Print | PDF
Amodern 7: Ephemera and Ephemerality
December 2017

AMODERN 7: EPHEMERA AND EPHEMERALITY

Priti Joshi, Susan Zieger

Like some winged insects, ephemera – the plural of the Greek ephemeron – denotes things that last through the day. Maurice Rickards defined it as “the minor transient documents of everyday life” – bus tickets, business cards, bookmarks.1 Ephemera describes modern mass media forms such as the newspaper and radio broadcasts, as well as contemporary ones such as email and short message service. Ephemera haunts classical aesthetics, whose pretensions to cultural value and endurance can figuratively efface its own materiality and fragility. Ephemera similarly menaces concepts and practices of history, even when it serves as evidence of the past and the stuff of the archive. Indeed, ephemera problematizes memory itself: Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has theorized that digital media create an “enduring ephemeral” of constantly refreshing, regenerating information, introducing as much instability into computer programs as abides in putatively more fallible, degenerative human memory.2 With this observation, the paradox of ephemera – that it was meant to be disposable and fleeting, but is instead often kept and collected – comes into view as a central ambivalence of modern mediated life.

Ephemerality might be described as the lived condition of an industrial modernity, founded on disposability, fluctuating value, and illusion. For several critical generations, Karl Marx’s dictum that “all that is solid melts into air,” has described the epistemology, phenomenology, ethics, and aesthetics arising from the commodity form’s fungibility. Marshall Berman observed the historical dilemma of ephemerality first seen in Charles Baudelaire’s writings: to be modern is to be of the moment. This condition reacts against the French valorization of the old masters, but it also means that every age’s modernity passes quickly.3 Walter Benjamin’s description of historical materialism as the effort “to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger,” elucidated the critical opportunity that such modern contingency afforded.4 After Benjamin, critical emphasis on ephemeral modernity has inspired a “material turn” to the things, substances, resources, labor, and geographic locations that grounded it. Within book history, Leah Price has reread the Victorian novel through the quotidian, banal uses of books, whether for defensive conjugal screens or for wrapping victuals.5 Within new media and communication studies, hype over ephemerality has elicited a backlash of substantive new work on infrastructure and the environment, such as Nicole Starosielski’s tracing of undersea cables, and Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller’s indictment of toxic consumer electronics.6 The constituitive tension between ephemerality and materiality is ongoing; return to the material, however, must avoid implicitly valorizing fantasies of origins, irreproducibility, and unmediated experience.

This issue of Amodern historicizes and theorizes ephemera and ephemerality across two centuries of media and archival encounters. Linking historical and new media studies, we broaden the traditional definition of ephemera from daily, paper-based material to temporary architecture, theatrical performance, radio broadcasts, pixels, and social media. The issue links ephemera scholars focused on paper to those interested in radio, television, computational, and digital media and arts. The benefit of this cross-temporal and -media conversation runs two ways: new media scholars are reminded that print offered no materially stable media past, and nineteenth-century scholars acquire a new vocabulary that will sharpen their analysis of “old” media and low-tech materials. By creating a long history of ephemera, the issue affords connections between mass culture, political memory, and ideologies of freedom across different historical moments. For example, in our present big data moment, the seeming imperishability of certain forms of social media has produced a dialectical turn toward an ideology of freedom in the deliberate deletion of documents. Yet this turn is usefully refracted through forgotten or neglected Romantic-inflected ephemeral practices and aesthetics, such as inkblot art, which also valorized a transgressive impermanence.

