(P18)
Bringing the past to life: narratives, practices and spaces of memory-making
Location The Cairns Institute, D3-149
Date and Start Time 06 Dec, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Nevena Škrbić Alempijević (University of Zagreb) email
  • Klavs Sedlenieks (Riga Stradins University) email

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Short abstract

The panel focuses on ways in which the past is brought to life through memory-making processes. It explores contemporary and historical memory cultures in their various forms: from the historical knowledge production and narratives of the past to its material, spatial and performative evocations.

Long abstract

In this panel we will examine the role of social memory in an age of death. In that context, memory manifests itself as an attitude towards the past that reflects contemporary circumstances and agendas. Our present is inhabited by evocations of history, materialisations of long-gone national heroes, re-enactments of past events, recreations of historic sites and objects. They are triggered by a need to bring dead bodies back to political life (Verdery 1999), in order to make sense of the current moment and to shape visions of a better future.

By focusing on the social dynamics of memory-making, we will discuss the following questions: in which ways are images of the past activated, filled with new meanings and experienced in our everyday lives? How do they legitimate, as Paul Connerton argues, the existing power relations and ideologies? Which mechanisms and networks do diverse social agents use to create, mediate and negotiate memories? What is the relationship between the memorialization processes and the register of violence and death? Can the reviving of memory open up space for social engagement and resilience, for alternative modes of being and acting?

The panel seeks to explore a diversity of strategies through which the politics and cultures of memory are brought into existence: from narratives and discursive formulations of the past, to the material, spatial, performative and embodied manifestations, which draw our attention to sensory and affectual dimensions of memory. We invite ethnographically grounded and theoretical papers that analyse those processes.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Timelines, temporalities, and re-living place in an Australian outback community: an anthropology of presence and absence

Author: Alana Brekelmans (University of Queensland) email
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Short abstract

This paper investigates how presences and absences were negotiated during a rural town's 150th celebrations. I pay particular attention to memory work conducted by people of mixed Indigenous, Chinese, and "Afghan" descent at the site of a former fringe camp.

Long abstract

Popular narratives of Australian places are often patched together from ellipses and erasure, legend and debate. The notion of terra nullius and subsequent mission to "settle" the vast arid regions of Australia's "outback" has led some theorists (Rose 1997; Furniss 2001) to discuss rural Australian chronotopes as bound to a liminal state of "frontier" mythology.

Based on ethnographic fieldwork in rural Queensland, this paper examines how narratives of place, including frontier mythology, were expressed and enacted during the commemorative ceremonies surrounding an outback town's 150th birthday celebrations. During the festivities, many past residents returned to the community for rituals of collective memory, often through sensuous and corporeal activities in particular places. While Indigenous histories were largely overlooked in the official program, some families of Indigenous, Chinese, and Afghan descent hosted their own event by returning to and establishing temporary camps in the fringe settlement where their forbears had lived. This memory-work event was known as "re-living Coppermine creek".

I examine how those involved "re-living Coppermine Creek" sensuously engaged with place to reflect on and negotiate ideas of time, cultural identity, memory, and mobility. I argue that the embodied commemoration of Coppermine Creek created space for fluid temporalities and in doing so disrupted dominant frontier chronotopes of the region.

Negotiating memories in material culture: the case of a refugee vessel, a tuna boat, and a museum collection object

Author: Xavier Leenders (WA Museum) email
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Short abstract

The Western Australian Museum holds within its collection a Sri-Lankan asylum seeker vessel known as Bremen. Emerging from multiple histories, contexts, and social imaginings, this paper considers the possibilities which arise when this piece of material culture occupies a space of reflection.

Long abstract

It was a cold winters day in 2013 when, to the surprise of those in the Geraldton port and foreshore café, a small Sri-Lankan tuna boat motored into the harbour. With 66 Sri-Lankan asylum seekers on board, the vessel was decorated with a makeshift sign: "We want to go to New Zealand. Please help us". Five years later, many of Bremen's inhabitants have either returned to Sri-Lanka or are interned on Manus Island, and Bremen now sits within the Western Australian Museum's collections.

By interrogating the memories left adrift on this vessel, this paper will explore the possibilities which arise as this piece of material culture occupies a space of reflection. Bremen emerges from multiple histories and contexts. As a piece of material culture, its genealogy traces Australian nationalism, the Sri-Lankan civil war and even the Deutsche Bank. Now, as a museum collection item, some might argue that Bremen's story is 'dead', killed by the nation building and colonial practices that enforce the State's sovereignty over those that cross the border. Others might claim that to think of this object only as the remanent of a tragic journey is to preclude the life-giving character of Bremen: to make real those whose stories are often silenced. Here, I argue that we can understand forms of material culture, like Bremen, not only as memorialisations of various (and sometimes divergent) social imaginings, but as sites of discourse, with which we might interrogate and play out these imaginings in political life.

