Rise of the curator: archiving the self in contemporary American fiction
Lederer, Robert Clarke
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Concurrent with a bloom of interest in the archive within academic discourse, an intense cultural fascination with museums, archives, and memorials to the past has flourished within the United States. The ascendency of digital technologies has contributed to and magnified this “turn” by popularising and habituating the archive as a personal memory tool, a key mechanism through which the self is negotiated and fashioned. This dissertation identifies a sustained exploration of the personal archive and its place in contemporary life by American novelists in the twenty-first century. Drawing on theories of the archive and the collection, this dissertation analyses the parameters of the curated self through close-readings of recent novels by five US authors. The first two chapters read Paul Auster’s Sunset Park through trauma theory and Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved through psychoanalysis, noting that in each the system of archiving generates moments of catharsis. The two chapters argue that, for the subject shattered by trauma, archiving activates and fulfils psychoanalytic processes that facilitate the self’s reintegration and prompts a discursive revelation about the painful past. The texts, thus, discover in the archive strategies for achieving, however provisionally, a kind of stability amongst unexpected change. The next two chapters reveal the complicity of archival formations with threats posed in the digital age and articulate alternative forms of self-curation that counteract these pernicious forces. To ward off information overload, E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley advocates the ethical flexibility of “blind” narration that, wending through time, accommodates a broad range of perspectives by refusing to fantasise about its own ultimate and total claim to accuracy. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, meanwhile, diagnoses the cultural anxiety over increasingly invasive surveillance measures. While the novel situates the digital archive, or database, at the heart of this new dataveillance, it recommends investing the self in material collections, where personal meaning is rendered in the inscrutable patois of objects that disintegrate over time. For Egan, the material archive thereby skirts the assumed readability and fixity of data on which this surveillance thrives. The conclusion analyses Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, observing within it and the other novels a consistent concern with archival destruction, erosion, and stagnation. Together, the texts suggest that the personal archive is persistently stalked by disintegration and failure. Yet, within this contemporary moment in which curation has become a widespread means of self-fashioning, they also show how these hazards can be creatively circumvented or actively courted, can threaten the subject or be harnessed by it.