The Year's Work in the Oddball Archive

The Year's Work in the Oddball Archive

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“By playing with notions of collecting and cataloging, this anthology offers a range of investigations into detritus and forgotten ephemera.”—Colin Dickey, coeditor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology
The modern age is no stranger to the cabinet of curiosities, the freak show, or a drawer full of odds and ends. These collections of oddities engagingly work against the rationality and order of the conventional archive found in a university, a corporation, or a governmental holding. In form, methodology, and content, The Year’s Work in the Oddball Archive offers a counterargument to a more reasoned form of storing and recording the avant-garde (or the post-avant-garde), the perverse, the off, the bent, the absurd, the quirky, the weird, and the queer. To do so, it positions itself within the history of mirabilia launched by curiosity cabinets starting in the mid-fifteenth century and continuing to the present day. These archives (or are they counter-archives?) are located in unexpected places—the doorways of Katrina homes, the cavity of a cow, the remnants of extinct animals, an Internet site—and they offer up “alternate modes of knowing” to the traditional archive.

“An unruly―and much-needed―model for how to do the archive differently.”—Scott Herring, author of The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture

“It was a pleasure to read through this collection, and I suspect some of the essays, if not the entire book, will find itself on the syllabus for my Archive and Ephemera graduate course.”—Museum Anthropology Review

“A finely wrought collection of curiosities . . . A vital intervention into how we talk about the stuff that surrounds us.”—Colin Dickey, coeditor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253018519
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/01/2016
Series: The Year's Work: Studies in Fan Culture and Cultural Theory
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 439
File size: 5 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

<P>Jonathan P. Eburne is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Penn State. He is the author of Surrealism and the Art of Crime.</P><P>Judith Roof is William Shakespeare Chair of English at Rice University and author of many books on feminism and contemporary culture.</P>

Read an Excerpt

The Year's Work in the Oddball Archive

By Jonathan P. Eburne, Judith Roof

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01851-9




Joseph Campana and Theodore Bale

What kind of archive is America? Let's ask the unforgettable Palm Apodaca (Helena Kallianiotes) in Bob Rafelson and Carole Eastman's 1970 classic film Five Easy Pieces, in the midst of which two mismatched lovers (played by Jack Nicholson and Karen Black) on a road trip pick up a stranded lesbian couple (played by Kallianiotes and Toni Basil). As the lesbian couple unloads a heap of luggage and a conspicuous sewing machine, they complain about their unreliable car, a recent purchase. They are headed to Alaska, they reluctantly admit, which they imagine as a clean place free of garbage. Their conversation in the car provokes Apodaca's diatribe on the state of the Union: "I had to leave this place because I got depressed seeing all the crap. The thing is, they're making more crap. ... I'm seeing more filth. A lot of filth."

The forty years that have passed since Five Easy Pieces have witnessed not only an ever-increasing avalanche of mass-produced crap, stuff, junk, and concomitant filth in America but also the advent of a unique medium for the sorting of American things: so-called reality television. We are attracted to certain forms of "trash" viewing, from Andy Warhol's groundbreaking cinema of surveillance (a significant predecessor of reality television), to the nearly grand-opera aesthetic of John Waters's early "trash" oeuvre, to Jim Jarmusch's cinematic surveys of American decay in such films as Stranger than Paradise, Mystery Train, and the more recent Broken Flowers. Why the attraction? Recent forms of trash television in particular help us unburden our weary minds after a long day of work, and we suspect we aren't the only ones who indulge in such guilty pleasures. Lately, however, we've noticed a hoard developing on television that appears to be growing at a steady rate.

Critical attention to reality television has grown rapidly to keep pace with the multiplying instances of such programming, producing nuanced readings of the cultures of surveillance, the production of authenticities and audiences, and the global reach endemic to the form. And yet our sense is that this accumulating archive of thoughtful scholarship has lavished its attention upon features of reality television that may occlude the very objects that capture our gaze. Understandably, this criticism has primarily concerned itself with novelty, be it in the production of a new self, as in the "makeover" genre admirably detailed by Brenda R. Weber and Katherine Sender, or in the production of new forms of celebrity. Real novelty is elusive, not to mention fleeting, and an unslakable thirst for newness leaves little room for considering how reality television not only has a history, as scholars have traced, but more importantly manufactures history, often through objects, before our very eyes. Moreover, it is understandably hard to resist the allure of personhood and the fascination of narrating the self, which seem to define reality television. Certainly, we wouldn't suggest that people are irrelevant to the medium. The intensity of selves on display, be they tragic or pathetic, overwhelms us, as does the unbearable longing for transformation that fuels so much reality programming.

