As I watched my daughters shop for souvenirs during our family vacations long ago, I saw how this ordinary, if not often maligned, act raises myriad cultural themes: tourism, memory, collecting, history, economics, social class, culture, and more. And the more I continued exploring and unpacking the cultural history of souvenirs, the more complex and expansive the topic became.
Indeed, my project of researching this topic began to take on epic form. Souvenirs help us remember special times in our lives, and if they are particularly successful, they even transport us mentally back to those times, which is as close as we will ever come to reliving those moments. Taken together, the souvenirs we accumulate over the years work to form a chronicle of our life. Lined up on a shelf next to one another, souvenirs help us tell the story of who we are by representing specific episodes in the saga of our lives.
As I continued to reflect on souvenirs, I realized that the various themes they raise directly relate to many of my intellectual preoccupations over the years. No wonder souvenirs grabbed my attention! Even more, such a confluence of themes meant that my exploration of souvenirs could serve as a framework, if not a metaphor, for conducting an epic journey back through my own intellectual development. The irony that small, usually plastic, objects could elicit so many cultural themes and could thus send me off on a quest to revisit the scholarly touchstones that inform how I think about the world was not lost on me. Nor was the irony that taking an epic journey back through my intellectual past to create a more wholistic view of my own knowledge is something of an anachronism in our fast-paced, digital, and fragmentary lives. Such a quixotic journey would have been better suited in a nineteenth-century context.
The moments of reflection and study embodied in each vignette that appears in this blog will together work towards creating the sense of a lived, intellectual life. My goal, however, is not to produce a journal or a memoir, but rather to use the study of souvenirs as cultural objects embedded in history, along with the books and objects that surround me—the souvenirs of my life—to come to a better understanding of the important role that the material world plays in culture and our memories.
Some of the items I will refer to in my writings may push the boundaries of what we traditionally think of as souvenirs. The books that surround me in my library help me remember “how I know what I know.” They are not generally considered souvenirs, yet their physical presence takes on that role as soon as I close them up and place them on my bookshelf. They call out for me to piece together all the knowledge that is held within them—or more accurately, the knowledge that they reveal is within me.
Souvenirs are synecdoches. Just like memories, they not only embody their moment of acquisition but also serve as a stand-in for the trip or experience as a whole. The key to understanding a given souvenir is to place it in its broader context, because it always represents something more than just itself. As I meditate on the metaphysics of souvenirs, on their cultural meaning and history, and on the souvenirs that populate my life, I will be creating, in a way, a virtual museum of how I think about culture and the world. My hope is that others find value in wandering around this space and can use the insights in it to head off on their own epic journeys through memory and our material past.
2 Replies to “An Epic Journey”
The photo caption should read “Athena appearing to Odysseus as he approaches the gift shop at South of the Border.”
Ha! Yes, a souvenir shop would be perfect on the banks of Ithaca!