The Austin Chronicle

In Person

Ann Cvetkovich at Book Woman, Friday, April 25

By Abe Louise Young, May 2, 2003, Books

Book Woman was filled to bursting for the rowdy, soulful kickoff of UT English professor Ann Cvetkovich's new book, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Duke University Press, $22.95 paper). This was no typical scholarly lecture/soiree -- Cvetkovich opened by blasting Le Tigre's punk jam "Keep on Livin'" from the overhead speakers, then led the audience in yogic chanting. "Partly this is about survival, and breath is critical to survival," she said, bringing the audience to a deep, vibratory tonal convergence that reminded me of Annie Sprinkle's "group energy orgasm" with a literary tilt.

Survival is at issue in Cvetkovich's book, as is sexuality. An Archive of Feelings looks at the ways queer survivors of sexual trauma create radical and important forms of art, resistance, community, sex, and identity in response. The book explodes the medicalized discourse surrounding trauma and shines a light on punk music; feminist performance art; the writings of such no-bullshit icons as Dorothy Allison, Leslie Feinberg, and Cherrie Moraga; butch-femme romantic dynamics; transnational migration narratives; activism during the AIDS crisis; and many other "counterpublic" sites where people transform feelings into expression. This dizzying brew is enough to make even a seasoned purveyor of feminist culture feel very excited and a little bit faint -- it was hard to imagine how Cvetkovich would sum it all up.

Flashing a slide of a tree that had absorbed part of a chainlink fence into its trunk and kept on growing, Cvetkovich didn't try to synopsize. Instead, in collaborative fashion, she invited the audience to experience her source materials -- and contribute their own. Video highlights included the famous dildo-sacrifice castration scene from punk dyke group Tribe 8's performance at Michigan Womyn's Music Fest and a "Resurrection of Judy Garland" by the ravishing flower-and-rag-clad fags of the Radical Faeries during New York's Stonewall 25 celebration. Magical, visceral, queer moments of ritual that don't enter the mainstream-media archive at all -- which is in part, Cvetkovich tells us, why they matter.

At the end of the night, Book Woman staff passed out little pieces of paper to the audience, so everyone could record moments from their own "archives of feelings." Cvetkovich collected these, signing books with what looked like a little mountain of love notes next to her arm. It was a grand hometown reception, and we wish her the same success in every city, with a book likely to become a classic of feminist studies and the spark of true enthusiasm for grassroots knowledge.

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