We would, however, diverge from the primary focus of scholarship in suggesting the thing's the thing wherein to catch the conscience of a nation. Our interest here is not merely to inventory objects or to elaborate an anatomy of postmillennial American kitsch. Rather, we argue that attention to the activity of sorting through the products of American overabundance in an age of decline could reveal a common silhouette of the state of the Union. We're not latter-day Palm Apodacas, anathematizing American excess, but we do argue that America seems to be turning into little more than the warehouse of its Americana. The conventions of reality television, it appears, are dominated by a need to organize this brave new American archive.

Four basic premises guide this essay: (1) America is not only an archive of thoughts, feelings, ideals, attachments, or disappointments but also a collection of the detritus illuminated by the setting sun of American global preeminence; (2) reality television serves as a nearly real-time system for archiving contemporary America as Americana, an assortment of variously valued things symptomatic of a mass-produced nation in a period of economic and aesthetic decline; (3) the acts and processes of archiving reveal much about contemporary social life that a fascination with the objects themselves, however captivating, cannot; (4) four signature processes – pawning, picking, storing, and hoarding – anatomize this archiving.

We identify the desires and fantasies animating pawning, picking, storing, and hoarding, as well as the drama that plays out as deeply disturbing transactions provoke both unexpected forms of attachment and loathing for television viewers. Often we take single moments, objects, or figures as representative, because even the most compelling reality programming tends toward the highly formulaic, with predictable patterns of pleasure and disgust central to the way networks generate and sustain audiences. We return to Five Easy Pieces as a kind of visionary prognosticator of a crisis, the symptom of which is an overabundance of Americana emptied of all but the weariest of genuine ideals. We explore the battle over what forms of value determine the archive, and we examine forms of possessive individualism transacted through objects and validated equally by sentimentality and squalor.


They got so many stores and stuff and junk full of crap.

Palm Apodaca, Five Easy Pieces

The practice of pawning stretches through history as one of the earliest forms of short-term financing, its longevity and elasticity deriving from a brutal collision of desperation and hope. From the perspective of one who pawns an item, the necessity of short-term cash takes priority over outrageous interest and the specter of long-term cycles of debt. The profit in pawning derives from the extraction of maximum interest from short-term debt and, at times, the retention of collateral. As Gary Rivlin argues, "The business of making money off the poor dates back to the first time a person of means held a ring, a brooch, or a pocket watch in hock in exchange for a cash loan plus interest." Rivlin's Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business deploys pawning as a kind of historical inspiration for a series of short-term financing options for the working poor (check cashing, payday loans, rent-to-own franchises, tax refund anticipation loans) that extract exceptional profit from those with few assets. Rivlin, for example, narrates the recent history of pawning in America: "To the prosperous, the pawnshop might have seemed an archaic, throwback business that hit its zenith in around 1955 but those with poor credit or no credit knew better. The number of pawnshops in the United States doubled during the 1990s. Though the pawn business can seem penny ante – in 2009 the average pawn loan stood at just $90 – Cash America now tops more than $1 billion in revenues and churns out in excess of $100 million in profits a year." Desperation lending and paycheck-to-paycheck living are nothing new, but they are, in the wake of the recent financial calamity, all over the billboards and the late-night televisions of postdownturn America. So what, then, is the drama of pawning for American reality television viewers? We detect a double move in the television representation of pawning as economic desperation is cloaked in the aura of authenticity or dramatized as often-violent entertainment. In both cases, what is affirmed is the right to an ideal America with a grand history and what seems like a divine right to a family business.

There is what we would like to think of as the "amiable" version of pawning on History's Pawn Stars, a popular show tracking day-today life at the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, owned by the Harrison family. The program features grandfather Richard ("The Old Man"), son Rick, grandson Corey, and the son's amusing, often incompetent friend, Chumlee Russell, as central players. On a channel named History it's no doubt redundant to say that the show is often animated by a variety of fantasies of the past. On Pawn Stars the "Cash in the Attic" fantasy is the mainstay. In the course of sorting through one's attic or basement or someone else's garage sale, treasure awaits. And why not try a pawn shop that traffics in collectibles to avoid the hassle of a private sale or the commissions of an auction house? Each episode includes a series of customers attempting to transform their trash into cash: dolls and figurines, coins, antique guns, classic cars, old (now also classic) video games, celebrity memorabilia, sports memorabilia, antique or simply outdated medical equipment, and more. The drama of pawning in this scenario is in fact a drama of admiring, historicizing, educating, authenticating, and estimating the worth of history.

