By Cassius Adair
So in my previous post I wrote some deep thoughts about self-deletion as a form of trans archival intervention, a digital turning away. But also, like, cool: I’m still a guy who used a digital archive to write a dissertation.
And in that dissertation, I totally gather information from lots of people’s old digital selves.
Because Google archived all of the early newsgroups on Usenet, I have a penetrating gaze into the protean genders of a bunch of probably-trans individuals who wrote to each other between 1992 and 1995. Trans researchers, most notably Avery Dame-Griff’s (amazing) work but also I myself, have experienced Usenet archives like “alt.transgendered” as a revelation, ripe with stories of trans people who were fighting shockingly contemporary-sounding online battles over respectful language, non-binary identities, and cissexism while I was still in preschool.
The feeling of invasion, of prurient creeping, that accompanies archival research is well-explored. Like other marginalized researchers, I also understand how the erotics of the archive is intertwined with its penetrating gaze: of course I seek a usable past, a sense of myself as having come from somewhere. But there’s something that feels distinct, too, about this particular digital trans archive as a site for exploring such archival relations: these subjects are, presumably, still alive, but have signed no consent forms; Usenet’s email-based infrastructure meant that subjects often posted in ways that revealed their birth names; one can easily access the often sensitive material in these archives because they have been transmuted into Google products for mysterious purposes, probably for current or future monetization; the digital archives have been left fallow and subsequently vandalized by white supremacists and anti-trans trolls.
Do I want this archive to exist? I don’t like knowing people’s birth names. I don’t like wondering if people ever got to go by the names with which they signed their posts, wondering if they survived long enough to transition. I don’t like knowing that many of the people that I’m reading about are still alive, and may not even know that their words have been siphoned up into Google’s Usenet archive. And I especially don’t like what’s happened to the Usenet archive. Leaving this archive fallow and unattended, as well as not permitting people to choose whether or not their personal material remains online, creates the very conditions under which the mutilation of the (digital) trans archive can feel like a potent political weapon for (online) fascists.
And still: I used that archive. Like so many researchers, I also love it.
To quell my anxiety about the very existence of this archive, I attempted to find a way to engage with care. In practical terms, when I did cite from this archive in my dissertation, I did something that I was certainly never taught to do in an English program: I masked the names of the writers I cited.1
This was an attempt to thread an uneasy needle. I didn’t want to steal credit away from these trans writers, many of whom made critical claims about trans women’s political alignments with the U.S. surveillance state. Following black feminist scholarship like Moya Bailey and Trudy’s “On Misogynoir: Citation, Erasure, and Plagiarism,” to name just one example, I see citational practice as a form of feminist labor politics, and am not interested in presenting as my own interventions the insights of marginalized writers, even those outside the traditional academic conversation. But I couldn’t bear, either, making someone’s birth name or their one-time secret femme pseudonym, a name sometimes carefully guarded from coworkers and wives for years, appear on a Google search in my (open-access) dissertation.
In the end, I kinda DIY-ed it, invented a sorta-fake citation practice: I used people’s chosen first-names only, essentially truncating how writers signed their posts. Sometimes, before making the decision to do so, I did enough internet detective work to send out a tentative email to request permission to cite. But only one person answered my call; it seems significant that he was the one cis person in my collection of characters. Thus, risking scholarly impropriety, I intentionally ignored the more precise biographical information that sat, often, right there on the screen.
The treating of other people’s digital communication as a scholarly archive, as public intellectuals like Trudy have argued and as Lisa Nakamura and I have written elsewhere, has the most severe consequences for the most marginalized. In a more personal vein, my own scholarly practice (such as it is, as a non-academic-job-haver) is deeply informed by the turning away of would-be research subjects on Tumblr in 2009-2010. That was the year when the academics found us: meaning the BIPOC, feminist, disabled, queer and trans writers, us sad-kids hanging out and acting out online. Academics wanted to learn from us and to school us, it seemed, in equal measure, and both relations were wrong. We were no one’s objects; we were not texts. By then, I was fully a trans young adult: my Tumblr digital archive, therefore, could be called a “trans archive.” And the idea of that vulnerable, basically epistolary writing being captured by scholars made me feel like a specimen. (I plan to write more about this period, which I feel informs a sense of generational rupture within digital queer studies, at a future date.)
