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Age of Exploration Curio vs. The Wonderland of Tumblr and Pinterest #SocialMedia

"Forgotten Paintings" Pinterest on The Appendix
“Forgotten Paintings” Pinterest on The Appendix

Benjamin Breen writes:

“As the loosely-defined Baroque era segued into the more empirically-minded Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, curiosity cabinets became correspondingly more orderly. They borrowed a page from Linnaeus — he of species classification fame— and started to order their objects according to rational classification schemes. Alexandre Isidore Leroy de Barde’s remarkably precise and disciplined watercolors of naturalia cabinets are perfect example of the shift…

“…In the ecosystem of Pinterest we find the same organic arrangement of contrasting items, grouped poetically (rather than rationally) around a nebulous theme. The eclectic and exotic are prized; color and visual interest win the day. And the context for each item? Virtually nonexistant. The objects that made up a curiosity cabinet followed circuitous pathways (from Sri Lankan beaches and Amazonian jungles, say, to Parisian salons), in the course of which they lost their original contexts, names, meanings. Objects that had once embodied human culture, like sculptures and coins, became mere ephemerata. Natural treasures — corals, gems, ambergris, bezoars — likewise functioned as mere “curiosities.” Did that horn come from a unicorn or a narwhal? was a question few early moderns ventured to ask, because the items in curiosity cabinets did not invite speculation into origins. They had no labels, after all. No narratives. No “memories” as objects or images. So, too, with Pinterest and its ilk.”

I love this post.  Having just relaunched Seeing Dark Matter and gathered various Tumblrs into The Codex, I’m interested in the way digital media is arranged and rearranged, and the sociability of categorization.  Pushing the curiosity cabinet connection further, how have actions such as liking, sharing, and repinning or reblogging changed our perspective on “the wondrous and monstrous?”

“The early modern curiosity cabinet stood at the intersection of this dual preoccupation with internal psychology (microcosms) and the exotic, rare, rich or unfamiliar (the cosmos). By building curiosity cabinets, early modern elites made their mental lives manifest: the curiosity cabinet displayed its owner’s interests, tastes, travels, and “wit,” yet it was also an assemblage of found objects, and thus a display of the external world in all its infinite variety.”

If we dive into the hypertextual and hypervisual worlds that are Pinterest, Tumblr, or Twitter, I assume we are taking action; in other words, we are doing by pinning, reblogging, sharing.  We are making “our mental lives manifest” and we are collecting “found objects” to display “the external world in all its infinite variety.”  We are not, in fact, touching the “external world” in the same way as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century explorers and collectors were, but in 2012 our gathering habits reference back to that era.  “Friends” continue to quantify, catalog, and classify posts with an implicit sense of what goes first, what has authority, what is exotic, what ought to have the least attention on a shelf.

According to Breen, curiosity cabinets were especially popular “in the age of piracy, East India Companies, slave trading and colonial expansion” and “the wonders of Creation were often conflated with the treasures of the tropical world — with the exotic.”  Did the ritual of building the cabinet neutralize the space between the collection and the collected? Like building an altar, did it embody the cabinet’s creator with power over the unusual and the unknown?  And if a conch was mundane in one locale only to become exotic in another without a discussion about the process of slave trading and colonial expansion that made it possible for the two to come together, what does that say about how individuals link everyday knowledge to the common sense and the this-must-just-be?

That is to say, what kinds of knowledges needed to be disappeared for a curiosity cabinet filled with artifacts to tell no tale about the slaving paths that helped those artifacts appear?

Understanding how curiosity cabinets worked at a time of profound upheaveal and connecting them to Pinterest (or Tumblr or Twitter) means understanding something about the power of the social and ritual to create online worlds of disembodied (or hyperbodied?) exotica today.

And what of the journey itself? Falling into social media is a bit like going down the rabbit hole and ending up in Wonderland.  Pinterest and Tumblr’s digital sojourners employ a common sense constitutive of experiences in the flesh, real and virtual experiences in foreign places, and an array of dynamic media forays in between.  In Wonderland, you never know what you might find or what may be treacherous or fantastic.  And the rabbit hole itself, rich with movement, sails somewhere between flesh and encounter, mid-oceanic and multi-dimensional. Asking others to join the exploration #team is part of the experience so that friends, followers, and members of blogs and boards are collected alongside trinkets and symbols.  Lurking on dashboards and timelines generates a wobbly but no less authentic sense of place and space.  Stealing treasure ad infinitum, there are no limits to how many reblogs or repins a user can create.

How do these are journeys compare with ones made by explorers, collectors, pirates, slave traders, and slaves in the eighteenth-century?  Can theorizing the social media rabbit hole helps us better understand the middle grounds, borderlands, encounters, Middle Passages, and Atlantic circuits of an earlier time period?

At the very least, considering the space between point A and point B in the context of Pinterest means flattening the geography and digging down instead of across.  It means reflecting on whether the space between users and their pins is less about clicks away and more about the strange cacophony of sights and sounds found or experienced on their way to finding that pin, along with the trek back.  There is something, today, between “microcosms” and “the cosmos,” and historians, digital humanists, critical media theorists and more are struggling to articulate what that is or those are.  Extrapolating for systems of racial oppression, much of the black studies work that needs to be done is also about the space between the eye and the image, about revealing actions and workflows off screen and in the sinews of the machine.  There is a reason why translating histories of slavery to my students is as much about their reading and writing comprehension as it is the history already floating around in their head, the experiences they’ve had with the world around them–and the way they organize those experiences around science and myth, nature, common sense and truth.

Curiosity cabinets, when placed in their historical context, are beautiful and problematic.  The cabinet’s power to elicit wonder in the face of profound human tragedy is analogous to the ease with interactions on social media, even activist ones, can disappear labor exploitation, human tragedy, and organized resistance occurring globally off the computer page.  Just because it isn’t pinned, doesn’t mean it isn’t real, and being pinned doesn’t make it fact.  At the same time, social media gives those of us who do black studies and Afro-Atlantic history an opportunity to intercede in novel ways.  We cannot recreate the discussion around race and ideology because it has been centuries in the making, but we can organically intercede by mobilizing with (and within) the equipment our friends, family, peers, and students find so engaging.  For example, at our panel at #ASALH in September, during a discussion surrounding the Dolce & Gabbana “Mammy” earrings, Brittany Cooper (University of Alabama, Crunk Feminists Collective) and I noted ways reblogging, retagging, and sharing media across a range of social media platforms fundamentally changes the media shared.  Speaking in terms of ritual, do these added elements and actions change the spell being worked over a cultural artifact?  Even ones so painfully problematic as these?

Suggested Reading:

Benjamin Breen, “Cabinets of Curiosity: the Web as Wunderkammer” at The Appendix.