Friday, February 22, 2013

Touching the wounds: Incarnation and Conservation

This is likely my most overtly religious and confessional blog post ever. There are some times when I just like to try to see how the various motivations and intentions and interests in my life intersect, and this blog post is one example. To provide a little context; I am a preservation professional, and I am also a contemplative, religious guy thoroughly embedded within the Christian story (although I’m most at home in that odd Mennonite – Brethren – Anabaptist wing of the Christian story.) In addition to my Masters of Library Science I have a Masters of Biblical Studies from a seminary. For those for whom the language of this post is uncomfortable or unwelcome, I ask your grace.

Library preservation is about preserving more than just stuff, but the part of preservation work that has most shaped me is working with stuff – damaged, wounded, vulnerable stuff. I work with papers made of wood pulp, cotton rags, and hemp fibers. I handle books bound in the hides of cow, sheep, and goats. I smell the odors of a wet hog when I first put a hog hair bristle brush in water. (The first time I got a hog hair brush wet I was immediately struck by the smell which took me someplace else. It took me a few moments to realize I was recalling childhood memories of butchering hogs on the family farm.) I pull on binding thread, push on press screws, gently tug at old tape, and critically handle a newly repaired book. When I’m given a paper document that gives me every indication of being very brittle, I still need to grasp it between my thumb and forefinger and gently bend the paper till it invariably breaks. When I’m given a book with signs of mold I caress the discolored area and often bring it up to my nose for a quick sniff.

The biblical depiction of the physical world is vast and complex. It is, first and foremost, God’s good creation, but it is very quickly tarnished by Adam and Eve’s rebellion. As a result, humanity’s relationship with the matter of this world is described as one of labor and struggle.

cursed is the ground because of you;
   in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
   and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
   you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
   for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
   and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3: 17b-19)

 For the rest of the biblical story the material stuff of this life is a mixed bag – it both extols the glory of God, and demonstrates our mortality and insignificance. These opposing qualities are probably best reflected in the Psalms, what is often referred to as the prayer book of the Hebrew scriptures and is perhaps the most intimate of biblical books.

The Psalms often extol how the grandeur of God is revealed in the stuff of this world.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. (Ps. 19:1)

 But the Psalms also express the deep transience and turmoil of our material existence.

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
   they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
   and its place knows it no more. (Ps 103:15-16)

 The Christian scriptures, or New Testament, portray an equally conflicted relationship with the material stuff of this word. The early church as depicted in Acts shares its material possessions and cares for the material needs of others. Other writings depict flesh as the home of sin, and something to be overcome.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit, To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Rom. 8:5-6)

 It seems right to demonize the flesh. It is the home of uncontrollable urges, and the stuff that falls apart, decays, and dies. Things of the spirit seem to elude the mundane and demoralizing diminution of the flesh. But simply dismissing the material stuff of this world as the abode of sin does not reflect an attentive reading of the full biblical story; the law and the prophets, the gospels and the epistles. As much as the stuff of this world reflects and participates in sin, the bible also tells us that the stuff of this world reflects, and participates in the divine.

The feature of the Christian tradition which has perhaps the most to say about a believer’s relationship to the physical world is the concept of incarnation. The idea of incarnation is that God, creator of all the stuff of the universe, became embodied in the stuff of the universe, most notably in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, God became fully human. Incarnation may be the most scandalous teaching of the Christian faith.

Stories of Jesus’ life often involves spit and stones; blood and wine; loaves and fishes; and wounds.

Western Christianity, especially in its modern protestant form, has tended to let the idea of Jesus and incarnation play 2nd or 3rd fiddle to stories of Jesus death as the key, and maybe even only, saving event of the whole Jesus story. Jesus came as a baby, but only so he could die. The Eastern Orthodox church, however, has developed a much fuller appreciation for significance of the incarnation. A key Orthodox teaching is that in taking on the material stuff of this world, God redeemed all matter.

These two paths of working in conservation and pondering the meaning of incarnation have for me met in the story of the person that is often referred to as Doubting Thomas. Jesus had been crucified with nails driven through his hands, and a spear piercing his side. Days after his death, stories were circulating amongst his community that Jesus was alive. In a closed room Jesus makes an appearance to all the disciples, except Thomas. Later, when Thomas is told of this meeting he replies,

‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20:25-28)

Thomas demanded physical, tactile proof of Jesus’ resurrected existence. Curiously, when he did see Jesus, and Jesus instructed him to touch the wounds, there is no record of Thomas actually doing so.

Jesus’ resurrected body was physical – and more importantly, it was wounded. The final state of existence is not pure, pristine, and perfect, but it bears wounds.

I don’t know if I’ve ever read or heard someone use the language of woundedness when talking about conservation and those things we conserve, but it may just be worthwhile to explore.

When I handle an object that has been given to me for care I occasionally recognize that I am touching wounds. In fact, there are times when a colleague, but even more often, when a friend brings a damaged book to me that are reminiscent of stories of people bringing their sick family members to a healer (whether its biblical stories of bringing the sick and lame to Jesus, or “real life” stories of people bringing their sick children to the hospital.) They bring something they care for that is wounded and they feel some of the pain of that wound. These wounds tell me that while I can and should engage life, much of life is ultimately beyond my control.

