Emails Are Forever
Wading through Chris Kraus’s inbox.
By Hannah Gold
There can be a religiosity to archival work. There are martyred figures and sacred objects. There is the ritual storing of pens before entering the protected space. Sometimes one must don gloves, and always one must whisper.
In the archives, researchers find more than information; the materiality fosters intimacy. Leslie Jamison describes the yellowed paper of John Berryman’s twelve-step work. Jenn Shapland handles the cotton, polyester, and wool of Carson McCullers’s nightgowns and coats. Olivia Laing details the curios David Wojnarowicz kept in a wooden box, which still smells of incense, oranges, and cigarettes. I’ve experienced this proximity: when I held Wojnarowicz’s notebooks myself, I felt I was reaching toward him through time. I was also placing myself, I hoped, in a lineage: these were the same notebooks held by Laing; by the journalist and critic Cynthia Carr, who wrote Wojnarowicz’s authoritative biography; and by my own mentors and peers. It was very different from sitting at home with my copy of Wojnarowicz’s memoir Close to the Knives, which we’d also all read. Among archival researchers, there’s a reverence for primary documents, a certain fetishization of relics from a more analog time.
But if those who access these archives belong to the digital age, so do our contemporaries, those who will become the subjects of future archival research. Manuscripts are increasingly written and edited on computers, and correspondence has largely moved from envelopes to emails, text messages, and social media. Comprehensive records of our time will not be paper based.
In 2018, a taskforce from the Council on Library and Information Resources issued a 120-page report, titled “The Future of Email Archives.” Its writers included representatives from the National Archives, the Smithsonian, a number of elite universities, and tech companies, including Microsoft. The executive summary opens with a very brief history of the email, from the first test message in 1971, to the year of the report’s publication, when 215 billion emails were sent and received daily. Then, in a lofty call to action that feels almost patriotic, the report implores archivists to prioritize the acquisition of email archives. Yes, they recognize, there are obstacles in the preservation of these records, and questions about how researchers will effectively interface with them. But these difficulties shouldn’t impede archivists. The drama builds: “ultimately, the historical record is imperiled.” A final plea: “the time to act is now.”
I find the urgency oddly enchanting, but am immediately skeptical. Archival work can feel like sitting down, and finding the chair warm, still holding the body heat of the person before. If collections become screen-based, the chain of contact between bodies will be lost. Still, I’m fascinated by the possibilities of email collections, the sheer volume a single inbox might contain. It’s a different kind of intimacy with one’s subject, less corporeal, but perhaps equal in immediacy, due to the potential totality of the log.
In 2015, New York University’s Fales Library accessioned eleven years of the writer, filmmaker, and publisher Chris Kraus’s emails. Kraus is a coeditor of Semiotext(e), a publishing house that brought contemporary French theory to the U.S., before expanding into heady American fiction and nonfiction, including Kraus’s own. Her 1997 novel I Love Dick is a cult classic, and was made, twenty years after its publication, into a limited series starring Kathryn Hahn and Kevin Bacon. She is presently working on her ninth book.
Curious to see one of the more robust email acquisitions in New York, I make an appointment to visit Kraus’s archives. I’m a fan of Kraus’s, but this is also an opportunity to compare the digital and analog directly: Kraus’s archives at Fales are a hybrid collection, including 50 linear feet of physical materials (manuscripts, grant proposals, and so on), 68 videocassettes, 86 audiocassettes, and 74,164 emails. Archive staff tell me I am among the first researchers to access the emails.
I begin with Kraus’s physical archives — including letters, journals, syllabi, scripts, and receipts — which contain the tactile delights I’m accustomed to. There are unlabeled photos, zines, postcards. There is the knowledge that Kraus writes in pen and will go entire pages without crossing out a word, or that she uses a plus sign for the word and. Purple mold has been treated by the archive, but still spreads in bruised shades across a grant proposal from the late eighties. From another corner, an old staple’s rust dyes the same pages brown. Nicholas Martin, the curator for the arts and humanities, comes to my table to inspect the rot. Mold is one thing, I offer, digital archives don’t suffer. He assures me, a little wearily, that they come with their own detritus.
