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Beyond Recovery: Towards a New Feminist Methodology of the Archive

In Towards a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed writes of feminism as “a fragile archive, a body assembled from shattering, from splattering, an archive whose fragility gives us responsibility.”[1] From this tenuous archive, I seek an affirming inclusion in modernist studies: Urmila Seshagiri explains in a recent Modernism/modernity Print Plus cluster that “the process of canon-formation––and deformation, and reformation––constitutes the simplest and yet the most complex act in feminist scholarship about modernism.” This tension between fragility and the desire for a foundational feminist archive is most recently apparent in Saidiya Hartman’s exploration of Black lives in the early twentieth century.[2] She writes of the challenges she confronted in recreating marginalized lives based on an incomplete archive: “Every historian of the multitude, the dispossessed, the subaltern, and the enslaved is forced to grapple with the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known” (Hartman, Wayward, xiix). With an archive primarily based on photographs intended to document crime and poverty, Hartman recovers a “fugitive text,” in which, as she describes it, she “elaborates, augments, transposes and breaks open archival documents so they might yield a richer picture of . . . black social life” (xiv). Inspired by Hartman’s unraveling of the reliability of the archive, I pose the question: what happens when we acknowledge the metaphorical and literal fragility of the archives, as Ahmed describes it? After visiting the archives of Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag, I still have not produced what would be classified as a publishable new discovery. I have felt disappointed in my inability to add to the feminist mission of recovery. Reflecting on these research trips, I have, through my own self-doubt, come to come to recognize my own uncertainties as an extension of the uncertainties that are preserved in the archives of the women writers I study. But while my journeys into these archives have so far failed to add to the scholarship on women’s writing, I am beginning to see the archive in concept and manifestation as defined by unreliability. I have to come the conclusion that my failure to unearth and publish “new discoveries” from my archival research can still add value in the sense that I have gained a sense of how these writers’ consciousness of the limits of the archive shaped their writing.  In this way, alternative approaches to the archives, such as remembering what is excluded or broken (and why) might be a means to a more sustainable and foundational feminist practice.

Archival Failures

In the opening pages of Sontag’s essay on war and photography Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), she refers to Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938). This is fitting because Woolf begins her own essay with a description of a troubling photograph from the Spanish Civil War: a “photograph of what might be a man’s body, or a woman’s. . . . Those certainly are dead children.”[3] Sontag explains, “Woolf professes to believe that the shock of such pictures cannot fail to unite people of good will.”[4] Whereas Regarding the Pain of Others is centrally focused on investigating the responses to the visual representation of war, Woolf primarily regards photography as a rhetorical tool useful for probing the question “how are we to prevent war”? (Woolf, Three Guineas, 3). Despite this difference, both writers articulate the horizon of ethical response to war through an interrogation of the archive of war photographs, laboriously described but not reproduced or cited. This lack of actual war photographs enables a rigorous examination of the relationship between political power, documentation, and political violence and carefully avoids inviting the voyeurism that can occur in response to the visual the representation of atrocity.[5] This is to say that, though they treat the document of the photograph differently, Sontag’s and Woolf’s ethically driven projects are linked by their commitments to the power of the shared experience of historical war photography.[6]

