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The Year's Work in the Oddball Archive

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The modern age is no stranger to the cabinet of curiosities, the freak show, or a drawer full of odds and ends. These collections of oddities engagingly work against the rationality and order of the conventional archive found in a university, a corporation, or a governmental holding. In form, methodology, and content, The Year’s Work in the Oddball Archive offers a counterargument to a more reasoned form of storing and recording the avant-garde (or the post-avant-garde), the perverse, the off, the bent, the absurd, the quirky, the weird, and the queer. To do so, it positions itself within the history of mirabilia launched by curiosity cabinets starting in the mid-fifteenth century and continuing to the present day. These archives (or are they counter-archives?) are located in unexpected places—the doorways of Katrina homes, the cavity of a cow, the remnants of extinct animals, an Internet site—and they offer up "alternate modes of knowing" to the traditional archive.

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1 Joseph Campana and Theodore Bale · “Pawning, Picking, Storing, Hoarding: Archiving America on Reality Television”

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As much as and more than a thing of the past, before such a thing, the archive should call into question the coming of the future.

JACQUES DERRIDA, ARCHIVE FEVER

1

PAWNING, PICKING, STORING, HOARDING

ARCHIVING AMERICA ON REALITY TELEVISION

Joseph Campana and Theodore Bale

What kind of archive is America? Let’s ask the unforgettable Palm Apodaca (Helena Kallianiotes) in Bob Rafelson and Carole Eastman’s 1970 classic film Five Easy Pieces, in the midst of which two mismatched lovers (played by Jack Nicholson and Karen Black) on a road trip pick up a stranded lesbian couple (played by Kallianiotes and Toni Basil). As the lesbian couple unloads a heap of luggage and a conspicuous sewing machine, they complain about their unreliable car, a recent purchase. They are headed to Alaska, they reluctantly admit, which they imagine as a clean place free of garbage. Their conversation in the car provokes Apodaca’s diatribe on the state of the Union: “I had to leave this place because I got depressed seeing all the crap. The thing is, they’re making more crap.… I’m seeing more filth. A lot of filth.”

 

2 Atia Sattar · “Germ Wars: Dirty Hands, Drinking Lips, and Dixie Cups”

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2.1. Gaar Williams. Meet Me at the Town Pump. Signed, a Typhoid Germ. Indiana Medical History Museum, Indianapolis.

2

GERM WARS

DIRTY HANDS, DRINKING LIPS, AND DIXIE CUPS

Atia Sattar

The conflict between germs and cups first came to my attention in a laboratory at the Indiana Medical History Museum, where I stumbled across an illustration by Hoosier cartoonist Gaar Williams (1880–1935) entitled Meet Me at the Town Pump. Signed, a Typhoid Germ (figure 2.1). In this drawing, a typhoid germ appears as an amphibious creature with webbed hands and feet, sitting at the edge of a wooden tub filled with water. In his right hand is the common dipper or public drinking cup of the day, a single metal can for everyone in the town, attached by chain to the water pump. Bearing this instrument of public service near his mouth, drops of water falling from his typhoid lips, the impish germ invites townsfolk to meet him at the pump. His invitation to drink is clear. Williams’s striking cartoon, I soon discovered, was not the sole critique of the common dipper, a public service turned danger to public health. In fact, the public war against germs in early twentieth-century America was waged on the rims of drinking cups.

 

3 Beth A. McCoy · “The Archive of the Archive of the Archive: The FEMA Signs of Post-Katrina New Orleans and the Vévés of Vodoun”

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As I recall I know you love to show off, but I never thought that you would take it this far. But what do I know?

DWELE IN KANYE WEST’S “FLASHING LIGHTS”

Listen to the cunning exhortations

Wafted to the ears of the big foundations

Blown to the big white boss paymasters

Faint hints of far-reaching grim disasters.

“Be careful what you do

Or your Mumbo-jumbo stuff for Sambo

And all of the other

Bilge for Sambo

Your Mumbo-Jumbo will get away from you.”

STERLING BROWN, “THE NEW CONGO”

3

THE ARCHIVE OF THE ARCHIVE OF THE ARCHIVE

THE FEMA SIGNS OF POST-KATRINA NEW ORLEANS AND THE VÉVÉS OF VODOUN

Beth A. McCoy

QUADRANT 1: DROWNING

Serving already as archive to the archive of the Atlantic slave trade, the city of New Orleans took on further archival depth when the levees failed after Hurricane Katrina. Throughout the flooded city appeared painted symbols: the cruciform US&R (urban search and rescue) signs devised by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration enfolded after 9/11 into the Department of Homeland Security. Used by FEMA task forces, the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and other private and public entities involved in search and rescue, the US&R signs were to function both as symptom of and vector for achieving through reason and method what the DHS National Response Plan calls “the prevention of, preparedness for, response to, and recovery from terrorism, major natural disasters, and other major emergencies.”1 This is what the plan said.

