Events · On Writing · Writing Life

Mass Observation – Let The 2020 Archive Begin?

This is why reading is soooo very important – it enlightens us in ways that are necessary for our ability to remember. Last night, I started reading ‘The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir’ by Jennifer Ryan. It’s a story about the reformation of a choir in small town England during World War II. (It’s much more, but that’s the log line!) Some magical things to point out: a) I have no idea how I got this book. Did I buy it long ago? Did someone give it to me? I don’t know. b) I started reading it as an ‘escape’ from this wild reality we’re living through. How bizarre is it that an escape into a world war is an escape?! The implications of what we’re doing to cope with our current reality is mind-boggling. 3)I learned about a happening called ‘Mass Observation’ – the writing down/recording of ‘real-life’ experiences of ‘ordinary people’.

Mass Observation (from ‘Mass Observation 75 years on: the extraordinary in the everyday’ by Benjamin Jones, The Guardian)

Mass Observation was founded 75 years ago [this article was written in 2012] in 1937 by the South African poet, communist and journalist Charles Madge and two English eccentrics: the filmmaker and polymath Humphrey Jennings and the anthropologist and self-publicist Tom Harrisson. Formed in the aftermath of the abdication crisis, Mass Observation sought to bridge the gap between how the media represented public opinion and what ordinary people actually felt and thought.

This was done by taking the then-novel step of asking them. Mass Observation asked people to keep diaries, record their dreams and respond to questions on anything from public love-making and Neville Chamberlain to newspaper horoscopes and the rise of fascism.

I was struck by the existence of this…and immediately felt compelled to write about it. The truth is that with the many layers of social media, we are already participating in a form of mass observation. Videos from Italy of people playing music from their balconies, memes of self-isolation jokes, virtual options for everything from meetings to art classes to dancing…we’re definitely a collection of ‘ordinary people’ sharing our observations about the COVID 19 pandemic. Is it akin to a world war?

That’s a tricky question… I certainly don’t want to ignite this comparison/conversation. No, my intention is for us to consider how our ‘observations’ have changed over time – from how we observe to how we share these observations. Folks in the 30s-60s, wrote diaries and letters to record their feelings and facts about what they were experiencing. It’s 2020, and the media is a robust as ever – reaching into personal forms of social media and personal observation like never before. It feels sometimes like there is no line between ‘media’ and ‘me’. It all gets rolled into the ‘scrolling’ of ‘news’.

What are you doing to record your personal experience with this pandemic? If you’re home from work – how does that make you feel? If you’re home from work but still need to work? How is that going? I keep seeing posts/videos about not being able to get work done as at-home life is just too full of challenges from kids to pets to domestic duties. How are you managing food? Money? Time? Sleep? Friendships? Is this heightening your libido or making it drop? Are you communicating more with family or less?

There is no doubt that as this virus sweeps the planet, we are all feeling differently about ‘life’ than we did before…and perhaps, if you’re like me, somewhat unsure of actual feelings…I am distracted by this kind of blankness – is it the fear of the unknown? I am having trouble prioritizing. How can I work on planning classes/workshops/events when I don’t know when we’ll be able to have/attend them? I have anxiety about going to the grocery store – which I had before, but it’s shifted from an ‘ugh, I don’t want to do groceries’ to ‘oh no…we need toilet paper and there isn’t any. do I have hand sanitizer? I can’t touch anything…will there be a lot of people? I should go alone…’ and on and on.

I’m writing in my journal every day. Mostly facts about what’s unfolding. And lines and lines of ‘what the hell is happening to me? Our world? And existential questions like: is this a cosmic occurrence forcing humanity to stop, pay attention, respond, reflect and evolve? I keep writing: I don’t know, I don’t know – over and over.

And so, friends, how will how we record what’s happening now affect our future? The near and the far? Should we be consciously preserving our responses to what’s happening? If so, how? Should we collectively ‘name’ our observations and gather them in some special archive?


2 thoughts on “Mass Observation – Let The 2020 Archive Begin?

  1. I just went to my library web-site and ordered Jennifer Ryan’s novel. Thank you for the recommendation!


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