On Estate Sales, Archives, and the Matter of
"The dynamic unfolding of human lives and practices, we argue, transpires within
a rich, robust conception of time and situation. We are always enmeshed in
a world of involvements. While this includes language, it also includes in a
decisive and pervasive manner forms of engagement with the
things and people that make up the world."
—Collin Brooke and Thomas Rickert
The Things They Left Behind: The Estate Sale as Archive
I began collecting found texts (and by this I mean paper-based and three-dimensional objects created by, depicting, and intended to be viewed by and circulated amongst people I did not know, and would never know) in the spring of 2010. Around this time, I also became interested in exploring the scholarly potentials of photography, film, and video. What began, then, primarily as hobbies, side projects or curiosities, have become part of my research agenda as I continue to seek out other people’s home movies, photos, slides, and scrapbooks, creating video-based scholarship that attempts to trace or tease out, following Brooke and Rickert, something of these strangers’ rich and complexly textured “world[s] of involvements” (165).
All these artifacts—what Jonathan Harris calls “partial glimpses into somebody’s life”—and what Tucker, Ott and Buckler describe as “lived time [captured] in a material form” (16)—have certainly proved intriguing. At the same time, their partiality, their incompleteness—their silence, if you will—provides unique challenges and opportunities. As Tucker, Ott and Buckler have argued, the life events represented in these memory artifacts are rarely presented as fully fleshed out, reader-friendly narratives. Rather, they exist as fragments, partially coded accounts of lives lived. It becomes difficult to create sustained narratives for or understandings of these materials—like memories, they often lack closure (2-3). Indeed, you can question these partial glimpses all you like, but they seldom talk back. My interest, then, has been to begin finding ways of giving voice, life, and new potentials for meaning to these strangers and their largely silent life materials.
To achieve this goal while exploring the potentials of video scholarship makes sense given the movement and visual richness of these found artifacts, but it also provides opportunities to practice a kind of composing I advocated in a 2011 publication—a composition made whole—one that encourages us to explore how rapidly changing communicative landscapes provide opportunities to rethink, reexamine, and reexperience the highly distributed, multimodal, and embodied aspects of all communicative practice (148).*
• • •
Feminist scholars such as Cheryl Glenn, Jessica Enoch, Nan Johnson, Wendy B. Sharer, Gesa Kirsch, and Liz Rohan (among others), have urged moving beyond established archives to explore the potentials of “alternative” or “nontraditional” archives such as small community archives or boxes of materials found in offices, garages, or a relative’s attic. In the piece of video scholarship featured here, titled “The Things They Left Behind: The Estate Sale as Archive,” I propose treating flea markets and estate and yard sales as archives of sorts. To better illustrate the richness and critical/creative potential of materials housed in these non-traditional archives, I focus on a purchase I made at a yard sale where, for twenty-five dollars, I obtained six boxes filled with photos, scrapbooks, trip diaries, and other materials once belonging to a now-deceased couple named Dorothy and Fred. I begin by recounting some of the ways that I, as a scholar interested in remediation, multimodality, and issues of embodiment and lived experience, have attempted to understand or make sense of Dorothy’s scrapbooks. Again, as Brooke and Rickert remind: “The dynamic unfolding of human lives and practices…transpires within a rich, robust conception of time and situation. We are always enmeshed in a world of involvements” (165). I’d maintain that Dorothy’s scrapbooks afford us glimpses—however partial, however skeletal they may be—of these rich and complexly laminated multimodal worlds of involvement. In the second part of the video, I share the preliminary results of a new project, one that invites participants to “inhabit” some of Dorothy’s photographs and other life materials. Inspired by projects where people reenact or restage images of themselves taken at an earlier point in time, the “Inhabiting Dorothy” project provides participants opportunities to respond to, recreate, and/or remediate materials belonging to someone whom they have never met. Of particular interest are the various ways in which, and the materials with which, participants attempt to forge connections between the past and the present, here and there, and between the living and the dead as they take up, and indeed, take on materials from this collection.
