Ruin and The Other: Towards a Language Of Memory
A student of mine from New Zealand was doing a dissertation on Maori representation in the cinema a few years ago, selecting from among the most racist of Maori depictions to present to the Maori for their reaction. He was able to find an excellent example from one of the earliest films depicting Maori society in the most racist of terms. He was gently advised by the people of the New Zealand film industry that this selection was unwise to show to the Maori, owing to its extreme stereotyping and misrepresentation.
Nevertheless, he went ahead and showed the film. To everyone’s astonishment, the Maori “loved” the film. They were excited to see their ancestors, their costumes, rituals, the traditional sites of ceremonies, etc. The film’s racist overtones were simply discarded as an “excess” that they had no need for. Here, it seems, the Maori disregarded what had been so visible to the white New Zealanders, focusing instead on those aspects that reinforced their cosmology. For them, the film was no more than a confirmation of what they already knew.
What we see here is that, though this film, like many others, purports to tell a history, to build a history – a fixed history, when a different reading is applied to it, it immediately falls into ruin. The film has no vital relationship to history, but rather to memory which, it seems, is always a ruin – scattered, buried and invisible. The experience of seeing the film becomes, therefore, a continuation and, indeed, an excavation, of the archeology of one’s culture, of one’s cultural memory.
IMPRINT IN THE SAND
Another example: among native American Indians there is a custom where in healing ceremonies an elaborate sand painting is done, with meticulous detail and a great deal of meditation invested in it. This elaborate sand painting is then erased when it is finished, and a healing ceremony proceeds. The painting is a living history in the form of prayer. In this instance, we are being reminded that History does not live in the object, but lives in the culture. That the object has to be destroyed in order to be remembered is part of that culture. The sand painting cannot be objectified and cannot be preserved, like the marble and bronze monuments of Western history. To live, it must be ruined; it must become a memory. The central idea here is that what has been erased, made invisible, ruined, is also history. Any attempt to restore it or preserve it is paradoxically an attempt to erase history.
LIVING AMONG THE RUINS
Indeed, do we not, in restoring ruins, always engage in the erasure of history, of our cultural memory? What I am proposing, then, is that we must learn to live in the midst of ruin not literally, of course, but figuratively – i.e., amidst invisible ruins.
To live amidst the invisible ruins of cultural memory does not mean that we ourselves are ruined or lost. Rather it is these ruins which preserve, indeed constitute, our identities. All too often, oppressed peoples have defined themselves strategically as ruined, their identities have been tampered with or lost. There is a large difference between living among ruins and being ruined oneself. To live among ruin is to live on the margins; it is not necessary to be marginal. There is a qualitative distinction between the marginality that is imposed and the marginality that one consciously chooses. It is to live in, as bell hooks says, “a space of radical openness,” – a space that allows a sense of cultural identity, cultural memory, to be opened – not dosed, preserved or fixed.bell hooks, Yearning: Races, Gender, and Cultural Pohtics,(South End Press, Boston, MA, 1990), pp 22.
Indeed, ruins can be shared in a way that preservations can not. To restore a building, to preserve it, is to close it off, to make its walls and roots solid, to surround it with fences to protect it. We ask: protect it from what, from whom? Ruins, on the other hand, can be gotten into; they do not exclude, even though they may have been excluded, condemned and marginalized.
To live among ruins, then, is to exhibit a particular kind of identity, a particular kind of subjectivity – to recognize that we are various forms of subjectivities – that we never reach the “ends” of the subject, the end of our path: we are more like nomads. This subjectivity among the ruins and on the margins entails a sensitivity to the invisible, the ephemeral, to the spirits of one’s past, to the ghosts of one’s own memory. Was this not precisely the way in which the Beng defined their identity? Was it not the ghosts of their past that the Maori saw flickering between the frames of a racist film? The sand paintings of the Native Americans, like all prayers, are ephemeral; they slip into ruin, into memory, but they do not cease to exist. They remain, hovering and invisible; and it is around just such ineffable memorials that the Native Americans define themselves.
There is, I believe, a lesson here for notions of Black and other minority identities. The struggles to define a black, or African-American, or Chicano identity (or others) have too often been seen as attempts to overcome a lack of identity, an identity as oppressed and victimized, by achieving a fixed identity, as though “the Black subject” were a bronze statue to be built and preserved, fenced off and defended against vandals and thieves. This is not simply a question of “essentialism” vs. “relativism.” It is a question of a fixed, visible essence – the bronze statue – versus a more ephemeral – dare I say, more spiritual – essence – the sand painting, the spirits of the ancestors, cultural memory itself. It is these ephemeral ruins that we must learn to live among in order to define ourselves.
FLOATING SPACES/EPHEMERAL IMAGES
One way that people in the contemporary world talk about ruins is in terms of displacement. Nowadays, prior positions are increasingly regarded as empty structures, which can be occupied by floating subjectivities. We are thus dealing then with comprehensive and multiple spaces – spaces that are fragmented and overlapping, spaces that are always in flux. There is a global complexity that has never been the case before.
EXPEDITIONS INTO NOMADIC DISCOURSE
What do I mean by ruin? A ruin is not a frozen relic. I am not referring to a past stored in ruins, but a ruin that is mobile, shifting, nomadic. Ruin would allow a multiplicity of histories to converge and diverge at a particular site. Thus, the notion of ruin implies a fluidity and mobility of discourses.
