Antoinette LaFarge

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Out of the Archive

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

Over the past couple of years, I have written some 200 biographies for Wikipedia, mostly of women and people of color born in the 19th century. A good number of these people have an archive somewhere, often at a small college where they taught or at a local historical society or library. One thing I keep running across in my research is references to their unpublished manuscripts. I suspect many of these writings are orphans—unlikely to be published for any of several reasons: Because there is no commercial market for them. Because they may be under a copyright cloud. Because no one thinks they are worth the trouble or has maybe even taken the time to look at them closely. So they are left to languish in a numbered box. Yet many of those I have found sound intriguing, and I think they deserve a chance to be read by more than just the occasional scholar—indeed, they deserve a chance to be read by anyone at all who is interested in these authors or their periods or the fields in which they worked. There are plenty of lists of unpublished works and lost works by famous people, but there isn’t any list that I know of focusing on other kinds unpublished works.

For this reason, I am launching the Out of the Archive project with the ICI (and hopefully other partners to come). It has two goals: first to collect information about such unpublished manuscripts, and second to encourage their release as digital files or simple epubs. And I’m not talking here about trying to get these writings put out by publishing houses at the end of a long editorial and design process— even though there are some great lost books that have reached the public in just that way, through houses such as Virago and Persephone. I’m talking about plain-vanilla digitizing, maybe something as simple as a pdf or a collection of jpegs. Alternatively, someone with institutional affiliations may be prompted to include one of these manuscripts in the large-scale digitization initiative being organized by HathiTrust. The idea is to keep it as simple as possible so that the project doesn’t become daunting, and so that the results can circulate as easily and quickly as possible. A scanned typescript that you can actually read, flaws and all, is worth any number of printed books that might exist in some hypothetical future.

Anyone who cares to is welcome to participate. There are several ways you can take part besides actually copying and uploading a manuscript. Maybe you know of an unpublished manuscript from your own researches and will let us know so we can add it to the list. Maybe you’ll notice that one of these is in a nearby library and will drop by to check it out and let us know what you found, to help someone else take the next step. Maybe you’re a librarian and will help by digitizing a manuscript for this project. Maybe you’ll request  digitization of a specific manuscript pertinent to your own research.

Anything in an archive is being held for all of our sakes, after all—for you and for me and for whoever comes along after us. So Out of the Archive is a way for us to share what is, in a sense, already ours even if we have never seen it and did not know it existed.

Drop us an email via info@culturalinquiry.org if you want to volunteer in any way, on your own time and at your own pace. Meanwhile, below is an initial list of unpublished manuscripts that I’ve come across in the past couple of years, with links to their authors’ Wikipedia pages.

outofarchive

Potential Out of the Archive Manuscripts
alphabetical by last name

  • Margaret Brackenbury Crook (1886–1972):  a suffragist and professor of religious studies, her last book (on the Apostle Paul) remains unpublished. Archives at Smith College, Princeton University Library (archives of the John Day Publishing Company), and Andover Harvard Library (Beach Press archives).
  • Kathleen Farrell (1912–1999):  a British novelist; her unpublished writings are held by the University of Texas, Austin.
  • Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938): an author and illustrator of the American West whose extensive correspondence has never been published though it was used uncredited by the novelist Wallace Stegner in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose.
  • Eugene Gordon (1891–1972):  an African-American journalist, his unpublished writings are held by the New York Public Library.
  • Hannah Griffitts (1727–1817):  an American Quaker poet of the Revolutionary period; several hundred of her unpublished poems and many letters are held by the Pennsylvania Historical Society.
  • Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford (1829–1921):  a minister and biographer, she wrote an unpublished memoir, “Old Time School Days in Nantucket.” Location to be determined.
  • Edwin Harleston (1882–1931): an African-American painter, he is the subject of an unpublished biography by his daughter and granddaughter. Archives at Emory University.
  • Deborah Norris Logan (1761–1839): an American Quaker historian and memoirist; her 17-volume diary is unpublished apart from excerpts. Archives at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
  • Edith Morley (1875–1964): a British literary scholar, she wrote an unpublished memoir, “Looking Before and After.” In University of Reading archives.
  • Deborah Griscom Passmore (1840–1911):  an artist for the early USDA, she wrote an unpublished illustrated book, “Flowers in Water Color.” In USDA archives.
  • Margaret Fulton Spencer (1882–1966):  a painter and architect, she wrote an unpublished memoir about running a dude ranch, “Dudes and Dopes.” Location to be determined.
  • Ruby Pickens Tartt (1880–1974): an American folklorist, she wrote a collection of unpublished stories based on Southern folklore. Location to be determined, possibly destroyed.

absent labia

Friday, July 8th, 2016

Last night I dreamed that I was trying to explain why I dislike the French theorist Jean Baudrillard, and in the dream I gave this example of the kind of thing that irritates me: “Jouissance is a term we use to avoid calling something simply jolie, with the excised letter ‘l’ signifying the absent labia.” When I woke up I got a laugh out of this dream version of theory, and also out of the dream choice of Baudrillard as a mask for Lacan, with whom the term is far more closely associated. So I was contemplating how ‘absent labia’ is an oneiric rewrite of the ‘missing women’ who have driven my Wikipedia writing for the last couple of years and who are at the heart of my Monkey Head project. And I suddenly realized that in one respect at least, I myself have been guilty of absenting women from my own project. In browsing the ICI library for readings to feed my thinking—as well as to feed the ICI’s demand for ‘maxims’—I have mostly pulled out books by men. The two blackboards in my research room, where I have been writing down quotations from these sources, are filled with the thoughts of men. One could argue for this as a kind of unconscious sequestration, since the entire rest of the room is awash in the images and thoughts and lives of women, but that in itself is a problem since artificially corralling any group of thinkers is as indefensible as allowing them the run of the room. And there is also the fact that the blackboards are being used to bring in outside voices as authorizing presences, and those outside voices are male.