Eternal flow: irrigation and memory-making in Polonnaruwa District, Sri Lanka

Author: Samson Keam (Deakin University) email
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Short abstract

The irrigation infrastructure of Polonnaruwa district, Sri Lanka acts as a stable material structure anchored in a violent and tumultuous history. Irrigation's materiality elicits a powerful force in contemporary memory-making processes that seek to unite State and Buddhism through water.

Long abstract

The irrigation infrastructure of Polonnaruwa district, Sri Lanka provides a historical and material continuity, an anchor to Sinhala-Buddhist processes of memory-making. Buddhist temporal logic is circular and thus collective memory maintains the past and future as immanent in the present. The collapse of Polonnaruwa as the medieval polity (10th-13th Century CE) has been characterised by bloody foreign invasion and a subsequent disintegration of the irrigation system (Indrapala 1971). The Post-colonial resettlement of Polonnaruwa and revival of the irrigation system (1815 - 1970's) moved Sinhala-Buddhist settlers into the territories of ethnic minorities, escalating tensions that erupted in the 30 year long (1983 -2009) civil war (Peebles 1990, Pfaffenberger 1992). A recent drought (2016 - 2017) shifted the irrigation infrastructure into a symbol for scarcity and an object of political agitation drawing in multiple actors in intervention, confrontation and ritual. The irrigation infrastructure of Polonnaruwa is then a potent symbol, enlivened by the confluence of life and death, sat at the centre of an ongoing memory-making process for Sinhala-Buddhists. This process of memory-making seeks to concretise a unity between Buddhism and State over water, viewed as being in flux. Amongst the social dynamics of a post-conflict country, the material continuity of the irrigation system acts as a stable ethnographic lens to explore processes of memory-making in a tumultuous and oftentimes violent and deathly space. The reassertion of a unity between Buddhism and State activates, curates and (re)assembles historical moments, ritual practices and mythologies that effect a memoralisation process that plays out in complex ways.

The politics of forgetting in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Author: Catherine West (Deakin University) email
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Short abstract

Colombo is experiencing a period of rapid-fire remembering and forgetting: sometimes deliberate, sometimes incidental, often concerning life and death. What roles do modernity and religion play in the selection process?

Long abstract

In the post-conflict era Sri Lanka has increased its articulation with the global economy, while simultaneously looking inward for an identity that can support lasting peace. Colombo is the political and economic centre of the island, and a locus of religious and ethnic diversity. As such, it is embroiled in the conflicted national process of remembering and forgetting. Connerton (2009) argues that 'modernity' explains the paradox of simultaneous hypermnesia (the drive to remember) and the post-mnemonic (a tendency to forget). He defines modernity in relation to a specific geo-political moment, which elides or excises religion. To problematize this position, we consider the role of religion in memory-making and how Colombo's past is narrated, embodied and performed at different scalar levels. At the level of the individual body, Mrs G (an octogenarian widow) invites us in to her apartment to drink tea, observe her quotidian rituals and listen to her story. Just a few blocks away, we meet a government official who manages a local council facility. His mission is to do good, and be remembered for doing good. To this end he has built a colourful shrine to the Buddha, so that passers-by will be delighted and think of peace. Finally, the city itself is defined by its monuments to religious and political heroes; the redevelopment of under-performing assets in to capitalist beacons; and the infrastructure that supports these erasures and selective memorialisations. Religious experience and innovation is crucial to the Sri Lankan national imaginary: past, present and future.

Metonymies of memory: re-tracing the remnants of time in Downtown Srinagar, Kashmir

Author: Bhavneet Kaur (Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi) email
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Short abstract

How do we represent the everyday life in militarily occupied Downtown Srinagar in the 1990's? A visual allows a direct indexical relationship of memory to the past but there is no singular mnemonic medium that can capture the exactness of the past. What do we do in the absence of this exactness?

Long abstract

In bringing the past to life, I imagine the past through patches of experiences, oral embodied testimonies and an affectively transmitted but invariably contested post-memory. This conjured up patchwork of the past that generates metonymies of experiences and memories cannot always be represented through a tangibly constructed archive. On the contrary, as Eva Hoffman explicates in the context of the Holocaust, "these memories—not memories but emanations—of wartime experiences kept erupting in flashes of imagery—in abrupt but broken refrains" (2004, 9). Most of the anthropological and historical work on memory attempts to im-penetrate and integrate into language, these "broken refrains" and "flashes of imagery". But in this paper I argue that these memories and experiences are sometimes a disarrayed amalgamation of that which is and remains un-traceable, un-sayable and un-representable. In that context, one must ask that does each event of the past need a visual signifier to legitimise its ontology? What do we make of phenomenological experiences and everyday events that can be captured only affectively through memory? In the absence of a material archive of the past, how do we re-imagine the past? And particularly in that absence, how do we represent and recall 'the pain of others'? (Hirsch, 2008, 104). These are the questions central to my work on remembrance, life and death in Downtown Srinagar.

