Tuesday, November 07, 2006


In An Archive of Feelings, Ann Cvetkovich has written a thoughtful, insightful, and intellectually and theoretically rigorous book. To help our discussion on Thursday, I am going to do three things. First, I will create a brief outline of the book and highlight some points that I felt were significant in each chapter and raise some questions. Second, I’m interested in exploring a few ideas in depth for our discussion on Thursday. Finally, there are some overarching questions that I’ll pose for our discussion based on this text and the other two in this section (as well as some of the other books we’ve read to date.)

First, an outline of the book. My intention here is not to provide a crib for those who are pressed for time, but rather to look at how the book was assembled because it feels like an astonishing piece of scholarship to me.

In An Archive of Feelings, Cvetkovich is inserting her analysis into a variety of conversations that are happening. First, she is intervening in the study of trauma to change the clinical definitions, in which trauma is “an overwhelming event that produces certain kinds of symptoms in the patient,” (p. 19) and poststructuralist theory, in which trauma is “an event that is unrepresentable,” to a new notion of trauma “as part of the affective lanugage that describes life under capitalism.” (p. 19.) Second, Cvetkovich is intervening in the notion off an archive to posit not something that is contained in a library of whatever construction, to an “affective experience” that “can form the basis for public culture.” (p. 17.)

Cvetkovich builds the books with these chapters:


1. The Everyday Life of Queer Trauma

It is in this opening chapter that Cvetkovich reviews the world of trauma studies and provides her theoretical foundations for the book - feminism, critical race theory, Marxism, and queer theory. There are a few things that I admire about Cvetkovich’s writing that I want to emulate and many are grounded here in the first chapter. First, Cvetkovich is explicit about her theoretical underpinnings; not only is she explicit, she gives us a nice explication of what each of her theoretical allegiances mean to her. She is not reliant on short-hand terms or assumptions about the reader’s knowledge; rather she calmly and carefully explains what she believes, where she grounds her beliefs textually, and how she is trying to move the theoretical work forward through her work. It is elegant. i harbor such similar aspirations for care and elegance. Second, Cvetkovich grounds her work in texts that are based in the lesbian work and that speak to lesbians but also reach out from the lesbian community to a broader community. She does this in the first chapter with the film 2.5 Minute Ride and it’s connection with Little Women. It is a deft analysis. Third, Cvetkovich is extraordinary in her generous capacity to explain differences and respect those that she disagrees with while still holding to her own beliefs. She does this on page 31 in her explication of where she agrees with Judith Herman and where she departs. Fourth, she is unafraid of taking up things that are, or seem to be to me, “sacred cows” and engaging with them thoughtfully and transformatively. For example, in this first chapter, her discussions of trauma in Holocaust studies and in the history of slavery, both made me think “uh-oh” I wonder if she is going to make me uncomfortable? Will she tread on the things that I believe? Will she challenge my core beliefs and assumptions? She did - and I was comfortable with that - even thankful because I appreciated the thinking at the other side. Here’s the key though: she didn’t make me feel uncomfortable or weary throughout the process. So one of the learnings that I take from this text is how Cvetkovich thinks and writes because I find it generous and elegant as well as rigorous. These are all attributes to which I aspire and I’m appreciative of Cvetkovich for helping me to understand how to put them into practice.

This first chapter concludes with Cvetkovich’s statement, “Trauma, then, serves as a site for exploring the convergence of affect and sexuality as categories of analysis for queer theory.” (p. 48.) This foregrounds the second chapter and demonstrates how Cvetkovich is changing the nature of trauma studies through this book.

2. Trauma and Touch: Butch-Femme Sexualities

This chapter is a sensitive reading of sexuality as experienced in both a physical way and in an emotional way. Drawing on both the foundations of writing about butch-femme and trauma, Cvetkovich examines both carefully and with a new eye. I’m interested in looking at how Cvetkovich writes about sexuality in this chapter in addition to how she builds her arguments about reading trauma theory alongside butch-femme identities.

3. Sexual Trauma/Queer Memory: Incest, Lesbianism, and Therapeutic Culture

In this chapter, Cvetkovich problematizes traditional configurations of trauma and therapy cultures by reading them in conjunction with lesbian music. The elements that Cvetkovich introduces in this chapter are diverse and an important mix of sources. We may want to look at this chapter in particular as it feels like one of the most critical chapters in the book.

For folks unfamiliar with the music, here are two links.
LeTigre site:

Tribe 8 site:
I believe that Katie will bring in some of the music mentioned in the chapter.

4. Transnational Trauma and Queer Diasporic Publics

Initially, I thought that this was the weakest chapter of Cvetkovich’s book. That was a result of reading Gopinath last week, I think. Gopinath’s analysis of the queer female diasporic subjectivity is so sharp and clearly delineated that to come to this chapter a week later, it feels like it is missing something, which in retrospect it is: Gopinath’s work. In a second reading of it, however, I find this chapter a critical part of Cvetkovich’s project first because it ties to her central thesis about understanding trauma as a part of living with capitalism and second because it demonstrates further her willingness as an intellectual to write thoughtfully and respectfully across differences. Cvetkovich knows how significant the work of Gopinath and other academics is to her project; she writes about it quite compellingly on pages 120-121. Rather thank thinking of this chapter as lacking something, I’ve come to think of it as foregrounding something.

