At the end of the hallway in my childhood home was a linen closet with a white louver door. The afternoon sun sliced through its wooden slats, illuminating the bath towels and bedsheets stacked on its shelves. I’m familiar with the intimate ambience of this space because I spent a good bit of time there, in what I called my “poetry office.” I would kick out the vacuum and open the case of my grandfather’s Smith Corona typewriter, releasing the preserved smells of his basement study: mildew and sawdust and cigar smoke. In an afternoon shift amidst the linens, I wrote dozens of poems.
All of us, eventually, become the managers of our own distributed personal archives.
I still have some of that juvenilia, mixed up with decades of birthday cards and tax returns and handwritten letters, in the closet of my current home. On the shelf above: a shoebox of 3.5″ floppy disks, mixtapes, and DVDs (which I no longer own the equipment to access). Nearby: cameras and audio recorders, external hard drives and Time Capsules, assorted devices and cables obsolesced by Apple’s ever-evolving ports and plugs.
Maybe you have a closet like this, or an inconvenient drawer. Think of all the corporations and universities and municipal offices, the billions of closets hiding secret inventories. Old media accumulate for all kinds of reasons — nostalgia, ambivalence, data security, paranoia — and all of us, eventually, become the managers of our own distributed personal archives. We never know when we might need to access that data again. 1 Meanwhile, the detritus that Lisa Parks and Charles Aclund call “residual media” piles up in garages, thrift stores, and neighborhood electronics repair shops (themselves a “residual” enterprise), until some of it winds up in recycling and salvaging facilities. 2 Those spaces, too, are extensions of our closets. They move off-site and out of sight the abject and often hazardous labor of disposal and destruction.
Librarians and archivists comb thrift shops and flea markets to curate “closets” full of old technologies used to access legacy media formats: reel-to-reel tapes, wax cylinders, lantern slides, Atari cartridges. Some home closet archives yield vernacular records that end up in community archives and library collections, or in “found footage” media productions. 3 The first room-sized computers commanded their own closets, and the networking switches and cables are still hidden there, so it is fitting that the Computer History Museum began in 1975 in a converted coat closet in the lobby of Digital Equipment Corporation’s headquarters. 4 And today we secure digital files with encryption tools likened to virtual closets: FileVault, BitLocker, and VeraCrypt. (Should you find your stuff locked inside a CryptoLocker, you may have to pay a hacker’s ransom to get it back.)
Closets are also active, generative spaces where media are made, where imaginaries and anxieties are formulated.
For centuries, closets have enabled the collection, preservation, and suppression of missives and media-machines, files and folios. But they are more than that. Behind the doors, closets are also active, generative spaces where media are made, where imaginaries and anxieties are formulated, where knowledges and subjectivities are born and transformed.
“Wee do call the most secret place in the house appropriate vnto our owne priuate studies, and wherein wee repose and deliberate by deepe consideration of all our waightiest affaires, a Closet,” wrote Angel Day, the original English secretary, in 1592. 5 The closets of Early Modern Europe were private studies, media cabinets, epistemological architectures. In a private log, in 1556, Sir William Moore recorded the contents of his closet: “various maps, a writing slate, a perpetual calendar, a calculating board and a purse of counters, an ink stand, coffers, sets of weights and balances, a globe, scissors, seals, compasses, pens, a hammer, a penknife, a foot-rule, and a vast selection of texts in English, French, Italian, and Latin,” much of which was likely kept under lock and key. 6
Such spaces were preceded in the Quattrocentro by the Italian nobles’ studioli, elaborately decorated studies whose intricate intarsia and paintings represented humanistic values and the classical intellectual tradition. 7 Here, the man (and, on occasion, woman) of the house would meditate, read, write, and display his collection of art and antiquities. In other closeted spaces, he might consult the Holy Scripture and commune with God, as advocated by Matthew in the Gospel and by William Dawes in his Duties of the Closet (1695). 8 Yet God wasn’t the only company of the closet-dweller. His confidantes and secretaries — those with whom he shared his textual treasures and secrets (sometimes of an erotic variety) — were granted entry, too. “To a Closet,” Day quipped, “there belongeth properly, a doore, a locke and a key; to a Secretorie, there appertaineth incidently, Honestie, Troth, and Fidelitie.” 9 The closet and its textual contents mediated these human relations.
The newly subservient closet obscured itself by receding into the wall, and it attempted to ‘disappear’ the family’s stuff.
Closets and cabinets and studioli, tucked away in the innermost parts of the house, were “at the heart of a traditional, secretive ethos of knowledge production and exchange.” 10 Here, as in my mom’s linen closet, private media were produced: “letters, poems, fiction, and drama were written and read in closets, and apothecaries, midwives, and experimental philosophers kept special manuals and equipment in theirs.” 11 And new printed forms — self-consciously revelatory collections — adopted the closet (or, rather, its opening-up to the public) as their model. Texts like The Cabinet Open’d, Or the Secret History of the Amours of Madam de Maintenon, With the French King (1690) and The Golden Cabinet of true Treasure: Containing the summe of Morall Philosophie (1612) un-secreted closet knowledge and ushered in a new “discloseted” intellectual culture.