Two key terms in this project are “archive” and “performance.” As disposable material that is paradoxically collected, ephemera troubles the archive and is, in turn, haunted by the archive. As a number of the essays in this special issue raise, “the archive” is a fraught space. Historically, the archive is the seeming adversary of the ephemeral: many libraries, for instance, have either not collected ephemera or first deaccession items considered ephemeral. Yet archives also function as the ephemeral’s doppelgänger. On the one hand, the archive, with its imprimatur, is positioned as antithetical to the ephemeral; the latter stands as the “authentic” in contrast to the officialdom of the former. The ephemeral, in such accounts, is defined as precisely that which is missing from the official archive. From this perspective, the fantasy is simultaneously to erase the preeminence of the archive and to expand it so it includes the ephemeral. On the other hand, the archive serves as the nightmare of the ephemeral, threatening to preserve that which users or producers wish not to, whether theatrical performances that some argue are ontologically ephemeral, or digital text that some fear are immortal. The ephemera, in short, simultaneously constitutes both the archive’s oppressive weight, and animates a fantasy of its evanescence.

What is ephemera’s relation to performance? Though an ephemeral or absent archive is one of the founding conditions of performance studies, scholars of ephemera have not typically engaged the issues of embodiment, spectatorship, and human presence that are key to performance. Peggy Phelan offered a founding configuration of those issues in her idea that “performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.”7 Performance’s profound ephemerality echoes the tension we identified between ephemerality and materiality in a different key. The materiality associated with reproduction becomes instead the conditions of the one-time performance: bodies, stage, location. Yet technological and managerial capital always haunts the singular aesthetic performance: one need only think of the term’s resonance for machine technologies – “air fresheners, roofing insulation, bicycles, carpets and rugs, powerboats….” – and for the workplace assessments known as performance reviews.8 Several essays in our collection take up such issues as documenting performance by creating performing documents; or reproducing and disseminating performance by placing it on the horizon of both its local time and space and a putatively global presence.

The essays in this collection reconsider ephemera and ephemerality from traditional and contemporary theoretical perspectives, and in relation to the archive, performance, media, materiality, and history. In “Scissors-and-Paste: Ephemerality and Memorialization in the Archive of Indian Newspapers,” Priti Joshi explores one of Modernity’s ur-ephemeral objects: newspapers.   Two features of nineteenth-century newspapers – their short shelf-life and their prevalence – has led, until recently, to their archival and scholarly neglect. The growing digitization of newspapers appears to reverse this oversight, yet it has also exacerbated matters by making more readily available an avalanche of materials that mirror the ubiquity that made newspapers ephemeral in the first place.   Toggling between a print and digital archive of nineteenth-century English-language newspapers from India, Joshi’s essay examines the circulation of news items related to the 1857 Uprising in India. She argues that the common practice of scissors-and-paste – reprinting items from other newspapers – was a form of nineteenth-century canon formation. Tracing the movement of news stories between India, Britain, and back to India, she draws on instances of scissors-and-paste to excavate a story of state surveillance and efforts to circumvent it, as well as demonstrates that careful attention to scissors-and-paste can inform our own methods of navigating an archive whose ephemerality ironically rests on its pervasiveness.

In “Laminate Text: The Strata of Digital Inscription,” Dennis Yi Tenen begins with the observation that digital text is difficult to locate. It exists at once onscreen and off: hidden from view on hard drives, tactile at the fingertips, and ephemeral before the eyes. The essay examines digital text as a stratified, laminate structure. Using archival materials from the history of twentieth century technology, he advances a theory of laminate text grounded in the physical affordances of the medium. After a brief methodological discussion, Tenen’s essay proceeds in three parts. In the first layer or “sediment,” he observes the development of special, encoded languages used to store data on ticker tape and punch cards. The second layer is characterized by its increasing opacity: expressed in electromagnetic polarities inscription becomes inaccessible to human senses. Finally, a layer of simulated inscription is laid down to restore the appearance of a single surface. Each stage, he concludes, presents distinct challenges to contemporary practices of reading and interpretation. For Tenen, the concept of the laminate helps revise a fallacious concept of ephemerality imported from print cultural studies to digital media studies.

