Why Keep the Ephemeral?

Sunday, April 6th, 2014 by asobol

Here’s an idea: The Gorgeous Nothings completely undermines the spirit of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems.

So let me back up. I recently discovered the PBS YouTube show Idea Channel. I’ve since become obsessed. The basic premise is that host [name here] talks hectically through some question: What is fiction? Is math real? When do memes stop being funny? Though the episodes (generally only 4 to 12 minutes in length) only skim the topic at hand, they get me thinking—more than I can say about most YouTube videos.

This week I found two of their episodes that consider ideas we’ve been exploring (though several of them glance at things we’ve talked about, these two specifically were on topic). One was about glitch art, and the other raised the question of whether or not the internet is an archive, and the ramifications if it is/is not an archive.

Near the start of the video, Mike Rugnetta brings up an implicit judgment that can be made in archival work—that material things have more value than what’s on the internet, which may be seen as pure ephemera. Things that have dimension and weight, he seems to say, display their worth physically. This got me thinking about The Gorgeous Nothings.

Dickinson’s envelope poems could rightly be qualified (materially) as ephemera, I think. I mean, even the title of this collection supports the claim. Though that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile or worth keeping. And if we take that implicit judgment of weight = worth, then we’re at an interesting place. The poems exist on scraps—they could easily disappear. But in this book, we have them and will continue to have them even if the original scraps degrade.

My access to the envelope poems is pure visual. The high-res photos offer a sense of texture, but the materiality is not in the scraps—it’s in the giant text itself. This book, The Gorgeous Nothings, has heft, bulk. The pages of the book are thick and sometimes difficult to turn. The physical book is the exact opposite of what Dickinson’s poems are.

I see a comparison with this text and the Geocities or Archive.org ghostsites Idea Channel was talking about. Sure this book exists, allowing more people to encounter this work, but it isn’t in the same spirit of the original. Ephemeral it isn’t. I’m not saying what this book did was not valuable—I’m grateful that it exists and that I now own a copy. But maybe a truer method would have been to make reproductions of the scraps, so the reader could hold them in their hands, turn them, bend them, tear them, lose them.

And as much as I tried to read the poems in Dickinson’s script, my eyes returned over and over to the transcription. As artifacts, I can ogle them. I want to read the poems as language, not as handwriting, and that mediation may also be a problem. Maybe Dickinson’s poems shouldn’t be viewed as solely language. They have to be considered with regard to the material, the handwriting, the odd marks and scratches between words. Maybe all of that is as integral to the poem as the words themselves.

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One comment on “Why Keep the Ephemeral?

  1. You make a good point about how the book’s weight and size contradict the lightness of the collected scraps, and in that way potentially changes/undermines the archivist’s original experience sorting through these crumbling envelopes. And I’ve seen books before (though they are usually pretty kitschy) that have scraps of paper and other various “ephemera” that can be removed out of sleeves/envelopes within the book…perhaps this would create a more “authentic” experience, but likely a much more costly one both publishing and consumer-wise.

    Then again, it’s impossible to know what the “authentic” experience of these envelopes should/would/ever could be. We really only place any value on them at all because they were Dickinson’s, so it’s really about how we ultimately want to structure our experience of them and her. In a tome like this, there’s a definite aura of reverence and professionalism…of each artifact being given a full page, and another full page for the transcription. The experience would be undoubtedly different if this publication was nothing more than a shoebox with the recreated envelopes inside left for us to sort and sift through, no transcriptions or commentary provided. It just really illuminates how much readers impose at all times…I guess I’m just thankful for the opportunity to analyze the original documents in any capacity, being able to debate these kind of questions rather than take dictation from the few critics who are in the know.

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