This issue of Feminist Media Histories is the first of two issues that bring together essays invested in work that challenges the empirical, leans into the unverifiable, engages the absent, and trains a lens on the unseeable. Regardless of the many ways the discipline has become more expansive and inclusive, film and media history remains a history of survivors. The project of these issues (the companion issue is forthcoming in Summer 2022) is to propose speculation as a key method for thinking about questions of material loss and inaccessibility in new ways. The essays gathered in these pages attempt alternative methods for working with the paucity of evidence and forge innovative ways of accounting for media history’s obfuscated aspects. While their approaches are as different as the subjects they cover, the essays in these special issues reflect on and explore modes of speculation as a practice of media making, curatorship, or as a strategy necessitated by the archive’s limits.1

Speculation is, of course, everywhere. It controls our lives in ways that are invisible but pervasive, well beyond creative endeavors, such as through the complex functioning of financial markets. It forecasts our collective demise in the age of the Anthropocene. It guides contemporary media practices, as in the anticipatory wagers of content creation across all platforms. As Gayle Rogers writes in his cultural history of the practice of speculation, “we encourage speculation as a mode of contemplative creativity, hoping that those among us who dream the impossible will envision a new future, much as speculative-fiction writers do.”2

Speculation is not new to scholarly work, though the term itself has long carried a pejorative inflection. And yet it arguably applies to entire disciplines, such as archaeology and astronomy, among other fields that base their deductions from fragmentary evidence, albeit often approached through empirical modeling. What is the act of hypothesizing if not informed speculation? As the certainty of historical knowledge has been destabilized, informed speculation has gained more of a foothold in scholarship in cultural history.3 After all, if all histories are constructions, then the construction of history can likewise be a generative practice of resistance. Speculation, then, is no longer the province of the future, but a means to approach the obfuscated past.

Within cinema and media studies, speculation has long been of central concern to the discipline—though it might not be readily apparent until we recognize the joint etymologies of speculation and spectatorship, from the Latin speculari, to spy out, watch, examine, or observe and spectare, to look. The term spectator is often used to indicate a hypothetical subject position rather than the specific experience of actual individuals and groups (viewers, audiences, etc.). Thinking about a hypothetical spectator is implicitly speculative, though this should not be seen as undermining the significance or potential impact of resulting arguments.4 Scholars working on questions of reception, especially those engaged with marginalized subject positions (on the basis of race, class, gender, or heteronormativity), have fought against positivist gatekeeping around what counts as evidence and what arguments can be made about historical spectators.

At the vanguard of pushing the discipline’s boundaries, feminist film historians in particular have adopted implicitly speculative methodologies to address historical lacunae and oversight. Writing on her project of investigating the life and career of Italian filmmaker Elvira Notari, Giuliana Bruno explains in Streetwalking on a Ruined Map, “The fragmentary textual body, and the silence surrounding this work, called for an ‘archeological’ intertextual approach.”5 As she writes, “Reclaiming marginality and difference, an archeology of knowledge has effectively mined the field of suppressed knowledge to reveal discontinuous, diverse, and disqualified areas.”6 Shifting where we look—even to what we cannot (or no longer) see—can be a radical, necessary gesture of resistance to archival gaps, lacunae, redactions, and blind spots. Film studies’ embrace of other forms of knowledge and experience—affective, haptic, sensory, and so on—constitutes a major dehierarchization of what we consider evidence. Speculation, as I see it, extends from these methodological interventions by following the sublimated what if? of our imaginations to their potential (in)conclusions.

It’s important to recognize, however, that speculation as a method is not only a response to archival absences but a generative method for creative engagement. Speaking about her process in writing Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, Saidiya Hartman explains, “my counter-narratives have not been composed as a consequence of discovering new documents, but rather by engaging with extant archival materials critically and creatively. My aim has been to compose and to reconstruct, to improvise and augment.”7 To tell untold stories of historically marginalized or subjugated figures without perpetuating further injustices requires a collaborative, engaged relationship to archival sources rather than an extractive one.

