Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Paper Tigers, Social Movements, Memory and Death, the Archive

with 2 comments

by Luce

The need to put out my hat for change and plea for grant funding has forced my hand: I now have my next summer planned out in more detail than my next week. I am now closer to actually being able to conceptualize a potential prospectus than ever before. And the funny thing is that, despite a fifty year shift in time period and a spiraling of topics, it looks like I am essentially doing what  I said I came here to do in the first place: trace through the ideas of a network of activist groups and individuals involved in a social debate concerning reproduction, identity, and ethics. Or something like that. Who knew?

I am not an archive fetishist, which is probably why I’m not a social historian. I study people who are often still living and who were fiercely engaged in debates which I might have been involved in had I been born a generation earlier (well, and in Germany). Tendrils of those debates still inflect today’s concerns and value judgments, and you may have seen me post on them here. I found Wiz’s post on the Forgotten Abolitionist lovely and moving, but I can’t claim to have myself felt that poignant feeling upon opening a folder containing the life of someone long dead. As I said, many of my people aren’t, and maybe I haven’t yet immersed myself enough in the archives to start feeling emotional attachments, though I did a master’s thesis on an early twentieth century German feminist and paged through many of her hand-written letters.

I’ve never tried to really plumb the depths of my psyche to understand why I do history, but I don’t think my anxiety about death plays a part [that comes out every time I sob through yet another saccharine Hollywood death scene]. I suspect I partly do history because I like to tell a story and find my own life too boring a plotline, but history for me is also a way to think through the paradoxes and contradictions that plague my own world. Their conundrums are my conundrums, which means that when I read through someone’s writings my underlying anxiety is about the impact such ideas have had in making available access to abortion, or agency of the disabled, or so on.

Poster from my local cafe in the neighborhood of Wedding in Berlin this summer

I have recently discovered the democracy of the archival institution in Germany, though my opinion is out on the democracy of the archive itself. The Berlin Papiertiger archive, fittingly located on Curvystrasse, was founded in 1985 and sees itself as part of a continuing Leftist movement that it thinks should have a good understanding of its own history: “Alongside other factors, a political movement is only as successful as what it has learned from its history and its defeats, and if it has taken from this the correct conclusions.” It sees its clientele as its own comrades; the first plea on its home page is to “bring us your current newspapers, brochures, fliers, and posters.” Carrying the motto “From the movement, for the movement,” Papiertiger is passionately worried about who will write their history, how they will interpret it, and that historians will ignore the transformative impact of the social movements from below on society.

The Frauenforschungs-, -bildungs- und -informationszentrum e.V. [FFBIZ], one of the largest archives in Germany containing materials on the themes of women and gender, began in 1978  as an alternative project of the new German women’s movement, which demanded that the state provide monetary support for socially important work without taking away the self-determination of their project. First they occupied a building, then they were subsidized by public funding, and finally they were recognized as a “Modellprojekt.” Has such a thing ever happened in the US? Think: a bunch of women occupied a building in order to open an archive. This was how important it was for activists invested in some form of identity politics (pace Judt) to be able to research into experiences and lives they thought would illuminate their own social situation.

I bring these archives up because I find their histories exciting and their continued existence inspiring, but also because they elicit a number of questions and problems for me. Having been professionally trained as a historian in the United States, and being very bad at hagiography, can I really expect to fulfill Papiertiger’s plea for a better interpretation of the history of the Left? On the other hand, is their call a challenge to remember, even in critique, the excitement and sense of accomplishment that people involved in such social movements felt at the time? It was useful to read Ute Frevert’s 1986 take on the activities of Germany’s New Women’s Movement around abortion liberalization in the early 1970s. It was a battle they technically lost, yet Frevert claims the loss was not a total defeat: the fight itself had demonstrated common, sex-specific interests and identities and resulted in the building up of feminist groups in almost all of Germany’s big cities. Whatever we have to say about the paradoxes, the failures, the problematics, do we risk losing sight of the significance of inchoate emotions and optimistic activities themselves?

Secondly, what will the archives of our generation look like? Papiertiger continues to collect activist newspapers and placards from today’s activist circles. Who is collecting these things in the US? I actually just don’t know, so if anyone could enlighten me I’d appreciate it. Are there large social archives that gather the random papers of random activist movements that may have lasted for the blink of an eye? The Archive of Social Movements in Hamburg opens its “Self-Image and History” page with the following:

Materials and documents from social movements disappear with the breakup of groups and movements; all the painstakingly acquired collections of newspapers, private archives, and mountains of brochures often turn into scrap paper or become private memories left to mold in the attic. These sources remain hidden to the public mind and even the collective memory of the social movements themselves.

This really said something to me. Perhaps there is after all something about remembering and recognizing normal, everyday historical actors at the base of why I do history, but what I find most poignant is the specifics of how these people engaged, the evidence that groups of people, even if for just six months or two years, with no real game plan and no survival guide, were passionate enough about something to come together in the face of futility and force their foot into the door of history. Rather than anxiety about death, though, I think this is grounded in a regret that my generation, with some notable exceptions, seems to have lost that spark of energy and groundless optimism laced with perhaps an essential naivete. I’m not one of those lamenters who thinks my generation doesn’t care — it does, but our activism has become professionalized, legitimated with degrees and business cards. Perhaps this is more effective, yet it would seem that we miss something in losing an even sometimes reckless spontaneity — perhaps the ability to call a movement successful despite its losses because its enthusiasm fomented political commitments and new identities in those who had previously been apolitical. Does today’s activist political culture provide opportunities, after a certain (young) age, for the apathetic to become suddenly engaged?

On the other hand, maybe I’m just selfishly concerned about the fate of Ad Hoc Magazine, a progressive magazine I and some friends created and ran for a few years in college, the paper leftovers of which even now form a great moldy mountain in my parents’ basement. I fear that one day they will decide to build a fire with them, and that Ad Hoc’s internet incarnation will crumble away forgotten, a nursing home of broken links and outdated thoughts. (In an attempt at (self-)preservation, here is a 2005 article on Columbia expansion and a 2006 article on the diversity initiative.)

Which brings up a final question: is the internet sufficient as an archive of our generation’s social movements and alternative ideas?

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Written by Kristen Loveland

January 14, 2011 at 01:29

2 Responses

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  1. Re: US archives of contemporary radicalism – I think there might be quite a few, actually. The Labadie Collection at Michigan is probably the most notable, but Oregon has collected material relating to environmental and anarchist movements, as well as intentional communities and feminist groups. I’d throw in the Tammiment Library at NYU, collections at Berkeley, and wouldn’t be surprised if Wisconsin has more than SDS material. Not all of this is proactive (collecting radical material as they are produced, rather than getting a fond of stuff when someone dies or cleans out a basement), but some of it is. So while I don’t know of anything like Papiertiger in the US, there is collecting and preserving going on. You could probably even contact someone at Columbia’s university archives to see if they would (or have) preserved Ad Hoc.

    John

    January 15, 2011 at 20:41

  2. A good example to consider might be the Redstockings Archive of Women’s Liberation: http://www.redstockings.org/ – their main batch of materials comes from the late 1960s and 1970s, but they have materials from later too. Several people connected to the archive simply saved pamphlets and flyers from various meetings they attended over the years.

    You might also want to take note of the Herstory Lesbian archive in Brooklyn, NY: http://www.lesbianherstoryarchives.org/

    David

    January 30, 2011 at 12:37


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