Keeping culture in the digital age

Author: Alicia Jamieson email
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Short abstract

The digital age has not only brought with it technology to preserve historical records, but also to allow a conversation with the past, reuniting the generations and restoring the agency of the performer to keep their culture alive.

Long abstract

The voices of elders, hidden away in locked store rooms called archives hold more than rich and painful histories, connecting generations of peoples and land. Substance and essence is preserved in digital code and words on paper just as song, oral story, dance and design encode cultural knowledge to be passed on through the generations. Through performance this becomes a living, dynamic cultural archive re-created by each performer.

If an archive is a place to store knowledge, so it is available to pass down through the generations, what happens when the record keeper and researcher take the place of the performer, telling the story of other peoples lives and histories. By steering and shaping the use of recordings, documents and photographs, identities are forged and lost in an effort to grapple with colonial histories and reclaim what Australians now call Native Title.

Ink eventually fades, and tapes begin to crackle, and the words of the past are gradually erased. The record keeper and researcher join the dots, interpret and translate and a story is told. Meaning is lost but does the outcome justify the means?

The digital age has not only brought with it technology to preserve historical records, but also to allow a conversation with the past, reuniting the generations and restoring the agency of the performer to keep their culture alive.

Haunting images: social memories of terrorism and oppression among video game fans

Author: Stephanie Betz (Australian National University) email
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Short abstract

This paper explores how fantastical imagery mediates social memories of terrorism and oppression among fans of the video game Dragon Age 2. I argue that fans' divergent responses to the game surfaced radically different political agendas that were mediated but not resolved through shared imagery.

Long abstract

Interdisciplinary image studies scholar WJT Mitchell (2005: 94) argues that "the value and life of images become most interesting… when they appear as the centre of a social crisis." In this paper, I explore the way in which fantastical imagery can emerge as the centre of a social crisis by evoking divergent social memories of terrorism and oppression among a transnational community of videogame fans. I take as my focus divergent player responses to the explosive destruction of a church in the videogame Dragon Age 2. For some players, the act symbolized striking a blow against the oppression that marginalised groups have historically experienced at the hands of religious institutions. For others, it was haunted by the destruction of the World Trade Centre and similar terrorist acts. Based upon 14 months of participant observation among the game's fans on Tumblr, I suggest that, although the shared imagery of the games served to mediate between fans' divergent social memories, it rarely resulted in genuine dialogue. I argue that this is partly due to the nature of images themselves, which appear to self-evidently address different viewers in profoundly different ways, rendering invisible the complexities of personal biography that shape social memory-making processes.

Phantom rebellion: recruitment of the dead to align with the state in a Montenegrin village

Author: Klavs Sedlenieks (Riga Stradins University) email
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Short abstract

The presentation, based on fieldwork in Montenegro, is a story of a phantom clash which elucidates competing performances through which various groups of citizens forge their alliances with the (phantom) state of their choice

Long abstract

The presentation is based on the fieldwork that I did in Njeguši, a small village in Montenegro. Although the village itself is slowly disappearing as the old people are dying and young ones move out, the phantoms still live and continue to fight. In 1832 Vukolaje Radonjic, a representative of one of the local families and guvernadur (governer) was taken to prison, more than 30 of his relatives were driven from the village and some killed. Houses were burned and levelled. As the official iconography portrayed this event in the light of a just punishment for betrayal and consequently virtually erased Vukolaje from history, several contemporary descendants are trying to revive the memory by investing in restored buildings and churches. However, when they finally decide to hold an official inauguration ceremony of the commemorative centre, they are confronted with the police which is sent in under the pretence of riot prevention. The contemporary Radonjici were carving their moral position in the contemporary Montenegro by means of recruiting the might of a phantom army of Vukolaje Radonjic. For them guvernadur symbolises opposition to the current perceivably corrupt elite and allows to position themselves as defenders of openness, democracy, education and Western values. However, an even more powerful phantom operates on the other side – that of the prince-bishop Petar II Njegoš who once ordered the mentioned arrests and who is undeniably the most famous historic figure in Montenegro. This is then a story of a phantom clash which elucidates competing performances through which various groups of citizens forge their alliances with the (phantom) state of their choice.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.