Archived by Chapter: A Closer Review of Retroactivism

Introduction and Prologue

The prologue opened with an overview of how archives tend to function as a “technology of identity” (Rohy qtd in Bessette, p. 1) in queer culture, serving to reclaim and preserve a queer past in the face of competing narratives that pathologize nonnormative identities and sexualities. Here Bessette also drew connections between feminist rhetorics and queer rhetorics to show how the two subfields are often—and artificially—separated, and how neither has dedicated enough attention to lesbian rhetors, particularly when this population has done such remarkable rhetorical work using particular technologies. She then proceeded to an outline of Retroactivism itself, demonstrating how her book examines archives authored by American lesbian collectives as “compositions with implications for lesbian identity and sexual politics” (p. 2).

Her introduction returned to the all-important idea that lesbian archives “define and coalesce individuals into an abiding sense of collectivity” (p. 7) across the divisions of time, place, class, and race, and in defiance of dominant rhetorics that pathologized same-sex attraction and desire. Bessette then turned to recovery and “gender-analytic ‘re-reading’” (p. 17), two primary methodologies from feminist rhetorical theory, and demonstrated how lesbian archives utilize various technologies of production to realize these approaches.

Although these two sections did not focus on a particular archive yet, their unwavering call for more work in this area and their sharp presentation of methodologies make Bessette’s introduction and prologue among the most valuable parts of Retroactivism. Readers interested in rhetorical approaches to any form of archive—particularly queer and digital archives—will find the concepts here especially worthwhile. The only odd note is Bessette’s own rhetorical positioning, as is made evident when she outed herself as bisexual and admitted that she has a “privilege and concealed liminality” (p. 6) that her own subjects did not. This consciousness and acknowledgment are important, but her claim that “this book is precisely about troubling the surface of identity” (p. 5) such as she has just done by outing herself, seems to indicate that she is equating bisexual identity and experience with lesbian ones, and this is both inaccurate and beyond the project of Retroactivism altogether.

Chapter I

With this first chapter, Bessette considered how textual assemblages can function as archives. She focused on grassroots lesbian newsletters circulated by the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the anecdotes these publications collected, and the 1972 book Lesbian/Woman (Martin & Lyon, New York: Bantam Books) that the DOB founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon published based on these anecdotes. Bessette noted that the DOB was itself a rhetorical structure, drawing its legitimacy from the name “Bilitis”—a fictional contemporary of Sappho—and from its espousal of middle-class American values over the putative degeneracy of the bar scene. She then explored how the DOB newsletters collected reader anecdotes as a way of “diffusing disidentification” with pathology and degeneracy (p. 34), proving that a collective community of lesbians existed (p. 44), and positioning a response to the silence and biases facing lesbians who sought information about their identities (p. 46). In both form and content, though, Bessette maintained that Lesbian/Woman and its predecessor newsletters are unique because they had to be: because “official” archives have warped or erased queer pasts, the queer archives that replace them “must be composed with contents and in forms that do not look like the official paper records we expect archives to contain” (p. 39).

Bessette’s work in this chapter stands out for its unwavering treatment and accurate rhetorical analysis of the DOB’s negative sides as well as its history and accomplishments. Bessette correctly recognized that DOB founders had to balance different demands, including community building and values formation, and that one way they did so was through policing and curating the kinds of lesbian voices they would publish. Here, Bessette does not shy away from the kinds of oppressive power that rhetoric can support, even among marginalized communities.

Chapter II

In this chapter Bessette focused on grassroots lesbian archives, demonstrating how they function through a topos of classification that assumes a browsing, lay reader will explore and draw connections among a variety of physical materials. She noted that place-based archives such as the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) and June L. Mazer Archives (JLMA) are themselves rhetorical constructs, since both their archivists and their visitors are actively choosing how to browse and organize materials. As she analyzed examples from the LHA and JLMA collections, which both collect traces of “everyday” lesbian lives in response to a national loss of memory, Bessette also demonstrated how these two lesbian archives resist dominant classification schemes such as those in place at the Library of Congress—schemes that, not coincidentally, also categorized queer and lesbian experience alongside deviance, disease, and immorality. Though the LHA and JLMA do differ in that JLMA now has an external, institutional arrangement with UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women to house some of its collections, both archives still utilize rhetorical strategies such as analogical association and material synecdoche to encourage “an expansive understanding of lesbian identity” (p. 92).