An attitude of openness to the possibilities posed by queries, rather than a desire to seek definitive answers, also drives speculative research. This approach is not a capitulation to the archive’s silences, though it acknowledges the limitations of the historical record. It is rather a process of “open[ing]” the field to recognize the many actors involved in the production of historical knowledge,” as Hartman proffers, following Michel-Rolph Trouillot.8 Indeed, the willingness to loosen our disciplinary commitment to argument and lean towards possibility has the potential to radically upend the hierarchies of knowledge (which themselves have been built on structures of power that favor a set of voices and positions over a much larger set of lives, experiences, and perspectives).

Speculation as a strategy, even a methodology, allows for the possibility of a film history that is neither driven nor determined by the vicissitudes of chance survival of filmic elements or extrafilmic artifacts. To an overwhelming extent, the field of cinema and media studies has been organized around extant material, with histories closely tethered to surviving evidence. Film history is a history of survivors, written at the expense of alternative voices and practices that risk being dismissed or marginalized if we can’t readily access them. When scholars aim at a broader and more inclusive film history, we often hit a wall. Instead of working with archival abundance we are faced with degrees of archival silence; what survives is often fragmentary at best and deliberately elided or effaced at worst. If these challenges are basic to historical work, they are endemic to the study of Black cinema, for example. This is an issue that has marked much of my own work; so much has been lost, marginalized, or forgotten that the film historian is forced into more exploratory and experimental methods.9

This tendency to privilege survivors persists across the generations of film historical writing. Indeed, the foundational premise of David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson’s canonical 1985 text on classical Hollywood style, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, is that an “unbiased sample” of 100 films produced between 1915 and 1960 provide “the norms of ordinary filmmaking” in the American studio system.10 These 100 films aren’t random, but they are survivors, as the authors rightly acknowledge—which already makes them exceptional.11 This isn’t to discredit the authors’ method or the conclusions that derived from it, but to underscore the centrality of media history’s surviving artifacts to the shaping of the discipline.

Beyond classical Hollywood cinema, the issue of survivor bias is alive for multiple media, including media made outside of mainstream spheres, the work of women and LGBTQ+ and nonwhite makers, and media made in areas that have experienced or are experiencing conflict, or where media archiving is precarious at best. The result is that surviving media dominates scholarship in disproportion to produced media. This is indisputable and uncontroversial—indeed, I am trying to trouble the very acceptability of this premise in our field. When we overlook the overwhelming percentage of moving image media that does not survive or is at risk, is fragmentary, is in danger of technological obsolescence, or whose survival is contingent on specialized preservation practices, we further reify media history’s survivors and further reinforce the obfuscations of archival precarity. There is an irony to the fragility of a medium whose ontology rests on the notion of fixity.

My own research project, in the whole, has been motivated by this potential to reconsider film history—how it’s researched and written—from a position that resists the legacies of systemic racism and perceived hierarchies of quality that have determined our access to filmic objects. For example, the large-scale collaborative L.A. Rebellion project of the UCLA Film & Television Archive involved finding and locating films and filmmakers, collecting surviving audiovisual materials and papers, conducting oral histories with surviving filmmakers, and preserving all of it for our own research and that of other scholars, students, and enthusiasts. To understand how filmmaking practices arose among members of the L.A. Rebellion, and how they expressed a set of political and aesthetic concerns, necessitated an opening of the aperture to a wider view of student and independent filmmaking in Los Angeles in the 1970s to 1990s.

The ambition of expanding the archive also motivated my work with film archivist Dino Everett on the rediscovery and identification of Something Good—Negro Kiss (Selig, 1898), a rare encounter with an original nitrate print in astonishingly good condition. Even more striking, the film featured what appears to be the earliest instance of African American affection on film, a representation of Black subjects that is neither blackface caricature nor racist farce. This rediscovery, though, doesn’t merely add to the film historical archive, as significant as that is. It also provides an opportunity to rethink how we understand race, performance, stage, and screen at the emergence of cinema.12 Part of this work is traditional film history, drawing from familiar methodologies and approaches to identify and contextualize this rediscovered artifact.13 But part of it is speculative; reinserting a previously considered lost film—especially one so distinct from other surviving early film artifacts—into the picture we have of early cinema raises a set of questions whose answers are inherently unempirical and require informed speculation to pursue.

