I mentioned way back now, before Christmas, a book that I picked up when I was in Bloemfontein, The Loss Library and other unfinished stories, a collection by Ivan Vladislavic about “stories I imagined but could not write or started to write but not finish” – stories from which characters wandered off into other stories, or from which episodes escaped to turn up in other novels. Of course, by writing a book about these ‘failures’ and false starts, Vladislavic has managed at least in part to cash-out the original intuitions behind these characters, episodes, and plot-lines, if only at a tangent to his original intentions.
I have been confronted with my own loss library, of sorts, in the last couple of weeks, as I have been going through piles of paper in boxes and draws as I prepare for an office move. I have been doing quite a good job of throwing lots of paper out – unread photocopied journal articles on topics I once imagined I might need to know about for imagined projects which now, at this juncture in life, I am confidently able to say that I will never get around to even starting. And then there are the remnants of projects started but never finished, of half-written papers, of book proposals not picked-up by publishers, of unsuccessful research grant bids.
– There are my first, unsuccessful bids for ESRC funding (on publishing and global culture, on food and media), and failed bids for research in South Africa (on media and understandings of crime and violence, for example).
– There are uncompleted grant proposals (on notions of European identity in city of culture programmes, the trace of a year-long conversation with Denise Meredyth about governmentality and cultural policy.
– There are unwritten papers, on the ‘sexing’ of communications technologies in First Amendment jurisprudence, an idea developed during a summer spent in the Law School library at Ohio State in 1998; notes and drafts of a paper on the ‘normalization’ of apartheid in academic debates about South African democratization in the mid-1990s, fragments of lunch-time conversations with Kevin Cox that same summer; drafts of a jointly authored paper with Peris Jones on the strange career of BopTV, the television station of the ‘independent’ homeland of Bophuthatswana, which survived until the late 1990s, and which we thought could serve as an interesting entry-point to think about the politics of regionalism after the end of apartheid.
– There are notes of some initial research at the BBC archives at Caversham, in Reading (I didn’t like the idea of travelling too far to an archive), on the role of Lord Reith in the early history of South African broadcasting (Reith travelled to South Africa in 1934, to advise on the setting-up of a broadcasting service which would enhance the development of ‘the Union’ (Reith’s diaries from this trip consist mainly of griping about the quality of the service he experienced on his travels).
None of these projects are completely off the wall, in retrospect: they seem to be examples of me working out ideas about media, South Africa, democracy, cultural policy, Foucault, textual publics, that sort of thing, the sorts of things I did (and sometimes still do) worry about and have worked on through other projects. There does seem to be a strain of my former self trying to find ways of writing in a more sustained way about popular culture, which perhaps I have never quite found the courage to do. Maybe that’s what one should do on a blog?
If piles of paper and files of unfulfilled projects are part of my ‘extended mind’, or the ‘prosthesis’ of my own ‘individuation’ (depending on what theory you favour), then what will happen to me if I throw out these traces of ambition and failure?