The substance of this chapter is Cvetkovich’s analysis of Frances Negron-Muntaner’s Brincando el Charco, Prathiba Parmar’s Khush, and Shani Moo-too’s Cereus Blooms at Night. Katie wrote a long blog entry about how citation practices serve to highlight and efface work. She raises the issue of how are we to know what we don’t know and how are we to know what is not mentioned. It is in this chapter that I thought about what is not said and what is said and the power of that in Cvetkovich’s book. Prathiba Parmar’s film, Warrior Marks, with Alice Walker has been the site of a great deal of contestation in Women’s Studies. Cvetkovich alludes to this when she writes, “One might even say that the controversies provoked by Warrior Marks’s criticism of female genital mutilation could be clarified by paying attention to this unusual collaboration between two lesbians ”of color“ whose common ground is as unpredictable as the difference between Walker’s ”womanism“ and Parmar’s theoretically informed cultural studies background.” (p. 134). Again, Cvetkovich demonstrates the care with which she writes and thinks using language that is not inflammatory or blaming but works to suss out clear-thinking meaning. I raise the point, however, to also note that by including Parmar’s work in this chapter, Cvetkovich is making a statement. I read the inclusion of Parmar’s Khush as a way to validate the work of Parmar despite the many criticisms she has faced.

5. AIDS Activism and Public Feelings: Documenting ACT UP’s Lesbians

This chapter begins Cvetkovich’s project of oral histories with lesbians from ACT UP. I found this chapter and the next one incredibly profound. I heard my own voice in the voices of the women Cvetkovich interviewed. Ultimately, in this chapter Cvetkovich problematizes the traditional formula in which from trauma activism emerges and posits that in addition to this from activism trauma emerges. She writes about a collective trauma that people can experience working together.

6. Legacies of Trauma, Legacies of Activism: Mourning and Militancy Revisited

This chapter includes more of the data from the oral histories and also takes up three memoirs of caretaking. Cvetkovich writes, “I was drawn to the idea that activism is not only a response to trauma but can itself be traumatic because of its emotional intensities and disappointments.” (p. 230.) Later, she writes, “I’d like to open up space in which exploring the emotional ambiguities and complexities of activism doesn’t compromise or undermine its significance.” (p. 231). This project and its conclusion feels so urgent to me, I have difficulty writing about it other than to say, yes.

7. In the Archive of Lesbian Feelings

In the final chapter, Cvetkovich explores archives and their constructs. Drawing on the two independent queer archives and contrasting them with the library-based archives, Cvetkovich explores what is included and what is excluded in archival construction while arguing for an archive that is more than “bibs and bobs” and includes that affective experiences of people. The entire notion of an archive is something that we may want to discuss; both the practicality of it and the meta-analysis of archives that Cvetkovich deploys by example in the text. This chapter also opens with a brief discussion of The Watermelon Woman; we may wish to consider that in light of the treatment of The Watermelon Woman in Black Queer Studies.


Cvetkovich chimes in on Boys Don’t Cry, consciously responding to other queer and cultural critics who have written about it. This is another locus for discussion as we have Halberstam’s analysis of the film in our common bank of knowledge now.

Reflections on Cvetkovich

I might describe this book as “all that and a bag of chips.” In addition to the many admirable things that I think that Cvetkovich does as a writer and an intellectual, what I like about this book is that way that Cvetkovich works through so many communities that I care about. Perhaps it is because she deals with communities that I have a vested interested in - lesbians, queers, survivors, readers of good books, lesbian films. I’d like to think though that my interest extends beyond my own personal feelings.

The other thing I admire about this book is the methodology that Cvetkovich employs in this book. Cvetkovich utilizes methodologies from a variety of communities of practice. She examines literature with tools of English; she examines film with tools from film; she examines oral histories with tools of history. Throughout it all she weaves tools and theories of feminism, Women’s Studies, and queer studies. Cvetkovich is expansive in the book and she is intensive. She uses a variety of tools to speak about issues that are important to her personally and to us politically and intellectually.

I think that Cvetkovich provides in An Archive of Feeling is a new paradigm for handling the personal content. Personal content, either as testimony or experience has been significant always to Women’s Studies and to LGBT Studies. (The entire notion of the closet and leaving the closet creates a central metaphoric experience related to personal experience that is central to queer constructions.) While Cvetkovich gathers and privileges personal experience in ways that we might expect it to in a Women’s Studies context, she isn’t stymied by personal experience. Rather she interrogates it with the same intellectual rigor as she interrogates other sources of knowledge in the text. Cvetkovich’s interrogation is done, of course, with the same deft hand that she handles other material. Cvetkovich writes with respect and positive regard for all of her subjects. As I have said before, It’s a paradigm I admire.

Some questions to think about for our class

How do the three books in this cycle work together? All are engaged in a dialogue about public cultures although their engagement with that term differs. Cvetkovich is engaged in a notion of public cultures that are material and grounded in many ways in a lesbian community; Gopinath is engaged in understanding the diaspora of southeast Asians and how to create a subjectivity for queer women; the Mobile Cultures collection is engaged in how gay-ness is being understood in southeast Asia through technology. While the easy connection for me is the content of looking at questions about southeast Asian queers, there is a deeper connection that these books share in writing about queer subjectivity.

How is Cvetkovich engaging in discussions of “queer” and “lesbian”? I think that she is drawing some lines here, but I haven’t mapped it out thoroughly and would love to talk about it in class.

How is Cvetkovich working with notions of public and private? How does that relate to the other texts in this section and in the course? Again, I think that there are some important insights here, but I haven’t wrapped my head around them all.

How does Cvetkovich chose the texts that she does to build this book? Is it different from some of the other authors that we have read? I think in particular about Cvetkovich’s work with lesbian music and Halberstam’s work with lesbian music. Are they doing similar things? Are there differences? What does that tell us for selection texts and content for our own work?

Article about Anne Cvetkovich

Finally, it seems that Cvetkovich’s parter is Gretchen Phillips, an awesome singer-songerwriter of 2 Nice Girls fame, among other lesbian music constellations. Phillips’ website is here:

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