Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Amputated Memories

Places bear traces of memory for those who inhabit them. In the absence of place, these memories remain beyond recollection.  Aleida Assmann [Cultural Memory and Western Civilization, Cambridge University Press, 2011] writes: “Even if places themselves have no innate faculty of memory, they are of prime importance for the construction of cultural memory. Not only do they stabilize and authenticate the latter by giving it a concrete setting, but they also embody continuity”.  Removed from places that could stabilize their collective memory, the exiled, the trafficked, the economic migrants and entire groups fleeing from conflict, face a discontinuity that is difficult to bridge. Their new homes, their new streets and cities are not conducive to remembering. At the most, descendants of uprooted communities create substitute spaces - places of commemoration. But commemoration replaces what is being remembered, it marks the end of continuity.  Commemoration marks absence.

Anthroplogist Paul Connerton [ How Modernity Forgets, Cambridge University Press, 2009] brilliantly argues that “the locus [of memory] is more important than the memorial.”  The memorial is a deliberate work, born out of a fear of forgetting.  It calls out for attention to its explicit message. A simple, inattentive glance at a memorial is not enough. Otherwise, as Connerton, summarizing Robert Musil, says: “nothing is more invisible than a memorial”.  Likewise, memorials conceal as well as trigger memory, especially war memorials which “conceal the past as much as they cause us to remember it.”  This is because of the partiality of their representation of the past. After all, “their image is designed specifically to deny acts of violence and aggression. They conceal the way they died: the blood, the bits of body flying through the air, the stinking corpses lying unburied for months, all are omitted.” 

Connerton argues that, on the other hand, the house and the city street both provide powerful loci of memory.  The house is a “memory device” or an “aide-memoire”, a medium of representation and, as such, can be read effectively as a mnemonic system.”  The house, or home, is a mnemonic structure that has a certain taken-for-grantedness until a house-moving or, worse, a fire or war deprives one of one’s house. Even the furnishings within the home “remind us of the shared history and the body” , while on a larger scale the city street forms, over time, “a web of contacts and memories that eventually lead to a web of public trust.”

My father's chair
Allow me two personal examples. Firstly: at the age of 18 I left the house that I had lived in since shortly after birth. At the same time I left my family, my city and my country, never to return for any extended period of time. Over the decades that passed I have infrequently returned. At each visit I am confronted by an old armchair in the kitchen, made by my father with his own hands. When I sit on this armchair, even now, despite its imperfections and discomfort (or perhaps because of these) I am transported back to the times when, as a teenager, I sat there with Misty, my cat, on my lap and rooted behind a cushion and under a cushion to find the lose pages of newspapers that my father had stuck here. This memory comes to me with immediate force, like a Proustian involuntary memory, and it brings to me the almost physical presence of my father, who died nearly thirty years ago in that very room. Such is the power of the house and its furnishings as a locus of memory. Walter Benjamin [Illuminations, Random House, 20111] would describe the room as having an aura – “If we designate as aura the associations which, at home in the memoire involuntaire, tend to cluster around the object of a perception”.  In this particular case, the aura is made stronger because my father made the old armchair (it is why it is so uncomfortable!) and it therefore bears what Benjamin calls “traces”.

Secondly: aged 18, I worked for some time in southern France, together with labourers who were Irish, Arab, Chinese and Latin American.  Months later I moved to Paris. One day I was approaching a green newspaper kiosk on Boulevard Saint Michel, at the point where the broad avenue crests the hill at the large intersection outside the Jardin de Luxembourg, when I happened to run into a Venezuelan who I had worked with down south. We stopped and chatted amicably for ten minutes of so. Now, whenever I am in Paris, which is at least once a year, and I happen to walk by this intersection (the Luxembourg Gardens are obviously still there, the cafes and shops have perhaps changed, but the intersection seems to be as it was then, even the green newspaper kiosk still remains) I recall running into my Venezuelan acquaintance. Most importantly, the memory is almost physical – I can almost feel what I felt then, aged 18 – and it invariably stimulates scores of other memories of happy encounters I had on the streets of Paris during the late 1970s.