This drama oddly obscures any actual economic value, in spite of all the on-camera haggling, by invoking other forms of value. The focus emphatically is not short-term lending. Customers almost never want to pawn an item when they're asked if they would prefer to sell or pawn. Before each episode begins the characters are reintroduced, and Rick Harrison speaks the tagline, "Everything in here has a story and a price." The price of history, it seems, trumps paycheck-to-paycheck living as the focus of Pawn Stars.

The Las Vegas location is critical to the fantasies of value emphasized. Although hit hard recently by the great American real estate collapse, the Las Vegas of the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop thrives. After all, Vegas was founded with criminal enterprises in mind, and its get-rich-quick, boom-and-bust, anything-goes legacy still has a powerful hold on the American imagination. Thus the glamour and risk of gambling help justify and therefore minimize the desperation of pawning.

The role of the family and family drama similarly serve to conceal the uglier side of pawning. The Harrison clan is often tangled up in minor amusing conflicts that provide an oddly if genuinely compelling texture to each episode. What is more American than apple pie if not the family-owned and -operated business? The show often feels like an informal boys' club, with special attention to antique weapons and firearms and excursions to test Gatling guns, canons, muskets and even to experience the "charm" of yesteryear's dueling rituals. After testing a particularly compelling car or weapon, the Harrisons like to emphasize their "priceless" experience.

The impulse of the show is to render pawning the work of restoring a valuable America. Pawn Stars is, of course, shot through with many moments of literal restoration. Repairing at the microlevel, however, is usually deemed undesirable, as when an item is fixed with new parts, resulting in a functioning device that becomes, oddly, worth less than the broken device with its original flawed parts. At other times, a classic car, instrument, or jukebox is restored to working order and therefore possessed of greater financial value or power to please. But pawning as an act of restoring, rather than merely stripping the desperate of scarce resources, extends beyond the repair of old things.

Take, for instance, the April 8, 2011, episode "Not on My Watch," which features an array of scintillating objects: a massive, deadly, Confederate-era knife known as an "Arkansas toothpick," a classic 1970 Honda Z600, a Rolex watch purchased from the U.S. Marshals Service's auction of Bernie and Ruth Madoff's personal property, a bell from a boxing ring purportedly signed by Sonny Liston (but which turns out to be forged), and a vintage 1957 bowling arcade game. The customer with the Arkansas toothpick is after cash: "The reason I'd like to sell it is I'd rather have the cash. I'm hoping for $5,000." Rick Harrison's motivations are different: "I love rare Civil War pieces, and I would love for this to be the real deal." Thus in this transaction, economic motive is displaced by a drama of authenticity. The pristine handle on the blade makes the story of the knife's origin doubtful. Besides, the prevalence of fake antiques has every true collector on edge. "They ruined the market," Rick's son Corey says in disgust. After an expert partially authenticates the object, Rick acquires it for $400, not even one-tenth of the seller's dream price. The takeaway lesson for this first exchange concerns historical aura and the anxiety that a side industry like forging has damaged real American value.

Contradictory understandings of value are at the heart of another pawn transaction when a seller presents a Rolex watch auctioned from the estate of Bernie Madoff after his conviction. Madoff, of course, engineered what many consider the largest Ponzi scheme in American history, with an estimated loss of $65 billion. The seller, who purchased the item for $32,000, wants $40,000, given the aura the watch possesses from the alleged infamy of its prior owner. Rick Harrison admits he's queasy about buying Madoff's watch, but when there's an eighty-year-old Rolex being offered, money can still be made. However, an attempt to repair the watch has reduced its value: "The people who buy these watches would rather have a messed-up face than replaced parts," he explains. As a result, the watch's link in a historical chain, its authenticity, has been broken. "This is exactly what you don't want to see," Harrison confides. "It ruins the history of the watch."

The success of Pawn Stars encouraged History to roll out a spin-off, the short-lived Cajun Pawn Stars, which operated under the same principles but more as a regional branch of the franchise shot through with a different brand of local color. Emphasis on a supposed family-neighbor-friend economy dominates the rhetoric of Cajun Pawn Stars. In the opening sequence, Jimmie "Big Daddy" DeRamus, who runs Silver Dollar Pawn & Jewelry Center in Alexandria, Louisiana, with his family, announces: "We're no Sin City. You can give a man a watch, and he'll trade it for a mule, which might be worth a shoe shine. And that watch will move from one hand to the next to the next." The fantasy? One could be separated from the cruel financial realities of Las Vegas living and rely instead on a small-town trade more akin to barter than economic exchange. Of course, the show features much of the exact same activity as Pawn Stars, as the array of objects in the June 20, 2012, episode "Trigger Finger" indicates: a 1970 Schwinn adult tricycle, a land grant signed by Andrew Jackson, a 1929 metabolism tester, a rare coin (which turns out to be a copy), and a 1921 Thompson submachine gun, or "tommy gun," which DeRamus tries out with zeal. A similar assemblage of family drama, objects with aura, and local color obscures the economics of pawning. When one seller realizes that his rare coins, potentially worth over $30,000, are in fact copies, he drawls, "When I found those coins I thought I hit the jackpot. Turns out all I have is jack squat. When it comes to luck, I might as well be pooping with the polecats."

