September 2011 Archives

Response to Reg Kunzel's Colloquium Talk

Reg Kunzel in her colloquium talk today examined an 'alternative archive' of psychiatric patients at the federal mental facility, St Elizabeth's Hospital, in mid-century Washington, DC. This archive consisted of notebooks and writings of gender variant and queer patients during the time homosexuality was classified as mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Drawing upon patients' personal writings - what Carolyn Steedman describes as 'things we aren't meant to see' - Reg shared with us accounts of boredom, sadness and rage against the practice of psychoanalysis and the idea that same sex desire was a manifestation of illness, same sex encounters within and enabled by the institution, and drawings and doodles of same-sex sex on hospital papers.

Framing her talk was Reg's discussion around methodology. At first seeking to read against the grain (she drew on Terry [Eagleton?], quoted in Anne Stoler) of the archive to find hidden histories and disrupt the power of the archive. Cautious of getting from archives what we want of them, she drew on Stoler again to discuss the equal importance of reading with the grain of the archive, and through this foraging for moments out of place, of disfiguration. This led to a discussion of the case of Pell, a queer black woman (who place-marked difference through race) who wrote of her experiences of racism and alienation. Reg closed by touching upon questions around queerness framed as disability.

I wondered what spurred Reg's choice of Anne Stoler to discuss approaches to the archives and colonial sexuality, and presumably Eagleton's drawing upon Gayatri Spivak's discussions of reading against the grain of the colonial archive. Given the different contexts in which their work is placed, I would have been interested to hear in more detail how Reg's project is in conversation with Stoler's (and others') work on colonial and postcolonial regulations of sexuality, both within the 'belly of the beast' and in its carceral (and not) archipelagos.

I was also curious about the occasional references to lobotomized patients. How do these patients - and the practice of cutting the brain to cure them - figure into and also put question marks into this story?


  • GWSS Course Blogs: 2009-2010

  • Helen Hawthorne Hartung Award Competition Idalia Robles De Leon

  • Helen Hawthorne Hartung Award Competition Jerod Greenisen

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