I feel reassured, as a writer, seeing nine notebooks in a row run blank after the first seven, twenty pages. (Could a Word document ever offer such a meaningful display of abandon?) Then, something changes in the tenth journal. For the first time, Kraus has written “REWARD!” on the inside cover, below her address and two phone numbers. She’s made something she can’t stand to lose. And when I flip by the yellow endpaper, I see why: “Christmas Day 1994, Dear Dick…” This is the first notebook filled clear through till the end, and somewhere in the middle Kraus abandons her practice of only writing on the fronts of the pages; there’s so much that needs to be said. This is the notebook that appears almost one hundred pages into Kraus’s novel I Love Dick: “For Christmas, Tad gave Chris a diary: a blank book…” And then, “The diary begins: Dear Dick.”
I Love Dick made me as crazy as it made everyone. Kraus’s autobiographical novel is permissive in the way of alcohol, and about as likely to lead to rash decisions or confessions. The protagonist, Chris, becomes obsessed with an art historian named Dick. Sometimes joined by her husband, Sylvère (the real Chris Kraus was then married to the late cultural theorist and Semiotext(e) founder Sylvère Lotringer), she leans into the propulsive and generative crush. The first time I read the book, my junior year of college, it was simply new to me, an electric concept, that a serious intellectual woman could be so engulfed in wanting a man — I’ll admit to having missed, on that first read, the layer of farce. “But then again,” Kraus writes in a later book, of another writer, “didn’t she do what all writers must do? Create a position from which to write?” The subject of Chris’s devotion, Dick, is both the point and besides it: through writing to Dick, she is learning to think, and she is falling in love with writing.
When I have satisfied myself with the notebooks, an archive staffer places a bulky black laptop on the table. I log in to find the “Easy Viewer” application already open, preloaded with all of the Kraus materials. The thousands of emails are not searchable, nor are they threaded by conversation. Theoretically, the inbox can be sorted by the sender instead of the date received, but every time I click to reorder the emails, the application freezes and must be restarted. If I am in the inbox folder, I can see a message Kraus received, then toggle to the sent folder and scroll down to the same date, looking for a response. Or, if I find a later message in the same conversation, I can scroll through the email to see how Kraus responded between messages from her correspondent. If this explanation is tiresome, let that reflect the experience.
In I Love Dick, just paragraphs after Chris is given a blank diary, Kraus writes: “She was an American artist, and for the first time it occurred to her that perhaps the only thing she had to offer was her specificity…. She was offering her life as Case Study.” In the hundreds of emails I read, Kraus offers her specificity: post-divorce financial mundanities with Lotringer, alongside their exchange of articles and professional opportunities — records of an intellectual intimacy that persisted. I find fan mail in her inbox, a few that humble their prestigious authors. A screenshot sent by Semiotext(e) coeditor Hedi El Kholti of a Buzzfeed listicle that names Kraus. Love notes from her partner, Philip Valdez. “Hello kitten,” Valdez writes on May 27, 2014, “I saw a picture of you on facebook and I ‘liked’ it.” There’s a level of preservation here that far outpaces paper archives; the minutia of life that would never be consciously catalogued, but has sunk to the bottom of an inbox. I dredge through the emails, received minutes or hours apart, that capture Kraus’s work, relationships, errands.
With the limitations of Easy Viewer, I can only really immerse myself in periods of time. Most charming, maybe, are the weeks Kraus spent teaching at a summer program in Florence in 2014, alongside the writer Eileen Myles. Apparently without texting abilities while abroad, the two email back and forth. The casual, mostly logistical notes offer a snapshot of a multi-decade friendship — Myles also appears frequently in Kraus’s nineties diaries. Unlike my penciled transcripts of those paper journals, the emails I’ve copied down aren’t riddled with “(?)” where Kraus’s handwriting evades me; legibility is one perk of the digital materials.
My unimpeded notes dictate: on May 31, 2014, Myles can’t find Kraus’s room, and is going out. Kraus says to try stopping by after; “will leave door open if awake, locked if asleep.” June 1, subject line: “my black backpack.” Kraus, 8:55 PM: “did i leave it in your room?” Myles, 9:03 PM: “yes.” June 8, subject line: “gelato.” Kraus: “i brought one back for you, it’s in the freezer.” Myles: “that is the most sensational thing i ever heard.” The writers play ping pong. It is a nice image to be committed to literary history: two iconic writers meeting after dinner to play ping pong in Florence. Myles invites Kraus to go to Cinque Terre, (“what’s a Cinque Terre?” Valdez asks). Myles forwards Kraus a very harsh email they’ve sent, asks if it’s punk rock, Kraus says, “yeh, punk rock.”