 

4 Robin Blyn · “Marcuse’s Unreason: The Biology of Revolution”

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4

MARCUSE’S UNREASON

THE BIOLOGY OF REVOLUTION

Robin Blyn

“We can use the word revolution again for the first time in many years,” Douglass Kellner declared in October 2011.1 The scene was not Tahrir Square or the streets of Tunis. Nor was it Zuccotti Park. Rather, Kellner was speaking at the University of Pennsylvania, at the Fourth Biennial Conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society. It was clearly a moment for Kellner and his audience to savor; together, the Arab Spring and Occupy protests of 2011 seemed to vindicate the very idea of revolution and with it the work of a philosopher variously dismissed as impractical, irrational, irrelevant, and dangerously seductive. Thus, when Kellner added that “for those of us who have been doing Marcuse scholarship, this is utopia,” he was remarking not only on the large turnout at the conference but also on an historical context that seemed to legitimate the revolutionary aspirations that animate Marcuse’s work throughout the 1960s, the decade in which he emerged as the putative father of the “New Left.” We can use the word revolution again, Kellner suggests, because the kind of radical break from repressive conditions that Marcuse envisioned is once again within the realm of the possible.

 

5 Dennis Allen · “The Madness of Slavoj Žižek”

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5

THE MADNESS OF SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK

Dennis Allen

There are literally thousands of clips of Slavoj Žižek available on the Internet, but perhaps the most entertaining one is a YouTube excerpt from Astra Taylor’s succinctly entitled 2005 documentary, Žižek! Posted as “Philosophy from a Bed View (by Žižek),” the clip seems singularly apt for our purposes if only because, in the process of defining the project of philosophy, Žižek touches on one of the key questions that this collection of essays is intended to address: What is the relation between reason and unreason? Sliding across a series of binaries, Žižek articulates the difference between “true” philosophers and “madmen” as the difference between metaphysics and hermeneutics. His meditations are worth quoting at some length:

What is philosophy? Philosophy is not what some people think, some crazy exercise in absolute truth, and then you can adopt, you know, this skeptical attitude: “We, through scientists, are dealing with actual, measurable, solvable problems. Philosophers just ask stupid metaphysical questions and so on, play with absolute truth, which we all know is inaccessible.” No, I think philosophy’s a very modest discipline. Philosophy asks a different question, the true philosophy. How does a philosopher approach the problem of freedom? It’s not, “Are we free or not? Is there God or not?” It asks a simple question which would be called a hermeneutic question: “What does it mean to be free?” So this is what philosophy basically does. It just asks: “When we use certain notions, when we do certain acts and so on and so on, what is the implicit horizon of understanding?” It doesn’t ask these stupid ideal questions: “Is there truth?” No. The question is: “What do you mean when you say this is true?” So you can see it’s a very modest thing, philosophy. Philosophers are not the madmen who search for some eternal truth and so on and so on.

 

6 Jonathan P. Eburne · “Fish Kit”

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Ideas are like fish.

If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.

Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.

DAVID LYNCH, CATCHING THE BIG FISH

To a fish, the depths and expanses of its waters, the currents and quiet pools, warm and cold layers are the element of its multiple mobility. If the fish is deprived of the fullness of its element, if it is dragged on the dry sand, then it can only wriggle, twitch, and die. Therefore, we always must seek out thinking, and its burden of thought, in the element of its multiple meanings, else everything will remain closed to us.

MARTIN HEIDEGGER, WHAT IS CALLED THINKING?

6

FISH KIT

Jonathan P. Eburne

STICK TO YOUR DAY JOB

In the summer of 2000, an event billed as the New York City CowParade exhibited roughly five hundred fiberglass cow statues around the city. Decorated “by artists and schoolchildren” and displayed on sidewalks throughout the five boroughs, the statues were the trademark of CowParade Holdings, a private, for-profit development company that sponsors such “CowParades” in cities around the world.1 As the company’s website explains, “CowParade is helping to showcase the local arts community and stimulate civic spirit and pride which ultimately raises funds for local charities that in turn benefit the community.” Though a private corporation, its interests are manifestly public: “CowParade is designed to make art accessible to the masses by bringing it out of the museum and onto the streets and parks of a city. People are able to touch as well as to see these unique canvases, making the art interactive and unlike anything that has ever been seen.”2 Unlike the urban sheep-protests featured in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) or, more recently, in contemporary Madrid (2012), the presence of hundreds of decorated cow statues on urban sidewalks offers an explicit, if unthreatening, appeal to both the comforts of urban space and the approachability of contemporary art. Cities and concept art alike can be breezy and even pastoral, the event proposes; CowParade offers both cities and artists a ready-to-assemble kit for raising public arts awareness and corporate buy-in all at once. Indeed, even before the New York event opened, lawsuits over brand naming and the rights to the cow-display concept suggested precisely how profitable such CowParade kits might be.3

