Nostalgia for Permanence

An ode to digital relics

There are three shoeboxes tucked under my bed, each wrapped in plain brown paper, housing an archive of sentimental objects I will never need again but want to keep. The bus transfers from 2003, broken friendship bracelets from the fourth grade, letters from my grandmother that say the same thing. The value of these objects doesn’t come from their economic worth or utility. Instead, they are deeply tied to memories and experiences entirely my own. Each is a reminder of who I was — a young girl uprooted, yearning for elsewhere and other people — and each has the power to reconstitute how I understand myself to be in the present. These relics, or tokens of the past, orient me to myself.

To feel overwhelmed by the possibilities for, and manifestations of one’s own selfhood is nothing new, but living online has tended to concretize this sense of disorientation. Online, I exist through 280-character messages that enact a certain side of my character, a certain tone, and an Instagram feed that aims to give my life a certain consistent visual palette and color. These are distant offshoots of the person who used Blogger at age 13 to imagine a life better than her own. Each medium demands something different from us, and considering the many ways we choose to present ourselves simultaneously can create a paradoxical feeling of self-division. But leaving an archive can help. Early in the development of social media, online diaries like Livejournal and Blogger gave an impression of permanence and continuity. In time they became relics, too. 

Each medium demands something different from us, which can create a paradoxical feeling of self-division

Every imprint we leave online carries its own motives. Not only do different personas coincide, but different intentions: communicating through separate channels complicates which self we are living as, which one we identify with. These days, the logs we keep of ourselves are increasingly ephemeral, even as the personas they represent remain, lingering and ghostlike. Stories and other sharing functions allow us to broadcast moments of our lives for only brief intervals. This can feel liberating, like a severing of ties; but when the evidence we leave of ourselves disappears, the very cadence of who we are — our interests, our relationships, our understandings of the world — can begin to seem ephemeral. With such unpredictable archives — or in the absence of any archive at all — how do we remember ourselves?

Blogs from the early to mid-2000s were once logs of private life and tools of self-creation; today they hold an allure in their abandonment. They are unused, like the things collecting dust in my closet and under my bed that I still can’t throw away.

In the terms of philosopher Bill Brown, these moribund digital traces are “objects” in the process of becoming things. In “Thing Theory,” Brown argues that an object holds within it a particular “discourse of objectivity” — it is an object because people have assigned it value and purpose. A glass is a glass because we understand it as a vessel that holds our beverages. Brown argues that the transformation of an object to a thing occurs when this understanding is interrupted. When an object breaks or becomes misused (or unused), it sheds its socially encoded value, or the value assigned to it by consumer culture, and becomes present in new ways.

When objects cease their practical and strategic function, we relate to them no longer as tools but as souvenirs, and their function to us is existential

“The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then,” he writes, “is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.” The glass suddenly becomes more than just a glass, more than a vessel for our beverages but instead of history, lineage, genealogy. Like a grandmother, an aunt, a home. The transformation is not physical, but metaphysical.

When such objects cease their practical and strategic function, what they narrate to us changes. In a way, such objects have entered into subjecthood themselves, holding the essence of a person. We relate to them no longer as tools but as souvenirs, and their function to us is existential rather than pragmatic. They become records of worlds beyond the present — a way to anchor our past, our sense of time, and our sense of self to something concrete — because they exist outside of us.

The internet is home to both objects and things. Unused blogs, outdated tweets, archived YouTube videos, and old low-resolution photos have ceased to commodify their users. They have fallen out of the cycle of self-definition and self-branding. Their value is thus removed from capital, either monetary or social: Instead, they obtain a personal, private, and sentimental worth to both their writers and readers.

 We measure time by the evidence it leaves. The way it stains, creases, fades and tears. My baby-blue diary from the age of 11 is barely holding itself together; the handwriting is that of an 11-year-old. More than its contents, its faux-fur coating reminds me of the excesses of girlhood, of Claire’s Accessories; it embodies the world I moved through then, and the 12 years of life that have passed since. In much the same way, the very thing-ness of retired blogs lies in the cues of their obsolescence: the out-of-date interfaces signals that they belong to a different world from what we know now. As retired blogs capture a record of time and place in stasis, they also leave us with an impression of something lasting, something beyond ourselves. The act of archiving allows for the concept of a past that tempers the branding strategies we are immersed in.

As retired blogs capture a record of time and place in stasis, they allow for the concept of a past that tempers branding strategies we are immersed in

“Stories” features, across different platforms, give us new means of self-narration that transcend archives, giving moments an immediacy that can feel more intimate and personal. They do not, however, transcend the expeditious nature of cultural capital formation: They are merely new means of branding ourselves, another way commodifying ourselves in the moment. The document’s passing can feel like a loss. The object never gets to become a thing, never gains its autonomy; we never get to know ourselves against it. Without souvenirs, the past can feel unformed, and ourselves undifferentiated.

To delete something from the internet feels often like an erasure. Like a purging, it feels oftentimes a way to exhume ourselves from the detritus of the past that feels uncharacteristically us. How liberating it is to think of how easy it is to disappear. It’s an idea that some days I revel in, wondering what would happen if I deleted my blog, my Twitter, my Instagram, all the present and past versions of myself. And yet, I still find myself unable to let go of all the scrapbooked text posts, the images, the memes, and the captions. They give evidence of a present and a past in which I exist and continue to.

Philippe Pamela Dungao is a writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Shameless Magazine, Broken Pencil Magazine, the White Wall Review, and elsewhere.