These concerns are further transformed within film history when we find films that themselves serve as models for such speculative work. Indeed, these concerns are present within so many key films, especially films made by Black women filmmakers. To study them is thus not just to look for traces of that lost archive. These films model a new way for thinking about the role of archival evidence in doing the history of African American cinema—what I call the speculative archive.

There’s a tradition we can trace in the filmmaking practices of Julie Dash, Zeinabu irene Davis, Cheryl Dunye, and Garrett Bradley, to name a few, who do not accept archival absence as historical erasure. In different ways, these filmmakers have taken the lack of an accessible, recorded history as an invitation to invent an archive (Dunye’s The Watermelon Women [1996]), give figuration to Hollywood’s exploitative secrets (Dash’s Illusions [1982]), and literally recreate what we know occurred but has been lost (Davis’s Compensation [1999] and Bradley’s America [2019]). In replacing the nonextant with the reimagined, these filmmakers arguably create a speculative archive of images and ephemera that serve as visible evidence for an otherwise inaccessible history.

In such a speculative context, the central question posed by a film like Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman has to do with the strategies such a fiction film offers Black film historiography. How might the logic of a speculative archive help inform and generate a speculative film history? These filmmakers may have deployed the speculative archive in fictions, calling upon it to stand in for a usable past, but scholarship on African American cinema often finds itself within a similar—necessarily political—gesture of recuperation. As these films demonstrate, the absence of a publicly visible past is felt most acutely when the stakes of visuality are so high and the issue of prolonged and pervasive misrepresentation and silencing so deep. While a crucial case, African American film history is not alone in facing these issues (we could also name films like Marlon Fuentes’s Bontoc Eulogy [1995] and Barbara Hammer’s History Lessons [2000], for example).

What motivated my interest in editing this special issue was the sense that speculation could be a generative methodology for addressing a number of concerns in the field that extend beyond my own investments in writing about nonextant films and early African American cinema.14 This problem served as the premise for a course I designed with my colleague Ghenwa Hayek for the University of Chicago’s Center for Disciplinary Innovation (CDI). The development process for the CDI course allowed us to bridge our home departments of Cinema and Media Studies and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, respectively, to explore overlapping and adjacent concerns in an incubatory space. In Winter 2020, in the weeks prior to the introduction of COVID-19 to North America, we launched the course—a co-taught graduate seminar on Cinema Without an Archive. In this extra-disciplinary space, we sought to investigate historiographic methods of approaching the archive, with a focus on cinema and various forms of precarity that impact its production, exhibition, and archival preservation. Questions ranged from problems of evidence and material instability through the climate crisis and media degradation, to the role of the state and archival precariousness in conflict and post-conflict areas. With a comparative lens, we investigated the fraught and contested histories and challenges of the archive, and the limitations of archival thinking and practice in post-colonial and post-conflict sites—and sites of current contestation—such as Lebanon, the Philippines, Brazil, and Palestine. Building from the problem of gaps well known to film historiography, that is, how film history has grappled with the absence and instability of the film artifact, we turned to the ways these problems surface—and how they are mediated—in regions that are fraught with conflict, have weak, under-resourced, or interfering state structures, and whose commemorative practices are contested.

The COVID-19 pandemic shifted the university to remote operations just as the course concluded, so instead of a thorough taking stock of the fruits of interdisciplinary exploration, we kind of floated off—perhaps fitting for a course invested in media ephemerality and precariousness. These two issues of Feminist Media Histories on speculative approaches to media histories are in many ways products of this pedagogical collaboration with Professor Hayek and the graduate students from across University of Chicago’s Humanities Division, as well as visitors from the profession who joined us via Skype (before the ascendancy of Zoom in our lives), including film archivists Carolyn Faber, Skip Elsheimer, Snowden Becker, Rachael Stoeltje, and Rafael de Luna Freire. The course pushed the geographic, medial, and temporal bounds of my own research areas and inspired the special issues’ call for work across areas of specialization that shared my investment in—and curiosity about—the potentials of speculation for the work of feminist media history.

