Session 4: Archives and the Body

Moderator: Rebecka Sheffield (University of Toronto)
Testimony, Abjection and the Texture of Torture / Mario H. Ramirez (UCLA)

In this essay, I will examine the disjuncture between textual instantations of violence typically found in human rights documentation and, specifically, testimony, and the more corporeal textures of torture that are generally present in forensic studies of the aftermath of repression. Besides exploring the limitations of the realities articulated and consumed by the human rights community, I am moreover interested in attempting to grasp the blood, bone and gristle extremes of torture and violence insofar as they are evidentiary expressions intimately tied to the recorded-ness of a human rights violation. In tandem, I aim to address the viability of locating archival evidence outside the limits of the word and speculate on the enunciativeness of the “fleshy materiality of tortured bodies” and the ways in which they provide for parallel testimonies of human rights violations. Beyond seeking to locate a trace of the body in the archive, I am interested in how the body can embody the human rights record and how we can cross boundaries of praxis that delimit how and when we proceed to “archive.” DNA technology, forensic practices at mass graves, and a general accounting of the organic materiality of torture, death and violence are phenomena that have become integral parts of evidentiary and juridical processes surrounding human rights violations. Therefore, these practices, and their descriptive representations of the material, are not outside the scope of the archivable. But moreover, how do we take a page from their emphasis on the agency of things and account for this in an archival praxis of torture and therefore enflesh the word? How do we then account for the body as an integral part of the archive and render the trace a fleshy presence? Can we retain the materiality of the tortured body while negotiating the limit-text of the human rights report? How do our conceptions of the human rights record and its capacity to account for the act of torture shift once we account for the flesh of the abject?

“Eugen Sandow, a Titan in Muscle and Thews”: the Victorian Freak Show Strongman and his Twentieth-Century Queer Archival Bodies / Ann Garascia (UC Riverside) 

Nineteenth-century freak show strongman Eugen Sandow is best remembered for his perfect physique, which became a symbol of commercial, fin de siècle, heterosexual masculinity. However, his popular performances had transgressive consequences: Sandow was also an icon of subcultural queer masculinity, a status that persisted into the twentieth century. In 1947, self-proclaimed informal historians Gerard Nisivoccia and Angelo Iuspa recycled Sandow’s nineteenth-century freak show promotional materials to produce scrapbooks of his life, which were sold out of Iuspa’s 7th street home in Newark, New Jersey. As the first publications to include openly erotic photography of Sandow, the curating, collating, and disseminating of these materials indexed vibrant queer subcultures in Newark and the US.

This paper charts the history of Sandow’s materials, from Victorian freak show, to the Newark collection, to their current acquisitions by various repositories. I argue that Sandow’s active archival afterlife demonstrates how the Victorian freak show has vitally shaped contemporary queer archival practices and perspectives. Through Nisivoccia and Iuspa’s work, Sandow initially surfaced as a touchstone for a queer Italian American consciousness specifically legible to Newark, a city whose sexual landscape was splintered by class, racial, and ethnic segregation. Transcending localist politics, their attempts to build this comprehensive collection drew Sandow into national conversations about sexuality and historical visibility. Nisivoccia and Iuspa’s collection embodied the promises and perils of documenting and archiving queer histories: their efforts reanimated the Victorian freak show strongman to make him the centerpiece for tense twentieth-century debates over sexology, obscenity, visibility, and accessibility in queer emancipatory politics. The Sandow materials have since vanished or been acquired by special collections, libraries, and even domestic collections. This case study highlights the vexed relationship between grassroots and traditional archival resources and practices. Different models of archiving have scattered the legacy of Sandow’s once-perfect body into serendipitous pieces found in unlikely places. Full of dispersals, disappearances, and dead-ends, the saga of Sandow’s freak show materials rewrites the language of ideal embodiment underpinning archival principles of fonds, original order, and provenance to illustrate how archives construct and present queer bodies of knowledge.

This paper works toward theorizing a model of archival work I call “freaking” the archive, which addresses how archives construct and transmit, but often fail to account for, knowledge. “Freaking” the archive pulls from literary, queer, disability, performance, and visual studies to construct innovative, unusual, and socially responsible archives that complicate how we conceptualize archives. Comprised of primary source materials from the Victorian freak show, and their afterlives in contemporary performance and visual arts, these “freak” archives exceed and disarray the orderly barriers of time and space archives typically produce and preserve. No longer an apolitical and unchanging body of knowledge, the archive becomes a fluid space founded on ever-changing collections of bodies, objects, texts, and memories. Attuned to ethical and political complexities of archival work, “freaking” the archive affirms that any archive is an active and vibrant site of collaboration and contestation that produces new models for more inclusive and just human relations.

Archival Bodies as Nomadic Subjects: (Un)Becomings & Reconfigurations / Jamie Lee (University of Arizona)

Individual embodiment can be considered an archival practice. Through a transdisciplinary frame, I approach ‘the archive’ as a concept, a location, and a practice. Such an approach allows me to highlight the particular—embodied—ways in which the human record is conceived, collected, organized, and preserved. In this presentation, I draw on my practical work to develop the Arizona Queer Archives along with oral history interviews that I have collected of queer- and trans-identified individuals to suggest that individual embodiment can be considered an archival practice and that archival practice can itself also be considered an embodied act. Both elements of this equation are about (un)becomings and have implications for archival methodologies. I will share my close readings to highlight my development of a Queer/ed Archival Methodology (Q/M) as a fluid and flexible framework to assist archivists to develop archives for and with multiply-situated communities and peoples.

The archives, as concept, location, and practice, ingests peoples’ memories and histories and, in the process of archivalization, can make accessible those assembled histories that may reinforce the dominant narratives. By contrast, the process of archivalization may also or instead highlight those assembled histories that resist normativizing forces to reveal those less normative or altogether non-normative records—bodies of knowledge—that are more intimate, queered, non-dominant. The archives, as the body within the process of (un)becoming, negotiates this terrain to make visible normalized knowledges as well as those subjugated knowledges. Although archival practice can becomes sedimented in its everyday use, it can also be unsettled in everyday use. The stories that the archives tells, then, reflects the performative nature of bodies in motion still connected to their histories, but also with momentum gathering in the interstices of past, present, and future.

In developing archival collections, I have experienced the shifting histories of living embodied individuals whose processes of telling also expand and contract the potential of the stories themselves.  One story with competing histories and multiple bodies offers an instantiation of the argument I am making here. This understanding of body-as-archives/archives-as-body is revealed in the oral history interview from one gender-queer poet who, in his story of becoming/unbecoming/becoming, describes his transition from female to male. His narration is not linear and ‘neat,’ but rather a messy one of multiplicities and incompleteness. In his story of ongoing unbecoming and transition, he refuses to locate himself precisely on one point of the spectrum of gender, sexuality, anatomy, and desire. Embodied subjectivities that are shared in ways that subvert the assumed dominant structures of archive and body can open up radical possibilities much like the rhizomatic work of somatechnics. The radical possibilities of ongoing shifting histories and the instabilities of (un)becoming are at play in the stories and records of the archives. He demonstrates how the body is an archives. In terms of archival practice as embodiment—the archives is revealed as a space that can hold a living history that is (un)becoming even as it has been collected, appraised, preserved, and accessed that only an archives conceived as (un)becoming could hold.