Key Rhetorical Concepts

Archive: Bessette contested familiar impressions of the archive as a neutral, apolitical space dedicated to collecting, classifying, and cataloguing. Instead, she argued, every archive is already a technological and rhetorical construct because its archivists must decide what to include, how to classify these inclusions, and how to preserve them in sustainable ways for access by appropriate audiences. Thus, answering any of these questions is already an inherently rhetorical choice. Queer archives face additional challenges in the face of pasts that have been lost, corrupted, or elided by their mainstream counterparts—and thus, Bessette claimed, appropriation, manipulation, and even outright invention can become suitable rhetorical strategies for queer archives.

Kairos: One of Bessette’s main claims in Retroactivism was that queer and lesbian archives are necessarily produced by kairos, since such archives are always “created and remediated in response to historically specific exigencies” (p. 137) whereas “official” archives can simply exist on their own merits as organizations of preservation. Kairos thus shapes queer archives in ways that it does not necessarily touch “official” ones.

Retroactivism/Retroactivist: Bessette noted that queer archives are doing more than preservation work, and she expanded on queer film scholar Lucas Hilderbrand’s term “retroactivism” in order to explain the particular kind of generative rhetorical practices she observed there. To Bessette, retroactivist action combines looking backward (“retro”) with vigorous campaigning intended to generate social change (“activism”/“activist”), but it entails more than passive nostalgia. Instead, American lesbian collectives must often “impugn, deconstruct, and scavenge existing historical accounts and libraries” (p. 11) in order to compose their own histories and archives. Retroactivist rhetorical work thus becomes an active, embodied process that requires ongoing commitment and involvement from its rhetors.

Synecdoche: Bessette reconfigured synecdoche as a “material rhetorical device” (p. 81) in which the relationship between a whole and its parts is used to describe the relationship between the whole archive and an individual artifact, such as a letter, a piece of clothing, or a photograph. In this kind of material synecdoche, Bessette contended, hints of individual lesbian lives can be understood to figure parts of a larger, obscured lesbian history that may never be fully recovered. Bessette also maintained that material, archival synecdoche queers a classical understanding of the term by making such relationships both tangible and classificatory. That is, interacting with or trying to locate a piece of lesbian history can be as valuable to an individual visitor as interacting with the whole.

Topoi: Within archives, Bessette noted, topoi become spatial as well as textual, and are most often represented by classification schemes—that is, methods of organization become formulae for the often-implicit argument an archive is trying to forward or support (p. 83). Mainstream and state-sponsored archives will establish, follow, and push standard organization schemes as they also attempt to establish an authoritative version of history; queer archives, on the other hand, might invent their own, alternative classification schemes as they attempt to recover histories that their mainstream counterparts ignore. Bessette also observed how some place-based archives, such as the LHA in particular, queered archival topoi a step further by asking visitors to “invent” (p. 83) their own categorization schemes: picking up items, carrying them around the museum to compare with other artifacts, and leaving them in new places for future visitors.