The topic for these special issues was conceived, then, as a way of gathering scholars who work in interstices, grapple with unseeable material, address erasures, or who are interested in artists and filmmakers working in speculative modes—out of necessity or for the generative possibilities afforded by imaginative engagement. The invitation was for work that is responding to the field’s broadening and more inclusive scope and purview by adapting and developing methodologies to better respond to new issues and concerns. Just as nonextant film requires different tools than we might bring to the study of a film print (or its digital copy), I anticipated there would be many other areas of inquiry that likewise called for forms of speculative engagement. Put another way, what methods were being developed to address archival lacunae? How are scholars finding innovative ways of working with absence, erasure, silences, and loss? Methods derived from working with images, figures, and other material might certainly be inadequate for work that looks at what can’t be seen, is immaterial, effable, or ephemeral. Or, in some cases, speculation enhances established methods by pushing against the bounds of the verifiable.

The call for papers for these special issues was designed to present speculation as an organizing methodology to enable a broad array of voices and perspectives to be put into conversation across the journal’s pages. The result of this call was an unprecedented number of submissions of scholarship that engages speculation across a great range of topics and subjects, including Black film history, queer ethnographic media work, lesbian bricolage, the Ornamentalism of early cinema, and the problem of archival abundance as well as absence. Indeed, there were so many rich proposals that the contents have been necessarily split across two issues, both Spring and Summer 2022.

As cinema and media studies becomes more inclusive in its scope and purview, its methodologies likewise must adapt to account for material absences and opacities. This special issue of Feminist Media Histories brings together current work in cinema and media studies that is grappling with questions of the paucity of evidence, whether these absences are due to archival lacunae or other factors. In particular, these essays reflect on and explore modes of speculative scholarship—not just as a way to mobilize an absent archive but also to engage with speculation as a productive tool for media history. Some of these engagements are through critical writing (on speculative practices and/or adopting speculation as a critical methodology), others are through curatorial practices and reimagined forms of archiving.

Across two issues of Feminist Media Histories, the scholars included here present work of two broad veins: scholarship that assesses creative practices that can be understood as speculative, and work that comprises speculative scholarship as it works through fragments and lacunae, mobilizing an informed speculation to address historical gaps and erasures. In each of these cases, speculation can be seen as both a necessity occasioned by material absences and a necessarily political gesture of resistance to erasure. It is important that the turn to speculation is not merely conceived as a result of absence and erasure but can be a generative form of doing creative and experimental scholarship. What the essays show is that a speculative approach is hospitable to feminist, queer, trans, diasporic, and racially marginalized work, and concerns of other historically excluded identities and positionalities. Whereas the Summer 2022 volume leans more into speculation as a practice of experimental scholarship, this issue focuses on the archive and the gallery as sites for and of speculative encounter.

The first set of essays considers practices of fabulation as creative speculative engagements with historical and material lacunae. In her essay for this collection, Samantha Sheppard examines Lynn Nottage’s 2011 play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, based in part on the career of African American performer Theresa Harris, as a fabulative practice of Black feminist artmaking. In “Changing the Subject: Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark and the Making of Black Women’s Film History,” Sheppard explores the play and its paratexts as comprising a speculative archive about often-absent or erased Black women’s media histories. In doing so, Sheppard argues they constitute a “phantom cinema” in which real and imagined film histories are brought together to critically and creatively counter such absences both of history and of public imagination.

The absence of a visual past, the denial of access to self-representation, and the erasure of cultural artifacts are especially acute in Palestinian cultural heritage. In “Narrating Looted and Living Palestinian Archives: Reparative Fabulation in Azza El-Hassan’s Kings and Extras,” Kareem Estefan discusses El-Hassan’s 2004 film Kings and Extras: Digging for a Palestinian Image, a film that addresses archival erasure by expanding the scope of what constitutes evidence. Estefan makes the case for “reparative fabulation” as a generative and resistant rejection of archival (and thereby historical) refusal. The creation of counter-histories in the service of a decolonized future is at the heart of El-Hassan’s project.