Let me now apply this notion of ruin and preservation to narrative. Narrative takes events separated in time and space and strives to make them continuous. Cultural narratives are essentially attempts to preserve, to restore. Narratives and historiographies are about a past that is no longer there; that perhaps never was there. Narratives, then, always rely on the suppression of Otherness. In this regard poetry, which always deals with fragments, is unabashedly dependent on the concept of ruin. Narrative is less evocative of ruins than poetry or the poetics of film. Both are essentially dependent on ruins. Both deal with emotion, loss, the past, relying not so much on full or completed narratives but on collections of fragments. In this way, film and poetry can be considered as the archetype of a new kind of discourse which define the states of voice and image fragmentation. Thus they occupy the site of the ruin – a marginalized discursive space that might best be described as nomadic.
Here, nomadism refers to a state of mind with reference to a style of thinking and of signification. Moving through time and space along a varying path, this form of discourse rejects fixed positions. It is a form of discourse that does not accept the notion that there is only one narrative or one truth. The nomadic sensibility, as a form of discursive strategy, thus acknowledges and accepts undifferentiated histories and narratives. Because narratives are subject to ever-changing articulations and meanings, they too are always nomadic and transient. The issue here is therefore how narratives are transformed and how they become “set.” And when a narrative becomes “set,” when it is “preserved,” the question becomes: whose story is being preserved and whose is being erased?
The narrative-as-ruin partakes of the technique that makes things invisible. A good illustration is what happens in magic shows. The intention of the performer in a magic show is to create the illusion that the natural laws of reality have been suspended in order to induce in the audience a primitive fascination with the magician’s ability to control and create objects. Though the magician appears to be working miracles, all of the tricks are, in fact, accomplished through techniques which depend on speed, dexterity, and distraction. The magician draws the attention of the audience away from the site of the trick by producing activities elsewhere. This elsewhere is imperceptible by the innocent participant. Because the audience has been watching the magician’s hand flourishes and other such distractions, and is, at the same time, ignorant of the technique of the trick, the process of the trick proceeds invisibly. In this manner we can ascertain that the interest of any narrative always resides elsewhere.
What is invisible in a story is always the key site of the discourse of nomadism. The nomadic intervention in discourse attempts to shift the reading and viewing of a given text elsewhere, towards the margins, towards that silent space of ruin where various narratives encounter other narratives, where a marginal narrative can rewrite a dominant narrative and where several narratives overlap. The ruin is thus revealed to be that site of discourse where multifarious identities, memories, nostalgias, stories and experiences reside. These were once a source of personal sustenance, but now they disappear, like ghosts, into the mythic other as forms of personal and social imaginaries. Thus, ruin is best understood, as a field of mediation, that is, as a metaphor for an expedition into memory.
Let me tie these points together by ending as I began, with a story except this time I want to reach deep into the recesses of my own memory:
Over twenty years ago John Adair and Sol Worth, authors of Through Navajo Eyes, were engaged in an experiment with young Navajo who had not seen or used a motion picture camera before.Sol Worth & John Adair, Through Navajo Eyes, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, London, 1972). See Photo. #5 in the Photographic Section between pages 134 & 135. Their experiment was to find out whether film grammar was intrinsic to the apparatus or culturally learned. In other words, they were interested in finding out, what kind of filmic grammar would emerge, if you taught someone only the mechanics of filming with a motion picture camera and rudimentary editing techniques. When the filming had been completed, all the students screened their rushes. One particular shot in one film by a young Navajo especially struck me and it has since remained sealed in my memory. What follows is therefore my reaction, from memory, of a conversation about that particular shot that I presume took place between Sol Worth and the student.
Sol Worth : Why did you include this shot of the empty clearing on the ground?
Navajo boy : Well, it is important.
Sol Worth : But, there is nothing there, it is just dirt.
Navajo boy : Yes, but there was a snake there.
Sol Worth : I don’t understand, there is nothing now!
Navajo boy : But, it does not really matter, the snake was there before.
For the young boy, it was not necessary to shoot the actual snake but to film instead the actual image framed in his memory because the image nested in his memory was more valid than the pro-filmic event. Indeed, to the young Navajo the snake does not have to be there; the site still marks the place of meaning for him.
What I told you thus far is drawn from my memory of reading the cited book some 12 years ago. After I wrote these thoughts as herein described, I reread the book and the passage that triggered my memory. No sooner had I thought I spotted memory than I lost it. What I found in the book was very different from what I remembered. First, there was no dialogue between Sol Worth and the Navajo boy. Indeed, there was only a short description that served as a caption to a blurry image of the ground that I had completely forgotten. In other words, what I had remembered turned out to be not the text I thought I remembered but the image which had eclipsed it. What I had remembered was what I had read into the image and not what I had read into the text.
I now realize that in memory there is always a built-in ruin. Just as the Navajo student insisted on his memory-image, I too favor my remembered version. After all, when something is turned into an image, isn’t something sapped out of it, leaving behind the thing itself as ruin? For in the ruins of my memory, I – like that young man – had constructed an important, if shifting, narrative. This is not to say that my version is more true than what was actually in the book. Truth, is neither interior, nor exterior or objective. Telling “truth” is not telling it as one actually saw it but as one sees fit to tell it. Truth is constructed between these two tellings, in the ruined between site of memory. It is a site that is always elsewhere: enigmatic, shifting, nomadic. Yet, what is the relationship between ruin, memory and the image? The link is no more than an imprint in the sand – those shifting sands upon which lie the ruins among which we live. To live among ruins is therefore to live in a perpetual state of rehearsals – in a state of continuous screening of memory-images and memories of even those things, events, and peoples, who are long forgotten.
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|1.||↑||bell hooks, Yearning: Races, Gender, and Cultural Pohtics,(South End Press, Boston, MA, 1990), pp 22.|
|2.||↑||Sol Worth & John Adair, Through Navajo Eyes, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, London, 1972). See Photo. #5 in the Photographic Section between pages 134 & 135.|