On a Scholar’s Office

So at work today I was charged with the task of packing up the decorative/non-book objects in Iris Young‘s office in Pick Hall (briefly – she was a professor of political theory at Chicago and passed away in August).  As I don’t do political theory, I wasn’t familiar with her name/work prior to coming here, and the timing was such that I didn’t get to meet her in person, which made the experience probably easier, but no less thought-provoking.

For one thing, it reminded me of a Laurie Anderson quote (as thought-provoking things tend to do):

“When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.”  ~ from “World Without End”

The shelves full of books, the now-empty cabinets once full of unpublished manuscripts and notes and other papers, and the piles of unopened journal issues drove this point home.

For another thing, it was an interesting but odd experience of trying to maintain some degree of reverence (at least respect – reverence is probably too strong a word) when handling this person’s clearly treasured objects – photo frames and souvenirs from travels and gifts, probably a combination of those things.  Of course the issue of handling the objects themselves with care involving packing them away so they wouldn’t break in transit; but in a less physical way, “handling them with care” meant wondering what significance they had, who the people in the photographs were, how she had acquired them.

Then there was the odd feeling of being an intruder in another person’s space – particularly a respected professor in a space, the professor’s office, where usually the student/visitor has very little freedom to explore (other than glancing at the book walls perhaps searching for familiar or interesting titles).  I sat at her desk and threw out bent paperclips and a plastic spoon; I organized her business cards and bound them in a rubber band, giving the desk more order than it had likely had during her tenure in the office; I moved around papers and books at will into piles organized only by general categories of “printed and published matter” and “printed Emails or handwritten matter”; I carefully pulled down comics cut from newspapers and put them in an envelope with loose photographs and a house key and a button.  And it wasn’t so much that my odd feeling of being an intruder came from, say, reading all the Emails or somehow delving into the contents of all the papers, which I did not do, not having the time – and much more importantly, the authority – to do that.  It was more the fact that I was there at all, moving these things that weren’t mine, boxing up souvenirs of someone else’s past.  And I thought, “Well, this must happen whenever someone in a company dies and therefore can’t clean out their own workspace.”  But for some reason I thought that the scholar’s office, such as hers, was a more personal space than, say, a cubicle with a few picture frames and a Dilbert here and there.  (And anyone who actually has an academic position and an office can certainly correct me if this isn’t true – but I’m thinking of the professors with walls of books and have been installed there for 10-20-more years).  The number of books, set up like a haphazard personal library, and all the other mementos around made it feel – not like home, but like more than just an office.  A space where someone thinks meaningful thoughts.  And surely that’s got to be kind of a special place for someone.

Anyway, I guess that’s all I have to say on that – especially since, as I mentioned, I have/had no personal connection to Young and therefore the task offered a chance for intellectual, but not really emotional, reflection.  But I had to wonder, was handling these objects anything like trying to read personal papers/content, as if I had started reading all the Emails and letters on her desk?  I suppose not really, since I can’t recover any information or meaning from them, but still.  An odd experience.

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