“The actuality of our layered experience is multiplicative. Multiply each of my parts together, one X one X one X one X one, and you have one indivisible being. If you divide one of these parts from one you still have one.”
– Adriene Katherine Wing, “Brief Reflections Toward a Multiplicative Theory and Praxis of Being”
Firestone’s Milberg Gallery is not a large space (a decently sized dorm suite probably has the same floor space), but, while the Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory exhibition is up, you could spend days in it. The exhibit is extraordinarily dense, filled with an awe-inspiring amount of detail to pour over: the walls and display cases are practically papered over with Morrison’s personal papers, each by itself a text worthy of intensive reading. The relatively small space creates an intimate atmosphere; beyond authorial voice in the texts, visitors can literally hear Morrison’s voice no matter where they are in the space because a video interview of her is constantly playing in the background. Viewing Morrison’s ephemera, from letters to editors and other contemporary black feminists to drafts of now famous novels scrawled on legal pads, one feels like they are really seeing Morrison through these glimpses and fragments.
While there is much to say about the actual contents of these papers, the very fact that they compose Sites of Memory is also worth thinking about. Studies of literature are often hyper-focused on the end product, endlessly dissecting the great texts which represent sheer acts of genius that can be made canonical. The exhibit is not directly about Morrison’s canonical texts themselves, but instead focuses on the drafting process that produced them. This reflects the fact that Morrison also placed significance on her drafting as lead curator Autumn Womack noted in Vogue coverage of the exhibit. “It seems to me that she was someone who kept everything,” Womack told Vogue. “She saved every single draft. [That] was really part of her process.” This importance of the draft underlies all of the exhibit. It seems to be telling visitors that we cannot separate the books she wrote from the drafting which produced them.
Emphasizing the draft offers a compelling way of thinking about Morrison and art generally seeing works as constituted just as much by the minor details of the processes that produced them as by the cohesive whole. This applies just as much to how the exhibit thinks about Morrison herself as to how it thinks about her work: The exhibition text, Morrison’s letters, and her interview, give a sense of the details, large and small, that made the person behind the cultural image of the genius author. The exhibit seems to ask us to see Morrison just as much in the draft, whether a literal written draft or a fragment of life which shaped her work, as in that totalizing image of her final product and her persona. While the exhibit clearly values Morrison’s published work, it perhaps asks us to also see how that value extends beyond the clear delineation of the covers of a book.
What would it mean to take up this emphasis on the draft in our lives, to have a politics of drafting? That is, what would it mean to value every part of our experience, all those moments equivalent to scrawled notes in the margins of a legal pad which contribute to our whole self? To attend not just to final products, but to see them as indivisible from the processes which produce them? These are not merely questions of how literature is studied, but also fundamental questions about how and where we assign value. These are the profound questions which the exhibit’s close attention to Morrison’s process invites us to consider, making it important for all to see, not just those already invested in those final products.
Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory is on view in Firestone’s Milberg Gallery until June 4th, 2023. Admission is free and open to the public.