Archivists on the News: Desiring Tumblr, Porn, and the Archives

Archivists on the News is a series where archivists share their perspectives on current news topics. This post comes courtesy of  Dani Stuchel, a Tuscon-based archivist and artist. Dani has performed and exhibited video work internationally, including the Andy Warhol Museum, Mattress Factory (Pittsburgh, PA), Human Resources (Los Angeles), Whippersnapper Gallery (Toronto), University of Arizona Museum of Art, and Shot Tower Gallery (Columbus, OH). Dani’s writing has appeared in the Journal of Critual Library & Information Studies, Smithsonian Collections Blog, Cactus Heart, Steer Queer Art Zine, and Sundog Lit.  Alongside Dr. Time Haggerty and Harrison Apple, Dani serves as a volunteer archivist for the Pittsburgh Queer History Project, an oral history and media project focused on preserving the history of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s gay and lesbian after-hours nightlife from 1950 through 1990. To find out more about their work, you can find additional information at http://www.danistuchel.com

 

“Are archivists ready for porn?”

The above question came to me as I read about Jason Scott’s plan to save Tumblr blogs from the platform’s 2018 ‘porn ban.’ In December 2018, Tumblr announced it would use algorithms to seek out, “photos, videos, or GIFs that showed real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.” Algorithmically-marked content would then be hidden from everyone except the original poster. Tumblr had become something akin to storing your bookmarks in the cloud: effective, but dull. As porn studies scholar Brian M. Watson offers, “Their pornography ban [was] a betrayal to their entire fanbase,” and Tumblr users have subsequently exited the platform en masse.

Soon after Tumblr’s announcement, Archive Team – led by Jason Scott – shared a plan to make backup copies of various Tumblr accounts and add them to the Internet Archive. Archive Team’s goal was to circumvent Tumblr’s planned un-publishing of content by creating an uncensored copy elsewhere. However, it quickly became clear that individual users would not have control over what content was included in the backup. On one hand was Tumblr, threatening to suppress your content. On the other was Scott, promising to share your content but without giving you clear-cut control over it in the future.

Tumblr’s policy and Scott’s solution were both roundly critiqued by users, activists, and scholars, who noted that both tactics undermined the autonomy and free expression of sex workers, LGBT persons, women, fetishists, and every intersecting permutation. While Tumblr was denying users a highly-valued means of sharing positive depictions of bodies which diverge from ‘the norm,’ Scott’s approach threatened to divorce sensitive, personal, and complex exchanges from their context and put them on public display. If Tumblr was suppressing circulation, then Scott was threatening to make living relationships into a digital cabinet of curiosities.

Of course, these two oppositional approaches do not represent all possible engagements with porn. As curator of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota, Rachel Mattson teaches undergraduate and graduate students about histories of sexuality, film circulation, and homemade media — sometimes using analog porn found in the Tretter’s holdings to help students recognize that, “There is no timeless norm of sex,” and that all sex can be understood as historical. A historical, constructivist approach to sex was central to early gay & lesbian liberation movements and the development of LGBT studies as an academic field. This approach continues to influence contemporary queer & trans political organizing and scholarship. Mel Leverich, archivist for the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago, adds that “By excluding sexually explicit material from the archives, we also deny that people’s private sexual identity and practices are an important part of lived experience, and replicate the stigmatization of non-normative sex.” Contextualized thoughtfully, porn is an invaluable educational resource.

When the term “pornography” was coined in the 19th century, it was a label for artifacts which historians feared would morally imperil, not educate, the general public[1]. Such panic was not new. Brian M. Watson offers that, “When [the printing press] was joined with increasing middle- and lower-class literacy, and book markets such as Holywell Street in London or the Grands-Boulevards area of Paris, it created a type of work that supposedly had an ‘undesirable’ effect upon the general population.”

