The week immediately following spring break is the week to live voyeuristically in the breaks of others. On the walk back from the beach, a group of us laugh hysterically, remembering a few brilliant one-liners—not for the simple sake of appreciating our own cleverness, but because “from brain break to spring break” and “what if the ocean was made of tequila?” seem like apropos Facebook album titles.
An album title is more than a label. It’s ironic, really, our conversation, given that a few moments before we were lying on our towels, pointing out the bros on the beach with every variety of selfie stick under the sun (and in the crashing waves, and over their heads, and under the precariously placed lifeguard stand). A critical eye to a selfie stick quickly turns inward, leaving me wondering about the way we present our own experiences in self-archiving practices. It’s been written on extensively—are Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. just monuments to our generation’s profound narcissism? Or are the applications doing something we haven’t yet managed to understand—what is the drive behind the mad rush to archive?
Lying on our towels, what was under the sandy microscope were the questions: What happens to “reality” when we obsessively document like this. Is it distortion? Is it a molding to expectation? Is it a combination of lying and peacocking afterward? What we were getting at, I think, is the deeper problem—is there such a thing as an authentic experience that we should be concerned about losing? Maybe there is nothing to be found at the “center” of all this anxiety about a malformed-at-birth or post-mortem mutilation of “reality.”
Actually, the harder I think in my social-constructionist world about all these concepts that scaffold our lives, the more I’m coming to believe that our experiences have always been defined by archives. What has changed is not that we are newly obsessed with one another’s actions and enviable experiences, associates, and sociality. It has always been a practice of ours to compare ourselves to those about whom much is written. Consider our Victorian, much-romanticized London “tón”, where the courtships, dresses, and balls were the focus of much magazine and newslore.
So the archive has always existed as a referent for the way we talk about ourselves and map our adventures. Given that the obsession with archiving is not new, what is innovative are today’s specific practices. Our archives are madly proliferated and intensely interactive. Is this abundance a way of filling what years ago would have necessarily been archival silences for certain classes, races, genders, and social groups?
The proliferation of possibilities of self-archivalism has opened the doors for writing and re-writing identities. Black Twitter has been a rich site of organizing and community grieving through a collective decrying of police brutality. Facebook is a significant modality through which people have shown solidarity against racial oppression on our campus. Let me add the caveat, however, that activism cannot be located entirely online—as a site of organizing, yes; as the only place where one makes himself relevant in allyship, no. Resources for those with asexual/ace and demisexual identities came into the stratosphere through a community forum online, and activists are still working through these terms on Tumblr and on online publics.
Looking to the contemporary makers of history is a practice we are all familiar with. Local social media stars and YouTube celebrities may take up as much of our time-of-day as TV or movie celebrities. Archives have always been a source of social anxiety and identity formation—as well they should be. Where the previous news “archive” was built around the upper class, their experience was written into society as the representative ideal. Is social media, then, to be perceived not with an atavistic eye to the loss of the authentic but rather as a form of modern democratization of history in the making?
But even if we opine such a potential “democratization,” our current archiving practices are also acutely flawed. Such a profusion of information opens all kinds of doors. The way that we code and sort through big data comes to define the archive that persists into the future. Will that only replicate the archiving bias to tend in the direction of the biographies of the upper classes that we have always seen? Interactive, profuse archiving practices with online applications may allow new self-presentation—perhaps even a new self-imagining. But is there a way for us to take a form of control over our own history making that we have never had before?
at harvardExhibits Fogg Art Museum. Through April 2. "Chasing Shadows: Photographs from the Collection." The concept for the show is embedded
HappeningMusic Friday, Feb. 25. The Harvard Callbacks and Lowkeys present iJam. 8 p.m. Sanders Theater. Tickets $10; students and seniors
Arts Events for the Week of October 4, 2011What's going on this week
Harvard Today: Sept. 6, 2013
Harvard Today: October 29, 2014