By Stephen A. Herring
These are the lessons we have learned in efforts to salvage neglected information in the form of narrative fragments salvaged from the waste stream. Information is yet another asset which is routinely lost in our waste-driven culture. This paper examines the attitudes and beliefs we need in order to salvage wasted information. Specifically, we are examining information in the form of lost human narratives. Our working laboratory is a comprehensive community waste reduction centre. Our working material consists of numerous fragments of personal information, photographs, correspondence, and other material which has come to be deposited for disposal at this privately held R+ Waste Reduction Centre. R+ stands for resale, repurpose, repair, refurbish, repurpose, and reclaim resources, re-think, re-imagine, and recycle. Within this context we seek to recover lost personal narratives, to “recycle” information, and to preserve trivialized information as a meaningful resource. Along the way we need a critical reassessment of traditional models of materialism and narrative preservation in order to develop a new model which transcends the limits of social, economic, and gender bias.
We are waste pickers. We sort through the detritus of people’s lives. Our purpose is to reclaim resources from the things people throw away. Our business is called Creative Salvage Designs and we like to refer to ourselves as an R+ community waste reduction centre. People accumulate a lot of material, then they move away or they die and leave it to their family, or friends, or property owners to sort through. Unfortunately, the scale of material accumulated often makes it impossible for people to properly sort everything out. The valuables get removed or sold to dealers; the investments get liquidated, but many other sorts of leftovers end up in a pile that is discarded in one way or another. This pile may be sold at an auction or yard sale or at an estate sale. It might be left in an abandoned building for years. It might be left at the side of the road for passers-by to pick through. It might be given to some charity or simply hauled away and dumped into a landfill. Our chosen task is to locate it, acquire it properly, and then to go through it creatively and thoughtfully in order to extract anything that can be reused, repurposed, or in any way appreciated.
At the outset we must be clear that our task begins with proper acquisition. People own their trash and their fundamental right to privacy extends through the materials they may dispose of as waste. Proper acquisition is a matter of obtaining legitimate title to the material in question either by gift or by sale.
In our work we sort through all kinds of material looking for opportunities to reduce waste. One such opportunity includes the documentary and photographic remains people leave behind. In some situations, such as a failed business, the physical volume of this material can be huge. In other situations we are looking at a shoe box containing the remaining evidence representing the narrative of a person’s whole life. Often we find boxes full of old photographs and various mementos.
Timescales make a huge difference here. If the documentary material in question is old, say over 100 years old, the value of the material can be significant as well as the interest it generates. Old photographs, old letters, even old bills of sale and old receipts are all interesting and somewhat valuable. The vast majority of the stuff we find is usually just trash, needing to be recycled.
What happens though if we allow this material to penetrate into our consciousness and to occupy our awareness for a few moments? What happens if we browse through it, view it, read it, and appreciate it for what it actually is? If we take the time to look with an open heart and an open mind, we can trace out an actual narrative of the person’s life we are looking at. We find ourselves holding, even for a moment, a fragment of the narrative of a life.
Once this process unfolds a new set of problems emerges. What shall we do with this fragment of the narrative of a person’s life we have rescued from the rivers of oblivion? Should we keep it? Where shall we store it? How long should we keep it? How should we try to preserve it? Should we scan it onto a computer? Should we try to work it into an art installation? Should we just let it go?
First off we need to admit that any and all of our best efforts in this area are only temporary. We do not possess the resources needed to preserve any narrative on any sort of long term time scale. We can preserve things in an archive and store them safely for a while. However, when our archival storage facility reaches its capacity or the end of its lifetime we will be right back where we started with all these snippets of life narratives being thrown onto yet another rubbish pile. Viewed from a geologic time scale we are all in exactly the same situation, and even our biggest and best stone monuments will collapse and disintegrate over time.
Over the years we have been doing this work we have acquired boxes of books, papers, and magazines from our local libraries as they must periodically get rid of surplus material in order to keep their collection space up to date and relevant to the needs of their users. In addition to this, people bring us boxes of their own books and magazines hoping we can make use of this material by sharing it with others. In going through this printed matter we experience the same rewards and the same issues as we do when looking through correspondence, financial records, photographs, or any other sort of information. Much of it is interesting but what on earth shall we do with it all?
