By Seth Studer
If you’re looking for a progenitor of our list-infested social media, you could do worse than return to one of the most prominent and self-conscious public intellectuals of the last half century. The Los Angeles Review of Books just published an excellent article by Jeremy Schmidt and Jacquelyn Ardam on Susan Sontag’s private hard drives, the contents of which have recently been analyzed and archived by UCLA. Nude photos have yet to circulate through shadowy digital networks (probably because Sontag herself made them readily available – Google Image, if you like), and most of the hard drives’ content is pretty mundane. But is that going to stop humanists from drawing broad socio-cultural conclusions from it?
Is the Pope Catholic?
Sontag, whose work is too accessible and whose analyses are too wide-ranging for serious theory-heads, has enjoyed a renaissance since her death, not as a critic but as an historical figure. She’s one of the authors now, like Marshall McLuhan or Norman Mailer, a one-time cultural institution become primary text. A period marker. You don’t take them seriously, but you take the fact of them seriously.
Sontag was also notable for her liberal use of lists in her essays.
“The archive,” meanwhile, has been an obsession in the humanities since Foucault arrived on these shores in the eighties, but in the new millennium, this obsession has turned far more empirical, more attuned to materiality, minutia, ephemera, and marginalia. The frequently invoked but still inchoate field of “digital humanities” was founded in part to describe the work of digitizing all this…stuff. Hard drives are making this work all the more interesting, because they arrive in archive pre-digitized. Schmidt and Ardam write:
All archival labor negotiates the twin responsibilities of preservation and access. The UCLA archivists hope to provide researchers with an opportunity to encounter the old-school, non-digital portion of the Sontag collection in something close to its original order and form, but while processing that collection they remove paper clips (problem: rust) and rubber bands (problems: degradation, stickiness, stains) from Sontag’s stacks of papers, and add triangular plastic clips, manila folders, storage boxes, and metadata. They know that “original order” is something of a fantasy: in archival theory, that phrase generally signifies the state of the collection at the moment of donation, but that state itself is often open to interpretation.
Microsoft Word docs, emails, jpegs, and MP3s add a whole slew of new decisions to this delicate balancing act. The archivist must wrangle these sorts of files into usable formats by addressing problems of outdated hardware and software, proliferating versions of documents, and the ease with which such files change and update on their own. A key tool in the War on Flux sounds a bit like a comic-book villain: Deep Freeze. Through a combination of hardware and software interventions, the Deep Freeze program preserves (at the binary level of 0’s and 1’s) a particular “desired configuration” in order to maintain the authenticity and preservation of data.
Coincidentally, I spent much of this morning delving into my own hard drive, which contains documents from five previous hard drives, stored in folders titled “Old Stuff” which themselves contain more folders from older hard drives, also titled “Old Stuff.” The “stuff” is poorly organized: drafts of dissertation chapters, half-written essays, photos, untold numbers of .jpgs from the Internet that, for reasons usually obscure now, prompted me to click “Save Image As….” Apparently Sontag’s hard drives were much the same. But Deep Freeze managed to edit the chaos down to a single IBM laptop, available for perusal by scholars and Sontag junkies. Schmidt and Ardam reflect on the end product:
Sontag is — serendipitously, it seems — an ideal subject for exploring the new horizon of the born-digital archive, for the tension between preservation and flux that the electronic archive renders visible is anticipated in Sontag’s own writing. Any Sontag lover knows that the author was an inveterate list-maker. Her journals…are filled with lists, her best-known essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), takes the form of a list, and now we know that her computer was filled with lists as well: of movies to see, chores to do, books to re-read. In 1967, the young Sontag explains what she calls her “compulsion to make lists” in her diary. She writes that by making lists, “I perceive value, I confervalue, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence.”
As reviewers are fond of noting, the list emerges from Sontag’s diaries as the author’s signature form. … The result of her “compulsion” not just to inventory but to reduce the world to a collection of scrutable parts, the list, Sontag’s archive makes clear, is always unstable, always ready to be added to or subtracted from. The list is a form of flux.
