The concept of the archive runs through this week’s readings in various permutations: as a place, a space, a metaphor, but, above all, as a construct. Conceptualizing the archive as an imagined way of ordering information causes us to question the legitimization that the term implies–this is not to suggest, of course, that the archive is false or that its contents are fabrications but rather an askance that we consider how the construction of the archive plays with notions of history and memory. Furthermore, this intersectionality gains additional weight with the realization that not only is the “archive” a construction but that it, by its very nature, also serves to (re)invent its contents; put another way, the archive’s artifacts are the invented products of the intersection of history, identity, and critical theory. As Joan Scott argues in “The Evidence of Experience”: “Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation. What counts as experience is neither self-evident nor straightforward.” We must not only question the story being told by the contents of the archive but also how such a story figures in a larger narrative about history as a subject.
Dominick LaCapra comments in History and Criticism:
“The archive as fetish is a literal substitute for the “reality” of the past which is “always already” lost for the historian. When it is fetishized, the archive is more than the repository of traces [and, according to Derrida, representations in an archive are always a trace] of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction. It is a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself–an experience that is always open to question when one deals with writing or other inscriptions.”
In various ways, this notion of the archive forces us to examine our practices of sight and seeing (metaphorically at least, if not physically) and how these stances overlap with the known and the knowable. For me, one of the most valuable ideas of Akira Lippit’s book was the differentiation of two types of invisibility: things that are obscured contrasted with things that are outside the realm of sight. The archive, I think, is often associated with the former category (i.e., its contents are items that are rediscovered, reintroduced, or rescued from history) but I wonder if we should challenge the archive to assume the philosophy of the latter; I think that we must actively engage in a process whereby we question what sorts of items are not included in an archive and why this may be so. What things did we see (and thus include in the archive) and what might we have missed? Although the archive undoubtedly houses pieces that belong to history and allows us to reflect on our past, I also think that it possess the potential to spur forward-thinking as we participate in a process that endeavors to uncover new ways of seeing.
Similarly, Ann Cvetkovich speaks to Lippit’s definitions of invisibility through a discussion of trauma: according to Cvetkovich, trauma is not only bounded by the confines of domesticity but also occasionally “doesn’t appear sufficiently catastrophic because it doesn’t produce dead bodies or even, necessarily, damaged ones” (3). Through Cvetkovich’s mention of trauma we again witness the two-fold way in which something can be rendered invisible and a call for an expanded rendering of what is (or should) be seen and therefore known. I continue to think on the way in which individual/private trauma competes with collective/public trauma for a place in our memories and our archives–what is “worthy” of remembrance? What happens when our cultural/national identities are haunted by travesties that we do not have a direct relation to? Or do archives allow us to overcome this supposed gap and connect to a past that we have not experienced for ourselves? How do projects like that AIDS quilt that embody both an individual and collective identity, history, and trauma intersect with movements like PostSecret, StoryCorps, and One Hello World that represent collections of individual narratives? How is the current interest in archives situated in societies obsessed with innovation and marked by rapid cultural turnover?
The obvious answer is that if early Science Fiction was about exploring outer space, the writings of the late 20th century were largely about exploring inner space. More than just adventure tales filled with sensation or exploration (or cyberpunk thrill) the offerings that I encountered also spoke to, in a way, the colonizing of emotion. Thinking about Science Fiction in the late 20th century and early 21st century, I wondered how some works spoke to our desire for a new form of exploration. We seek to reclaim a sense of that which is lost, for we are explorers, yes—a new form of adventurer who seeks out the raw feeling that has been largely absent from our lives. Jaded, we long to be moved; jaded, we have set the bar so high for emotion that the spectacular has become nothing more than a nighttime attraction at Disneyworld.
At our most cynical, it would be easy to blame Disney for forcing us to experience wonder in scripted terms with false emotion constructed through tricks of architectural scale and smells only achievable through chemical slight of hand. But “force” seems like the wrong word, for doesn’t a part of us—perhaps a part that we didn’t even know that we had—want all of this? We crave a Main Street that most of us have never (and will never) know because it, in some fashion, speaks to the deeply ingrained notion of what it means to be an American who has lived in the 20th and 21st centuries.
For me, there are glaring overlaps with this practice and emotional branding, but what keeps me up at night is looking at how this process may have infiltrated education through gamification.
Over the past few years, after reading thousands of applications for the USC Office of Undergraduate Admission, I began to wonder how the college application structures students’ activities and identities. On one hand, I heard admission colleagues complaining about how they just wanted applicants to exhibit a sense of passion and authenticity; on the other, I saw students stressing out over their applications and their resumes. The things that I was seeing were impressive and students seemed to devote large amounts of time to things, but I often wondered, “Are they having any fun?”
Were students just getting sucked into a culture that put a premium on achievement and not really stopping to think about what they were doing or why? We can talk about the positive aspects of gamification, levling and badges, but as the years wore on, I really began to see titles on activity summaries as things that were fetishized, obsessed over, and coveted. Students had learned the wrong lesson—not to suggest in the slightest that they are primarily or solely responsible for this movement—going from a race to accumulate experience to merely aggregating the appearance of having done so. How could I convince them that, as an admission officer, it was never really about the experience in the first place but instead how a particular activity provided an opportunity for growth. It was—and is—about the process and not the product.