 

7 Timothy Sweet · “The Eighteenth-Century Archives du monde: The Question of Agency in Extinction Stories”

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7

THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ARCHIVES DU MONDE

THE QUESTION OF AGENCY IN EXTINCTION STORIES

Timothy Sweet

Reckoning with the fossil remains of unfamiliar creatures, naturalists in the eighteenth century began to historicize nature. The era’s preeminent naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, articulated the program for this new kind of history by conceptualizing the earth itself as an archive: “As in civil history, one consults titles, one researches medals, one deciphers antique inscriptions to determine the epochs of human revolutions and discover the dates of moral events; similarly, in natural history, one must search the archives of the world, draw old monuments from the bowels of the earth, collect their debris, and assemble in a body of evidence all indices of physical changes that can take us back to the different ages of Nature.”1 Playing etymologically, by way of the analogy with civil history, on the root of archive in beginnings and government (archē), Buffon defines natural history as an inquiry into the original and ongoing government of the world. The conception of the archives du monde thus raises the question of that which governs, that is, the question of agency. Attempts to answer this question in eighteenth-century North America produced an intercultural meta-archive in which Native American and European American interpretations of the earth’s ancient débris offered conflicting accounts of the interactions of human, animal, and natural/supernatural nonanimate agents. The archives du monde became a site of contest between Enlightenment reason and unreason, as European Americans disavowed Native American supernaturalist ontologies even as they adhered to their own supernaturalist assumptions concerning an extrahuman creating and regulating power. The archives remain a site of contest as attempts to explain the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna according to scientific or traditional indigenous frames take on new urgency within the discourses of climate change and ecological catastrophism.2

 

8 Charles M. Tung · “Modernist Heterochrony, Evolutionary Biology, and the Chimera of Time”

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8.1. Haeckel Anthropogenie 1874. Lithograph by J. G. Bach of Leipzig after drawings by Ernst Haeckel in Anthropogenie, oder, Entwicklungsgeschichte des Menschen (Leipzig: Engelmann, 1874). Nick Hopwood, “Pictures of Evolution and Charges of Fraud: Ernst Haeckel’s Embryological Illustrations,” Isis 97 (2006): 260–301, PDF. Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Haeckel_Anthropogenie_1874.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Haeckel_Anthropogenie_1874.jpg.

8

MODERNIST HETEROCHRONY, EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY, AND THE CHIMERA OF TIME

Charles M. Tung

Spencer Wells, in his PBS documentary Journey of Man, claims that there is “a time machine hidden in our genes.”1 This Wells, unrelated to the literary figure H. G. Wells (at least in the short term), is the genetic anthropologist in charge of the Genographic Project, an international study funded by National Geographic and IBM that traces individual Y-chromosomes from all corners of the earth back to a recognizably “modern” human leaving Africa around sixty thousand years ago. The time travel central to Wells’s research is guided by two-hundred-dollar self-testing kits, tracking devices sold in large part to ancestry-obsessed Americans, and, more controversially, by the institutionalized DNA collection from indigenous populations around the world, whose clustering of genetic markers helps to sketch a roadmap of major ancestral migrations. For Wells, deep in every modern human’s body is not only a vehicle that returns us to a “Y-chromosomal Adam” (and a much earlier “mitochondrial Eve” living 150,000–200,000 years ago) but also, according to his mixing of metaphors, “the greatest history book ever written,” an archival record of our Paleolithic wanderings.2

 

9 Aaron Jaffe · “There is as yet Insufficient Data for a Meaningful Answer: Inhumanism at the Literary Limit”

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9

THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER

INHUMANISM AT THE LITERARY LIMIT

Aaron Jaffe

Among its other merits, Vilém Flusser’s strange treatise on Vampyroteuthis infernalis is a fable about information at the literary limit. Comparing “the vampire squid from hell” and Homo sapiens sapiens, Flusser proposes a fantastic convergence that links the odd existence of a tentacled life-form, complexly equipped for probing the deep ocean, to the inhuman consequences of our emerging system of new media. Humans increasingly approximate the strategies of invertebrate life, he writes: “As our interest in objects began to wane, we created media that have enabled us to rape human brains, forcing them to store immaterial information. We have built chromatophores of our own – televisions, videos, and computer monitors that display synthetic images – with whose help broadcasters of information can mendaciously seduce their audiences.”1 Is this assessment hyperbolic? Probably not. Recumbent with chromatophoric gadgets, humans become more and more cephalopodan, probing, probed by, and propelled through an endless ooze of immaterial information. Increasingly, our environment is, in so many words, the seemingly unfathomable abyss of big data plumbed fitfully by inhuman algorithms.