The lists that populate Sontag’s digital archive range from the short to the wonderfully massive. In one, Sontag — always the connoisseur — lists not her favorite drinks, but the “best” ones. The best dry white wines, the best tequilas. (She includes a note that Patrón is pronounced “with a long o.”) More tantalizing is a folder labeled “Word Hoard,” which contains three long lists of single words with occasional annotations. “Adjectives” is 162 pages, “Nouns” is 54 pages, and “Verbs” is 31 pages. Here, Sontag would seem to be a connoisseur of language. But are these words to use in her writing? Words not to use? Fun words? Bad words? New words? What do “rufous,” “rubbery,” “ineluctable,” “horny,” “hoydenish,” and “zany” have in common, other than that they populate her 162-page list of adjectives? … [T]he Sontag laptop is filled with lists of movies in the form of similar but not identical documents with labels such as “150 Films,” “200 Films,” and “250 Films.” The titles are not quite accurate. “150 Films” contains only 110 entries, while “250 Films” is a list of 209. It appears that Sontag added to, deleted from, rearranged, and saved these lists under different titles over the course of a decade.
“Faced with multiple copies of similar lists,” continue Schmidt and Ardam, “we’re tempted to read meaning into their differences: why does Sontag keep changing the place of Godard’s Passion? How should we read the mitosis of ‘250 Films’ into subcategories (films by nationality, films of ‘moral transformation’)? We know that Sontag was a cinephile; what if anything do these ever-proliferating Word documents tell us about her that we didn’t already know?” The last question hits a nerve for both academic humanists and the culture at large (Sontag’s dual audiences).
Through much of the past 15 years, literary scholarship could feel like stamp collecting. For a while, the field of Victorian literary studies resembled the tinkering, amateurish, bric-a-brac style of Victorian culture itself, a new bit of allegedly consequential ephemera in every issue of every journal. Pre-digitized archives offer a new twist on this material. Schmidt and Ardam: “The born-digital archive asks us to interpret not smudges and cross-outs but many, many copies of almost-the-same-thing.” This type of scholarship provides a strong empirical base for broader claims (the kind Sontag favored), but the base threatens to support only a single, towering column, ornate but structurally superfluous. Even good humanist scholarship – the gold standard in my own field remains Mark McGurl’s 2009 The Program Era – can begin to feel like an Apollonian gasket: it contains elaborate intellectual gyrations but never quite extends beyond its own circle. (This did not happen in Victorian studies, by the way; as usual, they remain at the methodological cutting edge of literary studies, pioneering cross-disciplinary approaches to reading, reviving and revising the best of old theories.) My least favorite sentence in any literary study is the one in which the author disclaims generalizability and discourages attaching any broader significance or application to the study. This is one reason why literary theory courses not only offer no stable definition of “literature” (as the E.O. Wilsons of the world would have us do), they frequently fail to introduce students to the many tentative or working definitions from the long history of literary criticism. (We should at least offer our students a list!)
In short, when faced with the question, “What do we do with all this…stuff?” or “What’s the point of all this?”, literary scholars all-too-often have little to say. It’s not that a lack of consensus exists; it’s an actual lack of answers. Increasingly, and encouragingly, one hears that a broader application of the empiricist tendency is the next horizon in literary studies. (How such an application will fit into the increasingly narrow scope of the American university is an altogether different and more vexing problem.)
Sontag’s obsession with lists resonates more directly with the culture at large. The Onion’s spin-off site ClickHole is the apotheosis of post-Facebook Internet culture. Its genius is not for parody but for distillation. The authors at ClickHole strip the substance of clickbait – attention-grabbing headlines, taxonomic quizzes, and endless lists – to the bone of its essential logic. This logic is twofold. All effective clickbait relies on the narcissism of the reader to bait the hook and banal summaries of basic truths once the catch is secure. The structure of “8 Ways Your Life Is Like Harry Potter” would differ little from “8 Ways Your Life Isn’t Like Harry Potter.” A list, like a personality quiz, is especially effective as clickbait because it condenses a complex but recognizable reality into an index of accessible particularities. “Sontag’s lists are both summary and sprawl,” write Schmidt and Ardam, and much the same could be said of the lists endlessly churned out by Buzzfeed, which constitute both an structure of knowledge and a style of knowing to which Sontag herself made significant contributions. Her best writing offered the content of scholarly discourse in a structure and style that not only eschewed the conventions of academic prose, but encouraged reading practices in which readers actively organize, index, and codify their experience – or even their identity – vis a vis whatever the topic may be. Such is the power of lists. This power precedes Sontag, of course. But she was a master practitioner and aware of the list’s potential in the new century, when reading practices would become increasingly democratic and participatory (and accrue all the pitfalls and dangers of democracy and participation). If you don’t think Buzzfeed is aware of that, you aren’t giving them enough credit.