When I first drew this connection, I was inspired to visit the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Sussex special collections repositories in order to identify shared patterns in how each of these two writers used archives. At Sussex one can view the scrapbooks Woolf kept related to Three Guineas. I visited the university archive in 2008 with the hope of finding photographs of the Spanish Civil War.[7] I held out slim hope of this cache being found since I had gathered from Merry M. Pawlowski that such photographs would not be discoverable amongst these materials.[8] Even if the archive contained such a trove, I understood Woolf’s photographs were intentionally rhetorical, more beneficial as a means towards an argument than as literal images. These rhetorical photographs enabled her to refer to but not to reproduce the traumas they depicted. Despite the dismal prospects, as a graduate student I felt compelled by scholarship’s narrative of discovery, perhaps inspired by such writers as Woolf’s biographer Hermione Lee who describes her “periodic attacks of archive-faintness [that] overcame me, as I contemplated the transatlantically scattered hoards of manuscripts and letters, diaries and notebooks” to go in search of such work.[9] Seven years later, in February 2015, I visited Sontag’s computer-based archive at UCLA. Susan Sontag’s papers were acquired in 2002, but the print material was made available soon after that; it is unclear why the computer archive only became accessible in 2014.[10] But with the addition of her email correspondence and drafts of Regarding the Pain of Others available in the UCLA computer archive, I thought I could uncover how Sontag came to use Woolf’s rhetorical photographs to begin Regarding the Pain of Others: did Woolf inspire Sontag’s book or did Three Guineas conveniently fit into an already conceptualized project? Did Sontag, perhaps, keep an archive of her changing critique of Woolf’s rhetorical archive? I did not find any material in the Sontag archives that tracked Sontag’s inclusion of Woolf or the evolution of Regarding the Pain of Others more broadly. Instead, the experience impressed upon me the fact that Sontag and Woolf rely on rhetorical photographic images. And their hope is that the potentiality of what the images could represent, rather than the images themselves, will produce a groundswell of popular feeling. If we follow their strategy, feminist-driven archival work might resist the focus on particular material items as prized objects and would instead honor the labor of the search: the brief revelations that failed to take hold; tenuous connections, mishaps, errors, and disappointments. In this way, the fight for feminist inclusion might be more worthwhile than the always-out-of-reach actual inclusion.

In order to see in person the archival material related to Woolf’s Three Guineas, I took a train through Brighton and through the scenic English suburbs that surround the University of Sussex. In some sense the trip felt pleasantly like a reenactment of E. M. Forster’s Howards End but this is where my feelings of nostalgia came to an abrupt end. Having made advance preparations (contacting Special Collections), I settled in after some initial delays related to finding me a space to work. However, the box of material I requested did not contain the original papers that Woolf had handled. As a preservation step, the boxes were filled with rudimentary photocopies of the scrapbooks Woolf kept while writing Three Guineas. However, I still was able to draw some useful conclusions from my on-site visit, even if my insights are not conventionally recognized to be publishable revelations. The scrapbooks revealed that Woolf was “consciously clipping articles which [took] up the issue of women’s place (or lack thereof) in public space” (Pawlowski, “Exposing Spectacle,” 34). These articles—some from London papers like the Daily Telegraph and others without publication information––include one entitled “Does University Education Fit Modern Women for Life?” and another “Equality of the Sexes Only a Myth.”[11] Such cuttings serve as evidence of the very “patriarchal fascism” that Woolf worked to expose in her essay.[12] The scrapbooks are fascinating: they provide both an eye into Woolf’s state of mind while composing Three Guineas and insight into the public conversation surrounding gender roles after the suffrage movement and before World War II brought women into the workforce en masse. Alas, I did not have that prized archival encounter with original artifacts, nor did I feel that I had discovered anything within the materials that offered itself as new or as a clear path toward a unique scholarly contribution. As I reflected upon this archival visit, I wondered whether I had failed to adequately review the archive, but I have come to the conclusion that this failure to find the new is not necessarily unproductive failure.

Susan Howe insists in her 2014 Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, “We need to see and touch documents; now we often merely view the same material on a computer screen,” a sentiment that the intense scrutiny on archival work in modernist conferences, journals and monographs echoes.[13] The experience at the Sussex Special Collections Library led me to ask why material archival evidence carries great status within discussions of modernism when there is little evidence that can be seen or touched, and less still that has not already been seen and touched. And what if there are no original artifacts at all, such as the images of “ruined houses” on which Woolf and Sontag build their arguments? In fact, Three Guineas is built on yet another irretrievable document: the fictional letter to which Woolf claims to respond, which asks “how do we prevent war?” This imagined artifact is a rhetorical device like that of the photographs of the Spanish Civil War she discusses elsewhere in the essay. In a response to an article culled from Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others which appeared in the New Yorker, renowned Woolf scholar Jane Marcus explains the disconnect between the absent images of ruined houses that Woolf describes and the photographs of men in authoritative positions that Woolf does include:

Some readers might be puzzled, at first, by the wrongness of the photographs and their lack of fit within the text, but this was precisely Woolf’s point: . . . Her hope this time was that readers would realize that they had to concentrate on the man who made war, rather than on the images of abstract horror.[14]

According to Marcus, Woolf intended to produce horror in her readers through the rhetorical effect of absence­­. Woolf may have reasoned that without the spectacle of the photographs, readers might shift their perspective on war and actively call to end violence (thereby disrupting the power of the men who cause war).

