Media(ted) Archives: The Politics of Saving & Making Media Histories
Lamiyah Bahrainwala / Southwestern University

Convening Question:

Few people would reject the premise that digitally archiving the mass media—film, television, radio, video games, and the like—is important cultural and scholarly work. Though it it can require tremendous human and computational effort, such labor facilitates the study of fragile, rare, or inaccessible materials, as well as enables the “distant reading” (i.e., data mining) of these materials en masse. The democratization of media past, present, and future—thanks especially to digital archives—would thus seem to be an unassailable pursuit, no matter if done in special collections, an academic unit, a community center, a not-for-profit organization, or even a transnational conglomerate. But it is not—a legion of obstacles stand in the way of making media archives fully fulgent. From the legal mechanisms of intellectual property protection, to the limited resources available to archivists to do their work, to the nomenclatural policing of designations such as “archive” and “archivist,” to the paucity of international standards by which materials might be expeditiously processed and located, the politics and practices of media archive creation, management, and sustainability are often confusing, discouraging, and infuriating. What is it about the mass media that complicates arguments promoting their historical value? What ideological motives might connect the policing of archive development with other questions circulating in media studies such as those concerned with monoculturalism, casuistry, and the dangers of presentism? Finally, how can we as a practical and pedagogical matter support existing and emerging archives that will aid future generations in the making of media histories?

Panelists and Links to Position Papers:

Lamiyah Bahrainwala, Southwestern University
Elana Levine, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
*Matt Payne/Ken McAllister/Judd Ethan Ruggill, University of Notre Dame and University of Arizona

Bad Archives, Bad Workers

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.

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