This post was written by Teo Rogers, Digitization Student Assistant for the C-SPAN records Digitization Project.
when you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886
When Nietzsche penned this famous aphorism, he probably didn’t have viewer mail to C-SPAN in mind as something that the abyss could be applied to. But, here we are, 133 years later, and the abyss is staring back at me ever so intently. That doesn’t mean that this abyss is, as the OED defines it, “the great deep or bottomless gulf” or “the infernal pit.” This abyss is built on the fears, the anxieties, the appreciations, and the personal histories of thousands of people across the globe. Yes, that’s right; apparently, C-SPAN was pretty popular in Norway and Germany in the early 1990s. This abyss has personality—not all of it sweet and cheery—that tells whoever dares peer into it a great deal about life at the edge of the 20th century. This abyss just wants a friend to get to know and understand it, and I am that friend—and how.
Of course, I knew none of this before my first major adventure into archival work began. I started working with the C-SPAN Project at the SCRC in March. I was interested in the position because, as a folklore student, archival work is one of the potential avenues that my career can take me on. Archival work is not necessarily something that one would equate with folklore. Archives are important to folklore because we work with, talk to, and document conversations with people about their customs, traditions, stories, music, art, whatever, through interviews or film. We need a place to keep this all safe, so establishing, maintaining, and placing them in archives is absolutely essential to folklore as a discipline. It’s not over yet, though! Because we love data so much, we need to keep data about our data—this is called metadata, and also where my friendship with the viewer mail abyss developed.
The boxes containing the viewer mail are kept in an enviably cool room, along with the rest of the archival materials that the SCRC guards ever so valiantly. Walking through this room evokes a certain air of mystery, of some arcane knowledge privy to a select few embodied by 19th century books of Russian fairy tales, 18th century cookbooks, and other such materials. But this was not my charge. Instead, as I pulled open the vault-like shelf holding the C-SPAN collection, I beheld the abyss for the first time. Box after box leered back at me like some cardboard tribunal, following my anxious gaze at every turn. Charting the abyss would be no easy feat, and the boxes were elucidating this through their sheer preponderance.
But I had a job to do. Fearlessly, I grabbed a box, strolled out, and never looked back. At my desk, no words were shared between us, but the silence spoke immeasurable volumes (and because a box has no orally discernible language—maybe when it was a tree). “Box,” I said (telepathically, of course), “you will reveal your lines of metadata to me, or else!” Despite the general futility of threatening an inanimate object into action, the box listened. Little did I know, the box had A TON of metadata for me to translate into my fresh spreadsheet. Only a little bit daunted, I pulled up my sleeves, prepared my fingers for the typing that was to come, and set out to conquer the abyss, line by line.
Soon, the abyss’ defenses were crumbling, as subjects like “Author,” “City,” and “Letter Summary,” fell from the letters in the boxes and onto the computer screen. Hubristically, I assumed that this abyss was some shallow puddle. These first letters, though, were surface-level barriers, easily overcome. All of a sudden I was inundated; the abyss had lured me in like an anglerfish. Its attacks were fiendishly protean. Thirty-page economic manifestos, surrealistic scenes promoting marijuana legalization (I think), disturbingly convincing evidence of a Hollow Earth, denigrations of Anita Hill, and oh-so-many requests that James “Bo” Gritz, a peripheral Democratic candidate during the 1992 election, be interviewed on C-SPAN for his unbeatable patriotism. I was a little overwhelmed, but did not back away. Did Columbus turn back halfway across the Atlantic? Did those swarms of conquistadors turn tail at the first sight of impenetrable jungle? No! And I would be the abyss’ cartographer without the genocide, deception, or smallpox!
The viewer mail, in all its iterations, was relenting in its ferociousness—or maybe, as Nietzsche warned, I was becoming too accustomed to the cursive ramblings of the retired and/or the unemployed. However, the abyss was also making something very clear to me: it just wanted somebody to understand it. Much of its contents reflected very real anxieties, frustrations, and solidarity with issues still relevant today: the economy, political polarization, immigration, war, poverty, drugs, gay rights, etc. Even some of the figures are the same, from Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich. Understanding this more sensitive side of the abyss made my quest less of a conquest and more of a friendship, kind of like John Smith’s development in Pocahontas. In this case, the “colors of the wind” consisted of complaints regarding captions being too hard to read and meticulous close observations of bias revelations, but the point stands.
The abyss and I have developed quite the friendship. We see each other every day. I commiserate with it over current events and, through the letters, can literally see history repeating itself. It tells me more and more about itself with each box, with each line of metadata. Sometimes we get irritated with each other—I can’t tell you how many paper cuts I’ve gotten—but what friends don’t? True, it may be odd to befriend an etiological concept in the guise of letters to C-SPAN, but maybe that’s what Nietzsche actually meant.
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