Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Guest blog post --- A review of Eichorn's book 'The Archival Turn in Feminism'

In this post, guest blogger Zelmarie Cantillon provides an overview of a book by Kate Eichorn called 'The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order'. The principal focus of this book is the archiving of artefacts, particularly zines, related to the hardcore/punk music culture of Riot Grrrl.

Archives of popular music heritage collect not only audio recordings, but related artefacts including posters, flyers, magazine clippings, photographs, fanzines and other ephemera. Zines were of particular importance to Riot Grrrl, a hardcore/punk music culture and pioneering third wave feminist movement in North America during the 1990s. In her book, Eichhorn explores how the significance of Riot Grrrl zines to feminist scholarship and activism has lead to the establishment and growth of several feminist collection and archives, including The Zine Collections at the Sallie Bingham Center, The Riot Grrrl Collection at Fales Library and Special Collections, and the Barnard College Zine Library.

DIY methods of cultural production have long been integral to feminist activism. During the 1960s to 1980s, second wave feminists established their publishing movement in resistance to the capitalist, patriarchal mainstream publishing industry. As these initiatives declined due to neoliberal restructuring in the 1990s, a younger generation of feminists had to find different means for self-publishing that were quick, cheap and independent. With the rise of Riot Grrrl, and subsequently third wave feminism, women developed a new form of feminist cultural production – creating, disseminating and collecting zines.

Due in part to their DIY nature, zines were initially not considered by older feminists as legitimate or valuable. The younger generation were also frequently portrayed as disinterested in feminist histories and concerned only with ephemeral, fleeting tactics and engagements. These assumptions obscure the ways in which contemporary feminists are invested in the past and the future, as demonstrated by their practices of collecting and archiving. Indeed, Eichhorn asserts that archives have become central to feminist cultural production, activism and knowledge-making.

The ‘archival turn’ refers to the increasing popularity of archival practices for women born during and after second wave feminism. Archives function as an ‘authorizing apparatus’, working to legitimise feminist voices, histories, knowledges and forms of cultural production which may otherwise be disregarded or marginalised, such as zines and Riot Grrrl. Archives can also be sites for activism and political intervention – drawing on Foucault’s concept of genealogy, Eichhorn points to how an examination of the the past can disrupt and destabilise seemingly ‘natural’ social conditions and structures in the present.

Driven by an ‘archival impulse’, third wave feminists have been collecting not only their own generation’s documents, but also those from past movements. That is, through archiving, the younger generation are engaging with feminism’s ‘scrap heap’ – the marginalised stories, forgotten documents or ‘failed’ movements. As Eichhorn puts it, documents and subjects have ‘afterlives’ – they can be important not only for what they achieve (or fail to achieve) at their time of creation, but for how they may be used as a resource for thinking and action later on. Archives, as accumulations of bits from the scrap heap, are spaces which elucidate the connections and commonalities among feminists and movements from different generations. In this way, the archive can undo rigid generational logics, promote new narratives of feminism and cultivate intergenerational alliances.

As Eichhorn’s case studies highlight, featuring older artefacts alongside the Riot Grrrl materials can expand their meaning and authorise them through contexualisation. For example, Sarah Dyer chose to donate her large collection of zines to the Sallie Bingham Center (a research center housed in Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library) partly because she wanted the collection to be situated among diverse women’s histories, rather than in an archive focused on any one particular ideology or movement. In the case of The Riot Grrrl Collection at New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections, zines are positioned among other artistic and cultural artefacts which legitimises them and connects them to a broader avant-garde movement in North America. 

Eichhorn’s book demonstrates that feminist archives are simultaneously oriented to the past, present and future. They function to legitimise and authorise feminist histories while also promoting and developing contemporary feminist movements. Thus, they are not simply spaces for preservation and memorialisation, but for education, collaboration and activism.


Eichhorn, Kate 2013, The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.