Being ‘There’: Digital Archives and Queer Affect

Sam McBean

In May of 2012 at the Lambeth Women’s Project, Joan Nestle was in conversation with Christa Holka. Nestle was a notable figure in the New York City gay and lesbian bar scene of the late 1950s and 1960s. She became active in the gay liberation movement following the Stonewall riots and is perhaps most famous for having co-founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives in 1974, in what was her apartment at the time. Nestle’s work to build and sustain this monumental institution makes her an integral figure in the archiving of lesbian history. Holka, on the other hand, is known primarily to me as the ever-present photographer at many East London lesbian parties – illuminating the dark Dalston basement dance floors with her flash, capturing lesbians in the act. Holka’s artistic practice extends beyond these ‘scene-shots’ – to portraiture and to photographing London LGBT or queer cultural events. The focus of my interest, her photos of an East London queer scene, comprise an online archive on Facebook, are featured on Holka’s Tumblr and website, and are notably prominent on the London-based lesbian website, The Most Cake.

i was there

While unable to attend the discussion between Nestle and Holka, I want to take this pairing as an invitation to think about the relationship between old archives and new ones. By putting Holka and Nestle in dialogue, the talk at the Lambeth Women’s Project invited a reading of Holka as an archiver of a queer London present, or a contemporary Nestle. Compelled by this framing, I initially wondered whether Holka was like Nestle, whether the contemporary queer East London club scene was like the butch-femme scene of Nestle’s NYC, and primarily, whether the Facebook pages where Holka’s photos are housed and shared are like the Lesbian Herstory Archive’s brownstone. What kinds of connections might be made between traditional archival material, sites, technologies and contemporary digital archives?

As I progressed with this line of questioning, I became increasingly interested in moving away from holding this Facebook archive and Nestle’s Lesbian Herstory Archive separate through just positing an analogy between them. Instead, I want to suggest, through a queer reading of the concept of remediation, that we might draw some more complicated connections between contemporary archives and archives of the past. Indeed, digital sites open up new ways to consider how the past is translated in and through the present. In this queer take on remediation, what is remediated in and through the digital Facebook archive is not so much the technology of photography itself (the ‘old’ media), but rather affect – affect in the form of the desire for queer history, the desire to see LGBT historical subjects. The perhaps excessive evidence of these East London queer club nights on social media sites such as Facebook and Tumblr might be seen as a product of, and something that remains intimately bound with, a Facebook-generation obsessed with the creation of the self through photosharing on social networking sites. But, in the context of the historical difficulty of evidencing queerness in traditional archives, we might perhaps read this excess not through Facebook as a technology of the individual, but rather through a queer archival potential that might lie in Facebook’s ability to remediate a desire for history – to fill in some kind of historical absence.

Queer Interventions in the Archive

Recent work on queer temporality and queer history stresses the importance of affect as a mode of doing history (see Dinshaw, 1999; Cvetkovich, 2003; Love, 2007; Freeman, 2010). Dinshaw conceives of queer historiography through the paradigm of touch, arguing that relations across time have an ‘affective or an erotic component’ (1999: 50). In this mode, queer history might be best articulated, to borrow José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of ‘ephemera’, ‘as trace, the remains, the things that are left, hanging in the air like a rumor’ (2009: 65). Cvetkovich coins the term ‘archive of feelings’ to describe ‘cultural texts as repositories of feelings and emotions, which are encoded not only in the content of the texts themselves but in the practices that surround their production and reception’ (2003: 7). She uses this term as a means to expand the remit of what is traditionally considered ‘proper’ archival material, suggesting in her investigation into lesbian public cultures that the cultural spaces built around sex, feelings and trauma frequently evade archives, producing documentation that is resistant to traditional archival methods. Cvetkovich thus turns to affect as a way to see queer history, explaining that, because gay and lesbian cultures accrue around sexuality and intimacy, they ‘often leave ephemeral and unusual traces’ (2003: 8).

This turn to affect as a queer historiographic method is bound up with the search for approaches to time that might account for the way that the past is not something that is over, but something that has unexpected life in the present. For example, Love challenges a narrative of progress that would disavow histories of loss and shame in favour of a present that is dominated by pride. Suggesting that the ‘past’ negative affects of loss and shame have a persistent hold on contemporary queer imaginaries, Love argues that narratives of progress make it ‘difficult to approach the past as something living – as something dissonant, beyond our control, and capable of touching us in the present’ (2007: 9-10).

While there has been a recent spate of queer work on history, affect and temporality in the last decade or so, very little of this work considers these questions in light of new media practices and digital archives. What happens to queer models of time and affect in our contemporary digital landscape? Both the materiality and the immediacy of the digital challenge models and methodologies of queer affective history. What happens, for instance, to queer ephemera in the digital age? How is time and its queerness mediated by this digital landscape? How is the past iterated through digital media – what does it feel like to touch the past online? What kinds of queer affects might be found in the digital? To borrow Adi Kuntsman’s phrase, there might be a kind of digital ‘affective fabric’ in these Facebook archives (2012: 3). Kuntsman argues that despite a lack of scholarly attention to the intersections of affect and technology, we might do well to frame the digital through the following questions: ‘How does affect work in online networks and digital assemblages? What are the structures of feeling that operate in our everyday digital life, and what kind of virtual public spheres do they create?’ (2012: 4).