Sometimes we make time capsules. These are sealed boxes which we store on the vacant third floor of our building in anticipation of the day, some years from now, when the narratives contained in those boxes may provoke some interest and be recovered or somehow used in either research or in art. The idea is that if they can be held for long enough, the contents of each box might obtain a higher degree of interest and thus survive a little longer.
This is a frustrating and difficult journey because there is so much waste and so few people who are willing to take the time to go through it and place value on what is found. As with any effort at preserving narrative information, we must deal constantly with volume fatigue. If meaningful information came along at a manageable rate, we could do just fine utilizing it in some productive capacity. When we are going through 1,500 kilos of waste a week, things can get a little more difficult. We have learned that there are three ways of reducing the effects of volume fatigue in socially responsible waste management projects. First we must learn to have compassion for ourselves and recognize our own limitations. No one’s interests are served if we push ourselves too far, get sick, get hurt, or emotionally burn out. Second, we need to reach out to encourage others to join us in this process of salvaging information from the waste stream. The core of our mission is social transformation. At heart we are agents of social change, inviting others to re-think core questions of relevance and irrelevance. Each of us has the capacity to determine that the information in lost human narratives has value. As we share this message of human transformation, people come to join us and support us in our work. Third, in our work we have discovered that we can always do a little bit more. We can always reach a little deeper and try a little harder to appreciate the flood of lost information that surrounds us.
While frustrating, this is also a tremendously rewarding process. After working in this way for a few years we have begun to see our work as an exercise in mindfulness. While it is difficult to describe, something positive happens inside a person when they manage to connect with the life narrative of another person. When we can witness and appreciate some small element, some fragment of a person’s life, we are restoring meaning where meaning was lost. We are making meaning where there was none. For us, the practice of making meaning is the very definition of art.
Permanence is only an illusion. Everything is in the process of becoming something else. Even archival information which may seem cut and dried can change into something else if it is perceived in a different context, from a different perspective, in a different time or in a different space. Even fixed, printed information is changing over time along with everything else. While a text may say the same thing, its meaning, its interpretation, and its significance will change according to the social context of the person who reads it.
The lesson we have learned is that information is not separate from the natural world. We can choose to see all our information as something like a beautiful matrix surrounding us like the calcium compounds of a coral reef. Information is something we humans produce by our nature. At the risk of sounding crass, we ingest, digest, and excrete information. In a sense, information makes us who and what we are. If we see that there is no separation between us and nature, we can see that in nature there is no waste. Everything is on its way to becoming something else. As natural objects change they decompose. They break down into their component compounds and elements. This is the way nature assures the conservation of energy. Everything in nature eventually breaks down and then becomes something else.
If we view human information in this way, we can see ourselves as people who are on our way to becoming something else. In time we will be the ones who are gone. We will be the ones whose papers are being disposed of by strangers. If we stop along the way to appreciate the narratives of those around us we can change as we progress along on our journey. We can make meaning. We can send our own roots deep into the mineral mix of nutrients made up of the fragments of information that came before us.
There is also something to be said for resisting the tides of consumption driven industrial-capitalist wastefulness. Rather than mindlessly throwing things away we can pause long enough to appreciate the life fragments that are within our grasp. We can allow connections to grow as we see and feel and appreciate what another human being has seen and felt and appreciated. We can allow our human nature to progress as we become what we will become in our own future.
Another crucial element in this process is to challenge the traditional hierarchical power structures of narrative preservation. In the past we only preserved the narratives of those whose lives were seen as holding some significance. In traditional power structures, permanence is reserved for the rich and famous.
In one of our recent projects we have begun reviewing a huge pile of old sports rosters. These include game programs from high schools and colleges as well as professional sports magazines. The period covered ranges from the 1950’s right up to 2006. As best we can tell, the person who collected this material either died or disposed of it around 10 years ago. The material, (8 boxes of it) found its way through a series of estate sales and auctions until we acquired it all for $80.00 in May of 2016. This collection offers an interesting lesson in the hierarchical nature of narrative preservation. We can compare this huge volume of information with the more concise and carefully preserved material on file at places like the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown NY, the National Football Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio, or at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield MA. At these places careful records are kept pertaining to the brightest stars, the best, most successful performers in the history of these respective American sports.
Our interest is in the more obscure side of things. Surrounding these great, master hall of fame sports narratives, there is a massive, somewhat fuzzy cloud of less specific information in the form of the life stories of all the ball players who wanted such success and recognition but never received it. This is the difference between hierarchical and non-hierarchical narrative preservation. One approach is reserved for the most powerful while the other approach values the trivial. This is part of our vision for bottom-up social transformation.