The laptop that holds the digital files from the Sontag collection held at UCLA
Fig. 1. The laptop that holds the digital files from the Sontag collection held at UCLA. Photo by author; image by permission of Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

While Marcus’s letter was published in the New Yorker, I first read it while searching through Sontag’s collection at UCLA, an experience that, at first, was characterized by technical innovation, the opposite of my nostalgic train ride to the archives in Sussex (I was driven there in a Tesla by a friend). Sontag’s computer files from the early 2000s are accessed via a laptop (not her exact laptop, but nonetheless older hardware, which is necessary to view the almost obsolescent nature of the digital files). You can rifle through her email messages, though it appears that they were substantially edited: most of what I examined was the mundane and very familiar rain of spam from Sephora and order confirmations from Amazon.com; lists of “Best Wines”; “Best places to visit outside Europe”; and her list of 100 best books (four are Virginia Woolf novels).[15] Some of these lists are empty. In fact, many of the files (and the filing system) reflect an early 00’s fascination with computers and their unfulfilled promise. For example, Sontag downloaded two template files from the internet to simplify shopping at the supermarket. Both templates have recognizable clip art of cartoonish shopping carts and apples. In another though less meaning-laden instance of absence in the archive, both templates are empty of items. I could not but help seeing a connection between Sontag’s domestic digital forays and Woolf’s own concern with the domestic accounting her diaries record. Of course, Sontag, from her socioeconomic position in an historical era of great US abundance, would likely not have shared Woolf’s scrupulous and frugal attention to detail. Brigitte Bechtold quotes from Woolf’s diaries, “Out of my £60 I have bought a Heal bed, a cupboard, ... & now a strip of carpet for the hall” and on January 3, 1936: “L. says I have not made enough to pay my share of the house, & have to find £70 out of my hoard.”[16] Woolf’s accounting is fascinating, as is her need to record such expenditures. She celebrates her economy while admitting her shortcomings. Yet, my interest in the labor of such precision feels to me as though I am inflating the value of such observations. Indeed, the scene of the archive inspires a need to make sense of the noise, static, and textual abundance of the archives. I became aware that my research was turning into a process of what Sontag calls “too much remembering” and not enough contemplation (Regarding the Pain of Others, 115). I am overwhelmed by these details even while I am painfully aware that it is the scholars’ job to sift through and obscure my own process and labor in order to deliver coherent narratives.

One might optimistically believe that the advent of digitally enabled distance reading methods will relieve the scholar of this onslaught of information, essentially simplifying a scholar’s work so that she can use data-driven methods to streamline her efforts. The computer archive at UCLA appears, at first, entirely twenty first century in its nature as digital files. However, it is still a reminder that even “digital” includes outdated technology. The archive is only available via a laptop, not the internet, and the laptop is, to be blunt, a cranky research partner. Many of the files and emails open to error images, and images/attachments are no longer present (the familiar “Mail Store is unable to display this email message” often appeared). Question marks take the place of quotation marks in early emails, and other broken code interrupt the reader’s ability to initially understand the language (perhaps similar to a researcher trying to unravel handwriting). On more than one occasion I struggled to access the laptop contents and even the professional librarians struggled with the quirks of the medium, demonstrating that “digital” is not the same as easy or instant access. Once a librarian explained that the computer was broken and needed to be repaired; and the second time the laptop could not be found because the student archivist was not informed that she would be providing a laptop rather than the traditional material files she was trained to provide, and therefore did not realize that the laptop in plain sight was the item I was seeking. It was satisfying to be able to search for files related to the string “Regarding the Pain of Others,” as well as use the search by date function, but given that there were few early drafts available on Sontag’s laptop, I was disappointed not to learn more about how her engagement with Woolf evolved. At the mercy of archivists or a victim of copyright restrictions, I know Sontag’s favorite European destinations, but little about her writing process.