Though this chapter accomplished many interesting moves, its strongest points included its argument for considering arrangement, materiality, and visiting rights as rhetorical topoi in place-based archives. Here, Bessette drew on her own visits to the LHA and JLMA to provide sustained readings of each archive’s collections and their relationship to outside power structures, such as UCLA. While some readers might be skeptical about this expansion of what topoi signifies, it is impossible to deny the thought and theorization that Bessette put into this claim.

Chapter III

Here Bessette discussed several examples of documentary-style independent films, showing how lesbian filmmakers such as Barbara Hammer, Cheryl Dunye, and their peers used film as “a meta-archival practice that encourages viewers to reflect on the process of preservation” (p. 95). These filmmakers both appropriated and remediated existing material in ways that resisted earlier archival practices in order to keep certain narratives from being solidified as the “only” lesbian narratives: these retroactivist works brought questions of age, race, and class to the foreground in ways their forebears often didn’t. Bessette also divided this chapter into five sections, each of which “couples a conceptual innovation in lesbian filmic historiography with the multimodal rhetorical strategy that facilitates it” (p. 97)—. I outline these foci further in the section “Filmic Historiographies.”

Bessette closed this chapter with the claim that these five rhetorical strategies exemplify a “historiographic retroactivism” (p. 130) that questions whether the recovery of past lesbian narratives can truly be separated from present ideas, wishes, and agendas, or whether such recovery will always be tinged by nostalgia and oversimplification. Specifically, Bessette was quick—and correct—to point out that “Nonnormative sexuality does not always map onto a rational, affirmative politics in which its figures emerge as heroic victims of a homophobic foe” (p. 109), with examples of photographer Alice Austen being racist, anti-Semitic, and mean-spirited. Of course, Bessette’s own readers will quickly recognize contemporary examples of another nostalgia for a sanitized and even nonexistent past throughout 2019 American politics, lending further credence to her term and exemplifying its rhetorical applicability beyond the specific contexts where she is applying it.

Chapter IV

Bessette opened this chapter with a brief recounting of how the three previous forms of lesbian archive have figured in the composition of queer pasts. Each united the available media and technologies of its time with a particular retroactivist agenda, as “queer archives are a product of kairos, created and remediated in response to historically specific exigencies” (p. 137). She then moved on to look at how online new media extend people’s capacity to make or engage with queer archives, which complicates this kind of project by treating the past in different ways and even attenuating the sense of needing to look back at all. She discussed the It Gets Better Project, the coming-out video, and the practice of documenting relationships—all on YouTube—as contemporary archival projects from the “recent past” (p. 141) that all have different retroactivist purposes from both their predecessors and one another. She closed by noting that digital archives are similar to material ones in that all are shaped by the circumstances of audience, medium, and exigency, but also that digital archives pose new challenges because they are housed on commercial platforms where their content may oppose corporate interests. Bessette suggested that future retroactivist projects may be precisely to challenge this trend of “ephemeral, corporately controlled, and individual versions of the recent past afforded by online digital media: to ‘make’ the kinds of histories and people necessitated by whichever kairos the future encounters” (p. 148).

In some ways—particularly regarding theorization—this chapter felt the weakest of the four, in part because it diverged from Bessette’s initial focus on the rhetorics of specifically lesbian archives, and in part because the archives it discusses are still under construction in ways that the other chapters’ archival subjects are not. In other ways, however, this chapter introduced some of Bessette’s most important concepts, including her concern that “digital composing practices may attenuate the sense that one must look backward to the long past to shape present community and identity” (p. 137) and also the realization that most digital archives’ projects are unavoidably influenced by the commercial demands of corporatized platforms. These are both important concerns that shape many queer rhetorics today: The destruction or loss of digital archives, whether through technology decay or corporate censorship, can be total when such archives are produced apart from queer pasts and when their archivists mistakenly assumed that platforms would host these sole copies of their work forever.