The Labour of Memory

by Shruti Iyer

9 November 2015

Two sites, both in Delhi, one seen and the other unseen:

I was taken to Gandhi Smriti once, maybe when I was eleven. Certainly too young to appreciate museums. I was hungry, also bored. But I fell silent at the path where there were stone footprints laid out on the ground. Maybe I thought they were like the ones my grandmother might have made on the floor of our house for Krishna Janmashtami. I looked at the stone footprints, tracing them with my eye all the way to the commemorative structure: this is where he fell. Somebody made the choice to approximate each of his last steps – to remember the weight of a human considered worth remembering. Blocks of stone the shape of a foot: each footprint in memoriam of his last.

And, Bhanu Kapil telling us of her visit to the site where Jyoti Singh Pandey – or Damini, or Nirbhaya – was thrown off a bus, where she sustained the injuries she would later die from: “Nothing can happen here today, I realize, and also: nothing is here. I had imagined flowers and graffiti, as per the memorials at the Munirka bus stand, where Pandey boarded the bus – where – she was [would be]: decimated. But there’s nothing here, at the place where she was thrown from the bus […]”

Nothing here. At the place she was thrown.

I do not contrast these to imply similarity between them, but to wonder what makes for a site of remembrance, and what it is we want to make legible when we construct memorials. How do we remember? What do we memorialise? Do we commemorate the moment they last stood – or the place they boarded a bus – as a memory of them as we would like to remember, that is easier to preserve? What sites become memorable, which wars become memorable, and how?

Or is a bullet wound easier to imagine while watching the unmoving air over the place where a man was once shot? Is it harder to memorialise other wounds (not war wounds), and would memorialising those be considered a disservice to the dead? Are those details reserved for what makes for news stories: high enough on the hierarchy of the nation’s grief to count, where many other women may not have, but not so high as to escape an aversive fascination?

To remember the dead is always an exercise in the unmaking and remaking of a figure, to evacuate one thing and put another in its place. It is also an exercise in future-making: an odd kind of reproductive futurism, to use the term loosely. We remember the past in order to make a certain kind of future possible, imaginable, redeemable: memory as a loose wire, circuiting conceptions of the present and the future. Memory-work, the labour of memory, is done to produce. If this is true, it is worth asking what our collective memory is producing, for whom, and what place mourning has in this process.

Remembrance as invocation of the past – in poppies, or coloured ribbons or bands – seems markedly different than the images of bodies that saturate our media landscapes. The poppy or ribbon might act as an image or memento to invoke another image: of the broken, the wounded, and the dead. In marked contrast are the bodies of the victims of today’s wars, the bodies of those in the Global South, the bodies of the non-white, who are rarely granted the shroud of metaphor or allegory. Instead, their images – as broken, shot, wounded, injured, grieving – appear unmediated on print and screen. Unsieved through memory to extract compassion and momentary outrage. These bodies are rendered more vulnerable, less likely to be mourned, more likely to represented without protection. Their distribution tracks geopolitical power or the accumulation of wealth. Often both.

“Mourning is what happens when a grounding object is lost, is dead, no longer living (to you). Mourning is an experience of irreducible boundedness: I am here, I am living, he is dead, I am mourning,” writes Lauren Berlant. We can mourn situations that have not yet ended, as in McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, which writes to mourn those who had died in Ypres, while also calling on the living to avenge their death. By contrast, bodies that cannot be transfigured into metaphor, the bodies that are not yet ‘grievable’ in our imagination, cannot obtain sustained sympathy or a call to remedy their situation: the outrage they provoke is one of collective reassurance. We care. We can uphold their images insofar as this grief serves the purpose of reassuring us that we are good people. The force of our collective mourning can bring some respite, some recognition but little by way of remedy.

Feelings – mourning or otherwise – generate a public culture to which the state is supposed to respond. Certain events take on proportions which create both feeling and the discomfort of feeling – of seeing images of war intended to disturb the conscience, often images of children mobilised by campaigns and newspapers to induce the sensation that they (more than any other) had no choice. For feeling to dissipate, to be offloaded, we are forced to invoke state action (which as always, will come on its own terms or in the terms of the class whose interests it is broadly aligned with). We ask for the pain of the victim to be relieved, as we call on our own pain as viewers to be relieved. Remembrance here is invoked as discomfort in the immediate, where privileged citizens feel pain and mourn those whose citizenship is either not recognised or incomplete. It remains reliant on sentiment, on conditional empathy, on the identification with another. The pain is recognised on these terms; emotion is swiftly dissolved.

Other remembrances have other purposes: they uphold, sustain, and recreate memories in order to justify.

Grief, mourning, feeling – all generally understood to be private affairs, both private and privatising in their impact on the individual – similarly need to be dissolved when it is the nation-state whose ‘honour’ or ‘security’ is at risk. Sentiment is harnessed into action. “When grieving is something to be feared, our fears can give rise to the impulse to resolve it quickly, to banish it in the name of an action invested with the power to restore the loss or return the world to a former order, or to reinvigorate a fantasy that the world was formerly orderly,” Judith Butler says in Precarious Life. Post-9/11, George W. Bush told us: “the time for sympathy has now passed; the time for action has arrived.” Sympathy and grieving were made a resource: mere mourning is passive – something needs to be done.

This is mourning as aggression, as making death. Where the bodies of the dead, the bodies of those most grievable, are resurrected to justify action. A threat is registered, is felt to be real. Grief is funnelled into support for attack. Threats act to affect the present. They give us the imperative to act to annul, to act to annihilate. The threat feels real, and in the moment of the threat’s realness, any action is permissible – even war.

It goes without saying there are thousands who die without obituaries, without the slightest trace of collective remembrance. Their images are to be consumed in moments of crisis, along with the details of their stories, when we are granted them. Even this is rare. A public sphere in the nation-state is constituted on the understanding of whose deaths are not to be publicly honoured: those in whose death the state has a measure of culpability, those in whose lives the state had no interest.

What does it mean when we publicly resurrect the memory of those who died a hundred or so years ago? Remembrance here, as in our personal lives, is to recreate the past with details to make a memory that informs how we understand our current selves and how we will go on to understand our future selves. How much of the nation’s current self is invoked in recalling the memory of its dead citizens; and how truthfully can it be claimed to be entirely apolitical? Remembrance is used as a tool to reify the nation-state itself, to make it real, and to make a statement about the individual citizen. To remember in this context is to uphold one’s own morality; to fail to participate in public remembering is, by this logic, to reject morality.

Emotion and threat: one is summoned to attack the other. What are the emotions of those broadly configured as the modern threat? What does it mean for public life when pain is marketable and marketed? When demanding empathy becomes the means by which we deal with violence and its consequences? And when the sensation of comfort – someone is doing something – becomes the way we give proof that justice has been done or is being done? Who is left out?

And if we were to claim, like Antigone, that “death must have death’s laws obeyed” – how might we go about obeying them, how might we go about the burying and the remembering process? Emotion for those not grievable, those not granted collective remembrance, itself becomes a threat when it refuses to quickly evaporate. Perhaps what we can do is choose to remember in different ways, tell our stories differently, and ensure they endure. Perhaps we can refuse to let our memories evaporate, or be used to buy weaponry, legitimise invasion, condone surveillance and suspicion. If so, perhaps we can refuse a remembrance that can only produce a future with more mourning within it.

Photo: Paolo Margari/Flickr

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