I am deeply grateful for how working in conservation makes me fully aware of how I participate in God’s good creation. It is an honor and privilege to touch and work with these wounded parts of creation. My job and my work is not any more – or less – sacred than anyone else’s, but it is sacred.  

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Reading "On Longing" - or at least parts of it

On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, by Susan Stewart. Duke University Press, 1993.

I only read sections of this fascinating book. It is not a light read and a full read would have required too much. As the blurb on the back jacket says “this highly original book draws on insights from semiotics and from psychoanalytic, feminist, and marxist criticism.” The amount of energy it would take me to fully intellectually engage this book, beyond my simply passively receiving it, is more than I’m willing to expend at this time. I’m a little amused, embarrassed, and pleased at how much of the book I understood – at least the gist – but the language is still foreign enough that forming my own sentences of response would take a good deal of concentration. Some day I would love to give this book the thorough reading it deserves.

The reasons I was initially drawn this book include the evocative title On Longing and my own ponderings on the role of longing and nostalgia as motivations for preservation, but more importantly, within the context of that title, I saw that the volume discussed the materiality of the book, and the collection – with the great chapter subheading The Collection, Paradise of Consumption.

As one who works at preservation in a library setting, I think it this volume discusses topics – of reading, the material book, the collection – that while perhaps not immediately pertinent to the day-to-day tasks of preservation, do help to understand the larger context wherein these day-to-day tasks happen, and hopefully, may even shape these tasks.

So, once again, with books where I cannot create too much of my own response, I’ll simply present some worthwhile quotes. (Oh, and I hope that some day Gary Frost will read and publicly reflect on this book. I'd be curious to read his thoughts. hint, hint.)

“The reader who arose from the mechanical reproduction of literature is a reader acutely aware of the disjunction between book as object and book as idea.  And the solitude of his or her reading takes place within the bourgeois domestic, a milieu of interior space miming the creation of both an interior text and an interior subject.” P. xi.

“Nostaliga, like any form of narrative, is always ideological: the past it seeks never existed except as narrative, and hence, always absent, the past continually threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack.” P. 23

“Our terror of the unmarked grave is a terror of the insignificance of a world without writing.” P.31

 “The simultanaeity of the printed word lends the book its material aura; as an object it has a life of its own, a life outside human time, the time of the body and its voice. Hence, the transcendent authority of the classic and the classicism of all printed works. The book stands in tension with history, a tension reproduced in the microcosm of the book itself where reading takes place in time across marks which have been made in space. Moreover, because of the tension, all events recounted within the text have an effect of distancing, and effect which serves to make the text both transcendent and trivial and to collapse the distinction between the real and the imagined. The ideological nature of the work becomes apparent here as the idea supplants the ‘merely real.’ The printed word always tends toward abstraction, for it escapes the necessity of a material referent and the constraints of an immediate context of origin; it is always quotation.” P. 22

“In the realm of market competition, speed is the auxiliary to consumption, and the rapid production and consumption of books, their capacity for obsolescence in material form, necessarily seems to transform their content. If the book can be consumed, so can the idea; if the book can is destroyed, the idea is destroyed.” P. 33

Miniature books “The early artisanal concern with the display of skill emphasizes the place of the miniature book as object, and more specifically as an object of person, a talisman or amulet. The fact that the miniature book could be easily held and worn attaches a specific function to it.” P.41

The Collection
“Significantly, the collection marks the space of nexus for all narratives, the place where history is transformed into space, into property.” P. xii

“The collection seeks a form of self-enclosure which is possible because of its ahistoricism. The collection replaces history with classification, with order beyond the realm of temporality. In the collection, time is not something to be restored to an origin; rather all time is made simultaneous or synchronous with the collection’s world.” P. 151

“Like other forms of art, [the collection’s] function is not restoration of the context of origin, but rather the creation of a new context, a context standing in a metaphorical, rather than a contiguous, relation to the world of everyday life.” P. 152

“…the space of the collection is a complex interplay of exposure and hiding, organization and the chaos of infinity.” P. 157

“The collection relies upon the box, the cabinet, the cupboard, the seriality of shelves. It is determined by these boundaries just as the self is invited to expand within the confines of bourgeois domestic space.” P. 157

“Herein lies the ironic nostalgia of the collection’s economic system: although dependent on, and a mirroring of, the larger economy of surplus value, this smaller economy is self-sufficient and self-generating with regard to its own meanings and principals of exchange. Whereas the larger economy has replaced use value through the translation of labor into exchange value, the economy of the collection translates the monetary system into a system of objects. Indeed, that system of objects is often designed to serve as a stay against the frailties of the very monetary system from which it has sprung. The collection thereby acquires an aura of transcendence and independence that is symptomatic of the middle class’s values regarding personality.” P. 159

“When one wants to disparage the collected object, one says ‘it is not you.’” P. 159

“Yet it is the museum, not the library, which must serve as the central metaphor of the collection; it is the museum in its representativeness [ital. mine] which strives for authenticity and for closure of all space and temporality within the context at hand.” P. 161.