Digital Affect and Queer History

Not unlike the way that recent queer temporality theory pushes for resisting teleological narratives of time, where the past is discrete and closed off from a coherent present, new media scholars increasingly suggest that we consider new media through Bolter and Grusin’s concept of remediation, which is itself an argument against progress narratives (2000). Remediation explains the way that newer media refashion older media, while older media refashion themselves in the face of new media. This, as Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska explain, is a means of rejecting seeing media or ‘media time’ as a ‘series of discrete spatialized objects, or products that succeed one another’, where ‘we are said to progress from photography to Flickr, from books to e-readers’ (2012: 3). As they explain, ‘[o]ld media come around again in this framework, as a result of which history is not seen as linear and progressive but rather as nonlinear and cyclical’ (Kember & Zylinska, 2012: 8).

25 parties autostraddle

This is a screenshot from the website Autostraddle, which bills itself as a site for ‘kick ass lesbian, bisexual, and otherwise inclined ladies (and their friends)’. In this post, the author and co-founder of the website, Riese, shares archival event flyers advertising lesbian or queer women events from the 1930s to the 1970s. The post is titled ‘25 Queer Parties You Should Go To If You Have A Time Machine’. Riese introduces the flyers as follows:

If you were reading this website in 2010 but didn’t live in New York, you’re probably really devastated that you missed our epic Rodeo Disco Pride Party, especially if you enjoy riding mechanical bulls. But actually it’s likely that you’ve missed a lot more parties than just that party. Luckily, we’ve assembled so many of them here so you can really think about what you’re doing with your life.

This post, on the one hand, remediates the event flyers from the past through the website format. Through this remediation, it quite directly links the Rodeo Disco Pride Party to a Gay Liberation dance in the 1970s, or a 1930s Berlin party. This linking of the present with the past insists on the historical and cultural importance of this present, of being present. Through referencing the contemporary party as an introduction to the parties of the more distant past, it inserts the New York Pride Party into a lineage of lesbian or queer parties. Moreover, it also suggests – and here is my main point – that while you may not have a time machine to travel back to Berlin in the 1930s, the parties that are happening in contemporary New York are somehow linked to this history. That the best way to be ‘there’ (to be in the archive, in the queer past, to touch this queer past) is, consequently, to be ‘here’.

Christa Holka

Significantly, Holka’s series is titled ‘I WAS THERE’. This title creates a self-congratulatory ‘I’ who knows where ‘there’ (the party) is, but it also perhaps plays with the archive like the post on Autostraddle. Through the emphasis on the past tense, I WAS THERE connects a contemporary East London scene with LGBT histories. Holka explains this project in a talk in May 2012: ‘I was there to document a particular time and place in London, a dance floor, an energy, a moment that lives in these images’. She goes on to discuss how access to these images, to these pictures of queer girls on the Internet, is a fairly new phenomenon. As we think about the sheer amount of photos of this East London scene and its parties – this particular time and place, London – what is seemingly unavoidable for me in these narratives is a sense that past invisibility haunts the contemporary. Our past ‘unattendance’ in the archives cannot be remedied. But what is seemingly offered as a solution (aside from the time machine idea) is to be ‘here’. The difficulty both of reading queerness in the past and finding evidence of this always backwardly iterated concept of queerness perhaps becomes partially alleviated through these archives of the present. In this queer version of remediation, what is remediated is not only the technologies of photography or event flyers, but, I want to suggest, something like affect, the desire to be in the archive. So if, as Love or Dinshaw suggest, the past has unexpected and unpredictable affective holds on our present, this digital archival space seemingly offers another means to touch that past – to feel historical.


Bolter, D. & Grusin, R. (2000) Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Cvetkovich, A. (2003) An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Public Cultures. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Dinshaw, C. (1999) Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Freeman, E. (2010) Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.

Karatzogianni, A. & Kuntsman, A. (eds) (2012) Digital Cultures and the Politics of Emotion: Feelings, Affect and Technological Change. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kember, S. & Zylinska, J. (2012) Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Love, H. (2007) Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.

Muñoz, J. E. (2009) Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York and London: New York University Press.

Sam McBean recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck, in the Department of English and Humanities. Her interdisciplinary research is focused on exploring questions of temporality from queer and feminist perspectives through readings of literature, visual culture, and new media/digital sites. Her work has been published, or is forthcoming, in the journals Camera Obscura, Feminist Review and Feminist Theory, and in the edited collections Beyond Citizenship?: Feminism and the Transformation of Belonging (ed. Sasha Roseneil, Palgrave, 2013) and A Handbook of Feminist Theory (ed. by Mary Evans, Sage, 2014).



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