From Derrida to Dust, the Material Culture of Research
by Amy Elkins
I’m delighted to announce that I recently accepted a dissertation fellowship at The Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory. This support will facilitate my research and writing along several lines next year, from informal conversation and office space to formal lunches and a public presentation of my work. Fox fellows have long influenced my conception of scholarly inquiry and collaboration at Emory, and I’m fortunate to count many former fellows as cherished friends and colleagues. Finally, the past talks and events I’ve attended at the Center consistently challenge me to think in new ways and explore literature and culture with rigor and creativity—from the excellent papers given at the Atlanta Modernism Symposium to the diverse selections of the Contemporary Women’s Fiction reading series.
Recently, I enjoyed perusing the undergraduate Fox Center fellows’ blog. Almost every account mentions something about the material conditions of research at the Center: coffee brewing, food in the fridge, copious office supplies, free printing, bookshelves, natural light, computers, the almost-palpable buzz of productivity. My research necessarily pushes me to consider the material spaces of intellectual production—the archives I’ve visited in the U.S. and U.K. each presented me with new contexts and challenges. Sometimes in those spaces, the psychological paradox of Derrida’s “archive fever” comes alive with Carolyn Steedman’s observations in Dust: The Archive and Cultural History that the archive is a space full of dangerous allergens, microbes, and decay. Furthermore, the authors I study account for material and visual culture in striking ways—not just conceptually or metaphorically. The CLACK! of the camera’s shutter accompanies Woolf’s characters’ epiphanies as ideas come into focus and expose social problems. Mina Loy’s trash assemblages shape the bodies of social outcasts from the materials of their survival.
Woolf of course expressed, in no uncertain terms, that “a room of one’s own” drives the engine of creative, artistic, and intellectual production. It’s a simple but powerful suggestion, that space and time to write open up exciting possibilities for the scholarly imagination.