 

10 Judith Roof · “Personifying La Con, or Post Hoax, Ergo Proper Hoax”

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10

PERSONIFYING LA CON, OR POST HOAX, ERGO PROPER HOAX

Judith Roof

In 1905 famous Bloomsbury hoaxer Horace de Vere Cole led a gang of costumed Cantabrigians to Cambridge under the guise of the sultan of Zanzibar and his entourage. The real sultan was scheduled to visit Buckingham Palace the same day. The group was greeted by the mayor of Cambridge at an official reception. No one questioned the authenticity of the group of four undergraduates plus interpreter, all wearing dark makeup and dressed in Middle Eastern garb. How could that be? How could the mayor not see through the makeup? What appearance did the five offer that overcame what the mayor knew he couldn’t have seen?1

In 1910 the same Cole and his veteran compatriot, Adrian Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s brother, reprised a version of the costume hoax by disguising themselves as Abyssinians for an official tour of the British warship Dreadnought. Again made up by costumer Willy Clarkson, four ersatz Abyssinians (including Virginia herself), with Cole as government liaison and Stephen as interpreter, boarded the ship, conversed in a made-up language, faked its interpretation, and enjoyed the crew’s generous tour. When it began to rain and their makeup began to disintegrate, they pleaded the cold and retreated off the deck. They got away with it. Again.2

 

11 Grant Farred · “The Eleventh Commandment”

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The just and humane principles of the Revolution which Philosophy had first diffused, had been departed from. The Idea, always dangerous to Society.

THOMAS PAINE, THE AGE OF REASON

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, MAN AND SUPERMAN: A COMEDY AND A PHILOSOPHY

11

THE ELEVENTH COMMANDMENT

Grant Farred

There is only one way to properly understand Thomas Paine. He is the expatriate Briton whose intense belief in radical republican politics made him, this son of Norfolk Quakers, the writer of the American Revolution. Paine is the thinker whose political imaginary led him, in the moment before the thirteen colonies became independent, to coin no less than the phrase the “United States of America.” Paine’s faith in the American Revolution led him to dedicate Rights of Man, a “small treatise in defence of … [the] Principles of Freedom,” to President George Washington, “that the Rights of Man may become as universal as your Benevolence can wish, and that you may enjoy the Happiness of seeing the New World regenerate the Old.”1 The American Revolution would lose its radical fervor soon enough, but it would never entirely lose the proselytizing zeal that Paine understood as integral to its political mission; the United States would never relinquish its self-appointed mission to make the “Rights of Man,” or democracy, “universal,” beginning with the eighteenth-century “Old World,” which Paine declared in dire need of “regeneration.” “Every revolution,” argue Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in the wake of the political events that originated in the Arab Spring and then wended their way through Europe (Madrid foremost) and Zuccotti Park in New York, “needs a constituent power – not to bring the revolution to an end but to continue it, and keep it open to further innovations.”2 In this regard, the American Revolution would disappoint Paine. After expelling the British, the American Revolution would not “continue” on a radical trajectory; in truth, its “constituent power” was antithetical to a revolutionary impulse beyond the revolution. More poignantly, the revolution that Paine helped to author would soon have little use for him. Paine “died almost unnoticed in 1809,” fully aware that the “revolutionary tide had begun to ebb.”3

 

12 Seth Morton · “The Archive That Knew Too Little: The International Necronautical Society and the Avant-Garde”

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12.1. Inside the INS broadcast crypt.

12

THE ARCHIVE THAT KNEW TOO LITTLE

THE INTERNATIONAL NECRONAUTICAL SOCIETY AND THE AVANT-GARDE

Seth Morton

Over one hundred years after the first Futurist manifesto, the historical avant-garde looks like an oddity that died long ago. Perhaps nothing has served the avant-garde better than its own death. In death, the avant-garde is memorialized and archived. Its antiart position has been absorbed by the art world, and its logics inform mass culture and high art alike. Although the historical avant-garde failed to make good on revolutionary ideals, avant-garde logics continue to evolve and diversify across our entire cultural media landscape, from Dada to Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. This is the odd thing about the avant-garde: its style thrives in a cultural era overwrought with aesthetic and cultural cynicism. If a productive tension between its own cynicism and its revolutionary ideals energized the early twentieth century’s avant-garde, then the relocation of the avant-garde in the museum and in popular culture turns that tension into a perverse parody of “the avant-garde that was.” From today’s vantage point, the avant-garde seems to have cultivated a very real death wish. Its death was not stylistic or aesthetic but rather a failure to be. In the wake of its death, the object lesson of the avant-garde appears to concern the necessary failure of any project that sets radical forms of being as its goal.

 

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