By Cassius Adair
This June, my friend JB Brager published a great autobiographical comic called “Livejournal Made Me Gay” over at The Nib. Brager explores how the Livejournal online diary platform brought together queer and trans young people during the early 2000s, forming a scene that presaged the mostly-white trans masc / genderqueer Tumblr cliques of the subsequent decade. The comic itself is about a lot of things– adolescence, the frustrating do-be dilemma of early queerness, desirability politics– but what struck me especially was the final panel [reproduced here].
In the image, an adult JB (nose-ringed, with a cool shaved-sides haircut) hits a key on their laptop, erasing their livejournal account. On the screen is a browser window reading “are you sure?” Behind the laptop, is a wavy image of teenage JB, figured as a long-haired ghost emerging from the screen, also asking “are you sure?” Adult JB thinks, “welp, it may not get better, but it gets GAYER!” as they finalize the erasure. The gutter text reads “I deleted my livejournal when I entered the ‘professional’ world / Now I deeply regret the loss of that archive of teen discomfort!”
Even at the scale of a single person’s digital records, it is reasonable to mourn the loss of an archive of queer and trans life, trans and queer survival. Trans lifeworlds have long been made from scarce resources; trans life can seem as ephemeral as 2000s-era blogging platform. In this moment, within the U.S. context in particular, the question of erasure and invisibility– of saving trans lives from deletion, in other words– can feel even more urgent. In October 2018, a few months before the appearance of Brager’s comic, the hashtag #WontBeErased emerged on Twitter in response to a reported leaked Trump Administration memo that would, as the New York Times put it, “define transgender out of existence.” Regardless of whether I agree that such a memo would in fact change trans life outcomes as substantially as some critics fear it would, I nevertheless understand why such state administrative action feels like “erasure,” and why erasure feels like a threat.1
And yet, at the same time, there’s nothing inherently radical about a preservationist politics, nothing inherently life-saving about saving files. Mel Chen’s provocation about the impromptu archive that is FTM Asian YouTube (circa 2010) is worth excerpting at length here: “To the degree that both ‘personal’ and ‘state’ archives rely on flagging specified identities, their knowledge productions cannot help but overlap. If one were to consider the Internet’s role with regard to transnational FTM concerns in the swirling, overlapping, cross-linked, hierarchical, transnational, semi-regulated geographies of the Internet, then what exactly counts as a state archive? What distinguishes a state archive from a personal one?”
Considering the “overlapping geographies” of personal and state archives, it is also clear that there’s a significant anti-archival trans politics. Such politics have emerged not out of desire for self-annihilation, but out of resistance to being siphoned up, pinned down, by state or corporate collection. Consider, for example the idea of fugitivity as a Black/trans orientation (see Bey, Snorton), or the politics of trans unrecognizablity (Aizura, Adair). Anti-surveillance and data-skeptical feminist voices– Simone Browne, Toby Beauchamp, Shoshana Magnet, Dorothy Roberts, Jacqueline Wernimont, and the Our Data Bodies Project, to name only a few– have also constructed a rich conversation that might inform our thinking towards this trans anti-archival.
Perhaps, we can think about self-deletion of a digital archive as also an act of refusal of the datafied body, the body made digital target, the data body as extraction site. If this is the case, deletion isn’t necessarily an eradication. Sometimes, you have to delete the archive to become a new self.
I too purged my teenage livejournal, although for slightly different reasons. Unlike JB, I hadn’t yet been digitally queer, so I wasn’t worried about outting myself to potential employers or students. I simply was mortified that someone cool would find my cringey pseudo-intellectual high school writing. (I’d had lots of posts that were designed solely to brag to a boy about the fact that I was reading Anna Karenina.)
Like JB, I sometimes regret the loss of my own archive. But on the other hand, I’m not sure I see my own Livejournal to have been a queer / trans digital archive. Is its deletion truly a loss to trans digital worlding? I was trying to pass unnoticed as someone with a non-threatening gender– I would never have posted selfies with an edgy side-shave, or dared to wear anything gay, like bowties or vests.