The home screen for the Susan Sontag digital collection that features an image of a stack of books
Fig. 2. The home screen for the Susan Sontag digital collection that features an image of a stack of books, perhaps more familiar to the average archivist. Photo by author; image by permission of Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

To my surprise I became intensely interested in the many references to computer breakdowns Sontag writes about in her emails with friends and editors. In July of 2002, Sontag writes of her own computer trouble, “I see the problem now with the G4. It has a loose wire. I’ve had to restart it several times.”[17] And a follow-up email that contains attachments of her work in progress, which Sontag describes as: “A stash for New York (in case the computer here evaporates).”[18] In 2001, Annie Lebovitz writes to Sontag with a gleefully titled message, “My first Email” which is quickly followed by confusion of emails: “reply if you get this.”[19] Sontag inexplicably emails Lebovitz to tell her that she sent a fax, because Lebovitz did not receive Sontag’s reply to the email.  Just as Woolf invokes rhetorical photographs and an imaginary letter first to highlight then to challenge the power of public attention, Sontag demonstrates that mechanical failure has its own usefulness; her preoccupation with unreliable technology in her correspondence during the writing and publication of Regarding the Pain of Others illuminates the book’s many references to “vulnerability” (55), “disappointed expectation” (83) and “instability” (101). This language implicitly suggests that technology has its most profound effect on us when it fails to work.[20]

I would like to suggest the value of feminist archival work that addresses this mediated process of archival research beyond the focus on traditionally recognized encounters and discoveries. Such work would include failures and malfunctions: what is missing, lost, or broken; what we wish for and what we long for; how the archive has not yet cracked open the canon to satisfactorily meet the feminist mission of highlighting the work of marginalized writers and how we have failed the archive. Sontag observes that “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.”[21] To focus on how technology informs and limits archival labor would be to resist “accepting the world as it looks”; it shifts the emphasis from the materiality of archival research to the highly mediated process with which we encounter the archive; it resists the reliance on and objectification of material evidence; it suggests the value of exclusion, already familiar to feminist scholars. In short, it potentially engages the same ethics of seeing that resulted in the production of both Three Guineas and Regarding the Pain of Others. As a result, the archives remain valuable not because of the artifacts yet to be found but in the feminist labor it will take to unravel them in their incredible range and diversity.



[1] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 17.

[2] Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2019).

[3] Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt, 1966), 11.

[4] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), 6.

[5] Woolf reprinted photographs of men in uniform and other official regalia in the original publication of Three Guineas.

[6] Thomas Osborne also discusses the archive in terms of its “ethical credibility”: “knowledge of the archive is a sign of status, of authority, of a certain right to speak, a certain kind of author-function” (Thomas Osborne, “The Ordinariness of the Archive,” History of the Human Sciences 12, no. 2 [1999]: 51-64, 53-54). In the case of Woolf and Sontag, however, the archive is only visible to them (“Ordinariness” 59).

[8] Merry M. Pawlowski, "Exposing Masculine Spectacle: Virginia Woolf’s Newspaper Clippings for Three Guineas as Contemporary Cultural History,” in Literature and Digital Technologies: W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, and William Gass, ed. Karen Schiff (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Digital Press, 2003), 33-39.

[9] Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (New York: Vintage, 1996), 4.

[10] The availability of the different parts of the Susan Sontag Collection is indicated on the UCLA library website.

[11] Virginia Woolf, “Monks House Papers Press Cuttings,” University of Sussex Library.

[12] Maggie Humm, Modernist Women and Visual Cultures: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Photography and Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 196.

[13] Susan Howe, The Telepathy of Archives (New York: New Directions, 2014), 9.

[14] Jane Marcus, “Letter to the editor,” The New Yorker, January 13, 2003, 7.

[15] Susan Sontag, digital files, 1992-2004, (Los Angeles: UCLA Library of Special Collections).

[16] Brigette Bechtold, “More Than A Room and Three Guineas: Understanding Virginia Woolf’s Social Thought, Journal of International Women’s Studies 1, no. 2 (2000): 1-11, 8.

[17] Susan Sontag email message to unnamed recipient, July 2002, “Computer trouble,” UCLA Library of Special Collections.

[18] Susan Sontag email message to unnamed recipient, July 2002, “A stash for New York,” UCLA Library of Special Collections.

[19] Annie Leibovitz email messages to Susan Sontag, August 2001, “My first email” and “Reply if you get this,” UCLA Library of Special Collections.

[20] Bill Brown writes that we only notice objects once they stop functioning. Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Things. Ed. Bill Brown (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 15.

[21] Susan Sontag, On Photography, (New York: Picador, 1977), 23.