Q5 (#3): Graham Stinnett

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Graham Stinnett


Graham Stinnett is Curator of the Human Rights and Alternative Press Collections in the Archives & Special Collections at the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. He has worked on a variety of projects relating to human rights topics. He is also a former member of the Steering Committee of the LGBTQ Issues Roundtable.

Q1. Your biography suggests that you began working on human rights topics before coming to the University of Connecticut. How did you become interested in this work, and how have you continued working with these topics at the Dodd Center?

G. S. My primary interest in this field came through punk rock bands talking about US Cold War policy in Latin America which led to my own research into the resulting records opened through FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests by the National Security Archives. I got my start doing human rights archives at the University of Colorado at Boulder working with Head Archivist Bruce Montgomery, a pioneer in human rights collection development.  My principles and historical understanding shaped my thinking towards praxis through archives with the help of mentors like Bruce and my advisors at the University of Manitoba in Canada, Tom Nesmith and Terry Cook, as well as scholars like Verne Harris and Trudy Huskamp Peterson.  Human Rights NGOs in Central America during the 1980s dictatorship period were the primary records creators of disappearances and testimonies which challenged the state-military apparatus.  Collecting archives from the individuals in society outside of the traditional power structures of the state or its collecting mandate vastly broadens the range of human rights preservation, predominantly through these groups working towards record keeping as a justice crucible.  My work in the archives at the University of Connecticut has continued because of the amazing collections already established here from the Nuremberg papers of Thomas J. Dodd to the Mattachine Society work of Foster Gunnison Jr. and the Alternative Press Collection (AltPress) as a whole.  I believe in the principles of archives as tools for engagement with a broader societal understanding of itself and how it can be leveraged for change in society, so building on these collecting areas is very beneficial. We are always being documented, it is our job to engage the creation of memory from that documentation.

Q2. From an archivist’s perspective, what is the importance of collecting and preserving materials such as the ones contained in the Human Rights and Alternative Press Collections? What is the value of sharing these stories?

Lately I have started to view the importance of what I do as part of an intergenerational conversation.  The historical reference is the purpose, however the use is the value.  The majority of the AltPress is print based and very ephemeral, but also highly reflective of the author’s hand.  When teaching with these materials, students often have derisive responses to the form itself because of these ephemeral qualities as opposed to word processing formats as well as the radical views expressed.  When considering the basis of text communication in social media platforms today which could be the closest comparison to the channels of alternative press, these outlets have more in common than they do in division.  My goal is to promote the dialectic between then and now.  Beyond the narrative that all movements toward rights are valuable and worth documenting, my interest has been to promote the intersections where students have made impacts through documentation in the past which now can inform the present context of identity, recreation, sociability and agency.  Having said all that, I don’t think we as archivists have yet understood how to deal with today’s alternative press, which is why these conversations are so important.

Q3. A wide variety of groups, developments, and ideas are covered within materials you curate. How do you work to ensure a diversity of stories and perspectives within the collections?

Diversity often springs from the alternative.  Decentralized collecting, in this case looking outside of the university community into such fringe/minority areas for Alternative Press and Human Rights, which typifies the nature of these collections, begins the process of incorporating outside voices into the archive.  That also leads to a danger however of fetishizing those things we do collect, especially when they are as far afield as apartheid in South Africa and genocide in Darfur.  For me, the primary concern of diversity is through its promotion as a lens into front end archival collections and back end functions.  This includes utilizing the master’s tools to read against what is present in the picture.  Keeping current however requires the archivist to be activist in finding people in their struggles and working in solidarity to promote voices.  Specifically, for me, it ranges from student organizations and their archives to artists creating work around policing and organizations pooling their resources to make everyday resistance to war and oppression.

Q4. What are your goals in terms of engaging people with the collections and the issues connected to these materials? How do efforts such as your blog contribute to these goals?

