May 19, 2014

The Kinsey Institute Debate

The Kinsey Institute Debate

by Dan Finn

In class we recently took sides in class over the resolution, "The Kinsey Institute should make the works in its Film Archive more accessible to researchers. As part of this exercise I chose the negative position which was at the time of choosing underrepresented, although it is not what I would call my opinion. However in thinking about this I realized I see more in cultural conservatism than I had imagined.

The resolution was formulated in response to a circumstance in which the scholar Linda Williams could not take home an access copy of a unique title in terms of its apparent rarity and its potential to offend. She was able to access it onsite, again in this instance she could not take it home. Though still in the afterglow of our honeymoon phase with on-demand streaming services competing for our moving image attentions, this type of access cannot translate to archival settings for a variety of reasons.

In terms of the Kinsey Institute, some of the issues arise given the content and position of the archive in general. During her speech that was provided to the class, Liana Zhou, the Director of Libraries and Archives at the Kinsey Institute, states how the institute has historically faced cultural, social, economic, and political opposition in a number of ways. A director of archives of an institution with a collection of sexual material must respect the potential for such interventions. Our current economic climate is unfriendly to culture and cultural heritage institutions when it comes to funding. Sexuality (or subsets thereof) has been and is currently politicized to a large extent. Such overarching forces need to be considered when (dis)allowing access to controversial archival materials. If a moving image cannot be properly contextualized, any number of things can be misconstrued during a screening. In the case of Linda Williams, she wanted to take home a DVD copy of "KKK Night Riders," which features a simulated group sexual assault of a black woman by KKK members. With such an extreme case the archive should be able to implement restrictive policies. Without contextualization, the intent of the archive can be misunderstood. Is the film saved because Kinsey Institute condones the behavior depicted, or is it preserved as evidence of a specific cultural moment in time and space?

While it is unlikely Williams would have been able to turn the DVD copy into a viral video had she tried, and also very unlikely that she would have tried, it is still a risk the stewards of the collection need to account for. Allowing access in an uncontrolled environment of such material is dangerous not only by causing offense to those that otherwise might engage in a discussion of the material in a more controlled setting, but also effectively removes control of the collection out of the hands of its stewards. One of the most essential aspects of providing access to any work is providing some kind of means to make the work intelligible. Part of this intelligibility for challenging material has to be rationales for its preservation and discussions of why it is challenging. I believe, not only because they expressly and legally do, but also philosophically that the Kinsey Institute should be able to exercise their prerogative to deny certain types of access when the material in question is of such an extreme nature.

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