Archive & Method: Toward a Queer African Studies

No. Can’t write it out. Not now.
—Samuel Delany

The problem, as always, is where to start. Which is to say, the problem always emerges where the political now demands an archive, and where the archive, in turn, demands a method. Given our present urgencies, in which we produce archives as their inhabitants and (disappearing) objects, the problem of method can seem both irrelevant and indispensable. At once an act of navel-gazing and world-building. After all, why spend time contemplating how one approaches the life one is trying to save? Isn’t it enough to insist that all life has value, that one’s life is part of that “all life,” to insist, that is, on an “I” that will not or cannot be denied? And, indeed, is this insistence on an “I” presumed and declared not to exist the best method, the place where navel-gazing expands into world-building? In this urgent moment where a threatened self inhabits an impossible world, surely circumstances demand that one use whatever tools are at hand, deferring the problem of method to a less life-threatening future.
How does one encounter oneself as both inhabitant and object of an archive, as the product/er of accident, coincidence, forgetting, recovery, erasure, reconstruction, and illegibility, the “dust” we term archive? And might it be useful to term this “encounter” a half-method, a satisfying trick that only partially assuages desire? A more honest, if less palatable, assessment might be that all methods are partial, Frankenstein assemblages held together by sweat and desire.

But this, I fear, is not what you came to hear.

So let me start again.
We live in an archive-producing moment, from the texts and sexts we generate on our phones to the tweets, blogposts and internet data we create, to the books, articles, and reports we assemble, to the masses of visual and audio material we are encouraged to generate. These are banal facts. To think about all of this labor and (vibrant) matter as an archive is also to note the regimes of surveillance we inhabit, from the employers who record keystrokes, to the various bits of spyware that track our virtual imaginations, to the many state-supported structures that record and catalogue our continual production. As anyone who has assembled or works in an archive knows, archives are as much random ephemera in varying states of use and disuse as they are processes that attempt to organize, to schematize, to impose temporal and other kinds of order.

Within the U.S. traditions I’m trained in, queer studies emerges as a deep reading within the archives—consider Gayle Rubin’s work in anthropology, Michel Foucault’s work in sexology, Hortense Spillers’s work on slave archives. These scholars describe how queer bodies are produced as knowable and unknowable, worth knowing and utterly disposable. And, certainly, the emergence of queer theory in the late 80s and early 90s is marked by many AIDS-related deaths, haunted by the many unnamed who haunt queer studies’ ellipses. Queer studies also emerges as a deep skepticism toward archival methods and practices—arrangement, hierarchy, taxonomy, and erasure.

This skepticism toward method-as-taxonomy similarly marks the emergence of postcolonial studies and African studies (in its decolonizing mode).

I want to mark this skepticism toward method as a shared feature of queer studies, African studies, and postcolonial studies, because those are, broadly, the three uneven umbrellas under which a queer African studies shelters.
I have started by highlighting the problems of archive and method because they lie at the heart of the Queer African Reader, which is, itself, an archive, and a place where method emerges as a question, sometimes as an absence, most often as untheorized. To understand the Queer African Reader as an archive—and, indeed, to understand this entire symposium as an archive—requires pausing to ask what the archive demands as its method. If one listens carefully to an archive, if one allows oneself to be possessed by an archive, then the archive teaches how it should be read. This is slow, tedious work—the labor of listening and listening again, of understanding one’s work as always partial, tentative, experimental.

The evidence of such experiments suffuses this symposium—yesterday, Neo Musangi reminded us that the African-making bible does not contain a First Africans; much of the visual art on display obscures faces and figures—masks and patterns abound in neo-realist figures inscribed by culture; and a particularly striking series of photographs, perhaps the most realist in the entire exhibition, documents absence, as it records the surviving family of a murdered lesbian. This exhibition of the missing, the obscured, the exiled, the impossible, and the emergent ruptures the fantasy of the known and knowable queer lining up to be counted and documented in a thousand NGO reports. Simultaneously, this exhibition hints at the difficulty facing those who would venture into queer African studies.

How does one think with and about those masked and obscured figures and missing and unknowable figures?
Again, this is, perhaps, not what you hoped to hear. So let me conclude by attempting to be more concrete.

I am interested in those figures, bodies, lives, and practices produced at the seams of time, when forms of collectivity shift under new social, political, cultural, and economic changes. When, for instance, ethnic groups assume new configurations under the regime of colonial modernity or when new socio-cultural collectives emerge through religious conversion or through modes of socio-political domination or mixing. At such moments, certain figures, bodies, lives, and practices become, variously, illegible or unabsorbed, unaccounted for by terms such as “family,” “household,” “man,” “woman,” “African,” or “human.”

These emergent and precarious figures, bodies, and lives stretch and rupture our definitions and forms, what we know, how we know, and how we produce and arrange knowledge. Queer, then, is less the fabulous stranger you meet while on vacation, and more the smelly stranger you move away from in a shared bus. Queer is the smelly stranger whose presence disorganizes how we know, how we organize space, and how we occupy space. Queer, in fact, might be the smelly stranger who undoes the fantasy of an infinitely elastic “we.”

I had been asked to discuss the Queer African Reader, because the editors, Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas, could not be present. I thought this was an impossible task—certainly, there was no way I could describe the passion and commitment and generosity and wisdom Sokari and Hakima brought to the process. Simultaneously, I did not want to dwell on the various genres in the reader, the assemblage of voices, perspectives, methods, archives. I hoped to suggest the labor of the Reader, as promiscuous method, as necessary archive, as a thing to think with and around. At the back of my mind was a review I’d seen that seemed unable to read the particular work of the Reader—a review that digested the Reader into already-familiar frames available in the North American setting. The Reader’s disruptive method seemed invisible.

The first day of the symposium ruptured my plans–Neo Musangi’s performance and the opening of the Critically Queer exhibition curated by Jabu Pereira suggested the wealth of ways Queer Africa could be imagined, as a particular insistence, as a demand placed on knowledge and imagination and ethics and politics and space. Jabu spoke wonderfully about taking over a university gallery space and populating it with artists in conversation in ways that made it utterly unfamiliar, in ways that pulled differently. The blend of work from Nigeria, Zambia, South Africa, and Kenya, ranging from video installations to realist photography to neo-realist portraits to Glenn Ligon-like experiments with text, moved things around for me, suggested different ways of imagining queer Africa, different archives than those now so regularly cited as “authoritative” and “necessary.”

Work by Milumbe Haimbe, Kelebogile Ntladi, and Tyna Adebowale—about which I hope to write more—drew from and refigured quotidian fabrics, shared spaces, and social media. (I’m tempted to write on how all three work with and around the gaze, with Milumbe’s masked figures, Tyna’s post-realist figures, and Lebo’s techno-township figuration—I leave this here as a promissory note.)

I left the symposium with a richer sense of possibilities, a much-expanded archive, excited that all my arguments had already been anticipated and extended by the capacious imaginations in that space and beyond.