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Opinion: Cultures of commemoration

Published: 15th Sep 2021 12:14 am

By Pramod K Nayar

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As the storm rages around the “restoration” of Jallianwalla Bagh, another anniversary has just passed by: the events of 9/11. Beyond the in-your-face cultures of commemoration, NatGeo set out to do something thought-provoking. NatGeo’s Henry Leutwyler photographed the artifacts in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

Leutwyler’s photographs of identity cards, shoes, fireman’s helmets, watches of those who died in the WTC serve a more intense experience of 9/11 than the jingoism of political commemoration. They also generate a sense of what it means to remember through material objects.

There are objects that have lost, forgotten or unknown associations with people. We simply do not know what these objects meant, who they were associated with, and hence we lack an affective mode of experiencing them. Bullet marks, for instance, that indicate lives lost, bodies terminated and futures extinguished are dead objects whose affective values, if any, cannot be experienced.

Dead Objects

Dead objects play a major role in political commemorative practices, and the populace takes offence if these dead objects are modified (“restored”) in any way. As symbols of a national catastrophe, they acquire a certain political emotional value, even if their personal “connections” are impossible to ascertain. They remain, one could say, “distant” for future generations.

But, despite the “distant” nature of dead objects, under conditions of historical and cultural memory recalled for whatever reasons, as a group of objects, they have tremendous evocative power. The slavery and holocaust museums are cases in point for the way in which they energise the memories of the tortured and the dead.

Collective grief requires material objects to mourn around. In their pathbreaking book, Death, Memory and Material Culture, the anthropologists Elizabeth Hallam and Jenny Hockey put it succinctly: “Facing death, either of the self or of others, has come to entail ritualized social practices that mobilize domains of material objects, visual images and written texts…Material culture mediates our relationship with death and the dead; objects, images and practices … call to mind or are made to remind us of the deaths of others and of our own mortality.”

Photographs, in particular, are the best known instances of memorial material culture. In their very material presence, whether in the form of a paper-copy or on screen, they capture a corporeal absence: of matter that is no longer there. They are, said the critic Susan Sontag, memento mori

At some undefinable point, even dead objects, anonymised, unknown and unknowable, are objects of the dead.

Objects of the Dead

The cultural sociologist Margaret Gibson terms the objects through which grief is experienced, ‘objects of the dead’ or ‘melancholy objects’. Gibson argues that the material object is at once material that enables mourning/grief but is also a signifier that recalls the memory of mourning. The loved and dead person’s remainder object is itself an object of mourning, even as it recalls how mourning had been enacted.

The 9/11 artefacts also, therefore, ensure that mourning is never complete. Gibson writes: “The melancholy object as a memorialized object could also signify the incompletion of mourning …The melancholy object is then the affective remainder or residual trace of sadness and longing in non-forgetting.”

The tension is between the personalised objects of the dead, whose very material presence reminds one to mourn, and the collective museumisation of these objects. In the case of the former, the objects function, as Gibson notes, as material evidence of loss of a person. Whether the museum generates this same level of evidentiary affect and evidentiary recall is a moot point, and has remained a puzzle for museologists and anthropologists of memory to solve.

Bodies of Memory

Then there are “strange” objects: bodies of the once-living, preserved in Anatomy (or Anatomical) and other museums. Skulls, bones and other remnants, often without their easily readable markers of identity (except by specialists), the once-living have been transformed into specimens and spectacles.

These are bodies of memory, but the very nature of memory invoked is strange. They are strange for a particular reason: the body is no longer linked to those with whom s/he was associated when living (family, friends, community), but with those who acquired, embalmed and exhibited her/him. It is doubly strange because the spectator, via the experts’ comments, is called upon to imagine the life once lived by the “person”. Think of the number of studies of how Tutankhamen lived and died, to take one example. As Elizabeth Hallam puts it in her wonderful study, Anatomy Museum: Death and the Body Displayed, “death is not always the end of social life for bodies”.

But this apart, melancholy is also embodied in the body/person who survives the death of the other. When we read the testimonies of survivors, about their unending mourning for those they lost, it brings home to us the finitude that marks relationships, and how the survivor is a “body” of memory too.  

The last – and yet not quite so – word on surviving, in melancholy, the death of the other, belongs to the philosopher Jacques Derrida, who sees friendship itself as structured around a future mourning: “To have a friend, to look at him, to follow him with your eyes, to admire him in friendship, is to know in a more intense way, already injured, always insistent, and more and more unforgettable, that one of the two of you will inevitably see the other die. One of us, each says to himself, the day will come when one of the two of us will see himself no longer seeing the other…there is no friendship without this knowledge of finitude.”

Pramod Nayar

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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