Just what’s so ephemeral about Material Culture?


Ephemera is transitory written and printed matter, not intended to be retained or preserved. The word derives from the Greek, meaning things lasting no more than a day. Some collectible ephemera are advertising trade cards, airsickness bags, baseball cards, bookmarks, cigarette cards, greeting cards, letters, photographs, postcards, posters, stock certificates, tickets, and zines. Decks of personality identification playing cards from the war in Iraq are a recent example.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

I’ve been thinking about the use of the term ephemeral in the context of material culture studies for some time now, but more particularly since I recently attended a seminar at which it was suggested that posters and other printed materials were ephemera.

I’m not entirely certain that this analysis is correct. It is clear that some printed matter is indeed ephemeral, and for evidence of this I’d point to Linda King’s (Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dun Laoighaire) article ‘Lasting But a Day’:Printed Ephemera as Material Culture in Circa 103 [available here] and particularly the point she makes when she notes that:

Perhaps it is the inherent ubiquity of examples of printed ephemera – including brochures, flyers, labels, tickets and receipts – that make these fragments of material culture so culturally significant. Throughout the course of an average day we collect and discard many such items, visually encounter hundreds more, rarely conscious of the process of interaction with which we are engaged. And yet, these objects are important social signifiers, reflective – through their physical appearance and methods of reproduction – of the technological advances and aesthetic concerns of the period from which they have emerged.

However, consider the range of material in the wiki quote: “advertising trade cards, airsickness bags, baseball cards, bookmarks, cigarette cards, greeting cards, letters, photographs, postcards, posters, stock certificates, tickets, and zines”.

And here a problem arises. These items although printed do not have identical functions or longevity.

There are those which have an immediate purpose and function which once fulfilled allows the item to be discarded. The airsickness bag or ticket clearly belong in that category.

Arguably greeting cards belong in a different category where their utility is of longer duration.

Posters and postcards arguably have a greater longevity again. Malcolm Barnard in Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture suggests: the communicative function of the media is more impotant than its role as a vehicle for the expressive personality of the artist or designer…” It’s worth noting that as early as 1884 a major poster exhibition was held in Paris and that during this period the poster had transformed from a largely informational function to embodying an aspect that can tentatively be termed ‘art’.

Indeed Barnard has noted the problematic aspect of such terms, as when he considers how ‘The advertising of Tony Kaye, the Mondrian-inspired packaging of L’Oreal hair products…. might be produced as examples of design becoming, or being made into art. Tony Kaye has campaigned regularly to have his work exhibited in exhibitions…the case of L’Oreal is more marginal; it is unlikely that anyone seriously considers the packaging to be art’. Note that Barnard uses a more malleable formulation to describe the process where “design [is] becoming, or being made into art”. That ambiguity serves one well in analysing this area. For it is not just a process of a designed piece ‘being made into art’, but in some instances attempting to catalogue experience.

In this regard the photograph, perhaps, is the least ephemeral (there is also an argument that the process of ‘production’ involved in the photograph is almost entirely unlike that found in the list of other examples from wiki, in that it is more generally self-produced, self-selected). I find it difficult to imagine a situation where a photograph, any photograph, is discarded immediately. Of their nature photographs are retained by those who take them or are in them. The photographic album may only be brought out on occasion, but that occasion is replete with social significance – the photographs acting as a means of linking into much broader processes of signification.

Consider the image at the head of this page. This is a Polaroid taken at the time of the assassination of John F. Kennedy by a witness to that event, Mary Ann Moorman. It was the fifth image she had taken that day, but the one that was to assume a significance beyond the previous four. Yet, it is still only a Polaroid photograph, one of a sequence taken by an amateur. The grainy quality is typical of such photographs at that point in time.

And here too the significance we read into that image is bounded within broader processes of signification. This image is ephemeral only in the sense that it captures a fleeting, if historically important, moment in time. In itself even as a Polaroid it is anything but ephemeral. Even had nothing occurred that day in Dallas other than the visit of the President this photograph would have – presumably – been accorded some degree of significance. Why else would Moorman have taken it were it otherwise? The intention was never that this would be ephemeral. The intention was that it should not be ephemeral, that it should be a mark, an impression upon which a specific point in time was recorded. Even were the intention to see this, or other photographs, being made into art, it too would hardly have been discarded.

The point is, and I’m genuinely not attempting to be pedantic, that the use of the term ephemeral is – to my mind – indicative of a certain attitude towards aspects of material culture, one which seeks to exaggerate the transitory at the expense of reality. And that reality is one of patterns of consumption determined by need dependent upon the period in history.

So the function of items changes during their lifespan. The newspaper is consumed for the information it contains and then as insulation, as kindling, or as a container for chips or as historical or personal record (consider the way in which the Irish Times sells front pages from the date an individual is born as if there is some more profound web of meaning linking birth, newspaper and the events recorded within it). The poster is retained as a momento, is placed on a bedroom wall, or becomes a collectors item. The cigarette card is framed. The photograph assumes a personal significance and is retained even as it fades, as it is damaged by handling, as it begins to disintegrate over time, as indeed the Moorman Polaroids inevitably will.

Some months ago I was in Barcelona and visited a market in one of the squares of that city. Here was a collectors paradise. Almost any printed material one might conceive of was available from a multitude of small stalls. Salesmans lapel pins from the 1960s. Beer bottle labels. Stamps. Postcards. Posters. Cards. Tickets. Pamphlets. The list was almost endless. Each item available at varying prices from a couple of cents to hundreds of euro. Some of these, and one thinks of the beer bottle labels, are clearly ephemera to some degree.

But that these items were collectible did not alter the fact that these were examples of material culture. The interesting aspect was the considerable value that they acquired, albeit one that was determined by the perspective of the collector. These had not ‘become art’, but perhaps in some sense they were being ‘made into art’ through a process of sampling, collection and exhibition.

And even this limited process of sampling and collection provides a telling example in a time when it is possible to find collections of ‘ephemera’ ‘exhibited’ upon the internet. A fairly cursory internet reveals airsicknessbags.com or tickets. We can question whether their reproduction on a screen confers the authenticity of the individual artifact, but even these more ephemeral items are now caught (or is it trapped?) within the aspic of the digital medium.

Examples of material culture, whether invested with a significance by those who ‘produce’ them (such as photographs), or assigned a value through collection appear, to me at least, to necessitate that the definition of the ‘ephemeral’ in this context requires some rethinking and that the term itself should be applied more rigorously…

Ciarán Swan


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