Not all pawning obscures the queasiness of short-term lending in contemporary American television. TruTv's rival show, Hardcore Pawn, makes a sordid entertainment of the hard times and desperate lives of postdownturn Detroit, Michigan. The show follows the daily business of American Jewelry and Loan, owned and managed by Les Gold and his children, Seth and Ashley. In a half-hearted attempt to lend a certain film noir cachet to the show, the opening sequence announces, "In the heart of Detroit's 8 Mile lies the city's biggest and baddest pawn shop. This is where customers find fast cash and sometimes lose their minds. You won't believe what's in store."


Excerpted from The Year's Work in the Oddball Archive by Jonathan P. Eburne, Judith Roof. Copyright © 2016 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

<P>Box I: Saving America: Archival Proliferations. Includes:<BR>1. Joseph Campana and Tedd Bale, "Pawning, Picking, Storing, Hoarding: Archiving America on Reality Television."<BR> An examination of the massive reality television fixation on picking, storing, pawning, and hoarding. <BR>2. Atia Sattar, "Germ Wars: Dirty Hands, Drinking Lips and Dixie Cups"<BR> A discussion of germs, gender, and the Dixie Cup Archive.<BR>3. Beth McCoy, "The Archive of the Archive of the Archive: The FEMA Signs of Post-Katrina New Orleans and the Vévé of Vodoun." <BR>A comparison of Veve and FEMA markings in post-Katrina New Orleans.<BR>Box II: Collective Figures. Includes:<BR>4. Robin Blyn, "Marcuse's Unreason: The Biology of Revolution"<BR> Rereading Marcuse’s odd positioning in the world of political philosophy. <BR>5. Dennis Allen, "The Madness of Slavoj Žižek."<BR> Ponders the ubiquity of Slavoj Žižek.<BR>6. Jonathan P. Eburne, "Fish Kit."<BR> A look at David Lynch’s extra-cinematic art of assemblage and dissection.<BR>Box III: Untimely Archives. Includes:<BR>7. Timothy Sweet, "The Eighteenth-Century Archives du Monde: The Question of Agency in Extinction Stories"<BR>Considers Native American and Colonial theories for the extinction of dinosaurs.<BR>8. Charles Tung, "Modernist Heterochrony, Evolutionary Biology, and the Chimera of Time."<BR> How bodies, genes, and H.G. Wells play with heterochronies.<BR>9. Aaron Jaffe, "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER: Information at the Literary Limit."<BR> What happens when the archive has too much and not enough.<BR>Box IV: Archives Acting Out. Includes:<BR>10. Judith Roof, "Personifying La Con, or Post-Hoax Ergo Proper Hoax"<BR> Anatomizes hoaxes and their dependence on an archive.<BR>11. Grant Aubrey Farred, "The Eleventh Commandment."<BR> Being revolutionary with Thomas Paine and Saint Paul.<BR>12. Seth Morton, "The Archive that Knew Too Little: The International Necronautical Society and the Avant-Garde."<BR> What happens when the INS plays with itself.<BR>Archival Supplement: Afterword. Includes:<BR>David L. Martin, "The Oddball Archive: Politics, Performance, Agency"<BR> A retrospective.</P>

What People are Saying About This

"An unruly—and much-needed—model for how to do the archive differently."

co-editor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology - Colin Dickey

A finely wrought collection of curiosities, The Year's Work in the Oddball Archive presents a surprising and original contribution that stretches our understanding of what constitutes an archive and how to best make use of it. By playing with notions of collecting and cataloging, this anthology offers a range of investigations into detritus and forgotten ephemera, each of which resolutely resists straight-forward methodologies, remaining all the while serious and deeply engaged. A vital intervention into how we talk about the stuff that surrounds us.

Scott Herring

An unruly—and much-needed—model for how to do the archive differently.

Scott Herring]]>

An unruly—and much-needed—model for how to do the archive differently.

Customer Reviews