A human impulse
Tonight I went to see Emily St. John Mandel speak at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library. Mandel is the author of Station Eleven, a novel I have been so wholly obsessed with since reading it last year that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve recommended it. It’s the only post-apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read that has filled me with awe and hope for our beautiful world, instead of wanting to crawl into bed and hide. The novel imagines a massive pandemic that kills the majority of the world’s population, and follows several characters back and forth through time. One of the main narrative threads involves a Shakespearean troupe (that has a caravan with a quote from Star Trek on the side) that travels around northern Michigan and Canada. In fact, Mandel said that this traveling Shakespeare troupe was the initial seed of the idea for the novel. She noted that when she began writing this part, she originally had the troupe performing a variety of plays and even television shows from the late 20th century, but realized that in a post-apocalyptic world without electricity, the idea of performing “New York real estate situation comedy” (I hope I got the quote right) rang hollow. As she researched both Shakespeare and pandemics, she realized that having a troupe performing exclusively Shakespeare held a particular resonance for the post-pandemic world in Station Eleven; Shakespeare was born during the bubonic plagues that were devastating England, and there was a certain transcendence in the idea of returning to a canon of work that pre-dated electricity in a post-electricity world.
Mandel has wonderfully dry Canadian wit, and talked at length about her research process (my favorite was when she discussed going down Google rabbit holes and reading “unsettling” survivalist message boards – having been down those same rabbit holes myself, “unsettling” is a very charitable way to put it!) as well as why she thinks post-apocalyptic stories are such a frequent part of contemporary culture. Towards the end of her lecture, she ended with a brief anecdote about visiting an exhibit of illuminated manuscripts. Mandel recalled seeing a book over 400 years old, noting that that book comes from a world that has effectively ended, even though human existence has continued – and so the world as we conceive it is continually ending over and over, but we don’t quite realize it because of scale.
There was a brief Q&A at the end, and I attempted to get my fan girl nervous shaky vapors under control (seriously y’all, the only other time I have ever been so overpowered by awe to be in another writer’s presence that I had to take a deep breath and remember to BE COOL was the time I briefly met my archivist writer hero Rand Jimerson) so that I could ask a question about the role of memory in Station Eleven. I managed to snag the last question-asker spot. Here’s a far (FAR!) more eloquent version of what I asked Mandel:
“Hi, I’m an archivist, and I want you to know that a lot of archivists really love your book. Archives often pop up in novels, and when we’ve talked about your book, we’ve talked about the Museum of Civilization, or the historical newspapers that pop up in it. Can you tell us a little bit about how you saw the role of artifacts or written traces of the past in your book’s apocalyptic future?”
She talked a little bit about how the Museum of Civilization came about in the story – she figured that at the end of the world, some folks would probably be stuck in an airport. And while today a 5″ stiletto or an iPad may not seem fascinating, in a world where life changes so dramatically, you could at least show a non-glowing iPad to your child and say “we used to be able to see someone on the other side of the world and talk to them through this.” But then Mandel said something that is very familiar to archivists working in fragile and vulnerable spaces: that after the dust begins to settle from a chaotic and devastating event, people have a “human impulse” to recall the past and to tell their stories.
Archivists who’ve worked around traumatic events know this well – that chaos is often a turning point in human history, but that in the midst of the chaos, preservation of our stories, records, and traces are generally the furthest things from the minds of those who are just trying to hold it together to survive another day. In addition, archivists must be extraordinarily sensitive to how memory can function as a prolonging of trauma. I lived and worked in New Orleans from 2008-2013 (in other words, 3 years after Katrina), and the trauma of the hurricane and federal levee failure was visible on a daily basis. I moved down just in time to evacuate for Hurricane Gustav, the first mandatory evacuation since Katrina. My roommate at the time had survived Katrina as a freshman college student, and her PTSD became fully evident as she got the hell out of town almost a whole day before I managed to evacuate. Towards the end of my time living there, many archivists I knew who had survived Katrina were quite resentful of others who did not experience the same trauma demanding them to tell their stories over, and over, and over to fit a particular narrative of resilience. More recently, my friend and fellow archivist Jarrett Drake, who helped create A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, has noted that creating documentation around traumatic events has the very real potential to effect significant harm:
To that end, it matters how we create more archives for black lives, and it’s important that we don’t re-traumatize communities or expose them for more white gaze, exploitation, and plunder.
We archivists have an understandable tendency to panic that if we don’t do something RIGHT! THIS! MINUTE! about archiving contemporary events or dealing with the unceasing volumes of records growing daily, that we may lose everything that matters to the world we live in now, and the world we hope will survive in the future. This was particularly evident to me today, since I spent the whole day in a workshop on managing digital archives. Archivists who care for what we call “born-digital” materials are prone to a weird combination of rampant anxiety and cautious optimism. I would call for another strong measure of something else – humility and grace. We need to recognize that the continuance of culture and memory does not depend on us alone. Even if every professional archivist on the planet disappeared tomorrow (and what a sad and sorry state of affairs this would be), I trust that our fellow human beings would find a way to create archives to continue the memory and the culture we champion as our daily reason for going to work, even if we might not recognize them as archives according to the practices and standards we’ve spent centuries formulating. As Mandel made clear, it is the human impulse to remember. When we archivists are doing our jobs right, we cannot and should not claim that we have the one true answer on what it means to remember. Rather, I hope we add to the multitude of ways in which memory persists through a world that ends over and over again, even as we humans somehow seem to keep muddling through it all.
Categorised as: archivists