Researching and Teaching with Feminist Archives: A Reflection
by Ángeles Donoso Macaya - March 10, 2022
What is (in)visibilized when “women" are rescued from the archive? What does the gesture of rescuing (re)produce? Is it possible to articulate forms of feminist criticism that do not rely on identity politics and which develop methodologies that do not reinforce patriarchal discursive paradigms and tropes? In this reflection, I describe an ongoing research project that tries to answer these questions.
Full-time faculty in community colleges typically have a 30-credit teaching load during the fall and spring semesters of the academic year. More and more of these community faculty have PhD and research interests. This week, we feature two recent recipients of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Mellon Fellowship program who discuss their research and the necessity of fellowships that support community college faculty researchers. The impact of these research opportunities extend beyond our community colleges and its students, as they contribute to and build upon the research that moves us all forward.
-Robin G. Isserles and David Levinson
In December 2018, I traveled to Chile to carry out archival research in an attempt to complete final revisions for my book The Insubordination of Photography (2020). I had been researching the photographic practices of resistance that emerged under Chiles dictatorship (19731990) for a few years. This time around, I revisited archives I had already been to and visited a new one: the Women and Gender Archive (WGA). Inaugurated in 2011 and located within the National Historical Archive building, the WGAs main goal is to counter the institutional erasure and invisibility within Chiles official history of womenwritten between quotation marks to signal the status of women as a historically grounded and unstable category (Butler, 1990; Riley, 1988), and of men who do not conform to heteronormative models of masculinity. The need for this archive was in response to the limitations of official documents stored in an archive such as the National Historical Archive, which cannot give account of the array of experiences of historically marginalized subjects, precisely because their histories have been neglected, erased, rendered invisible (a critique that Black, indigenous, and queer scholars have eloquently established; Hartman, 1997, 2008; Muñoz, 1996; Rivera Cusicanqui, 2015). The WGA operates under this premise; hence, it has expanded thanks to individual contributions. As a feminist archive, or counter-archive (Donoso Macaya, 2020; Stoler, 2018), the WGA collects, preserves, contextualizes, and displays documents and objects of various kinds: written materials (books, magazines, bulletins), ephemeral or mixed-media objects (zines, leaflets), photographic albums, loose printed photographs and photographic films, personal journals, audiovisual interviews, VHS tapes and cassettes, even clothing items.
On that visit, I was able to see boxes containing various printed publicationsmagazines, zines, newsletters, and informational brochures. The boxes were part of a donation made by the Fundación Isis Internacional and by the Casa de La Mujer La Morada. Most of the publications had circulated precariously during the years of the dictatorship; I knew of their existence through readings and interviews, but until then, I had not been able to see them. The corpus that I consulted allowed me to solve questions related to the expanding photographic field that I study in my bookbut, more important, it opened new questions for me regarding the study of the visuality of women as a social group in the archive and the historiography of feminisms in Chile. What is (in)visibilized when women are rescued from the archive? What does the category women name, and what does it erase? What does the gesture of rescuing (re)produce? Is it possible to articulate forms of feminist criticism that do not rely on identity politics and that develop methodologies that do not reinforce patriarchal discursive paradigms and tropes? Because this corpus led me to formulate further research questions, I decided to consider these materials in their specificity as part of a separate research project.
When I started my current full-time position, my first book was still a research project in the making (The Insubordination of Photography didnt come out of my doctoral dissertation, but thats another story). I managed to start and finish the manuscript between 2014 and 2019 and publish it in 2020 thanks in part to reassigned time I received both as a recently hired full-time faculty member (a contract benefit won by my union, the PSC) and from internal grants. I wrote the manuscript and completed two rounds of reviews while teaching two or three courses (instead of four or five, my typical workload). I dreamed of having a sabbatical semester to focus entirely on the manuscript, but the idea of having to apply to external scholarships discouraged me. Not only did I lack the time to prepare a competitive proposal (and I will return to this shortly), but my tenure clock would have stopped, had I taken a sabbatical leave. This may seem counterintuitive, but at CUNY community colleges, tenure is granted after 12 semesters of continued service.
In the summer of 2018, I found out about the Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowships. Although the application process for these fellowships is tailored to the needs and realities of community college facultythose who have less time to do researchdrafting a grant application is still time-consuming. I was not able to submit a proposal in 2018 because I was revising my manuscript, or even in 2019, because I was preparing my syllabi and finishing a separate Public Humanities grant. Only in September 2020, while on my posttenure sabbatical and after having devoted almost a year to the formulation of this project, did I have the time and the mental space to dedicate myself to writing a solid grant application.