In other words, the main charge against porn has not been that it is useless, but that its use should be feared. Centuries later, anti-pornography feminists of the 1970s and 1980s would claim porn led to child sex abuse, rape, and violence against women[2]. Tumblr echoed this line of thought when it explained its adult content ban as a means of ridding the platform of child pornography. (Very notably, Tumblr never attempted a similar algorithmic approach to white supremacy on the platform.)  While I cannot wade into these long debates within the space of this blog post, I would suggest that many scholars have come to see porn – like all media, genres, and forms – as neither inherently ‘good’ nor inherently ‘bad.’ Instead, power relationships, aesthetics, and desire unfold inside of porn to create complex documents meriting patient study and appreciation.

Archivists are in a perfect position to think about porn as complex documentation, and to devise strategies for working with porn in the archives. One question will prove critical in the coming decades: How do we tell ‘archive stories’ with porn, sex work, or sex as center – rather than as peripheral? One hypothetical example could be the papers of Colby Keller, a successful gay porn performer who reportedly voted for Donald Trump and who supported many of Trump’s political messages. Keller’s story as a political agent is noteworthy, and I would argue it is important to understanding the complexity of sexual-identities-as-political-identities, but it cannot be divorced from his ongoing work as a porn performer. Separating his politics from the specifics of his career is akin to telling the story of Steven Spielberg sans film. If we imagine a future wherein Keller donates his papers to an archives, many questions arise. How can archives tell stories which have sex work and porn as a center, not as a tangent? How can we think of porn context? How do we talk – with researchers, students, the public – through both the intellectual and erotic content of this work?

Alongside porn’s educational and research value, it is undeniable that porn is also a thing of desire. It is created in response to desires (those of the maker and/or the intended audience), consumed in desire (academic, artistic, sexual). If porn had no allure then its detractors would have nothing to fear. Linda Williams has written that part of watching porn is hoping to see what you don’t want to see, hoping to have your limits and boundaries pushed[3]. Porn is a desire for excess – very untidy, ‘unprofessional.’

“But archives are full of desire already,” Rachel Mattson redirects. Visitors enter all archives with a desire to see, to touch, to know. Not just the visitors – archivists, too. But desire is troublesome. It peregrinates through – but is not subsumed by – identity or selfhood. We desire things that go against our better judgement, that bring our identities into question. We have shameful desires. Desire disrupts the professional / personal boundary. As GVGK Tang puts it, in their discussion of arranging and describing porn, “To process porn, one must consume it and risk internalizing the notion that one is a pervert for doing so.”[4]

Facing sexual desire is a next step for archives which would engage with porn. In our discussion of LGBT archivists and archival collections, it is easy to elide sexual desire in favor of political organizing, creative aesthetics, or cultural traditions. This isn’t to say that sexual identities (including heterosexual identities) can be boiled down to sex acts, but it is to suggest that they can never be fully divorced. Though not an archives in the sense intended by most archivists, Tumblr was a valued space for producing, circulating, organizing, and keeping records of sexual practices. As a private platform, it had the unchecked power to shut out stories of desire despite public outcry. Their policies were unjust, but very telling. In the end, the platform lost the public’s confidence and investment. If we, as archivists, take seriously our mission (desire?) to tell complex stories, we cannot afford to do the same.

 

Footnotes

[1] David Squires, “Pornography in the Library,” in Porn Archives, eds. Tim Dean, Steven Ruszczycky, and David Squires (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 83.

[2] For a description of the debates of this era, see Gayle S. Rubin, “Blood Under the Bridge: Reflections on ‘Thinking Sex,’” in Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 194-223.

[3] Linda Williams, “Pornography, Porno, Porn: Thoughts on a Weedy Field,” in Porn Archives, eds. Tim Dean, Steven Ruszczycky, and David Squires (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 41.

[4] GVGK Tang, “Sex in the Archives: The Politics of Processing and Preserving Pornography in the Digital Age,” The American Archivist 80, no. 2 (2017): 444. http://doi.org/10.17723/0360-9081-80.2.439

 

Many thanks to Mel Leverich, Rachel Mattson, and Brian M. Watson for agreeing to be interviewed for this post and offering their thoughts on the topics discussed.

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