Several contributors are archivists and curators in addition to being scholars. In her essay, “The Vanishing Archive: Documentary Filmmaking, the Gaze, and the Metamorphosis of Atteyat al-Abnoudy,” Yasmin Desouki traces her work as a film archivist and artistic director of Cairo’s Cimatheque-Alternative Film Centre from 2013–2019 during which she worked on the archives of documentary filmmaker Atteyat al-Abnoudy (1936–2018). Desouki carefully traces the implications of the material neglect of moving image media. It’s a cautionary tale, necessary for scholars and general audiences to bear in mind as we encounter a filmmaker’s work; what are the conditions of access, distribution, and remediation that shape our viewing experiences? Far from firm, these conditions can be highly contingent and precarious. This is true across the history of moving image production, but it is even more of a problem for the work outside of feature-length narrative filmmaking and European and North American state and studio productions helmed by white men. Archival precarity is a pervasive issue for the work of women documentarians, like al-Abnoudy in North Africa, or nontheatrical filmmakers like Americans Lisa Chickering and Jeanne Porterfield who made films for the travel lecture circuit from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, discussed by Liz Czach in her essay, “Researching as Searching: Refusing the Archival Lacunae.” Both Desouki and Czach detail the work entailed in archiving film and media elements as the very foundation for scholarly engagement. For her part, Czach argues for an understanding of “speculative archival work” as not just what a scholar does with extant archival materials, but also the process of locating and securing a collection for archival processing and preservation. Czach provides a model for speculative detective work that crucially enhances our field by providing access to historically marginalized media practices.

Desouki’s and Czach’s archival projects point to the central role of the archive in creating knowledge. With “The Film Image of Bessie Smith: St. Louis Blues (1929) in the Post-WWII Era and its Speculative Afterlives,” Cinta Pelejà offers a study of Dudley Murphy’s famed film, the only audiovisual recording of blues icon Bessie Smith. She details how myths form and circulate around media artifacts. Through careful extrafilmic research mobilized in her film analysis, Pelejà reminds us that our understanding of film history is often intertwined with the provenance of film prints, sometimes leading us to conclusions about a film and its cultural circulation that obfuscate other aspects of its trajectory.

The archive and the material condition of cultural heritage artifacts are also central to Phoebe Chen’s discussion of the 1986 restoration of The Toll of the Sea (1922) undertaken by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and YCM Laboratories. The rare surviving original nitrate negative of the film that was unearthed in the Technicolor vaults was missing the film’s ending. In “Restoring the Technicolor Ornament: The Yellow Woman’s Death in The Toll of the Sea (1922),” Chen details how the restoration of the film is the product of two “speculative practices,” the simulation of the two-color subtractive process known as Technicolor II in which the film was originally released, and the recreation of the concluding fate of Anna May Wong’s character, Lotus Flower. Attuned to both film archival theory and histories of racialized representation, Chen argues the film’s restoration raises “problems of chromatic and narrative completion” that risk perpetuating the film’s “aestheticization and racialization” as the film’s photochemical materiality is inexorable from the film’s Orientalist spectacle. Chen offers an important contribution to debates around film restoration practices and the risks of seeking narrative—and material—completion.

Questions around archival and curatorial practices also inspire Lauren Berliner’s speculative approach to digital media spectatorship. As a scholar-curator, Berliner became interested in unshared media and the non-viral when co-curating a screening series in Seattle in 2014 with Adam Sekuler for which they sought out YouTube videos with the fewest possible likes and shares—the “unwatched.” With “Towards a Methodology of Unwatched Digital Media,” she demonstrates that attention to videos that are “not caught up in algorithmic logic” is a form of media engagement that is as committed to understanding—and countering—the power and control algorithms have over our lives as are studies of viral popularity.