But, that being said, I try not to fault students for the very actions that frustrated me as a reader are reinforced daily in all aspects of education (and life in general). Processes are messy, vague, and fluid while products are not. How would one even go about conceiving a badge for emotional maturity? Would one even want to try?
Perhaps I am clinging to notions of experience that will become outdated in the future. Science Fiction challenges us to consider worlds where experiences and memory can be saved, uploaded, and imprinted and, really, what are recreational drugs other than our clumsy attempt to achieve altered experiences through physiological change? I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that my former colleagues in admission are likely not thinking about the coming changes and will struggle to recalibrate their metrics as we move forward.
I must admit that my experience with horror has caused me to frame “fetish” in a psychosexual light (which, of course, likely aligns with the popular use of the term in non-academic circles). Although part of me strongly suspected that this particular iteration of the term did not apply when reading Karl Marx, reading about commodification and fetishization caused me to reflect on the underpinnings of some of the sexual practices labeled as fetish.
For example, when reading through Marx’s work, I couldn’t help but recall how French philosopher Jean Baudrillard conceptualized four types of value that objects could possess in modern society: functional, transactional, symbolic, and sign. Admittedly a more complex theory than the description provided in the entry, we can momentarily consider how the functional and transactional value of items primarily relates to their usefulness while the categories of “symbolic” and “sign” are predominantly derived as a result of the objects’ relationship to other objects (sign) or to actors (symbolic). Applying the vocabulary of Baudrillard to Marx, I marvel at how we have developed a sense of sign value (for a particular object) that is entirely dependent on the (also constructed) value of other objects—and how we react to these assigned values as if they were real!
Marx argues that a potential explanation for this inflated/manufactured sense of value stems from a disconnect between labor and product, with specialization of labor distancing the workers from the results of their efforts. Although we can use the classic example of a factory system to illustrate this point, I also began to wonder about the role of labor on the American version of The Amazing Race (CBS, 2001-present).
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the show in relation to ideology, but I also believe that another important can be made with regard to the show’s treatment of labor. I fully admit that I am a fan of the show and enjoy watching it, but, at the same time, am also troubled by the ways in which the show often asks students to perform various types of labor. On one level we often see contestants complete some form of labor related to the everyday activities of locals as part of a challenge—here, labor is constructed as a momentary inconvenience to the racers, with their actions completely separated from the notion that some people must do these things in order to survive. The casual way in which the show introduces the notion that these activities are “a way of life” does little to acknowledge the complex set of meanings that this form of labor holds for those who must continue the work long after the Americans leave. In addition, speaking to the idea of Orientalism and labor, we might also consider how some racers understand these tasks as a chance to “go native” and value their experiences as stories that they can retell to their friends in order to amuse, amaze, or delight. Labor, then, is treated as some sort of commodity as we trade the completion of a task for progress in the game; labor is not valued in and of itself, but rather merely as a means to an end.
Yet, on another level, we also see that the very presence of the racers also speaks to a form of commodification as production companies benefit from the contestants’ labor (what Mark Andrejevic called “the work of being watched”) in ways that are likely beyond the comprehension of the racers themselves. Using the quick example of reality show stars not seeing any money from royalties as a quick example, we see that individuals’ efforts on these shows are focused on a rather short-sighted prize: although they might win a million dollars (and possibly have a continued career in entertainment if everything goes according to plan), they are sacrificing their labor to a process that likely cares little about them as individuals with the end product (in this case, a television show) again divorced from any meaning making that happened during the course of the race itself.
Ultimately, I seek to address one aspect of this disconnect through media literacy, asking young people to think carefully about how they, like the racers on The Amazing Race, trade their labor for badges, recognition, and social interaction. At the end of the day, I do not think that it is my job to tell students what to think, but I do want to ensure that they can’t use the cop out “I didn’t know what I signed up for.”
When I first began my studies in Annenberg, I worked on a piece for the Norman Lear Center on the implications of a website called PostSecret. (PostSecret, a community art project started by Frank Warren in 2005, represents a fairly simple concept: individuals anonymously divulge a secret on a postcard frequently adorned with a related image, which is then published on the Internet.) Over the years I have continued to return to this issue/concept and have begun to wonder how, in this so-called Age of Information, we have learned to commodify secrets. We can talk about corporate espionage as one form of this—or even celebrity scandal—and I worry that, in our quest for knowledge/power, we have forgotten that all of these secrets represent real lives, identities, and emotions.
In our post, Shannon raised the idea that individuals can fetishize their secrets but reading Marx for this week also caused me to consider the ways in which we buy/sell (or otherwise trade) the secrets of each other in this day and age. Although I think these practices are fueled by the understandable human trait of curiosity, I think we have lost a bit of perspective as we have allowed our secrets (and, by extension, those who hold them) to hold a sort of power over us that, although socially constructed, is attributed to the secret itself. In this, we surely must be careful as the informational basis of secrets undoubtedly possesses the potential to affect us but my point here is that the information itself does not contain the power, rather power manifests in people’s reaction to, and relationship with, the information.