Less like the Ramble, more like the Shakespeare Garden?

By | September 23, 2014

I want to process an idea that isn’t completely formed yet – it’s somewhere at the intersection of Joselit’s aggregates, the curiosity cabinets in Stewart’s article, and the notion of the ‘flaneur,’ which we discussed with Kate Eichenhorn a few weeks ago. Kate mentioned that the flaneur wandering through the archive, discovering lost knowledge among old papers and things, is, if not a myth, certainly a romanticized notion that some archivists might find problematic. Since so much of the work of the archivist is concerned with organizing principles and figuring out how to properly label and arrange, what terms to use in finding aids, and becoming familiar with a particular collection, a lot of careful work has gone into the archive before the ‘flaneur’ has a chance to reach it. In practice, maybe it’s less like wandering through an overgrown wilderness and more like rambling through a more manicured garden. It’s not that it isn’t wild and the path is always clear, but more that someone has taken the time to cut back the messier parts and make the wandering more pleasant.
Joselit’s description of the aggregate uses terms like ‘collective,’ ‘association,’ and ‘composed.’ It is not the archive, because archive’s principles of inclusivity are different. The aggregate is “singularities that act in common” (13), and the application of filters can act as a curating technique, but one that can pull together such heterogeneous examples as to create clashes in epistemologies, or “confrontations,” as Joselit calls them. If one filter is applied, it aggregates and includes items from a variety of other categories that might otherwise not have been placed together, so whatever the filter is that is applied, it breaks down other barriers.
“Association” also appears in a description of the collectors of curiosity cabinets. Their organizing principle was more personal, bringing together diverse items for display, and unifying them under the heading of the name and experience of the individual collector. Stewart calls the collected items “souvenirs of experience,” so did the collector in this case act as the filter, creating an aggregate based on the selection principle of himself and his own personal logic? Stewart questions who the audience for this exercise might be, since if it was personal, it would not need labeling. Still, the personal logic of these curiosity cabinets invited viewers to wander, “without continuity of meaning” (292).
So to return to the idea of the flaneur, I guess I am wondering if these more ‘curated’ collections, aggregate curiosities, are more suited to that metaphor than the archive. Or rather, that we need to have serendipity and strange connections somewhat artificially introduced, or else we are likely not to make the discoveries we think we will if we are left to aimlessly meander an archive, where we might get stuck in a sameness we can’t see from the inside. Maybe we need the artificial introduction of some limiting principles that also invite uncertainty and serendipity, in order to live out our flaneur dreams.

One thought on “Less like the Ramble, more like the Shakespeare Garden?

  1. shannon Post author

    Very interesting to consider the disparate epistemologies or ontologies embodied in these approaches to collection: the archive and the aggregate! And you’re right to point out the “preparatory” work of “filtering” in constructing these aggregates (although the creation of an archive involves many “editorial” decision, too.
    Let’s discuss in class today…


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