Curatorial practice is a form of research for Julianne Pidduck. In her article, “Lesbian Bars, Archival Media Bricolage and Research-Creation,” Pidduck reflects on her original research-creation multimedia installation project After Hours Chez Madame Arthur as “a speculative practice of archival media bricolage.” This collective and collaborative archeological history of Montreal’s lesbian and gay bars of the 1970s is assembled as a restaging of Chez Madame Arthur in the contemporary queer Never Apart Center in Montreal. In her essay, she reflects on the process and possibilities of research-creation for speculative lesbian, feminist, and queer media histories. In doing so, she thoughtfully reflects on the act of recreating past social and cultural experiences in the present and the emplacement of archival traces in a contemporary installation for current visitors, and considers the role of narrative—multimedia, multi-temporal, and polyvocal—in the work of identity and community formation and activism.

The gallery also serves as a key site for Ren Heintz and Jeff Scheible in their respective essays. Heintz uses their encounter with an installation by Ken Gonzales-Day at the Luis de Jesus gallery in 2017 as a starting point to argue that Gonzales-Day’s work constitutes a “queer archival autoethnography,” a methodology in which the artist uses the self as “a medium of history.” Heintz sees in Gonzales-Day a “speculative and performative archival practice” through which the artist brings together erased histories of people of mixed racial, gendered, and sexual identities. Scheible’s essay, “Expanded Cinema, Recycled Cinema,” discusses moving image installations about ping pong in the work of Agnès Varda and VALIE EXPORT. Imaginatively, but nonetheless grounded in archival records, site visits, and the artists’ cinematic works, Scheible treats the game of ping pong as both literal and metaphorical. Embracing the game as method, Scheible stages a speculative volley between the two artists. In doing so, he takes the shared motif—an “exemplary cinematic thing,” after Lesley Stern—of ping pong as a way to think about cinema itself.

As I’ve noted, this volume is the first of two. The essays in this Spring 2022 issue offer a range of approaches to the idea of speculation as a method and a strategy both for scholarship and artistic practice. Together, the essays investigate speculative practices, experiment in speculative methodologies, and suggest avenues for approaching questions of film and media history that are obfuscated, elusive, or otherwise non-evident. The Summer 2022 issue will emphasize creative, fabulative, and experimental forms of speculative scholarship.


Here, I’m using the term archive capaciously, to include its multiple meanings in relation to film and media artifacts and paratexts, from a climate-controlled repository for material preservation, to a synonym for a collection (aggregated or not) of titles, to a metaphor. The authors in this special issue who use the term do so in different ways, though each is precise in the way they invoke the term in relation to their arguments and analyses.


Gayle Rogers, Speculation: A Cultural History from Aristotle to AI (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021), 1–2.


While there is not a clear consensus on the status of historical knowledge or how to account for its instability (or to others, its endurance), I mean to point to the crucial contributions of decolonial, feminist, queer and trans scholars, as well as postcolonial and postmodernist criticism and those for whom the dethroning of teleological History expanded the sense of what constitutes historical evidence in scholarship.


Thanks to Cooper Long for his thoughts on the shared etymologies of “spectatorship” and “speculation” and the relation of the terms in the discipline of Cinema and Media Studies.


Giuliana Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 3.


Bruno, Streetwalking, 5.


Hartman, “Intimate History, Radical Narrative,” The Journal of African American History (Winter 2021), 129.


Hartman, “Intimate History, Radical Narrative,” 130.


For example, of films made by African American producers, almost none made prior to 1920 survive. Developing methods to account for this nonextant body of work served as my motivation for Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).


David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 388.


The authors note of the “unbiased sample,” “This was not, strictly speaking, a random sample. Every film made in American studios did not have an equal chance to be viewed, since not every film has survived.” For more on the selection procedure for their study, see The Classical Hollywood Cinema, Appendix A, 388–396.


See: Allyson Nadia Field, “The Cinema of Racialized Attraction(s): The John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss and Something Good—Negro Kiss.” Discourse 44.1 (Winter 2022), 3–41.


See: Allyson Nadia Field, “Archival Rediscovery and the Production of History: Solving the Mystery of Something Good—Negro Kiss (1898).” Film History 33.2 (Summer 2021), 1–33.


In addition to Field, Uplift Cinema, see: Allyson Nadia Field, “Making the Absent Present: Writing about Nonextant Media” in Writing About Screen Media, ed. Lisa Patti (New York: Routledge, 2020): 92–95.