I share all this because its an issue that must be emphasized: Research grants are very competitive, and writing a good proposal takes time. I know of community college faculty with important research projects that they are unable to develop because they dont have the funds to pay for research trips or pay for reassigned time that would allow them to write and research. Many dont have time to draft competitive grant proposals that, if awarded, would allow them to fund said projects. Although this is a challenge that all community college faculty face, Im thinking, above all, of part-time faculty (who can, fortunately, apply for this grant).
The WGA, an archive that adopts a feminist orientation (Ahmed, 2017) to imagine and render material nonpatriarchal forms of historicizing and archiving, prompted me to formulate my research project. By adopting a feminist lens and a decolonial approach, I critically consider the counter-visuality displayed in alternative feminist media that is preserved in this archive, as well as the patriarchal, settler-colonial visuality of illustrated media not consigned in the WGA. Among these objects, for example, I study illustrated publications and itinerant photographic exhibitions mounted during the 1960s in Chile aimed at promoting Agrarian Reform. The images disseminated in these publications (re)produce and reinforce the settler-colonial and hetero-patriarchal regime of private property through the visual construction of territories historically seized from indigenous communities as Chilean farms, empty fields waiting to be modernized by a Chilean male peasant who becomes, simultaneously, property owner and head of the family.
Criticism formulated by decolonial and abolitionist intellectuals, writers, and artists (Azoulay, 2019; Hartman, 2008; Rivera Cusicanqui, 2015; Tuck & Young, 2012) has been key to my understanding of History and the Archive as colonial and patriarchal discursive operations. To analyze a series of apparently unrelated visual objects and to reconsider the weight that identity politics discourse and the logic of representation have had in the struggles sustained by groups of women and feminists at the local level, I draw on the writings of Latin American feminists (ecofeminism, indigenous, and popular feminisms), Black feminists, queer theory, transfeminism, and sexual dissidences.
These readings are more than my theoretical frameworkthey all work as orientations. As an educator, I try to practice and underscore the relational, collaborative, and affective aspects of the transmission of knowledge. Most of my students are Latinx and/or Latin American/indigenous immigrants. Many have suffered racial, class, and gender discrimination as well as gender and sexual violencesome in their home countries, and others here, in New York City. The textual and visual practices that we study in class encourage them to critically examine their life experiences through different lenses and also to challenge their own preconceptions (of race, gender, religion).
Currently, I am teaching a course for Spanish majors at The Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) whose questionable catalog title reads, Literature and Civilization of the Spanish-American. My syllabus adopts a decolonial approach and a feminist lens to interrogate the assumptions on which the course title and description are based: What does Spanish-American civilization name? What remains obscured or is erased by that name? What is civilization, and how do we measure its evolution? Is it possible to speak of literature when studying oral or visual (nonalphabetical) practices? I am also teaching a seminar at the Graduate Center entitled Visuality, Women and Archive, which proposes to critically reflect on the notions of visuality, women, and archive and to consider the theoretical and methodological problems that emerge when addressing these notions jointly. The readings and reflections that we are developing with my graduate students have helped me to reformulate the program for a course that I will teach next semester on Latin American Women Writers.
Archives are the effect of historical formations, and these historical formations in turn shape and sustain ideologies and discourses. The reflection and study of archives allows us to explore the discursive construction of identity, recognize practices of (in)visibilization and (under)(over)representation, and, of course, interrogate the power structures that underlie these processes. Developing archival research projects, writing, and updating course syllabi are all activities that require time and space (both physical and mental). Because of the sustained racialized austerity measures imposed by the state and the city, as well as by the public university trustees and administrators themselves, the number of full-time professors has drastically decreased in the past decades. Meanwhile, all faculty, both full-time and part-time (although, as suggested, part-time faculty are at a clear disadvantage in this respect), must compete for external funding and scholarships awarded by philanthropic organizations, such as Mellon, to develop research projects that, in the long run, benefit the public universityespecially our students.
This research is being assisted by a Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.
Ahmed, S. (2017). Orientations matter. In D. Coole & S. Frost (Eds.), New materialism (pp. 234257). Duke University Press.
Azoulay, A. (2019). Potential history: Unlearning imperialism. Verso Books.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble. Routledge.
Donoso Macaya, Á. (2020). The insubordination of photography: Documentary practices under Chile’s military dictatorship. University Press of Florida.
Hartman, S. (2008). Venus in two acts. Small Axe, 26(12.2), 1–14.
Hartman, S. (1997). Scenes of subjection: terror, slavery, and self-making in nineteenth-century America. Oxford University Press
Muñoz, J. (1996). Ephemera as evidence: Introductory notes to queer acts. Women and Performance, 8(2), 516.
Riley, D. (1988). Am I that name?: Feminism and the category of women in history. Palgrave Macmillan.
Rivera Cusicanqui, S. (2015). Sociología de la imagen [Sociology of the Image]. Tinta Limón.
Stoler, A. (2018). On archiving as dissensus. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 38(1), 4356.
Tuck, E., & Young, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 140.