Friday, November 14, 2014

scraps of life, scraps of self

Nicholas Carr suggests that" the scrapbook has become our essential cultural form, the artifact that defines the time", albeit not the paper-and-glue sort of scrapbook but "but the unbound, online variety" . Pinterest, obviously but also "all social networking platforms... Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, Ello, YouTube, LinkedIn.. Blogs are scrapbooks. Medium’s a scrapbook. A tap of a Like button is nothing if not a quick scissoring."

"If we’re not arranging our own scraps, we’re rummaging through the scraps of others.“Cut-and-paste”: the scrapbooking metaphor has long suffused our experience of computers. Now, the scrapbook is the interface. The cloud is our great shared scrapbook."

The blogpost is titled "Desperate Scrapbookers" and Carr further suggests that "the scrapbook is a melancholy form", "inherently  retrospective - a means of preemptively packaging the present as memory".... "Pressed insistently forward, we spend our time arranging the bits and pieces of our lives into something we think looks something like us. If the material scrapbook of old was familial and semiprivate, the new scrapbook is social and altogether public. It’s still a melancholy form, but now it’s an anxious one, too. It’s one thing to construct an idealized life, a “best self,” for your own consumption; it’s another thing to construct one for all to see."
He quotes Tamar Katriel and Thomas Farrell's 1991 article “Scrapbooks as Cultural Texts”:  It appears, then, that scrapbook-making as a ritualized, order-inducing gesture is both an acknowledgement of and a response to the heightened sense of fragmentation which has attended the experience of modernity.” 
A connection between scrapbooking and modernist techniques of collage is one of the ideas that came up when Joy Press, a/k/a the missus interviewed Jessica Helfand, author of Scrapbooks: An American History, for eight years ago. The peg for the piece was the crafts-store-fueled fad for scrapbooking, an extension of the old paper-and-glue approach but utilising a vast array of kitschy-cute decorative accessories: "flair and foil, lace wraps and eyelets, glitter and “word fetti." -- which by 2008 had become "a nearly $3 billion industry with its own national holiday and a vast network of Web sites, groups and retreats". (Wonder how it's doing now, that industry -- whether it's been eroded hugely by the rise of Tumblr, Pinterest and the rest?).
From Joy's piece:
“It’s at once horrifying and fascinating to witness the degree to which design is being discussed online by people whose concept of innovation is measured by novel ways to tie bows,” Helfand confessed .... Helfand couldn’t dismiss scrapbooks altogether, however. Although they were often cheesy and sentimental and generic, this was also hands-on design as practiced by regular people rather than artists — an attempt to represent everyday experience through visual culture. Digging through archives, she was amazed by the medium’s rich pedigree....
 Helfand calls it “the original open-source technology, a unique form of self-expression that celebrated visual sampling, culture mixing, and the appropriation and redistribution of existing media.” 
[She is] interested in peeking at the historical shifts embedded in the way people recounted their lives: the episodes they chose to describe, the objects they included (newspaper clippings, gum wrappers, dance cards, dog tags, family photos), and even the way they laid out the pages (sophisticated modernist visual styles like collage had somehow already been absorbed by ordinary scrapbookers of the early and mid-20th century)....  These books are remarkable to look at — so individual and specific, each becomes a “repository of evidence” from someone’s life...."
From the Q/A section of the piece:
You object to the way today’s scrapbooks are so schematic, right? There are rules and guidelines for how to do them, and every element of them is premade rather than just gathering the flotsam and jetsam of your life and organizing it in a beautiful way.
By and large, what is so beautiful about scrapbooks [historically] is that they are so messed up! They are messy. They are not chronological, and they go back and forth and change things, and they rip out pictures of guys they broke up with. They’re so idiosyncratic.
... So many scrapbooks these days seem to be about other people, like — I’m going to make this about my son or my dog or the prom. But 100 years ago, a scrapbook was about you, about your experiences. And that’s why I became so absorbed by them as biographical receptacles of people’s lives. That’s why the banal things could be the most important thing. My critique of current scrapbooking materials is that it creates a meaningless visual grammar. Why would you want to follow a pattern?.... 
I have a theory that contemporary scrapbooking is a little bit of a reflection of reality TV. You look at a show like “The Biggest Loser,” or take Joe the Plumber — he’s famous for 15 minutes and now he’s gunning for a singing career. People want to gussy themselves up....  It’s this externalizing idea of, I want this to look good for everyone else so if I ever get famous my scrapbooks will show that I’m perfect. But the whole purpose was to celebrate the everyday....
What is happening to the scrapbook in the digital era, when nobody writes letters or prints out photos anymore? There is a whole community of digital scrapbookers, of course, but is the print version of the memory book going to vanish?
I was lecturing Yale undergrads, and some 19-year-old said, isn’t Facebook a scrapbook? I’m sure there’s some artist out there saving every single status update, but the digital is ephemeral and you have to actively pursue the fleeting digital evidence of our existence.
Right, you can’t just put it in a box. You have to make an effort to archive it.
But those people who are choosing to print out their photos and make scrapbooks may have the last laugh because the materials they are working with now are much more [durable] than they were before. Archivists are struggling to maintain old scrapbooks, but in 100 years these things will last, they are indestructible. There will be an entire world of material culture studies that looks at just this, these scrapbooks.

Recently recovered some scrapbooks from my mid-teens that had been in storage for decades, scrapbooks whose existence I'd completely forgotten about. And was indeed struck by how they anticipated some of the functions of a blog, albeit not the commentary or "thinking aloud" aspect. But I would stick in a right miscellany of books reviews, quirky amusing news stories, articles snipped out of colour supplements, adverts, leaflets, and other bits 'n' bobs. And looking at it now, over the course its duration (probably half a year) I could discern the shifting constellation of my interests aged fifteen or so - science fiction, alternative history, Python-style comedy, futurology pieces about consumer technology predictions for the 21st Century, a map of Europe showing all the devolution and separatist movements ... And then gradually, popping into view, early stirrings of an interest in music - the lyrics to Kate Bush's "Them Heavy People", a bottom-of-the-page micro-ad for a Killing Joke single.

By the next scrapbook - which has never been out of my reach, wasn't one of the ones put away in storage - the interest has narrowed completely. No more Marina Warner reviews of Christopher Booker books snipped from the Observer, or interviews with Michael Palin, or an article illustrated with a map of Central Europe detailing how a future Third World War could break out, based on a book written by military strategists. It's all reviews, interviews, thinkpieces,clipped out of the music papers.  I had decided who I was, who I was going to be. 


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