Passing Fancies and Permanent Works: Prof. Paula McDowell Interrogates the Concept of “Ephemera” (by Peter Tasca)

Alice in Wonderland figurines

On the corner of West 13th and Fifth Avenue, on a Tuesday, slushy detritus choked the sidewalks, pooling alongside the curbs, this muddy flotsam the remnant of the past weekend’s snowstorm. Inside the Bark Room lecture hall at the Parsons School of Design, students had trundled in out of the wet cold, peeled off their North Face jackets, draped pea coats over chairs and lined the seats with scarves, revealing red woolen sweaters latticed with snowflake designs and flannel shirts checkered blue, and black, and green. Across the room glowing from the projection screen were rows of Alice in Wonderland porcelain figurines, neatly placed inside white display boxes and atop pink tissue paper, completing the little wintry scene.

Paula Fales - back to left wallThe occasion bringing all these boots hither was a presentation by Professor Paula McDowell, enjoined by the 145th anniversary of the New York Comic & PictureStory Symposium. An associate professor of English at NYU, a historian of the book, and a scholar of the eighteenth century, McDowell has authored such titles as Women of Grub Street (Oxford, 1998), Elinor James: Printed Writings (Ashgate, 2005), and her latest book The Invention of the Oral (Chicago, 2016). The title of tonight’s discussion was “Making and Breaking the Category of Ephemera: The Eighteenth Century as Test Case.”

As the title suggests, the lecture emphasized the “category” of the ephemeron, rather than the ephemera themselves. Resistant to classification, the word “ephemera” itself has only been listed in the OED since 1993. Scholars have tackled this problem from a variety of angles. In 1962, for instance, John Lewis tried to circumscribe the manifold by defining “ephemera” as anything that was printed for short-term use. But the fact that ephemera may be of interest to scholars or librarians long after their production complicates this definition. Similar efforts to provide definitions by negation (saying what an ephemeron isn’t) or by function (that they are non-book printed materials) have turned out to be just as futile. For every totalizing definition, there is a counterexample to overturn it. The rise of Eighteenth Century Collections Online, which provides access to some 150,000 ephemeral works, further complicates matters. What do ephemera become, McDowell asks, when they are digitized?

McDowell suggested that scholars return to this conundrum by putting pressure on the category itself. By historicizing the category of ephemera, we may perceive the ideological effort that went into producing an illusion of provisional completeness. Moreover, we can observe the comedy that derives from the metaphorical or literal boxes of classification failing to contain what remains by its very nature out in the open. Classification systems, said McDowell, do much more than merely put a thing in its place. They act as boundary objects, demarcate specific zones of inquiry, and represent different constituencies and social worlds. The categorical divisions they uphold often go unexamined and prove to have a lasting influence on the reception of intellectual history. The category of ephemera, for instance, implicitly divides objects into those that either have enduring value or don’t.

If this category describes items of value either questionable or fleeting, McDowell argues, then it came into being as the residual effect of the institutionalization of the literary. This valorization of the literary and the consequent marginalization of non-literary or sub-literary works can be seen as part of a response to the unprecedented pullulation of printed works as well as the commercialization of letters. After all, with the lapse of the 1695 Licensing Act, which had previously stemmed the flow of print, the early eighteenth century saw in the space of a single decade the number of printing houses in England jump from 25 to 75 as well as the increasing circulation of what are now recognizable as modern newspapers.

The apprehension engendered by this riot of printed material was felt keenly by the most famous writers of the Augustan period: Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Swift and Pope frequently compared ephemera to another type of creature that only lived for the span of a day: insects. This analogy conjured up the image of works not consciously produced by sentient beings but bred like maggots on a rotting corpse. McDowell sees the activities of these two men as part of the powerful conceptual binary of the permanent and the impermanent, a distinction, she argues, which prepared the way for the nineteenth century’s conception of literature.

In contrast to Pope and Swift, however, the indelible Samuel Johnson a generation later associated pamphlets with an especially English understanding of individual rights and liberties. According to Johnson, pamphlets enlivened the public sphere with spirited debate and the freedom of the press acted as a check against the power of both ministry and the monarchy. “The form of our government,” Johnson vociferated, “which gives every man, that has leisure, or curiosity, or vanity, the right of inquiring into the propriety of public measures…may be reasonably imagined to have occasioned innumerable pamphlets, which would have never appeared under arbitrary governments.” Not only did Johnson christen the eighteenth century “The Age of Authors,” but he also worked against the privileging of poetry, fiction and drama by imploring the cognoscenti to patronize the authors of pamphlets and short tracts. These papers of the day, Johnson argued, gave a more complete picture of the uses of everyday life than the bounded works themselves did—although he also admitted the inadequacy of even the most simple cataloging systems for dealing with such a large output.

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Indeed, even those who resisted the idea of ephemera could not escape being caught up in it. Although Swift attacked the second-rate productions pumped out by Grub Street, his masterpiece A Tale of a Tub was hardly longer than the papers it satirized, the resemblance made even more striking by its having been stitched together with several other shorter works. In his relentless composition of The Dunciad, Pope too embodied the spirit of ephemera, having left enough evidence of the work’s various states of incompletion. The Dunciad depicts Pope’s own method of composition as a series of atoms struck and dashed together.

McDowell concluded by pointing out that in the height of the Digital Age, we see more and more texts on the web bereft of any sort of hierarchy and genre. These naked texts force us to reassess our categories and value judgements even while digital archives offer to retain so-called “ephemera” for infinite preservation. In addition to calling for a more flexible type of classification that retained traces of its own construction, McDowell asserted the need for scholars to ask what place non-literary writing holds in the classroom and be willing to question our own conceptual categories.

Photos provided by Paula McDowell