Memory Objects and the Civic Imagination

The Civic Imagination Project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, has accepted as its mission an effort to stimulate discussions within communities across America and around the world about our shared values, our hopes for the future, and the models we use to think about the process of social and political change. We conduct workshops where participants are encouraged to imagine the future together, using techniques that have been inspired by the world building practices associated with speculative fiction. We ask those who come to our workshops to imagine the world of 2060 — not as it will be but as we desire it to be, and in this way, we try to find some degree of consensus about what an ideal society might look like, a consensus that cuts across other divides amongst us. As we do so, we are using utopias not as blueprints for an ideal world but, as Steven Duncombe suggests, as provocations to have further conversations about the nature and process of social change.

But we do not want simply to focus on the future — on what changes are ahead. We also reflect on our traditions, on things we cherish and want to carry with us into the future with us. One way we get our participants to reflect on that sense of tradition is to ask them to bring a meaningful or memorable object with them and share its story as a means of introducing themselves to the group. At first, we understood this practice as simply an ice-breaker, but from the start, it was clearly much more. Sharing these objects and their stories with each other creates a degree of intimacy and vulnerability between the workshop participants; it enables trust as people talk about stuff that is at the core of our common humanity. In the room, the sharing of these stories, the handling of these cherished artifacts, break down barriers, but as we’ve returned to our base at the University of Southern California, we have found that these object stories continue to do important work as tools to think with, ways that we as a research group can gain some sense of what things are valuable and meaningful to the people we encounter in our research.

Spring semester, we conducted an interpretive experiment trying to understand the memorable objects shared with us by the participants in two of our recent workshops — one centered on the future of work, involving former coal miners and tobacco farmers, assembled in Bowling Green, Kentucky and one exploring the future of faith with the congregation of a Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Our discussions of these memorable objects were shaped by recent work in anthropology and sociology that explores how humans map meaning onto their possessions, how our belongings often express a sense of belonging, how the exchange of things helps to shape our relations with other people in our lives. See, for example, Daniel Miller's The Comfort of Things, which we read and discussed as a group.  In this tradition, certain objects are seen as "telling" — that is, they yield stories that help us to better understand the people around us. When we are asked to show off things that are meaningful to us, we engage in a process of self-fashioning — we construct and perform our identities through the stuff we share (both the objects themselves and the emotional baggage they carry for us).

In these short and very personal essays, our graduate students engage with some of the object lessons which we gathered from our engagement with the people of Kentucky and Arkansas. Our students are writing here to and about people they have not met, people they only know through these stories about cherished objects. Given the contemporary political context, the temptation is to read these essays as pieces written from a very blue state — California — to the inhabitants of two red states. But, in practice, the situation is far more complex, since some of our group members were raised in the south (as I was) or in the rust belt, and thus these stories offer a glimpse into a world they have left behind, at least for the purposes of their education. And beyond this, the members of our research group come from varied other places — from Latin America to Eastern Europe — and thus find other cultural connections with the original tellers of these tales and possessors of these objects.

For our research group, this is a means of getting our intellectual juices flowing — a discovery process that we hope will yield further insights into the civic imagination. But we also hope that it is simply another stage in a longer communication process. We published some reflections on Medium late in the spring and I wanted to share them with my blog readers today