A large part of the outreach and engagement I focus on attempts to make linkages between our collections and the work being done currently around events, movements and expression.  For example, a program we hosted in 2014 titled “War, Struggle and Visual Politics: Art on the Front Lines” where we brought in a photographer documenting Afghanistan over the last 20 years, an illustrator who published widely in the 1980s AltPress materials recently acquired as part of our Joe Snow Punk Rock Collection, as well as members of the Iraq Veterans Against the War organization.  Complimenting this were several exhibitions of our collections, workshops on writing and design as well as the art these activists performed and brought with them. The programming  and presentation of archives around current events and scholarship in all its forms is difficult to measure beyond analytics.  My goals for engagement generally are to make society aware of the archives as ‘just around the block’.  The vast public which is not thinking archivally have the most to lose regardless if our profession engages them or not.  For those already using archives, I want to help uncover hidden histories.  And for those in the profession, I want to trouble the idea of archives entirely.  A large part of my everyday engagement more concretely is through social media platforms; following the lead of the young people in society to broadcast and shape mediums for agitation is always inspiring to document.

Q5. Could you name one or two items/collections that are particularly interesting to you?

One of my favorite items is a pair of Abbie Hoffman’s American flag socks from his collection.  I like to joke that the digital humanities still has to contend with the scratch and sniff qualities of ephemera when digital surrogates are du jour.

Also, I am fond of the Joe Snow Punk Rock Collection that has been incorporated into the AltPress.  The varying sites of production for underground culture and art in the hardcore punk scenes of Connecticut in the early 1980s generated a trove of creative expression. It always serves as a reminder to me that people work very hard to create impermanent communities, and these efforts need to be preserved.

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Q5 (#2): Greta LaFleur

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Greta LaFleur's picture
Greta LaFleur

Greta LaFleur is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Yale University. Her interests include North American literary and cultural studies, the history and historiography of sexuality, the history of science, and queer studies. Her current book project is tentatively titled Conditional Desires: Histories of Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century, British Colonial North America.

Q1. In your dissertation, “American Insides: Popular Narrative and the Historiography of Sexuality 1674-1815,” you “theorize and argue for the use of a presentist, affective historicism as an alternative methodology for producing histories of sex.” How does your work challenge the existing historiography of sexuality?

G. L. My dissertation (which I finished in 2011) has now become a book manuscript, tentatively titled Conditional Desires: Histories of Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century, British Colonial North America. It’s a pretty different project, at this point, than what it was in dissertation form, but the way that it engages the historiography of sexuality remains fairly consistent with its earlier iteration. The biggest and most important way that it challenges conventional historiographic approaches to sexuality is that it does not assume sexuality to bear a privileged relationship to interiority; the book, in fact, argues that in eighteenth-century studies, we need to move to a framework for thinking about sexual behavior that does not privilege the subjective, or the human. More simply put, I argue that during the eighteenth century, people understood sexual impulses– behaviors, inclinations, etc– to derive from a wide variety of sources, but primarily understood sexual behavior as the result of the dynamic interaction between bodies and environments. In other words, people understood sexual behavior as situational during the eighteenth century, an idea that historians of nineteenth-century sexuality such as Regina Kunzel, and scholars of late-nineteenth-century (and early twentieth century) sexuality such as Benjamin Kahan have also explored. Sexual behavior, during the eighteenth-century, was less about individual expression than environmental circumstance; one’s social, physical, climatic, or natural environment was understood to have the potential to shape one’s sexual behaviors and even desires. This argument re-orients the way that we think about sexuality away from the human (or the ‘subject’) and centers it more in the environment, which is a significant historiographic shift.

Q2. How did you get into early American sexuality studies (as opposed to 19th, 20th, etc. centuries)? 

