge, and histories, and, hence, reshape those highly outdated memory institutions altogether? Forgetting dominant narratives and institutional norms can be a decolonial option that unsettles the hardenings of majoritarian knowledge formations in order to decentralize knowledge and establish new affective breathing spaces where various minority knowledge projects can evolve in order to find new lexicons to speak with and accommodate one another.