... A Turn to Rhetoric



Theorists worry, however, over the extent to which queer archives can represent traumatic events. In her work, Cvetokovich references Derrida’s Archive Fever, in which “Derrida presses psychoanalytic approaches to memory to the conclusion that an archive is fundamentally impossible” (268). Specifically, Derrida believes that the “absence of memory that marks traumatic experience is ultimately ... the logic of all memory, which fails to be archived even in the unconscious” (268). Ultimately, we concede this point: an archive may never fully embody for its viewers the experience of trauma, or even the memory of trauma. But what it can do, we contend, is offer us a sense of the rhetorical practices developed in response to such trauma—rhetorical practices arising out of the specificity of queer experience and queer possibility.

Indeed, Morris’ collection, Queering Public Address: Sexualities in American Historical Discourse speaks to what Morris calls the “queer impoverishment” of public address studies—that is, the lack of detailed and sophisticated attention paid to American orators who query sexual normativity, such as Harvey Milk, Lorraine Hansberry, and Marlon Riggs. Morris and his contributors uncover a wealth of queer rhetorical practice. Such recovery work is not always easy; as Morris points out:

  1. In public address [queer] silences echo throughout the archives, anthologies, syllabi, reviews, journals, bibliographies, and footnotes that fail to speak, or that distort and diminish, our names and the invisible processes by which they are achieved, normalized, and perpetuated. These silences need to be amplified in grating volume. Token voices, however heartening, need to be considered cautiously and critically. (4)

The presence of such silences, and the difficulty of knowing how to read them, can be traced certainly to the silences imposed by the “closet.” Nonetheless, Morris and his contributors map out in their various readings of queer archives how individuals and groups began to articulate queer experiences, subjectivities, and possibilities from inside a closet, often communicating personal desires and

We might think, for instance, of the Physique Pictorials circulated in the 1950s as a “coded” way of transmitting queer desires, building a sense of queer affiliation, even as such images queered the very masculinities on which they were modeled.

political positions in disguised or coded ways. In Rhetorical Secrets: Mapping Gay Identity and Queer Resistance in Contemporary America, David Allen Grindstaff focuses his study primarily on rhetorics of the closet, on the many ways in which gays and lesbians have had to negotiate rhetorically—and materially—the hazards of living and loving clandestinely in a society continually policing performances of sex and gender and punishing the non-normative through shame and, at times, incarceration, or death. So, while creating an archive of past queer experience might not give us a fully recovered sense of trauma, it can provide us a rich sense of of the rhetorical strategies used to navigate the closet.

But the silence of the archive encompasses more than the closet. As Morris points out, the archive’s silence itself points to a need for not only queer content but queer movement. He writes:

  1. the archival queer must understand that the archive’s promise as an inventional wellspring is inextricably linked to queer movement: traversal of time and space, mobilization and circulation of meanings that trouble sexual normalcy and its discriminations. ... Queer movement must be restless. ... The fruits of archives, if they are to serve as activist resources, as Karlyn Kohrs Campbell has argued, need not only be recovered but also recuperated and extracted, that is, analyzed and theorized, made fleet of foot. (“Archival” 147-48)

To position ourselves in and against silence in our search for representation, we believe, is such a “queer movement.” And we find such movement, increasingly, in the media-rich environs of online archives.