ResearchNotes (Part 2): Allowing Discontinuity in the Archives

When I began to sort through the vast amount of scanned paper—looking over both the digital data and the material I could affordably print—I felt overwhelmed. It was not by the sheer amount of data, nor the reading I would have to undertake. I still had to locate an argument, suture disparate texts together, and reconstruct the trans ordinary where (to the untrained observer) there was no such thing. In that moment I was reminded of what Fredric Jameson had to say History. It resists representation and all human desire. It sets limits in political and ethical dimensions of our time. History hurts. But I realized in those moments when overwhelmed by page after page of fragmented autobiographies, line edits to unpublished books, newspaper articles scribbled with criticism—that History denied a kind of access to them, an affective relation that might deepen my connection. It was not a sentimentalized pain. It was the realization that my desire to know was structured by the fantasy to redescribe my own being. There were, of course, the painful re-discoveries of police and ordinary violence having documentary evidence (and public support for that matter) as early as the 1930s and 1940s in the U.S.

In other words, I was overwhelmed by an inability to recognize (through my own sense of self-identity) what these voices wished for me to recognize. History, in this moment, failed to reply to my ceaseless calling to it. That was, ironically, the solution in the form of contradiction. These fragments of stories, forms of life, traces of community vitality were saying something similar. Their authors, too, felt the hurt of History on their own terms. Their narrativity was, in some sense, a variety of ruptures in the seamlessness of trans historiography. My approach was thus a documentary one. I would be faithful to these ruptures as resistant objects in History. But not sensational resistances. No, these objects contained traces of the trans ordinary, zones of everyday life that bound hegemonic norms like, say, heterosexuality to the desires of a trans woman’s desire to write. No matter how much one might wish to read otherwise, these narratives did not succumb to anti-normative analysis. And such demands could not be made of them. That was the clarity I needed so that a necessary space for the encounter could exist. These encounters, too, were like so many ruptures. They tore out of me any hope of redeeming voices. The silences imposed on the past had been done. Texts do not speak for themselves. They are commanded to speak, made to speak, rendered intelligible. Could the lesson have been received from listening to History all along?

No. The more any of us scholars of trans studies sought to impose order on stories of nonnormative gender—for instance, recoding a transition narrative into a coherent model of consciousness—the more of the same silences, and violence, was reproduced upon emergent trans women and their stories. The very practices being politicized in the first place were reenacted through a cisnormative objectivity thinking itself to be emancipatory and supportive. Read in this way, the texts of the archive are constellated around certain institutional constraints; the cultural inscriptions that surround certain forms of communication are routinized and made into something transparent. The written word of the trans woman is the scripture awaiting mediation. And yet their resistant qualities, their tendency toward non-coherence, their inability to render a voice into an intelligibly human one—these are niceties granted to ordinary life but denied in the afterlife of the archive. So I intended to avoid the spatialization of the past within the archive. I did not perceive there being an anachronism to the presence of textual objects reflecting a historical meaning of transness altogether lost. The only answer was, in a sense, the rupture of objective relations that obtain between confusion of the interior and the exterior. Narrative ruptures invited me to be sensitive to surprises of strange and incoherent fragments. These texts had contained a voice but strained at coherence. Letting the incoherence exist seemed to open the field of historical play, and textual meaning, without freighting my analysis with the language of objectivity so pervasive in our social sciences.