These two examples demonstrate the remarkable importance of the role of place in personal memory. Memory is not simply triggered by place, it is triggered by place because that which is remembered happened in place, was emplaced. We say that events take place. In fact events take place in place. The event takes place within a topography that is sensed, that has become meaningful and that is appropriated by ones identity – not only the event has been lived but the place too has been lived.

Therefore, to lose the place can be catastrophic, for one’s memory and one’s self-identity. To be unable to return, as is the case often with political refugees, can provoke profound sadness. Connerton formulates this well: “As I know my way around the limbs of my body, as a pianist knows her way around her piano, as I know my way around my own house, so I know my way around the paths, landmarks and districts of my city” and to lose one’s way around one’s limbs “is tearfully distressing, an aching catastrophe” but so too, to lose one’s way around one’s house or city “would be a defamiliariztion that would shake my very being.”

How greater the catastrophe therefore, for memory, when an entire social or ethnic group, through forced trans-location, lose their houses and their cities, the primary loci of their memories, and instead, find themselves transported to a new, alien world that knows nothing of their former homes and towns and, furthermore, demonstrates only a profound disinterest in their past, their experiences and their memories. Such people's  memories have been amputated.


  1. Memorials do not _conceal_ memory. They may fail to _preserve_ memory after the first generation (that is, the parents of the young soldiers) has died. Unless our own grandfather died in the trenches in France or Belgium, I doubt we would be able to name a single young man mentioned on the dozens of memorials in our own city.

    So what was the point in pouring scarce public money into memorials in 1919? In the first instance to give the grieving parents somewhere to go, since their sons' bodies were never returned to their home countries. But also to explain to others why we conscripted young men to go abroad, to kill and be killed, in the name of some elusive values like king, country, freedom from oppression etc.

    Does it work? Not only some individual peoples' memories are amputated; some nations' memories are too.

    1. Thanks Hels. I think memorials are ambiguous. I was raised in a city that had a huge memorial statue on the main street. The entire area became known locally as "The Statue". All lines had a stop at "The Statue". When meeting friend downtown, the easiest was to say , Let's meet opposite the statue". But did I ever actually really look at the statue? No, not really. Could I describe the face on the statue? No. What was meant to preserve a memory simply became an instrument for orientation. I think most memorials morph in this way. War memorials are the worst. They quickly become politicized and are used to support our heroes today - usually support our heroes as they fight a war in somebody else's country. The memorialization of the past is a substitution for the critical study of the past and in this sense conceals the past I think.

  2. Yes, re your statue. Understood!

    Continuing with WW1 for the moment, If memorialisation of the past is a substitution for the critical study of the past, then what would have happened had we not memorialised WW1?

  3. I don't think anyone can say with any justification what would have happened had we not memorialized WW1. But I do think the critical study of WW1 and the memorialization of WW1 are two very different, and even sometimes contradictory processes. Wearing a poppy in November might give the impression that one is "remembering" those who fell in WW! (though I have my doubts about that), but it in no way whatsoever helps one to critically understand the nature of warfare or the causes of WW1 or the reasons why the Central Powers lost. This is not to mention the fact that memorialization has become deeply politicicised to the extent that a BBC presenter (Jon Snow) who refuses to wear a poppy receives hate-mail and even life threats. And memorialization itself has a history, it doesn't stand outside of history. When it comes to WW1, it is seemsclear that what is being remembered today is the same thing that was being remembered in the 1920s, as outlined by Jay Winter of Yale University in his "Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History" (Canto, 1998). As he says, memorialization has a "life-history" and it is easily manipulated or adapted to "particular purposes", including, for the powers that be "establishing the legitimacy of their rule". I belief such is the case with WW1 in Britain where officialdom is obligated to participate in memorialization in order to lend support to our current 'heroes' who are risking their lives carrying out invasions in various countries in the Middle East.

  4. I enjoyed your post, and agree, mostly, with what you say, although as I'm sure you know well, there is much more to say. I posted an article on my blog recently that I think dovetails nicely with what you have written here. The basic question I ask is how memory functions on a macro-level when "place" has been over-run by "space".

    Here is the link:

    All the best.

    1. Hi Taylor, Thanks for your comment and you link. your blog looks fascinating. I have had just a quick look, but will have to return for a more leisurely perusal. Funny you should mention about place and space, as I've just been writing about that, inspired mainly by Marc Auge. More later.