It is illuminating, and occasionally condemning in a mild way that makes me laugh, to read emails between coeditors Kraus and El Kholti as they strategize on how to best handle someone, then to see that strategy enacted, as Kraus plays dumb or words things obliquely in her next email. The Believer is publishing her book review of I’m Very into You, but Kraus’s press has just unexpectedly acquired the book from another publishing house, creating an obvious conflict of interest. Kraus will wait to tell them until it is too late to pull the review. Trouble: a forwarded email shows that the fact checker assigned to the article is onto her. When Kraus does email her editor at The Believer, she acts as if she’s only just learned about the book moving presses. Meanwhile, the literary executor of Kathy Acker’s estate, the artist and writer Matias Viegener, cc’s Kraus on a correspondence between himself and another writer, perhaps by error. In the messages, Viegener makes digs at Kraus’s writing, describing “a kind of braggadocio and overreach.” Kraus forwards the thread to El Kholti, who responds reassuringly, and quips, “Braggadocio, can you cook that with kale?”
Chris Kraus has long embedded correspondence in her work — I Love Dick is largely composed of letters, including faxes — so it makes sense that she is an early subject of this kind of digital preservation. But she’s also an especially compelling case study because of her explicit interest in exposure. In 2017, Kraus published the biography After Kathy Acker about the titular postmodern, punk writer. In the opening chapter, Kraus frames Acker as a self-mythologizer, and traces the difficulty of separating Acker’s creatively constructed persona from the facts of her life. There are hundreds of Acker’s interviews for Kraus to draw from, but “[Acker] lied all the time,” Kraus writes. “She lied when it was clearly beneficial to her, and she lied even when it was not.” To attempt a truer record, Kraus’s research entailed interviews with those who knew Acker — including Lotringer, their mutual ex — alongside archive visits and other sleuthing.
Of course this is the work of all biographers, but Kraus tends to linger in Acker’s more humiliating moments. Within pages of the opening, Acker is shown lying, feuding, broke, in denial of her coming death, and insecure. “I’m ugly,” Acker says in her first quote in the second chapter, which has jumped backward chronologically to Acker’s twenties, “I’m hideous with my short hair and draggy breasts.” Kraus’s admiration for Acker and her work is explicit, but there’s a harshness to the writing and Kraus’s choice to foreground the lead-up to Acker’s death, when the writer had become something of a pariah and sought cancer treatment through her astrologer and alternative avenues in Mexico. Kraus writes, “It was like she was a child, and couldn’t accept what was happening.”
Having exposed Acker so unflinchingly, Kraus offers her own collections to the archives with the insider’s knowledge that her life’s materials will be mined by researchers and writers in the years to come. I think of this often as I read her emails, which include the beginnings of her research for After Kathy Acker; I am researching the researcher. A doubling: I find an email of Kraus requesting the certificate from Acker’s early marriage, a brief union Acker erased from her public biography. In the same inbox, Kraus receives an email from a law office about her own premarital agreement, then corresponds with Minister Justin from letsgetmarriedsocal.com, whom Kraus will pay $199 to marry herself and Valdez in the backyard.
The expansiveness of the email archives, especially, renders Kraus exposed. Unlike the notebooks and paper correspondence, there are simply too many emails to meaningfully filter. In part for this reason, in order to gain access to the emails, I needed explicit permission from Kraus, mediated through NYU. Kraus granted my access on the condition that I cleared all quotes or paraphrases with her. After my days in her collections, I email Kraus the details of her marriage. I quote Kraus to Kraus, allowing her to draw the boundaries of her own exposure.