• • •
In Geographies of Writing, Nedra Reynolds underscores the need for developing new maps of writing, ones that foreground “not just the places where writing occurs, but the sense of place and space that readers and writers bring with them to the intellectual work of writing, to navigating, remembering and composing” (176). Like Reynolds, I too am convinced of the importance of frameworks that help to illumine the spatial, temporal, embodied, affective, and material dimensions of writing. Yet as I have argued elsewhere (Shipka 2011), rather than adopting a single mode perspective on communicative practice, new maps of composing must attend to how writing functions as but one “stream within the broader flows of” meaning-making and person-making activity (Prior 1998, 11). Following Reynolds then, I’d suggest that these maps treat acts of composing as material—as the “carving of text out of time and space—in particular circumstances that differ for each writer” (3-4). In addition to treating the various times at which, tools with which, and spaces in which one works, these new maps must provide glimpses of spaces, materials, and activities that might not, at first glance, seem directly related to the composing process. They must attend to the affective and physical dimensions of text-making as well as its historical dimensions—highlighting how both texts and individuals come into being, how they are altered, transformed, remade.
The companion video featured here, titled “On the Making of ‘The Things They Left Behind,’” offers such a map of composing as I take viewers and listeners behind the scenes (quite literally so, in fact) of “The Things They Left Behind,” sharing with them something of my process of composing this piece of video scholarship. To achieve this goal of documenting parts of my composing process through video scholarship makes sense given the movement, three-dimensionality, and visual richness of the artifacts I’ve been collecting and working with since 2010. What’s more, video scholarship affords me the opportunity to document and share with viewers and listeners aspects of the composing process (and indeed, aspects of the composer herself—her hands, her voice, her intentions, missteps, desires, etc.) that have traditionally been erased, downplayed, or rendered invisible, inaudible, in print-based scholarship. A related goal is that the companion video featured here helps to reveal something of how rewarding, yes, but also how incredibly time-intensive the production of video-based or new media scholarship tends to be.
With both videos featured here, then, I attempt to highlight the agency of, and contributions made by, a vast array of participants, both human and nonhuman, the living and, of course, the dead. Both videos strive to highlight what Ben Highmore refers to as the “thingly world,” or what Jane Bennett, in Vibrant Matter calls “thing-power”—the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle (6). Like Bennett’s work, the video-based work I’m doing asks viewers to attend not just to human agency, input, and intention but also to see the human, to see matters of agency, effect and affect, as distributed across a complex “ontologically heterogeneous field” (23)—one that includes, but is certainly not limited to, hardware, software, film, video, cameras, microphones, sunlight, weather conditions, and of course, a wide assortment of increasingly fragile found/recovered objects.
I believe strongly that our research efforts and the scholarship that results from them need to both attend and respond to the contributions of far more participants than they traditionally have. Similarly, in addition to creating new maps of composing and expanding our ideas about the final representational form or forms that scholarly work might take, we also need to broaden our ideas about where we look for, and how we go about locating, materials for our scholarship—to consider both what and who is at stake when we opt to make certain arguments or tell certain stories over still others we might, instead, have made or told.
A note on permissions: My understanding has been that the permissions featured in this project are mine as I own/bought the material. It always makes me uncomfortable to put it that way, since I worry people will read into this "and so I can do whatever I want with it." This is not the case, as my intention has always been to honor/remember these strangers with my work.
On the making of “The Things They Left Behind"
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print.
Brooke, Collin, and Thomas Rickert. “Being Delicious: Materialities of Research in a Web 2.0 Application.” Beyond Postprocess. Eds. Sidney I. Dobrin, J.A. Rice, and Michael Vastola. Logan: Utah State UP, 2011. 163-79. Print.
Glenn, Cheryl, and Jessica Enoch. “Invigorating Historiographic Practices in Rhetoric and Composition Studies.” Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Eds. Alexis B. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2010. 11-27. Print.
Harris, Jonathan. “Collecting Stories.” Recorded December 2007.
Highmore, Ben. Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Johnson, Nan. “Autobiography of an Archivist.” Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Eds. Alexis B. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2010. 290-302. Print.
Kirsch, Gesa E., and Liz Rohan, eds. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2008. Print.
Prior, Paul. Writing/Disciplinarity: A Sociohistoric Account of Literate Activity in the Academy. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Tucker, Susan, Katherine Ott, and Patricia Buckler. The Scrapbook in American Life. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2006. Print.
Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2003. Print.
Sharer, Wendy B. “Disintegrating Bodies of Knowledge: Historical Material and Revisionary Histories of Rhetoric.” Rhetorical Bodies. Eds. Jack Selzer and Sharon Crowley. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1999. 120-42.
Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2011. Print.