From teleology to topography: Kerryn Drysdale on auto-ethnographic encounters and the archive

Posted on | March 2, 2012 | No Comments

I want to introduce this by recounting an experience I had at the beginning of my auto-ethnography. I was going regularly to Queer Central at the Sly Fox Hotel – one of my ethnographic sites – where drag king shows have been running for nine years. I would take along my notepad and try to diligently record all the feelings I had about the shows, the bonds I felt with the audience, and what I could observe of other audience members. It was a great night, great performances, and I was enjoying it, and enjoying the audience’s enjoyment. Then, my ex walked in. It would be an understatement to say that we no longer get on. Immediately my stomach hurt, my hands went clammy, and I felt physically upset by this intrusion into what I thought was my research space. My friends rallied around me, momentarily forgetting their own enjoyment of the show. All I could think was ‘Damn her, she’s fucking up my research’.

My research is intended to be an ethnographic exploration of the affects generated by the event of drag kinging. Via the notion of ‘communities of investment’, my research interrogates how different ‘flows’ or ‘layers’ of desire both constitute and represent various participants in the Sydney drag king scene. I ask: what are the ways in which the drag king scene constitutes and facilitates relations between bodies and desires? What are the ways in which these desires are embodied and articulated within this context, and what does this mean for participants invested in ‘the scene’? That is what I was trying to record that night.

Drag kinging is the lesbian subcultural practice, usually by women but sometimes trans- and otherwise identified- men, of a consciously enacted masculinity within the context of performance. It exploded in popularity in lesbian bar culture and queer scenes in the early 1990’s, and drag kinging has been increasingly recognised by participants as a viable subcultural phenomenon.

As the popularity of drag kinging has increased within lesbian and queer performance communities, academic interest has followed. As I developed my literature review, I began to run into difficulties in situating my research questions within the existing consolidation of drag kinging as an object of academic knowledge. Judith Halberstam, arguably the scholar on drag kings, produced a groundbreaking chapter in her 1998 text Female Masculinity, which highlighted drag king culture as a visible cultural phenomenon and a viable object of study. She produces a taxonomy of drag kings that looks to the embodiment and employment of masculinity in performance, for the wider project of illuminating the ‘transgendered’ or ‘gender-ambiguous’ figure as a symbol for the importance of promoting non-normative identities and practices.

This produces the drag king as a particular category of knowledge. In the current field of drag king scholarship, the figure of the drag king becomes the key theoretical figure for articulating drag king practices; he is elevated to be representative of drag king culture. I suggest that this produces a relationship between visibility and intelligibility. The primacy of his form enables a mode of analysis through which drag kinging can be understood as transgressive. Conversely, the relevance and meaning of drag kinging can only be identified through the affects of which the form is taken to be representative. This generates an established methodological approach to drag king research.

Subsequent scholarship has continued to produce knowledge about drag king practices within these two discursive frameworks of visibility of form and political effects. What interests me is this process by which research objects become concretized in scholarly work, and subsequent compulsion to approach those cultural practices in future scholarly engagement through those same frames. I suggest that this is the inevitable result of an archive predicated on the visibility of the drag king performer. But, what happens to other participants in drag king culture in this existing body of work? My concern is to move past this form of intelligibility produced about the drag king in order to approach drag king culture in a way that considers the multiple forms of investment by all participations in the event. How can I approach the ways in which the audience participates and the desires that are introduced, enacted and transformed, without positioning them in relation to the more dominant figure of the drag king performer?

The problem with an archive based on visibility is that is requires an additive approach premised on the priority of content. If one can find those missing people, objects or practices, it can be added to the existing archive in order to make it more ‘complete’. An additive archive, just like that process whereby cultural objects are turned into research objects, is based on the notion of visibility. This is because all it requires of the researcher is to bring the missing object into focus – to shine a spotlight on – to recover what is missing. It doesn’t allow for the interrogation of how the archive structure might privilege certain forms of engagement, or how alternative forms of engagement are restricted or constrained within that archive. An archive established on the visibility of the drag king form will not be fundamentally changed if the voices of audience members are simply added, as the underlying methodology is not identified and challenged. The drag king is still, so to speak, king.

What I am working on at the moment is using the work by queer theorists to move towards an archive based on affective relations – an archive understood in terms of spatiality rather than visibility. Through the interventions of queer theorists into the forms and functions of the archive, the concept has been expanded to be now capable of capturing and constituting the ephemera and the affective relations of queer subcultural identities and practices. In demonstrating new capacities of the archive, we can now speak about archives of performance and desire, and the relationship between the two.

Both archives of performance and desire constitute and are reflective of the subcultural community that operates at an affective relation to them. Queer archives draw on an already established and recognizable ‘archive of feeling’ – of the fleeting, ephemeral moments, memories and experiences that render the performance and desires relevant and affective to participants. These archives draw their affective power from each other, where the individual is moved in the moment that collectively produced ephemera is mediated through bodies. This operates at the interplay between the shared and collective memories and fantasies that comprise queer desires and bonded experiences, and the individuality of the access and embodiment of each one’s own archives of memory and desire. Yet, in the moment of feeling, it simultaneously constitutes a new archive comprised of a moment of queer experience generated by the affective relation of those desires in the performance space, which can be drawn from in future moments. The affective relations between the collective and the individual play the key part in how these archives of desire are constantly regenerated.

If we can talk about archives predicted on spatiality, rather than visibility, then the researcher is necessarily imbricated in the construction and re-construction of the archive at every moment of interaction. True of any research, but especially so in relation to queer subcultures, the researcher builds on an existing affective connection, one developed from the intimacy of emotional investment. This means that the archive’s meaning emerges from the queer sensibility of the researcher rather than being intrinsic to its objects. Therefore the researcher, in reviewing the archives of performance and desire, likewise draws on, interprets, and feeds back into these archives, and, as with all participants within the subculture that is constituted and sustained by these archives, reconfigures them at the moment of connection to them. This generates the notion of the archival practice as an event, in which objects, participants and researchers are all necessarily imbricated. Accordingly, my interaction with my ex did not ruin my research for the night. Rather, my relationship with her was drawing on and reconfiguring the archives of performance and desire in that instance of affective connection. I, as well as she, was invoking a shift in these moments by virtue of individualised and collectivised participation at the event.

Auto-ethnographic accounts are a way of tracing these relationships between the researcher and other participants, and as participants themselves in drag king events. An archive, based on relations, proximity and layering – something than we might be able to call topography of the archive – is one where I form part of that terrain, essential as any other participant, venue, intoxicant, bar stool, etc. Therefore, the utility of queer approaches to archival methodology lies in how objects of knowledge can be reused, revitalised and revalidated. Instead of notions of intelligibility that have over-relied on the visibility of research objects, these queer approaches to archives recognize that intelligibility is produced as part of the affective register, in which I am also implicated. It provides a way of understanding the topography of the related drag king archives, the process of producing frames of reference to read that terrain, and the opportunities inherent in shifts in those frames.

This is a slightly modified transcript of Kerryn Drysdale’s presentation as part of the postgraduate panel, ‘Researching Queer Scenes, Spaces and Practices’, at last week’s workshop. Kerryn is a PhD student in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney.

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