Locating Wojnarowicz: Moving Through Library Systems, Structures and Technologies.

Author:Drabinski, Emily

This article theorizes the ways that organizing structures of library and archival collections function as articulations of knowledge that also work as fulcrums enabling new articulations of knowledge by library and archives users. We are interested in the ways that this theoretical approach re-conceives ideas of our work as librarians and archivists. Rather than figuring ourselves as the collectors, classifiers, and maintainers of static collections, how can we understand ourselves as translators, assisting the mobilization of collections into new and alternative knowledge formations?

Library and information science discourse has often taken up the problem of static classification structures for library and archival collections. Following the critiques leveled against modernity across the disciplines, these scholars argue that classification structures only seem objective and "true." When regarded critically, these apparently objective structures reify and naturalize a conception of knowledge that is inescapably the hegemonic ideological story of the white, the male, the wealthy, and the West. Armed with this critical framework, library activists like Sanford Berman (i) and Jenna Freedman (ii) have worked to "fix" classification structures, suggesting new vocabulary terms and subject terms that encompass minority knowledges. Theory and practice thus form a circuit, articulating problems with classification structures and then lobbying authorities like the Library of Congress to "fix" those problems.

We intervene in this circuit. While this work is vital for bringing to the theoretical and practical surface the problem of apparently fixed access systems, it fails to reckon with the material demands of classification. Collections must be ordered and named if they are to be made useful, and despite efforts to make them tell the right one, classification structures will always tell a single story. This is what classification structures do. Instead, we refocus discursive attention on the moment when these systems are engaged, yielding to the work of the librarian and her patron. We suggest that classifications be productively seen as mechanisms of articulation and translation. From this perspective, library and archive organizational schemes become subject to translation and re-articulation by the librarian and the researcher. Freed from the demand to fix classification structures that can only ever be only temporarily and in context "correct," the librarian can begin to enact a new role as translator and mobilizer of apparently static collections.

As our site of analysis, we look to library and archival collections of materials by and about David Wojnarowicz. Himself an articulatory artist, Wojnarowicz presents particularly queer challenges to classificatory control. Some ways of describing David Wojnarowicz: queer, AIDS activist, artist, writer, performer, filmmaker, photographer, longtime resident of New York City's East Village, teenage hustler, witness, historian. In his visual art and written work, Wojnarowicz documented the lives of those living "'in the shadow of the American Dream,' outside of a normative national fantasy of community and identity" (iii) Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992, at the age of 37. His writing and art explored and depicted the violence endemic to the United States, in which the normalizing impulse of the dominant social group effects serious material and symbolic consequences for those who resist, or are rejected from, participation in a (white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class) national imaginary. He worked in a variety of media: photography, painting, collage, film, and sculpture, creating and assembling pieces that incorporate found objects and overheard stories, ephemera, personal narrative, and photographs. Writing about Wojnarowicz in 1989, Felix Guattari observed that: "Through the concatenation of semiotic links he forges, he manages to produce a singular message that allows us to perceive an enunciation in process. [...] The image is not only meant to exhibit passively significant forms, but to trigger an existential movement, if not revolt, at least of existential creativity. When everything seems to be said and repeated at this point in Art History, something emerges from David Wojnarowicz's chaos which confronts us with our responsibility to intervene in the movement of the world." (iv) Wojnarowicz translates existing texts into entirely new artistic and political articulations.

Wojnarowicz compels us because of the ways in which he helps us illumine the structure, workings, limits, and effects of a particular apparatus of articulation: the classificatory systems developed in archives and libraries to organize access to information for researchers. Wojnarowicz's complex personhood, manifest in his multi-modal artistic and activist practice, resists a smooth or singular incorporation into any of the classification structures martialed to contain his works and works about him. His incorporation is inevitably incomplete and inadequate. And yet, David Wojnarowicz must be articulated in library and archival collections if he is to be legible at all. In reconceiving the librarian as a translator, we suggest that there are ways to make good, in the library, on Wojnarowicz's radical, queer, articulatory practice.

This paper also serves as another demonstration of the ways that we see theory informing library and archives practice, and practice informing theory. We see ourselves as workers staffing the reference desk and teaching library instruction classes in ways influenced by the theoretical work we read. We also see ourselves as scholars whose research and writing is deeply informed by what we do. More than two sides of the same coin, theory and practice are recursive, each continually informed by and informing the other as we strive for praxis in our daily working and writing lives. We engage theoretical approaches in this paper praxis explicitly in mind: how can a more clearly articulated theoretical position help us explain the work we are already doing, and guide the work we choose to do going forward?


Our understanding of research as an articulatory practice stems from theories of articulation developed by radical democratic theorists Laclau and Mouffe. (v) Developed in the early 1980s, in the context of a critique of Marxist essentialism, their analysis describes the practice by which new social collectivities--such as feminist, environmental, and peace movements, as well as movements of gay and lesbian and antiracist activists--coalesce. Articulation is a process of relevance making: collectivities are formed as participants establish shared interests and mobilize on those terms. Articulation is unstable: contingency and change are key aspects of the process. Collaborations may be short-lived or long term, and collectives may organize around a given project, and then disband. Participants' identities are also subject to change as they are "modified as a result of the articulatory practice." (vi) Anthropologists studying environmental movements have extended Laclau and Mouffe's analysis, finding that articulation provides a helpful framework for exploring how articulations happen within these movements, and what enables some groups to be successful while others fail. (vii)

Anthropological engagements with articulation have yielded refinements and enhancements of Laclau and Mouffe's work. As ethnographers have applied the theory, they have discovered that they need more than the descriptive framework articulation supplies: they need a way to explain how articulations happen. Anthropologist Timothy K. Choy developed the concept of articulated knowledges in the context of his ethnography of environmental politics in Hong Kong. (viii) He studied whose knowledges became articulated--successfully translated, heard, and recognized as relevant, whose knowledges remained unarticulated, and what factors mattered in the process. As he followed a collaboration between Greenpeace and local villagers, Choy found that translation was a crucial element of the process by which global and local environmentalists' knowledges were "scaled, linked, and mobilized" (ix) Through his observation of group meetings, Choy found that articulated knowledges were produced through the translation practices of speakers, translators, and audience members. On a pragmatic level, translation was necessary for communication between the campaign's stakeholders: villagers, representatives of Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department, an American chemist, and Choy himself. But the translations Choy observed had metapragmatic effects as well. First, the act of translation conferred authority on the original speaker through performative repetition (e.g., when the scientist's statements are translated they are clearly worth repeating). Second, translation circulated knowledge, moving ideas from one semiotic context to another, figuring the "source meaning as in-motion." (x) Third, translation made the speaker's statements relevant to others in the room, a key function in the articulation process. (xi) Attending to these effects reminds us how translation is a repetitive, performative process of negotiation--across differences of language, scale, and cultural context.

The movements that happen in Choy's analysis of translation-knowledges are scaled, linked, and mobilized--also happen during research. While it would be reductive to suggest that research is a form of translation or its analogue, translation is a good practice to think with as we analyze a researcher's tasks and experiences. Though a researcher does not necessarily translate material from one language to another, she enacts a repetitive practice that...

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