Kraus’s own subjects have had less say. Acker, of course, was dead, and, even had she not been, biographers don’t tend to delineate scope with their subjects. Then there is the titular Dick, who filed a cease and desist against Kraus, attempting to block the publication of her novel. In a 2016 essay for The Guardian, Kraus wrote that she couldn’t believe Dick took legal action, since “I’d changed the titles of his books, his physical appearance and personal history, and did not refer to any facts about his life that weren’t already published.” Even for those of us who love the novel, this logic is faulty: the real Dick’s name, Dick Hebdige, appears on the works cited page. Dick, the character, grows increasingly resentful of his subjecthood over the course of the book, at one point exploding: “You project this shit all over me… I don’t want it! I never asked for it! I think you’re evil and psychotic!” Commenting in a New York Magazine article, the real Dick compared himself to Princess Diana. Kraus reports that she invited him to write an introduction to I Love Dick. Hebdige declined.
Kraus approves all my chosen quotes. She has never blocked a researcher’s access to the emails, she tells me, nor has she censored any quotes they’ve chosen. She just can’t account for the content of tens of thousands of emails — a volume she calls “completely mind-numbing” — and inevitably there are things that would hurt others. That’s what Kraus doesn’t want, “to be quoted saying something really shitty about another person.” Protecting her own private life isn’t important to her, Kraus tells me. Her books, whose early drafts are often derived from journal entries, support this orientation towards disclosure. Kraus asks me, like a dare: “Who cares about one’s own privacy?”
I imagine my emails in the next batch she’ll sell to the archives. If she forwards this essay to El Kholti, as she tends to, I suppose I’ll find out someday, should I return to Fales Library to look.
When I meet with the curator Nicholas Martin, who oversees Kraus’s archives, he arrives by bike. He is a blue-eyed, brown-haired man in his thirties, who smiles as he speaks of the archive, his pride and affection parent-like. I ask him: if this unsearchable folder of emails, for which he has apologized, is not the ideal form of access, what might be? There is an emulative model, he tells me. In Salman Rushdie’s archives, for example, the writer’s computer has been recreated. A researcher can navigate the desktop as Rushdie would, with the applications installed, their contents replicated. It’s a near gamification of the archives; a role-playing of life, like the diorama rooms of museums. Rushdie’s computer is a “boutique” archive model, Martin says, that isn’t realistic for all collections. In a more scaled-down example, Martin explains that Instagram is very hard to record in a way that mirrors a user’s experience. Plus, Instagram’s more ephemeral “stories” disappear 24 hours after their posting, and the content cannot be publicly retrieved. In these situations, records are best preserved if actively, intentionally collected in real time. This “flies in the face of the way we think about the storage of our digital lives,” Martin says. It’s true: we’re so often reminded that the internet is forever. But it can take immense resources to insure it.
There are, fortunately, scalable options that are more robust than Easy Viewer. An open-source software called ePADD can make the emails searchable by sender and recipient, time periods, and key words. In theory this could have been set up for me, but it wasn’t possible the week of my visit.
In choosing between interface models, the decisions come down partially to what’s valued: what does a more experiential research interface capture or offer? What is worth preserving? The latter is a longstanding question in analog collections; Martin mentions the artist David Wojnarowicz’s glasses, which are stored among his journals, art, and other materials, and to which Martin knows I am emotionally attached. What do they offer? They’re invaluable and useless. They’re a talisman, almost, Martin says.
These curatorial decisions also come down to resources. Martin points to the robust demands of digital preservation: the storage space in perpetuity, the costs, the labor of processing, weeding, labeling. For formats like emails or blogs, there are also decisions of how far the network of files should extend — some of Kraus’s email attachments loaded, some didn’t. Some links worked. These attachments and links could be embedded by archivists as PDFs, but what of the links’ links? It is difficult, too, to decide what emails could be sacrificed. I tell Martin I like the potential time stamps of political campaign emails or other newsletters. They put a donor’s work and correspondence in a larger sociopolitical context. But, Martin says, if there are ten email collections at NYU with the same politician or clothing company’s near daily emails, imagine the replication and potential waste of storage space.
Some of Kraus’s over 74,000 emails have been removed, Martin says. Before researchers are given access to collections, archivists try to filter out things like social security numbers, though other risky information like bank account numbers remains, in part because documents like receipts often prove valuable. As a security measure, all researchers must register to access the archives, and their requests for specific materials are tracked. When I ask Martin about other omissions, like specific correspondents, he professionally demurs: I can ask Kraus, he tells me.
