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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. 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. 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.

This special 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.


Threshold Experiences of Memory in Paris, 1889 and 1900

Christina Svendsen

Ephemerality is characteristic of modern mass media, whereas buildings are assumed to incarnate stable historical memory. Yet in modernity temporary construction became a norm inaugurated by technological innovation of the World Fairs. I take two thresholds as exemplary: the Eiffel Tower, entrance gate to the 1889 Exhibition Universelle; and the Jugendstil entrance to the 1900 World Fair. Both were designed to be ephemeral, yet the Eiffel Tower was preserved while the other was not. Their fate shows how architecture participates in modernity’s mediatization of memory. The periodic creation of ephemeral artificial environments from man-made iron and glass suggests a new rhythm for technology, mimicking cycles of biological growth and decay.


Caribbean Voices on the BBC

Mollie McFee

The influence of the BBC radio program Caribbean Voices (1945-1958) on contemporary Caribbean literature was monumental, giving rise to a now dominant literary trend of emphasizing the sounds of Caribbean language. Despite sound’s centrality in this pivotal literary moment, no audio recordings of works written and read by the region’s literary giants remain. The remaining traces of the program, the scripts and letters that accompanied its production, grant an insight into the program that sound might never have conveyed. This article takes the case of the Caribbean Voices archive to unsettle the dichotomy between sound and print, the ephemeral and the enduring, ultimately arguing that the two media not only grant distinct insight into the program, but that they give us access to sounds forever lost.


Ephemerality and Memorialization in the Archive of Indian Newspapers

Priti Joshi

Newspapers are the textbook definition of the ephemeral, their preservation and study not always a high priority. Newspapers’ recent digitalization has moved many onto a more accessible and enduring platform.  The access a digital archive promises, however, was superseded by the practice of scissors-and-paste that gave news stories a tail and served as a form of historical preservation. Focusing on nineteenth-century English-language newspapers from India, this paper traces the circulation of news items between Britain and India and illustrates that reprints functioned as instruments and barometers of public memorializing. Digitization allows us to trace the reach of this strategy of endurance and public memory-making practiced by British editors.


Kimberly Hall

Snapchat is a social media app that built its popularity and reputation on a key feature: disappearing messages. The ephemerality that defined the platform since its 2011 launch has undergone a series of modifications as the company has grown, resulting in ever more archival practices. Through a reading of the discourse cultivated in the interface design, and the company’s policies and corporate blog, this article explores how ephemerality in Snapchat is not an expression of presence and absence, but an experience of presentness. Ephemerality within the app is no longer a material reality, but instead an ethos and aesthetic principle that reimagines how time should be experienced in social media.


The Strata of Digital Inscription

Dennis Yi Tenen

Using archival materials from the history of twentieth century technology, I advance a theory of laminate text grounded in the physical affordances of the medium. It proceeds in three parts, after a brief methodological discussion at the intersection of literary theory and media history. In the first layer or “sediment,” we observe the development of encoded languages used to store data on ticker tape and punch cards. The second layer is characterized by its increasing opacity: electromagnetic storage becomes inaccessible to human senses. Finally, a layer of simulated inscription is laid down to restore the appearance of a single surface onscreen. Each sediment presents distinct challenges to contemporary practices of reading and interpretation.


Ink Blots, Accidents, and Ephemera

Susan Zieger

This essay uses the nineteenth-century material practices and domestic uses of ink to trace an epistemological shift in the nature of accidents. At the apex of this change, Freudian psychology transformed accident into purpose, converting chance into unconscious intent; and hitherto randomly spilled or blotted ink was invested with aesthetic, social, and psychological meaning. This shift culminates with Hermann Rorschach’s famous blots. When spilled or blotted ink loses its accidental qualities, it illustrates an abiding paradox of ephemera, that it is never as incidental as it appears.


Flickering Documents in Unsteady Archives

Lindsay Brandon Hunter

As much as the ephemera associated with theatrical performance may contend with impermanence, for theatre, the primary "problem" attending documentation, archival practice, and analysis has been the seemingly necessary impermanence of theatrical performance itself. In particular, the use of media technologies to re-present theatrical performances in other places and times contends rather explicitly with an ephemerality still largely considered fundamental to theatre's ontology. Using the 1964 Electronovision recording of Richard Burton’s Hamlet and contemporary cinema broadcasts of theatre like NT Live as examples, this essay 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.


A Conversation with Mita Mahato

Priti Joshi, Susan Zieger, Mita Mahato

If the digital age has relegated paper to an old medium, it has also changed the significance of paper’s ephemerality. The artist Mita Mahato, who works in cut paper, collage, comics, and limericks, has been exploring this new significance in a visual idiom that is both playful and wary. We met with Mahato to discuss her work’s unique engagement with disposability, the Anthropocene, nostalgia, and survival.