This project is a series of short essays and meditations. Like souvenirs, they engage memory, time, travel, history, capitalism, consumerism, culture, literature, art, museums, collecting, libraries–indeed, any area where culture and memory intersect. While the cultural history of souvenirs and the various behaviors connected with them are obvious topics of investigation for this project, I will also be exploring the profound implications that souvenirs raise about the relationship between memory and the physical world and how this interaction impacts culture and society.
My project is inspired in part by Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project . Benjamin saw the Paris arcades—streets encased in glass so as to create the pre-cursor to today’s shopping mall, where various stores could be accessed without having to brave the weather—as symbolically representing the function of commercial capitalism and its cultural environment. As a specific feature of Parisian urban geography, the arcades serve as a jumping-off point for Benjamin’s exploration of the city’s commercial features in the nineteenth century and how they form the basis for Western capitalist society in general.
Benjamin’s reflections on the Paris arcades helped me to realize how souvenirs could serve as a key to exploring many of the cultural and intellectual themes that have interested me throughout my life. Benjamin never finished his project, but he wrote the notes that make up the work while he was in exile in Paris in an attempt to avoid the Nazis. The result is an organized series of quotations, reflections, and insights that never come together to form a whole, but provide numerous launching points for thinking about nineteenth-century history and culture.
The title of this project is an obvious nod to Benjamin, whose ideas and theories will also inform my exploration of the cultural history of souvenirs. As a collection of short essays and musings in blog format and on other forms of social media, my project will function much like his. Perhaps someday, my project will culminate in the kind of magnum opus that Benjamin aspired to create. But such a goal seems anachronistically nineteenth-century in our twenty-first century world, so it’s more likely that this project will follow his lead and work towards formulating a new genre that Benjamin himself did not intend to create, a genre that uses contemporary social media to engage in a deep and sustained inquiry into a subject with broad social and intellectual implications.
To learn more about this project, read the “Preludes” posts.
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Anthony Vaver is an independent cultural historian and is currently the Local History Librarian at the Westborough Public Library. He is the author of three books, including Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America, and the blog, EarlyAmericanCrime.com.