“In 1881, when Monte Grover, a Wyoming prostitute, pasted published poetry into her scrapbook, she followed a common practice of using clippings to construct an idealized life by isolating a set of values that she found around her. She preserved marks of her inner identity and her best self within a scrapbook. People today, more than a hundred years later, find their identities recorded and inscribed in bureaucratic files and data banks; their official human identities are found in X rays, birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and DNA samples. But a scrapbook represents a construction of identity outside these formalized and authoritative records. It is the self that guides the scissors and assembles the scraps.” —Susan Tucker, Katherine Ott and Patricia P. Buckler, The Scrapbook in American Life, 2006
It struck me, as I was scrolling through some guy’s Tumblr today, that the scrapbook has become our essential cultural form, the artifact that defines the time. Watching TV shows and films, reading books and articles, listening to songs: they all still have their places in our lives, sure. But it’s scrapbooking, particularly of the unbound, online variety, that consumes us. If we’re not arranging our own scraps, we’re rummaging through the scraps of others.
“Cut-and-paste”: the scrapbooking metaphor has long suffused our experience of computers. Now, the scrapbook is the interface. The cloud is our great shared scrapbook.
Pinterest makes its scrapbooky nature most explicit, but, really, all social networking platforms are scrapbooks: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, Ello, YouTube, LinkedIn. Even the more basic communications media — email, texting, etc. — feel more and more scrappy, now that we don’t bother to delete the messages. (“It deepens like a coastal shelf,” wrote Philip Larkin, and indeed it does.) Blogs are scrapbooks. Medium’s a scrapbook. A tap of a Like button is nothing if not a quick scissoring.
Scrapbooking and data-mining are the yang and the yin of the web: light and dark, aboveground and underground, exposed and hidden. Today’s scrapbooks serve both as a counterweight to the bureaucratic file and as part of the file’s contents. The Eloi’s pastime is fodder for the Morlocks.
Inherently retrospective — a means of preemptively packaging the present as memory — the scrapbook is a melancholy form. Pressed insistently forward, we spend our time arranging the bits and pieces of our lives into something we think looks something like us. If the material scrapbook of old was familial and semiprivate, the new scrapbook is social and altogether public. It’s still a melancholy form, but now it’s an anxious one, too. It’s one thing to construct an idealized life, a “best self,” for your own consumption; it’s another thing to construct one for all to see.
“It appears, then, that scrapbook-making as a ritualized, order-inducing gesture is both an acknowledgement of and a response to the heightened sense of fragmentation which has attended the experience of modernity,” wrote Tamar Katriel and Thomas Farrell in their 1991 article “Scrapbooks as Cultural Texts.” They may be right. And maybe the appeal of the digital form of scrapbooking is that it’s all-encompassing and never-ending: as long as you’re arranging your fragments, you don’t have time to realize that they’re fragments. The lack of coherence just means that a piece is still missing.
Image: Wendi Dunlap.