From the perspective of gender bias, we can also question the overwhelming maleness of professional sports, especially from the hall of fame perspective. What about all the young girls who wanted to become great athletes? Who preserves their narratives? Our point here is that hierarchical narrative preservation is limited to the preservation of the stories of those who represent the power structures of the dominant society. These are usually powerful and influential men. The rest of us simply fade away in obscurity.
Exactly the same case could be made for any other profession or cultural expression. The rich, famous, and successful get their stories preserved longer than the poor, ordinary proletariat of life. Most of us will never be remembered beyond two generations of our passing. When our grandchildren pass away we will be as forgotten as yesterday’s lunch.
We need to get real here. There are two obvious realities we must examine. First, lots of people would prefer to be forgotten. If we had the choice, would we really want the details of our life history to be preserved and remembered for generations? For many of us the answer would be a resounding “NO!” In Greek mythology the waters of the river Lethe (forgetfulness) flowed through Hades so that the dead would forget their former lives. These rivers of oblivion are also rivers of mercy for many people. One could examine here the various theologies of forgiveness and theologies of remembrance as articulated in Judeo-Christian-Islamic, as well as Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions. This means there is a privacy issue for those who would prefer to be forgotten but who also fail to shred the remains of their own life narrative. This is an ambiguous ethical question. On the one hand, we are each responsible for the disposition of our life records. On the other hand, few of us really know when we are about to go the way of all flesh, and so we fail to make a proper disposition. In the end we can conclude, in the words of the Apostle Paul, that; “we do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves” (Rom. 14:7 NRSV) All theological and doctrinal considerations aside, our point here is that the facts of our having lived and the facts of our having influenced the people around us make us part of a larger whole. We belong to something larger than ourselves. That larger whole has some right to know who we were and what we did.
Second, on what basis do we claim that being remembered is better than being forgotten in any absolute sense? This ambiguous question is best answered by looking at a few examples from literature. In Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, and Beowulf, we note that in all three epics the hero is fairly obsessed with the concept of undying fame. The hero wants to be remembered because being remembered offers some measure of immortality. We should also note that these epics are totally male oriented and totally militaristic in their outlook. The paradigm of immortal fame belongs to the old patriarchal, militaristic, hierarchical world view. Being forgotten is not bad by itself. This is, after all, where we are all headed even after acid rain dissolves the marble monuments we worked so hard to build.
The whole question of narrative information salvage requires us to see that none of this is about us as individuals. We can struggle and work and build ourselves up as much as our resources will allow, and even with all our best efforts we will be forgotten within a century of our death. Likewise, we can live in as much quiet and private obscurity as we can manage, but still end up not only being remembered by someone, but changing that person who remembers us. This struggle is not about being remembered or being forgotten in any sort of cohesive or coherent way. It is not about our quest for immortality or our quest for obscurity. It is about the quality of our lived experience in this present moment. It is about our participation in the larger human project.
Our lives will be enhanced; they will be enriched by our ability to find meaning in the narratives of other people. This is the case for the people we are privileged to know and to relate to today, and it is the case for those we will meet from the past as we salvage fragments of the narratives of their lives.
Bible, NT Romans 14:7 NRSV
Heaney, Seamus (2000) Beowulf A New Verse translation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Pritchard, James B. (ed.) (1955) Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Tripp, Edward (1974) The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co.
Stephen Herring is an instructor in religion, geography, and humanities at Edgecombe Community College in Tarboro North Carolina (USA). Edgecombe is a two year publically funded technical school located in rural North Carolina. Mr. Herring’s academic background is primarily in classical and Biblical languages. He holds an M.Div. degree from Yale University (1983) and a BA in Classical Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz (1980). In addition to his teaching duties he is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He preaches on a weekly basis at two small churches situated in the religiously conservative “Bible Belt” of Eastern NC. Mr. Herring also owns and operates a comprehensive salvage and recycling facility called Creative Salvage Designs, located in Tarboro. This business works to save over 1500 kilos of discarded or potentially wasted material every week. Salvaged materials are resold to the local community, repaired, refurbished, used for art, or recycled. Mr. Herring recently presented a paper on the value of narrative information salvage at the 2016 STS Italia conference at Trento Italy. The website for Creative Salvage is www.creativesalvagedesigns.com or on Facebook at Creative Salvage Designs. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org