I can put part of the dearth of women’s voices down to the fact that I like to pull out books at random, or based solely on an intriguing title—which speaks to the fact that a random choice will likely alight on a male author since there are so many more of them. But mostly I have to cop to the fact that my intellectual training back to year one has been strongly male-identified, and the theorists who remain reflexive touchstones in my field of art are a good example. You are trained to pull out Benjamin-Lacan-Derrida-Foucault-Baudrillard, and only after genuflecting in their direction will you have cleared the space to reach for an Irigaray or a Butler or a Haraway. When I’m on my own intellectual terrain — the history and present of digital media — it’s a different story; here I often reach first for women authorities, Haraway being a good example. But when I’m not — as now, when I’m trying to think about encyclopedias and taxonomies and archives, all subjects to which I’ve never given sustained and focused attention — it appears that I revert to old bad habits. The project of releasing ourselves from the sleeping beauty spell is never done.

thinking about the letter W

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016

I have been thinking a lot lately about words beginning with the letter w, especially women, Wikipedia, and writing—because I have spent a good deal of time over the past two years writing articles about women for Wikipedia. So I have just finished a letter-W-driven trawl through my Wikipedia pages to see what else I could find there besides women— a fictional town called Wallencamp, as it happens, and whiteflies. I could have sliced through using other letters (B would be a good one) or concepts (botany, brains, boldness), and they would all be equally arbitrary and equally useful.

One of the fundamental problems of research and writing is that it involves a narrowing down; you may start by casting wide or at random, but as you begin to form something that can be called a subject, you start to exclude things from consideration. And if you get to the point of having something neatly assembled—and certainly not all research winds up in this way—its very aura of completeness, though totally false, makes it difficult to really see anymore, like trying to peer through a window when the angle of light keeps pulling you out to the surface reflections. But this metaphor invokes the idea of depth, which assumes that hermeneutics is possible: that there is always a thing to be known, a thing that is hidden and that your research and writing has somehow found, dusted off, possibly reconstructed, and exposed to view. (Though there will probably be new concealments created in the process for the next code-breaker who comes along.) Your job is just to hand your text off to the reader, but suppose that is an unsatisfactory requirement? How do you place yourself in the reader’s position, the new position of power over the text? You can cast yourself as an interpreter and write about it, but that can be very stultifying because of the difficulty of navigating between the shoals of self-praise and disclaimer. Another possibility is to find mechanisms of temporary disassembly and recombination that return the text to the mess of raw materiality, and an arbitrary taxonomy is a very good tool towards this end. It’s a sorting mechanism that creates new neighborhoods where all the ideas are equally uncomfortable until they find ways to bridge out to each other.

Even the phrase ‘arbitrary taxonomy’ suggests that there is some kind of taxonomic structure that is not arbitrary. But what would that even mean? A taxonomy is always logical and always partial. The first time I awoke to this fact was in reading a counter-taxonomy constructed by Jorge Luis Borges, which he claimed to have taken from an ancient Chinese document called the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. This list taxonomizes the animal kingdom into 14 categories, among which are to be found “those that are trained,” “innumerable ones,” and “sucking pigs.” Foucault took up this list and offered it back in The Order of Things as a kind of thing that  can break up “all the ordered surfaces” we use to try to tame actuality and align it in ways our minds can cope with. A taxonomy, in other words, is in part a recognition of our mental deficiencies vis à vis the world we inhabit. In writing for Wikipedia, I am trying to be the tamer, the bringer of order, but I cannot ever forget that the Celestial Emporium of Wikipedian Knowledge would divide knowledge differently, perhaps into these 14 subject areas:

  1. western
  2. things found in drops of water
  3. things of which there are wax models
  4. wildernesses
  5. fancy work
  6. workers’ housing
  7. things of which there are watercolors
  8. wildflowers
  9. white matter
  10. wit and wisdom
  11. wolves
  12. subjects of stained glass windows
  13. people whose names begin with W
  14. women

Umberto Eco points out that “every discourse about the encyclopedia casts in doubt the previous structure of the encyclopedia,” and I would count among these discourses new versions of the encyclopedia itself. The fundamental problem here is what Eco refers to as the hermeneutic circle: the process by which a text, in being read and interpreted, becomes a special kind of object whose existence and importance are validated by this very process of making up stuff about it, all of which changes the object in ways that call for a further round of readings and makings-up. It is also true that texts derived from other texts are part of the hermeneutic circle, but these have the interesting possibility of both validation and betrayal.