The last scene of I Love Dick revolves around a final correspondence. Chris is in New York, thrilled to be showing her film in a festival, when two envelopes arrive in a FedEx package from Dick. One is addressed to Sylvère, the other to Chris. In the letter to Sylvère, Dick explains that he is not sure whether his and Sylvère’s friendship can continue just now, noting, “I still have immense respect for your work; I still enjoy your company and conversation.” He even believes “Kris” has writing talent. But, he’s been made incredibly uncomfortable by the project. The letter is polite, almost generous, expressing regret at his own ambiguous communication. It exudes a man-to-man tone; an epistolary handshake.
When Chris opens her own envelope, she finds only a xeroxed copy of her husband’s letter. It’s a final dismissal; so much of the book is centered on Chris’s wanting to be taken seriously as an artist in her own right, not just seen as the wife of Sylvère. Now even Dick condescends to her. Paternalistic Dick can’t even bother to spell her name right.
When I speak to Kraus by phone after my days in her collections, she tells me that in the mid aughts, when Lotringer was selling his archives to Fales Library, she wanted to sell hers too. Kraus had been responsible for both sets of materials, paying for their combined storage in upstate New York for years. Her archives contained her own records, but also those of other people, many of whom had died; materials she’d kept safe even when she was living “in a very marginal way” herself. When Lotringer asked what the library would offer for Kraus’s archive to be added to his own, Fales said “nothing, same price,” Kraus recalls. “I said, ‘OK fuck you, we’re keeping it then.’”
If I Love Dick was something of a sleeper hit, then the 2016 debut of the Amazon Prime adaptation marked the book’s, and Kraus’s, arrival into mainstream recognition. The novel was selling less than a hundred copies annually in the nineties, but sold over fifty thousand the year the series was released. A New Yorker profile explained this slow comeuppance by naming Kraus as ahead of her time, praising her “intimate, discursive voice, her range of literary and artistic references, and her mordant self-criticism.” The New York Times chronicled the book’s revival, noting it had become an internet sensation. And, about a decade after the initial dismissal, Fales Library circled back with an offer to buy her materials, including her emails, which, she said, was framed as a standard component of a major acquisition. Kraus said, “‘OK great. Finally. Take it.’ And that’s really all I thought about it.”
I ask Kraus what it’s like to know that there will be writing derived from her archives. I ask, of course, from a position of lopsided knowledge: Kraus probably doesn’t remember buying boots — “gorgeous and sexy” — or getting a cold in Florence eight years ago. She probably couldn’t recall the price — $169 — of a gold ring she purchased on eBay (her wedding ring?); but I am now the world’s leading expert on two weeks of Kraus’s life in 2014. This screen-based research, dizzying and immersive, is distinct from the encounter with paper materials, but complements it; I’m sold on a future of hybrid archives.
Kraus says it’s embarrassing, imagining the writing to come, and that she tries not to think about it. She makes a deflection: Having written After Kathy Acker, she says, she knows that biographies aren’t really about the objective importance of their subject, “so much as whether there’s something in the life or work that speaks to the biographer that they couldn’t bring out otherwise.” She says, “it’s always as much about the biographer as the subject.”
There’s a humility here, in not acknowledging that the work itself merits academic or literary attention. But there’s an obvious redemption arc, a long-awaited arrival. On the last page of I Love Dick, When Chris finds the xeroxed copy of Dick’s letter to Sylvère, a single line follows the humiliating reveal: “She gasped under the weight of it and got out of the car and showed her film.” It’s quiet, but the novel ends with Chris and her art, the underlying romance of the book. This is the relationship one roots for, knowing, as Kraus says, “to be taken seriously was my great dream.” Alongside the more commercial success and critical recognition Kraus has since received, the formidable collections at Fales mark Kraus’s place in literary history. It’s a hard-won victory.
Over the phone, Kraus is not so grandiose. She is relieved, she says, that the materials are no longer her responsibility, that they are somewhere safe. Everything is there, she says, except for some notebooks that she wanted a chance to write about herself first, and the emails and papers of the intervening years. “But eventually, if they want it, they’ll take it all.”