In “The Speaking Archive of Caribbean Voices on the BBC,” Mollie McFee examines the BBC radio program Caribbean Voices, broadcast from 1945-1958, which effected a profound aesthetic transformation in Caribbean literature: the program promoted and celebrated literary work that made use of the Caribbean’s distinct accents and languages. Since the program’s years on the air, critics have granted Caribbean Voices an important place in a long history of oral and aural art forms in the region, acknowledging the program as both an inheritor of and contributor to a distinct Caribbean literary tradition. However, despite the value Caribbean Voices attributed to sound (and its subsequent impact on literary production in the region), the BBC destroyed recordings of the program shortly after they were broadcast. Nevertheless, scripts from broadcast remain, producing an ambivalent archival record of the program. Through the case of the Caribbean Voices archive, McFee’s essay examines the relationship between text and sound as manifestations of the seemingly enduring and ephemeral, respectively. While the destroyed aural records of the program strip the literature broadcast of a critical aesthetic dimension, enduring textual records grant insight into the contested value of the regional sounds the program celebrated, voicing the shifting ground of Caribbean life. Ultimately, textual traces from the program reveal a necessary interconnection between orality and print, destabilizing the notion that either text or sound can be read as the exclusive foundation of an enduring Caribbean tradition.

Susan Zieger, in “Before Rorschach: Ink Blots, Accidents, and Ephemera,” looks at the seeming opposite of digital text: ink. As a constituent material of records and archives, ink signified civilization, reason, and order; yet its liquidity, darkness, and propensity to spill and blot constantly broke its promise to materialize thought. A messy consumer technology, ink – and its accessories such as quill pens, steel pens, inkstands, penknives, pen-wipers, sand and blotting paper – connoted both ephemerality and endurance. At mid-century, this tension led to a new aesthetic of ephemerality and randomness. The novelist Victor Hugo made hundreds of images – pliages and taches – by blotting and spattering ink and other household materials and bodily substances. The German mystic and poet Justinus Kerner wrote and drew Klecksographpien (1857), a series of embellished ink blots captioned with accompanying poems. At century’s end, games such as “Gobolinks,” “Blottentots,” and “Klecks,” in which children blotted ink and wrote poems about the resulting images further developed this aleatory aesthetic. A little Swiss boy, so fond of such games that his schoolmates nicknamed him “Klecks” or “Inkblot,” grew up and invented a famous psychological inkblot test that has endured into the twenty-first century. How did ink move from ground to figure? Using poetics, material culture, and historical media, Zieger explores the history of inkblot art and games, demonstrating how the ephemeral, random blot became the site of psychological projection.

In “Ephemeral Buildings: Threshold Experiences of Memory in Paris, 1889 and 1900,” Christina Svendsen reminds us that buildings, and in particular monuments, are assumed to incarnate stable historical memory. Yet many buildings are built to be temporary: tents, refugee camps, theatrical stages. Furthermore, since their earliest origins buildings have had functions that go far beyond shelter: they are as a nonverbal medium, communicating power, function, and religious or aesthetic allegiances. In modernity, temporary construction has become the norm due to cheap materials and an appetite for the new. This taste for ephemeral buildings was inaugurated by technological innovation of the World Fairs, where monuments were erected for a season. Svendsen’s essays directs our attention to two exemplary threshold spaces : the Eiffel Tower, entrance gate to the 1889 World Fair in Paris and the Jugendstil portal, entrance to the 1900 Fair, inspired by scientist Ernst Haeckel’s radiolarians. Both were designed to be ephemeral, yet the Eiffel Tower was preserved while the Haeckel’s portal was not. Comparing the two structures illustrates architecture’s role in modernity’s mediatization of memory, dramatizing the conflict between our desire to consume the past and our need to preserve its traces in order to create habitable spaces. Furthermore, the known ephemerality of an apparently solidly constructed world enabled a fantasy of control for spectators over their physical context, both historical and biological. The periodic creation of ephemeral artificial environments from the man-made building materials of iron and glass suggested a new rhythm for technology, a mobile shifting between creation and obsolescence that mimics natural cycles of biological growth and decay.

