This essay suggests that mess, clutter, and muddled entanglements are the “stuff” of queerness, historical memory, aberrant desires, and the archive. Archives, therefore, are constituted by these atmospheric states of material and affective disarray and the narratives spun from them. As such, this essay maps these queer immigrant households as archives to showcase the vexed relationships between and among objects, bodies, narratives, and desires.
(Martin Manalansan, The “Stuff of Archives: Mess, Migration, and Queer Lives,” 95)
Messy or mess is the word that pejoratively describes this particular immigrant household, but I would argue that mess is a word that can creatively illuminate the idea of queerness in general and queer archives in particular. My assertion of queer and queering as mess and messing up comes out of a critical reading of queer theory, popular culture, vernacular language, and everyday life. My use of queer and mess is not limited to bodies, objects, and desires but also relates to processes, behaviors, and situations. “Queering” and “messing up” are activities and actions as much as “queer” and “mess” can be about states/status, positions, identities, and orientations.
Overall, mess provides a vibrant analytical frame and a visceral phenomenological grip on the exigencies of marginalized queers—especially those who do not occupy the valorized homonormative spaces of the contemporary West. Mess, as I demonstrate with a brief ethnographic vignette below, is a route for funking up and mobilizing new understandings of stories, values, objects, and space/time arrange- ments. As such, mess is a way into a queering of the archive that involves not a clean- ing up but rather a spoiling and cluttering of the neat normative configurations and patterns that seek to calcify lives and experiences.
I sought not to “create order” out of the quagmire of Natalia’s words and deeds but to gesture to the workings of chaos, mess, and morass in ways that deflect simplistic questions of origins, functions, and value as part of a queering of the archive. This essay does not clean up the mess but rather critically addresses the need to live with, against, and despite the mess.
I am always struck by the way mess/messy is hurled as an insult. As a way to diminish someone who doesn’t comport themselves appropriately. Or to name a space/thing/idea that doesn’t fit into the narrow expectations we have. To be messy is to be unruly, recalcitrant, wild, and excessive. Messes and messy people cannot be contained. They slip, they spill and they seem dysfunctional and disordered. But what if mess is also a question of perspective? What if mess to those who live and embody it, is not chaos but “order” by different rules and a different name? Martin Manalansan’s The “Stuff of Archives: Mess, Migration, and Queer Lives examines a queer, immigrant home in NYC that can best be described as a hoarder house. Packed with stuff piled everywhere, Manalansan is struck not just by the abundance of disorganized things. He is also jolted by how each of the house’s inhabitants have a pristine understanding of where everything is despite how disorganized it all seems. His proposition then, is that mess might be the “stuff” of queerness in so far as mess refuses tidying up but also makes sense to those who are messy/live in mess. Put differently, messes refuse neat origin stories, use value, or legibility. Messes, much like queerness, refuse to be constrained by norms. Manalansan’s ode to mess is instructive in teaching us that what appears one way on the outside may be completely different inside. Mess then is not just useless or bad excess, but the ways that some folks manifest complexity and embody their complicated stories.