I arrived at early American sexuality studies via the emergence of institutionalized psychology in the 19th century. As I began my dissertation project, which I initially imagined would be a study of early psychology (Benjamin Rush, etc), I found myself asking a lot of questions about how residents of colonial and early national North America understood the experience of desire, in all of its many forms (sexual and otherwise). I wanted to know how these people made sense of wanting and of pleasure. Did they understand these experiences as feelings? Emotions? Lack? Were these feelings important to them, or incidental? Did they experience these feelings as unique expressions of their own particular social, spiritual or community positionalities? These questions are all bound up in a larger set of inquiries pertaining to the history of the subject (or the history of consciousness, or of certain forms of consciousness), and at the time, were animated by my interest in the long history of identity politics, and in how or whether identity could be conceived of before the modern period (roughly the turn of the twentieth century, in this case). As I continued work on what I thought would become the dissertation project, I ended up tarrying in earlier and earlier parts of the eighteenth century, and ended up thinking about historically-specific, large-scale categories of experience (“venery,” for example, which in many C18 colonial communities could have included forms of sexual immoderation such as fornication, but also the act of taking too much pleasure in eating– gluttony– or immoderation in drinking). So, I really arrived at sexuality via the category of venery, but what has always been most interesting to me is the historiographic challenges of characterizing forms of behavior that look, to us, like “sexuality,” but that existed in an era before there was any framework for understanding them this way.

How do the developments you study contribute to a broader understanding of sexuality and its construction over time?

One of the central arguments of the book is that emergent knowledge frameworks that people used to make sense of sexual behavior were borrowed from, and also contributed to, extant frameworks that were initially developed to explain and theorize racial difference. As scholars of the history of race have long known, before the early- to mid-nineteenth century (when racial definition became very firmly attached to skin color and bodily morphology), environmental diversity was understood as a major, if not a primary, source of racial differences. Roxann Wheeler (among others!) has done some very important writing on this. A great example of how this worked can be seen in environmental determinism, a series of ideas that are at least as old as the medieval period, and which argued that one’s skin color was determined by the region in which one lived, usually due to differential exposure to the sun. So, if you lived in what was called the “Aethiops” climate, for example, you would be likely to have darker skin, but natural philosophers also imagined that if a dark-skinned person moved to a cooler and less sunny climate, in several generations, his or her progeny would become light-skinned. What we would now call “race,” then, was understood to be at least partially determined by environment during the eighteenth century. The interesting thing about theories of environmental determinism is that they were never just about skin color– they were also about temperament. Being hardworking, quick to anger, lazy, amative or lascivious, somber or melancholy, and many more traits that we would now call “emotional” or “sexual,” were also linked to particular climates or regions. Warmer climates, for example, typically produced more “lusty” individuals, an idea that we can still see circulating today, and also an ideology that was conveniently engineered to support missionary colonialism (among other things). I’m interested in the way that sexuality and racial differentiation emerged as modern human “sciences” at around the same time (“science,” of course, being nothing more than the Latin word for ‘knowledge,’ scientia) and in the way that both “sciences” drew from a common intellectual framework around humans’ inherent vulnerability to environment. I want people who read or listen to my work to understand that when we talk about sexual behavior, even in our own time, we are almost always also talking about race. Raising historical consciousness about the ineluctable embeddedness of racial and sexual politics is incredibly important to me, and it is one of the central political stakes of my work.

Q3. It seems like you draw from a variety of disciplines in your work. Could you talk a little about the types of sources you have consulted for your book project, or any interesting items/collections you found along the way?

