This began as a series of jokes about Clifford Geertz which I would now ask everyone here to take seriously as we consider what thiccness would mean for archival description.
In the interest of supplying you, reader, with sufficient context to understand a human interaction from which you’ve been alienated by distance, technology, or other means, here first is a link, and then screenshots follow.
In the post-MPLP age, we archivists spend a lot of time going back and forth about describing collections. We all agree — apart from a few heretics I’ve encountered who think that a biographical note for anyone is a form of hagiography and so we should therefore just not write them, etc. — that baseline contextualization of collections matters, and that the kind of description we’re most familiar with, which I’m going to call ripped description, is the way of the past. But I’m not sure we’ve theorized a good alternative. Something between description as an archivist’s performance of superior knowledge and mastery, and something utterly skimpy and skinflinty.
Geertz, as near as I understand, and I’m not terribly learnèd on this score, conceived of thick description as a narrative practice in anthropology, where close observation of human activity provides the reader with intimate understanding of the context of the activity. Here’s a parody of Geertz watching me ride my bicycle to work:
“The rider accouters himself in gloves, open at the second knuckle, of breathable fiber, with kevlar pads covering the entrance to the carpal tunnel designed to mitigate the shock of bearing his weight on his hands and to prevent breakage in case of planting the hands in an accident; with a rudimentary helmet which would be of no assistance in a dire crash but is required by law and custom, and the absence of which would open to rider to scorn from others in the community; and a backpack of weatherproof buckram, which shields the rider in a backborne skid, but does more to signal to other riders that the rider is expert and an elder in the urban bicyclists’ environment[…]”
And I haven’t gotten on the bicycle yet. You see how this can take a while.
Thickness, as overabundance or superfluity, or the dream of same, has been in style ever since our starving forebears had a crop failure and turned to sculpting stone female figures instead of umm I guess just starving. Thickness is the wish-fulfillment fantasy which overcompensates for mere satisfaction. In the Land of Cockaigne, everything is thick. A real encounter with this imaginary is of course baffling to think about — human appetites cannot contend with whatever thick spirit animates the Venus of Willendorf, with her innumerable beaded blind eye-busses; real appetites can’t handle pigs with knives ported in them, and so on. Thick description, in archives, would exceed simulacral description — even beyond the kind of moot description which replaces the archival item itself with an exact replica, thick description would demand contextualizing every line of the text, or commenting on the composition of every image, and situating those commentaries among other commentaries. Shit gets Biblical, fast.
I haven’t plotted these on an axial chart (YET, MY GOOD >BICHES< NOT YET) like the deranged Claude Levi-Strauss stan that I am, so let's just say elsewhere in our field there lies ripped description. As a reminder, here are the only two genders that there are:
The ripped, like the thick, is a form of excess, but rather than emerging from myth or the imaginary, it is the product of self-flagellating labor in the realm of the real. Getting ripped is a public performance of labor on the body, and ripped description is the same, on the archival corpus. The description that we lament, that which does more to demonstrate an archivist’s having leveled-up or attained mastery of his subject than it does to invite the archive’s reader into its secrets, is hella ripped.
Opposed to the ripped and the thick, I offer thicc description. Thiccness as we seem to be using it right now in the year of our lord 2017 is a diminution or imitation of the truly thick — Trina is not pulling over just any old thiccness — but let’s consider thicc description here as an intermediate practice, somewhere between skinflint description and fully living into the actual experiences of creator-entities. Thicc description should proceed from the idea that users do not profit from master-knowledge of the collections — Geertz-level stuff is automatically alienating, it prompts even from those of us who write this junk an instant “That’s great and no one will ever read it all.” Thicc description must however be about more than providing elementary nourishment to users — thiccness provides unanticipated thrills. Such description should relay the charged moments in a creator-entity’s life, the actions and beliefs that made the creator-entity valuable enough to land in an archives. Thicc description understands that research in archives is about jouissance, rather than need (I mean, okay, this is a claim that needs a citation, but apart from journalists poring over state records, who among our power users is doing research for fact-finding rather than sense-making? How often do our holdings spur more questions than they settle?) and it leads users, it goads them on, from kick to kick.
This is barely half an idea, so I’ll close with a short story. I was in the record store the other day, selling shit, and there was a tween lad who came to the counter after browsing and bravely — and yet, this is not the 1990s, and no one is shitty about scenes and culture anymore, right? — asked the shopkeep:
“Do you have any recommendations in punk?”
“Well, what sort of stuff are you into?”
“Well, we got the Ramones right there, can’t go wrong with the Ramones. Or wait, here–”
He hands the kid Buzzcocks first LP,
“Listening station is right there my dude.”
I told him he was doing God’s work right there — directing a user from the merely nutritive punk, to the radically enlightening. A thicc reference encounter. I only wish I’d stuck around for when they got to real teenage kicks.