Media(ted) Archives: The Politics of Saving & Making Media Histories
Lamiyah Bahrainwala / Southwestern University
One semester, I repeatedly heard from students about particular classmates who made them uncomfortable by playing “devil’s advocate” for white supremacy. At another time, I heard, on separate occasions, from two students who were frustrated by a professor slanting discussion by enforcing rigid discussion-leading formats. However, all these students framed their information as “private” and not worth “pursuing.” This is not because the information was not credible – when similar thoughts are echoed by more than one student but not many students, it signals a subtle misuse of power. However, these reports accumulate into archives, and include privately shared experiences such as the ones about Harvey Weinstein that prompted investigation and eventually triggered the cascade of revelations surging through the #MeToo movement. Yet, these revelations and this movement, among others, simply signal that earlier archives that had been considered “bad” archives – uncorroborated, unsubstantiated, sleazy – had been allowed new credibility. We must consider the increasing importance of uncovering such “bad” archives and thus interrogate the politics of legitimacy and respectability. A “bad” archive lets individuals who are not in positions of power share information about power. It is an archive because such information sharing is cumulative, and builds an external repository – mandatory reporters in schools and universities, and elsewhere in academe. They are “bad” because they are not formalized, but also because they deal with “bad” objects that we stigmatize – harassment and abuse, largely gendered and often physical. However, such bad archives are the foundation for anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-ableist work because they delineate microaggressions, which are largely invisible, often unconscious, and difficult to document and qualify. They rely on the accumulation of narratives to yield patterns.
However, both the creators and gatekeepers for bad archives experience precarity. The contents of bad archives are mired in stigma, and, typically, institutions – including universities – do not legitimize them. Thus, due to the nebulous nature of the information and the disproportionate implications of both reporting and not reporting such issues, mandatory reporters occupy a deeply precarious position. I make this argument keeping in mind the increasing precarity of the academic labor market and the increased feminization and materially-expressed devaluation of academic labor in general. The feminization of labor and the stigmatization of bad archives converge to dictate how academics navigate the job market by relying on privately shared information. The feminization of labor selects particular labor to remain uncompensated, i.e. domestic labor and adjunct labor. Bad archives, meanwhile, are aligned with bodies performing feminized labor: gossip is aligned with women and the “domestic” realm; adjuncts, meanwhile, who suffer exploitation through the removal of health benefits and erasure of their labor, rarely have their feedback formally solicited by universities and are rarely trained formally by universities. In my own experiences as an adjunct at two universities, I was trained informally “over coffee” by departing adjuncts. It is worth considering how constructing archives as “bad” dislodges it as a form of labor even as it is used as a tool to navigate opportunities for compensated labor.