My work is incredibly interdisciplinary. In terms of primary sources, I look at widely-circulating texts, mostly print– but I also look at manuscripts in my first chapter on Barbary captivity narratives. I’m primarily interested in popular narrative, so I mostly look at forms of print culture, usually cheap print culture, that were being read by the widest swath of readers in any one moment. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of library catalogues and subscription lists from the late eighteenth century, to understand what people had access to, what they were reading, what was popular, and what kinds of ideas had the largest reach. Because I’m interested in the popular, a lot of the texts at the heart of my book project are cheap print culture (the equivalent in our time might be a grocery-store tabloid) telling “true histories” of individuals, many of which are fictionalized or entirely fictional. Most of the texts at the heart of my book project invoke or aspire to a kind of “truthiness,” and many are first-person accounts (but again, many of them are fictionalized or downright fictional, such as a series of short narratives I examine in the last chapter of my book, entitled The Female Marine, printed and reprinted between 1815 and 1818). In terms of secondary, critical, or theoretical materials, I read a lot of excellent work on the history of sexuality, the history of race (Roxann Wheeler, Jennifer Morgan, Felicity Nussbaum), queer theory, critical ethnic studies, and increasingly, work on the history of the environment. Recently, I have been reading Mark Rivkin’s When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty and have been very inspired by that.

Q4. What are some of the challenges posed by studying cultural understandings of sexuality when looking at a period so culturally different from our own?

Well, there are many. First, there’s the archive problem: sexual behaviors were not frequently the object of archival interest unless they were considered aberrant in their own time (so, criminalized forms of sexual behavior appear in archives because court records were saved, but socially-supported or secret sexual behaviors are not typically prioritized in archival collections); for this reason, some people think it’s easier to write histories of, say, man-to-man sexual interactions than it is to write a history of heterosexuality (I am not one of those people, but this idea exists). Also, institutional archives have historically been, and frequently continue to be, tied to or supportive of the state, so we need to always understand them as working in the service of a particular narrative of state organization and dominance, so sexual practices or ways of thinking about sexuality that were dominant in communities that were not prioritized by the state (or that were targets of eradication, such as many indigenous American communities) were not initially saved in many archives. Anjali Arondekar does a great job of thinking through this problem in her book (For the Record). Beyond the archive problem, there’s also the “modernity” problem, or the inherent impossibility of talking or even thinking about sexuality in the same terms that were used by the eighteenth-century subjects of our inquiry. Because the epistemological framework that we have to even think about the history of sexuality is radically, perhaps fundamentally different than the frameworks that were available to the cultures we study, it’s as if we are speaking two different languages– our twenty-first century language for sexual behavior, steeped as it is in the identity paradigm, and the eighteenth-century, suspiciously and simultaneously pre-modern and modern language for sexual behavior. Scott Larson, another early American studies scholar, has defined the work of the historian as the work of translation, and that definitely resonates with me. And there is actually no possibility for translation. Some scholars think that we need to approach the past on its own terms; I actually believe that this is impossible. But I see a lot of potential in that impossibility; it means we have to develop new methods for thinking about the history of sexuality, and it also means that we can be more imaginative and speculative about what sexuality might have been. Pete Coviello talks a bit about this in the introduction to his recent great book, Tomorrow’s Parties. So, for me, the challenges of working on the history of sexuality during a period both distant from and also, in my opinion, uncomfortably close to our own is actually the best part of the work I am doing.

Q5. What does your research mean for LGBTQ populations today? How does your work not only inform scholarly discussions of sexuality, but also general discussions of sexuality outside of academia?

I think of my work as relevant to not only queer people today, but also to anyone invested in the importance of feminist and otherwise anti-oppressive sexual politics. I think of my work as contributing to the project of building historical consciousness about the history of sexuality, and particularly about the way that the state has demonstrated an investment in both controlling the meaning of sexual behavior as well as controlling specific practices of sexual behavior more generally, and about the way that the state learned or borrowed its strategies for controlling specific sexual populations from its older strategies for controlling poor populations and populations of people of color. I want to be clear, here, that I am not creating an analogy between racist oppression and sexual oppression; these two forms of state and social intervention work differently and have distinct, if at times related, histories. I think of my work as in part trying to write the history of how each of these forms of social specificity (racial difference and sexual aberrance) became targets of state intervention, in the form of criminalization, control, and other forms of management, and how the logic of sexual oppression was frequently invoked to develop strategies for the subjugation of non-white people, and alternately, how the logic of racial oppression contributed to the formation of an idea of a homogenous state that could then justify criminalizing sexual minorities (sex workers, people who participated in same-sex liaisons, etc). To me, this feels like a critical form of consciousness for LGBTQ and queer people everywhere. A wider acknowledgment of the centrality of the overlap between these histories of state intervention would support the project of developing better solidarity politics among people especially vulnerable to state oppression.

