It wasn’t exactly the sexiest job I could have had, to be sure. Compared to scrubbing thousands of dishes or unlocking the dorm rooms of drunk students ready to go vomit supernova, though, I felt like I was married to Denzel Washington. Actually, I rather loved my on-campus job in college.
For a young comparative literature major who liked books viscerally but often found himself squirming through the tedium of reading, the idea of working in a manuscript archive was pretty damn romantic. Tucked away in the shadowy floors of the library were rows upon rows of manilla boxes containing all sorts of illicit pleasures. They had it all: handwritten notes from foreign heads of state, the quotidian correspondences of the midcentury American political elite, coursebooks from long-forgotten students–everywhere you turned there was some treasure begging for rediscovery. All of this was fascinating, particularly as I saw just how lonely these relics were. Their soundless solitude plucked at a loneliness I felt in my own existence, and certainly at the fear of being lost and forgotten.
Some of these materials hadn’t seen the light of day since they were first accessioned; others were routinely trucked out to voracious researchers who would spend months hunched and wheezing over crumbling volumes and dusty photos. The material seemed to take on a life of its own. The short, bovine boxes of irregularly sized materials selfishly jockeyed against the tall, slender codices for as much real estate as they could, squeezing the books together until their poor covers warped and withered under the assault. A few particularly flexible photos manipulated their mylar coats to liberate themselves from the suffocating mélange, only to find themselves trapped and abandoned in the dark netherworld between the shelves and the wall. And the onion paper. Frail, sickly, and antisocial, it could barely stand the touch of another without crying out and, eventually, disintegrating.
It all settled into a centrifugal listlessness, with diminishing utility imperceptibly yet steadfastly delivering it over to the crushing effects of entropy. This was where paper and thoughts came to die. The archive had pretensions of serving as a kind of urgent-care unit, administering emergency resuscitative measures to the most desperately ill of materials. But this was no conservation lab, so the stopgaps were only temporary and the mauseoleic face of the archive inevitably revealed itself.
The contemporary archive is a rather tumultuous place, epistemically speaking. Even as it does its best to encourage the respect due these materials, I soon learned in my job that a rather violent divorce is being wrought that seems to reconfigure the order of things in the accumulation of history. I began as a student worker in the midst of a large digitization initiative, wherein specialists were digitizing aging, decrepit materials to preserve content and, if the degeneration were too complete, dispensing with the original physical forms. Like veterinarians of knowledge, archivists diagnosed informational ailments and, in the most severe of cases, allowed for the mind to live on while recommending corporeal euthanization. This type of dualism seemed baffling to me, for the same reasons it did in the consideration of human subjects: the thought is in the paper, is inextricably of it, and finds its content and expression entangled in one another.
Soon, the job took on a rather uncomfortable tone. I felt complicit in a kind of paper genocide. The clinical, high-pitched buzz of the scanner quietly yet mercilessly wrested from these dying materials the words and images graphed across their surfaces, turning them into bits of data that lived in some Great Everywhere that was, to my eyes, Nowhere. As I watched the mutant accretions of tape and disintegrating paper fall amongst the refuse, I was struck by images of the dark, sagging shelves holding up the mountains of weary books and journals from my childhood. Nostalgia cut piercingly into the monotony. Who had these materials belonged to? Who had scribbled across this now-yellowed paper? Who had been present for and given care to these black-and-white photos now dribbling brown? Beyond mere indices of lost times, these objects were interesting because they seemed lost. They looked to be in search of the relationships once had with those who created them. Their senility seemed to have overrun them, and each of their ersatz caretakers could do only so much to bring grace to their senescence.
So my love affair with media began with loss as I came of age in the transition from a paperful to a paperless society. As barely-there pages slipped away and blindingly dynamic virtual interfaces took their place, I became interested in the investments–emotional, intellectual, and otherwise–that we as humans make in the technologies that have surrounded us from stone to screen. Despite lamentations by critics about how Nothing Would Ever Be the Same, I somehow had a sense that this had happened before and would happen again. (Battlestar Galactica really got to the heart of human’s relationship with technology.) Media technologies have always defined themselves through the relationships they unveil and generate between humans, their universe, and each other, but those relationships–as do all–change over time.
Beyond the technologies themselves, however, the proliferation of information must be attended to critically. If mining is to be a productive metaphor for the lag between the generation and interpretation of information, then the sites and tools of excavation are in need of definition. The cultural and affective fissures and connections between online and offline worlds do not always resolve themselves neatly into the data packets analyzed in information management and other data sciences. How do we, a transitional technological generation, experientially resolve the co-presence of technologies and transitions from new to old media? What will the equivalent moment in future generations be of feeling paper crumble or tape disintegrate between one’s fingers? How do we live out and outlive technology?
Embedded in these questions is the need to attend to much less easily reduced points of experience–a “dadum” rather than “datum,” if you will–whose visibility comes through the intersection of a number of complex personal and historical narratives. As technological change accelerates, obsession with utility, productivity, and innovation obscure in these narratives the continued presence of the inconsequential, the irrelevant, and the unproductive in the field of the mundane, where most of us spend our time living. Contemporary artists certainly take this as a privileged domain, but some practices risk falling into a reactionary recalcitrance that expends more energy proclaiming its own obstinance than teasing out the complexities of this transitional existence.
Perhaps these types of considerations are best left to the liminal space of personal blogging, where personal considerations are presented in public ways that can be of as much or little consequence as readers need it to be. So rather than take technology at its word, the work I do mines the seemingly ineffectual gestures beneath the surface of our mediated worlds. It searches for the ways we use these gestures–both real and apparent–to style our identities, online and off. It combs the periphery of hypermediated experience in search of existential conflicts, insuppressible differences, and actual people making actual history. It looks beyond information as a collection of data and searches for those disruptive moments of wonder, absurdity, paradox, illogic, and unrest–in short, those human moments–in the technologized mundane in which we now find ourselves. It searches for those left behind and documents those whose backs form the bridges across which the privileged march into a hallucinated Utopia.
And through it all, this work searches for its own voice as it wanders the fields of electrons zipping to and fro. It stops and starts in its journey into the abyss of words, sounds, and images that populate our electronic universe. Virtual as that universe may seem, however, this work never forgets the clicking and tapping of fingers on keys and screens, never misses the eyes darting across those dynamic flat surfaces, and never sheds the feeling that all of this–like the crumbling paper in the manuscript library–can die, and will someday. This endeavor is the eulogy for a funeral to come.
Image source: Getty Images