How then do I inhabit the experience of attraction-revulsion that I feel towards the simple fact that the Usenet archives exist?
To me, then, the intellectual question at the heart of these encounters is an ethical one: can we articulate a trans practice of encounter with these personal digital archives, that also sustains a long history of trans world-making as anti-archival, surreptitious, multiplicitous, unfixed? What would happen were we to presume a trans anti-archival orientation as a first principle of scholarly encounter, a methodological prime directive? Is there a politics of ethical non-preservation, of non-continuity, that can or should supercede the urge to prevent erasure?
By nature, these questions strike at the very root of scholarly activity in the humanities: the bringing forth and reframing of some “object” (text, in particular) and contextualizing and deconstructing it is (of course / ironically) an act of recirculation and ultimately preservation. The ethical questions that I raise here about unethical digital archives are there also questions about what it is to study something as a way to study some one or ones. These questions feel fully formed in anthropology and sociology and other such fields in which a researcher encounters humans as a human, but in digital studies, we encounter humans through, often, typed discourse whose status as “text” can shield researchers from understanding these as human contexts. Especially—and here I indict first and foremost myself—for those of us trained in a literary tradition, textuality can serve as the boundary that permits our encounters to be de facto outside of human-subject research. An object, after all, is not a subject. But what I’m suggesting here is that, in fact, such a differentiation might not be so clear.
Trans subjects online are so often objects that it seems almost silly to discuss this phenomenon as a problem. How many masters theses and dissertations have been done about trans YouTube, for example, and how many of these have been done (after all!) by trans researchers themselves? I do not think these projects are necessarily bad projects, even as I do not find them to be my projects. But my fantasy of future trans digital study is that it becomes concomitant with a trans political and social commitment towards an ethics of consent—including voluntary deletion—viz the corporate platforms that contain and capture trans world-making. This is not an orientation against making knowledge, but an orientation against being made into knowledge; there is more at work, in other words, than my (trans) skepticism towards scholarship. After all, academic knowledge about gender is just one of the forms of information which is extracted from trans subjects online, and anyway resisting our bodies being made into targets for profit is good for us all, even the cis. Instead, I have a desire for a digital life that mirrors what I love about trans life: its strange mobility, refashioning, people popping out of one life and coming back into another, its capacity to hold everyone in flux.
Ultimately, the challenge for future research is to offer our subjects not just the right to refuse to be in our study, but to help them access the ability to refuse to be siphoned into future study.2 This means a collective reassessing of digital ethics that sees online texts as windows into the lives of willful subjects, subjects who might just want to know how to get rid of their digital pasts, and/or to be rid of us. It means adopting as radical an anti-archival and anti-corporate stance as we do a lovingly archival one. There is power, after all, in deleting your account. Perhaps trans digital research ethics is a way to redistribute that power to each other.
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.
- Trans citation convention is a live question within library and information studies as well as composition and rhetoric studies. For an in-depth treatment, see Thieme, Katja and Mary Ann S. Saunders, “How Do You Wish To Be Cited? Citation Practices and a Scholarly Community of Care in Trans Studies Research Articles,” Journal of English for Academic Purposes 32 (2018) 80-90. Other voices in this conversation include University of Central Florida undergraduate Autumn Wright (work forthcoming) and web librarian Erin White at Virginia Commonwealth University.
- The day after I wrote this (just before this piece’s publication), I saw Avery Dame-Griff post on Facebook that he is willing to help people redact / remove their material from his archive: such action sets the stage for community engagement to become an ethic of trans digital studies.