Life-writing and the ‘archive of now’ (postponed until early 2022)

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Exploring the significance of collaborative and public life-writing as a way of documenting the pandemic.

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Life-writing and the 'archive of now' has been postponed until early 2022 (exact date TBC).

As the events of 2020 and 2021 have unfolded there seems to have been an accompanying self-conscious awareness that we are, and should be, responding by documenting, preserving, indexing, archiving, and tagging every moment. From the Smithsonian curators collecting the art, signs, photographs and other artifacts created during the protests over George Floyd’s death to the variety of life-writing projects set up by individuals and institutions, including our own Life-Writing of Immeasurable Events.

This impulse to seek out and archive written testimonies of everyday life is not new. In 1937, the interdisciplinary polymaths Tom Harrison, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge launched Mass Observation. They envisioned the project as an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ that would focus on everyday life where ‘ideally [Mass Observation] is the observation of everyone by everyone, including themselves’, and from that point until the early 1950s they employed a team of observers and recruited a national panel of volunteer diarists. The Mass Observation Project launched in 1981 to revive the idea of a national life-writing panel; it continues today.

At the time of writing, a crowdsourced document collecting the details of projects to document Covid-19 has 164 entries. So while the notion of an 'anthropology of ourselves' is not new, it seems that the impulse to engage spontaneously in what might be described as collaborative or public life-writing at such a scale could be something novel, perhaps even unprecedented. It is this question that drives us to organise the symposium, which will take place (virtually) at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing over two days in early 2022 [postponed from 6th and 7th October, 2021].

We hope to explore some or all of the following topics:

  • the core concepts and language that can be used to understand this phenomenon. Is it all ‘life-writing’? Have ‘archives’ been constructed? What is ‘the now’?
  • theoretical, conceptual, historical, ethical engagements with the phenomenon that could be termed ‘archiving the now’.
  • epistemological, methodological, ethical issues related to collecting, storing, and analysing such materials, including considerations of exclusion and partiality.
  • the role that creative, poetic, artistic practices (broadly defined) have played in this apparent desire among many people to make, write, and share their work.
  • how the diary and the documentary urge have operated in the public and/or collective consciousness (for example, in popular media).
  • direct engagements with collected materials themselves, exploring the contents of these ‘archives’ or drawing comparisons across multiple ‘archives’.

Convened by Dr Katherine Collins and Freya Marshall Payne.

If you would like to attend the event, please register using the button above.

The call for papers closed on 3 September 2021.

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Organizer The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing

Organizer of Life-writing and the ‘archive of now’ (postponed until early 2022)

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