For this reason and many others, I am thankful for the technique of deletion, a gift that I feel that both the (supposed, paradoxical) “ephemerality” of digital data and transsexuality have given me in equal measure. Further, if I feel grateful for the deletion of certain scraps of my straight/girl past, it is not necessarily because I am “closeted” or “stealth.” My insistence on writing in the autobiographical mode means that my trans status is aggressively Googeable. But I am still attached to my right to be different from the kid that I was. I tend to demand, in fact, the right to change.
In a trans epistemic lens, as I see it, human subjects have less unitary relationships to “self.” The act of eradicating an earlier version of the self and becoming a new person feels, to me, like one of the promises of gender liberation, like a type of freedom. Maybe this is one of the things that makes me most US-ian, my too-quick conflation of a Gatsby-esque personal reinvention with a community politics. But I suspect that I’m not the only trans person who desires some degree of control over what lingers of some former me online, some other name and face. In that way, I guess, I am less US-centric: I see the right to be forgotten, a European legal frame, as a conceptual cousin to my own trans politics, online and off.
In other words, although it might seem like erasure is a form of giving up on the future, both the archival and the anti-archival modes can be forms of freedom. In her poetic-theory book No Archive Will Restore You, Julietta Singh writes that academics can use the word “archive” as an “enabling fiction,” an “expected declaration.” Singh, correctly interpreting how the term is bandied around in graduate seminars, writes that the term archive so often means “the thing you say you are doing well before you are actually doing it, and well before you understand what the stakes are of gathering and interpreting.” It names, in other words, nothing less than a future body, something not yet stitched together via narrative.
Insofar as it imagines future humans who will one day be either remembering or forgetting the present, the right to be forgotten is fundamentally a utopian politics. (Like many in my generation, I’m not convinced, on a planetary level, of a future.) As implied by the negation in her text’s title, Singh herself knows that there is an enabling fiction– a future– in the anti-archive. I’m sure it’s already commonplace in memory and trauma studies, areas in which I am not yet well-enough versed to provide proper citation, that forgetting and remembering are both time-travelers’ acts, that they invoke both history and future at once, each word conjuring a current or even future subject who can re-engage the past in their present. The inherent optimism of the archive is therefore also, I’m sure, a commonplace of the critical literature. It is within this frame, then, that I see the willful removal of an archive as a trans type of enacting futurity. Just as the right to be forgotten implies that deletion can be a kind of freedom, both the sustenance and the removal of a trans digital archive might be seen as optimistic acts.
Such a conception of anti-archival futurity might also allow us to stitch together both the turning-away from the archive that I’m enacting (somewhat performatively) in my autobiographical narrative and the attachment, even a melancholic one, to the personal trans archive as in Brager and Chen above, and the anti-surveillance politics of critical trans and race theories. Just as transness itself lets us consider time as discontinuous and our bodies as fungible– we might say, as T. Fleischmann’s provocative title puts it, Time is the Thing A Body Moves Through— trans anti-archival politics need not be in conflict with trans flourishing. Instead, it might enable it.
Cassius Adair is a scholar, writer, and media-maker based in Charlottesville, Virginia. For DREC, he is working on an essay series about trans research ethics and digital studies. His popular and scholarly writing has appeared in Avidly, Nursing Clio, American Quarterly, American Literature, Frontiers, and Transgender Studies Quarterly. He has contributed storytelling and audio production to numerous radio shows and podcasts, including StoryCorps, Michigan Radio’s Stateside, and the ACLU of Georgia’s Examining Justice. His works-in-progress include a scholarly monograph about transgender people and the internet, an edited collection about speculative approaches to higher education, and a collaborative book project (with the University of Michigan’s Precarity Lab) about digital labor and exploitation. As his day job, he helps produce a nationally-broadcast public radio show.
- As Viviane Namaste wrote two decades ago (during the early days of Livejournal) in Invisible Lives, even the (still) common practice of metaphorizing trans life in academic contexts can be an act of erasure, delegitimating the material needs of trans people as sufficiently interesting objects of study.