With the rise of industrialism and home consumer goods, closets became storage spaces for clothing, personal effects, and household equipment — boxes, glasses, pots, bottles, jugs, conserve jars, and so forth. 12 They took on specialized identities, too: the dressing room, the study, the library, the gallery. 13 Yet according to Henry Urbach, the closet as a “new spatial type,” a wall cavity adjacent to a proper room, did not emerge until around 1840 in the United States. The newly subservient closet obscured itself by receding into the wall, and it attempted to “disappear” the family’s stuff. Now householders could relish in consumption and enjoy their material possessions, while also moderating the objects’ display and maintaining a semblance of frugality and moral propriety. The “non-room” closet housed things (and gluttonous vices) “that threaten[ed] to soil the room” (and the family’s reputation). 14
As consumption increased in postwar America, storage became ever more critical for managing clutter, particularly the intrusion of new media devices. Home economics experts were happy to supply advice. In 1953, the Small Homes Council recommended that families use their living room closets to store books, magazines, business papers, desk supplies, radios, record players, and records, along with table linens, dinnerware, musical instruments, and a card table and folding chairs. 15 George Nelson’s Storagewall system, introduced in the mid-’40s, was designed for “active storage” for everyday objects and equipment necessitating instant retrieval and use. Along with the built-in radio and speakers, the record player drawer, the bookshelves and magazine racks, the foldout desk and paperwork cubbies, it had closets for games and a wet bar. In later versions, the wall incorporated television sets, movie projectors, and hi-fi systems. But in all of its incarnations, the Storagewall, like the studioli and wunderkammern before it, “put media objects into a discursive network with one another, as well as with other decorative objects in the house.” It was an interface between domestic technologies, epistemological forms, and human subjects. 16
Nelson recommended that mementos and archival (i.e., “inactive”) media either be discarded or “stored behind a wall and out of sight.” 17 Thus, the postwar home, Lynn Spigel argues, became a “space of bureaucratic storage rather than a space of family memory.” 18 Despite (or perhaps because of) his own proclivity for collection, Andy Warhol argued for a similarly minimalist, ascetic approach to media-storage:
I believe that everyone should live in one big empty space… I like the Japanese way of rolling everything up and locking it away in cupboards. But I wouldn’t even have cupboards, because that’s hypocritical. But if you can’t go all the way and you really feel you need a closet, then your closet should be a totally separate piece of space so you don’t use it as a crutch too much. If you live in New York, your closet should be, at the very least, in New Jersey. Aside from false dependency, another reason for keeping your closet a good distance from where you live is that you don’t want to feel you’re living next door to your own dump. 19
Yet such preferences are not universal. Most closets are still stuffed with nostalgia. They host living archives and serve as sites for the active construction of knowledge and memory. Anthropologist Nicolette Makovicky tells of how, in many Central Slovakian homes, the family linen closet is “a repository of the most intimate objects of family history.” These closeted collections of weddings gifts, heirlooms, and handicrafts mediate between generations. For even as they commemorate past lives and promise a legacy for the future, they allow present caretakers the pleasures of curating and activating these collections, as they continually starch, fold, stack, and add new items to the piles. These textiles, Makovicky says, “contain a certain type of knowledge” about family “which is not only documented by the nature of the material, but is also felt to be true as each piece is taken out, handled, and used.” 20 While Nelson might have relegated such materials to the attic or the dump, here, in Central Slovakia, and in countless other homes around the world, heirlooms function as active media. They stitch together histories and genealogies and narratives. They transform memory into an interior architecture; the closets’ contents are, to quote Walter Benjamin, “a past become space.”
That is how I remember my own linen closet. Its intimacy allowed the boxed-up smells of my grandfather’s basement to mingle with the fresh aromas of line-dried linen. Its textural topology encompassed both the spare pillows stuffed up on the top shelf, and the delightfully clunky mechanics of the old typewriter. It was an active space for the making of media, memories, and identities. There, I was a six-year-old poet laureate.
In the closet, we work through our resolutely unbinary identities.
The closet has long been a fraught metaphor. Its “binary logic” of inside/outside, public/private, subject/object, has reified reductive models of fixed sexual identity and suggested that certain “skeletons” need to be contained. 21 Yet the closet has never been merely a space for storing inert objects and suppressing secrets. It’s also been a site of creation, transformation, and mediation. Our closets incubate epiphanies, dreams, and fears. Where the “past becomes space,” the new paranoias of a digital age are here embodied in legacy media. All those old floppy disks and hard drives represent a precariously immaterial history, reassuringly stabilized in object-form. And when our outmoded machines sit on a shelf, we defer their encounter with workers at e-waste dumps in the developing world. Our closets are where we remind ourselves that our virtual bits have material form, that our digital present has a geologic past and future, that we could be audited next year, that we never did save those vacation photos to the cloud. They’re where we work through our resolutely unbinary identities and acknowledge that our selves are archived across a collection of objects belonging to different places and times.