I also think of my work as contributing to a longer history of “queerness,” as distinct from a more identity-based LGBTQ positionality. I love the way that people in the eighteenth century seem to have understood sexual behavior as, at least in part, contingent on one’s situation; as someone living in the twenty-first century, reading warnings that merely walking the streets in certain parts of town might have the capacity to morally corrupt a person feels like a wonderfully proleptic account of the way that we now broadly understand queerness: as an unstable, unpredictable, dynamic form of being and desiring, that often (to me) seems simply more fun than the idea of waking up every day with a solid, unchanging sense of who we are and what we want, because those things also inevitably determine what we can do. Personally, I believe that dynamism supports individual growth, and understanding ourselves less as moored to or mired in a particular identity pattern, and instead as eminently vulnerable to the impressions of the world around us, feels exciting and like it harbors a ton of possibilities.

event: queering u.s. immigration history

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via UConn Events Calendar:

Thursday, October 2, 2014, 12:00pm – 1:30pm
Storrs Campus, Rainbow Center @ Student Union 403

Rainbow Center’s Out to Lunch Lecture Series continues the semester with a presentation by Julio Capó, Jr., entitled, “Queering U.S. Immigration History: The 1980 Mariel Boatlift.”

Using the 1980 Mariel boatlift as a case study, this presentation explores how queer sexualities have historically informed, altered, and challenged U.S. immigration policies.

Julio Capó, Jr. is assistant professor in the Department of History and the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His research and teaching interests include transnational and inter-American history, with a focus on queer, sexuality, gender, Latina/o, and migration studies. Capó is completing his book on the history of queer Miami, which won the Urban History Association’s Best Dissertation Prize in 2012. His article, “Queering Mariel,” which appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of the Journal of American Ethnic History, received the Carlton C. Qualey Memorial Article Award.

submitted by community member Elise Dunham.

event: robyn ochs TOMORROW @ uconn

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“Beyond Binaries: Identity & Sexuality”; Robyn Ochs

Thursday, September 18, 2014
3:00pm – 4:30pm

Storrs Campus
Rainbow Center @ Student Union 403

This program explores the landscape of sexual orientation, and how we “map” sexual orientation. No two people are exactly alike. Given that, how do we assign labels to our complicated and unique experiences? In this interactive workshop we will conduct an anonymous survey of those present, and we will look at the data. Where do we fall on the sexuality continuum? How do we label? In this fun and interactive program we explore different experiences of identity; the complexity of attraction and more.

Robyn Ochs is an educator and activist who makes her living as a speaker, working to increase awareness and understanding of complex identities and mobilizing people to be powerful allies to one another within and across identities and social movements.

This event will be held at the Rainbow Center and is free and open to the public. The Rainbow Center is located in Room 403 of the Student Union.

submitted by Elise Dunham

event: cross-cultural communication symposium

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via Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection:

Cross-Cultural Communication: How to Be Heard
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Connecticut Convention Center (Hartford, Ct.)

A statewide one–day symposium for anyone communicating with diverse communities, especially immigrant, ethnic and refugee communities.

Nationally recognized experts in the field will examine non-traditional means of cross-cultural communication including: the role of cultural brokers, influencers and intermediaries; the use of storytelling and art-based outreach; and strategies for partnering with ethnic media.

Sponsored by the Connecticut State Department of Consumer Protection.

Free of charge.

Space will be limited; early registration is advised!

submitted by member Elise Dunham