October The Twelfth was inspired by the collective work of Mass Observation, an English social research organization founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, surrealist poet Charles Madge, and surrealist painter Humphrey Jennings. Mass Observation was interested in documenting the everyday life of different individuals in Britain. On May The Twelfth 1937, the day of the Coronation of King George VI, Mass Observation had a panel of volunteers, formed of ordinary English citizens, to answer a collection of questionnaires. In addition to the volunteer panel, Mass Observation had paid investigators record in fine detail public interactions, conversations, and observed physical and verbal behavioural patterns in public places in England. These diaries, which did not have the specificity of answering questions, were written by 500 British men and women, and were sent monthly to Mass Observation. Compared to the questionnaires, the diary entries vary immensely in form and content. After May The Twelfth, Mass Observation spent much time filing all of the received data into 3000 long reports organized thematically – reactions to the news, reactions of the war, levels of happiness and depression, home front morale, etc. These long files were further edited and published in the form of books. Between 1937-1950, Mass Observation published twenty-four books.
As a class, we wanted to record the everyday lives of students on an ordinary fall day at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec. Thursday, October The Twelfth, was a mundane day on campus and around town – there were no international or national events blaring through every radio and television speaker on campus, nor was there a communal event of relevant size in Lennoxville. The town was quiet, the leaves were beginning to change colour, and the air was cool under a pale blue sky. The only school-affiliated event directed towards students was the “Happy-Hour” at the campus bar at night, which takes place every Thursday. Even then, only a tiny fraction of students actually showed up or gave the bar though.
By emulating a similar data-collection format as Mass Observation, we hoped to provide our audience with a glimpse of the similarities and individual differences among students. To collect the data, the class was divided into four groups, each focusing on a different aspect of the individual life – home, leisure, dream, and school. Similar to Mass Observation’s surveys, each group came up with a set of six to eight questions which guided every student in the class to write four diary entries. Some questions were more basic and straightforward, while some demanded a higher level of introspection. The students were encouraged not to answer the questions in point form, nor did they have to answer the questions directly. The diary entries were then collected, analyzed and arranged by each group to create an effect – whether to evoke a theme, common thread, or pure abstraction.
Some of the recurring themes across the categories were isolation, individuality and collectivity, which all relate to each other. There was a struggle between the three; when people were alone, they were thinking of others; when they were with others, they either felt alienated or desired to be alone; there seemed to always be a feeling of wanting what one did not have momentarily. The similar feeling of isolation was prevalent within a crowd and became more apparent in the school diary entries. As students in Lennoxville, our campus is where we interact or are surrounded by the largest amount of people, whom we do not all necessarily know. Dreaming, on the other hand, is a solitary activity that happens in the mind, even if one is sharing the platform on which they are sleeping with someone else. Dreaming resembles thinking in the sense that it happens internally and silently, but compared to thinking which happens in crowds, dreaming is not a conscious act of internalizing the external world before our eyes. However, a collective group of people largely impacted the student’s dreams; they dreamed about friends, family, popular icons, and even strangers. The home entries conveyed the essential need for a private space, which was most notably the “room of one’s own”. While most people shared their living space, it was a common desire to escape to their personal space (room) to tame the buzzing of the outside world, which gave rise to public isolation. Interestingly though, the private space not only reduced the feelings of isolation, but also incorporated all forms of school, dreams, and leisure. Students desire the private space to do their homework at peace, to dream, and to do some of their leisure activities – write, read, scroll the internet, or numb the mind.
Another underlying theme, which closely relates to the previous need for privacy, is the desire to “numb” the mind or to distract one’s self from school or their peers. In many of the Leisure entries, participants spoke of their activities as mindless, straying from activities that required great dedication or effort of the mind because they felt that their energy was already preoccupied with school-related activities. Many students also refrained from deeply analyzing their dreams, perhaps hoping not to face darker themes or feelings they were attempting to suppress. This either had to do with the lack of energy they had leftover from their school work, or from a deep introspective realization that came from the multiple questions posed. School was the biggest stress for all students; this was the aspect of their lives that led to the need for a mindless distraction.
The diary entries are all anonymous and the order in which the student’s entries are presented are different from category to category. If the blending of entries suggests a large collective that all students are a part of, than perhaps it is because large groups are formed of individual worlds. All the individual notions of selves and our notions of other people’s selves are always present, but reside in the mind.
Do these individual diary entries of the self conveyed through language represent one collective self?