In “Digital Theatricality: Flickering Documents in Unsteady Archives,” Lindsay Brandon Hunter focuses on the ephemerality of theatrical performance. As much as the ephemera associated with theatrical performance – the photos, ticket stubs, playbills, perhaps even post-show conversations – -may contend with impermanence, for theatre, the primary problem attending memory, documentation, archival practice, and analysis has been the seemingly necessary impermanence of theatrical performance itself. In this context, the use of media technologies to re-present theatrical performances in places and times other than their original performance, via recording or live transmission to distant locations, contends rather explicitly with an ephemerality still largely considered fundamental to theatre’s ontology. In 1964, the “TheatroFilm” recording of the Burton/Gielgud Broadway Hamlet attempted to engineer a kind of theatrical ephemerality by making its recording of the production available to audiences in movie theaters across the country for only four performances before removing it from the market; in the last decade, the National Theatre’s NT Live series brings live broadcast theatrical performances to film screens in the UK and beyond for a limited run. Hunter’s essay addresses the dilemma of rendering live performance into a kind of performing document, one which exemplifies Wendy Chun’s enduring ephemeral in that it neither satisfyingly disappears, despite producers’ attempts to limit circulation, nor perfectly achieves the kind of portability and durability promised by the act of recording. Using N. Katherine Hayles’s figure of the flickering signifier as inspiration, Hunter argues for understanding the mediatization of theatre not as an ontological rupture, but as a transposition of theatre’s patterns and data into digital forms.

In “Snapchat’s Failed Ephemerality,” Kimberly Hall studies Snap, Inc., formerly known as Snapchat, which captured public attention after its 2012 launch because it offered a social networking platform designed around communication that disappears after ten seconds. The promise of ephemerality, the company’s blog and policies emphasize, is that disappearance ensures that networked sociality will feel more authentic and less performative. This model stands in stark contrast to older social media platforms such as Facebook which create an archive of selfhood that can feel, at times, like a prison of the past. Despite Snapchat’s emphasis on ephemerality, however, Hall’s essay explores the platform’s reliance on archival practices on the backend and the company’s moves to incorporate more archival functions on the level of the interface. Through a comparative reading of company blogs, privacy policies, and interface design, Hall argues that while Snapchat’s ephemerality can be read as a failure on a material level, its discursive framing of ephemerality is significant because it anticipates the role that ephemerality’s affective dimensions will play in the emergent semantic web, which promises the disappearance of mediation altogether.

Our special issue concludes with a conversation between the editors and an artist whose medium, practice, and concerns speak directly to matters of ephemera, memorialization, and performance. Mita Mahato is a Seattle-based cut-paper, collage, and comics artist, whose work explores the transformative capacities of found and handmade papers. Her work uses collage and paper-making techniques to build multivalent images and stories that center on issues related to loss – including loss of life, identity, habitat, and species. In renewing discarded papers, Mahato resurrects and recasts past experiences, concepts, and landscapes into touchable and realized echoes that meditate upon the relationship between permanence and ephemerality. Her cut paper comic “Sea” was recognized by Cartoonists NW as 2015’s “best comic book” and a selection of her poetry comics, collectively titled In Between, is forthcoming from Pleiades Press this November. In our conversation, we invite her to discuss her choice of media and materials, as well as the themes of loss and extinction she is working on. Mahato’s mediation between human and geological time, as well as her cut-paper, graphic images serve as a fitting close to an issue on ephemerality and its striking persistence.


  1. Maurice Rickards, The Encyclopedia of Ephemera. (New York: Routledge, 2000), v. 

  2. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or The Future Is a Memory,” in Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, ed. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 184–206. 

  3. Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air [1982] (New York: Penguin, 1988), 133. 

  4. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Shocken, 1968). 

  5. Leah Price, How to do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011). 

  6. Nicole Starosielski, The Undersea Cable (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller, Greening the Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). 

  7. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (New York: Routledge, 1993), 146. 

  8. See Jon McKenzie, Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance (London: Routledge, 2001), 11. 


Article: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.