January 2013

Fragmented Memories

Written by Alexandra Dorca

“If I can remember, I can talk.”
Perjovschi (2006)

Order and disorder are well known concepts in various fields, such as mathematics, physics, biology, but also literature, linguistic, and social sciences. For instance, the transition theories—starting with Rustow (1970) up to the most recent work of Carothers (2002) and O’Donnell (2002)—address, in some way, the uncontrollable, chaotic, and hybrid characteristic of a society in transition to democracy. As such, while analyzing the collapse of the organizational system of the Zunis, in Southwest US, Stone calls the anthropologists to have a look at the chaos and complexity theory: “[d]ue to the open and dynamic nature of dissipative structures, anthropological applications of these ideas can be used to understand differing rates of change, and varying amounts of experimentation and instability in a cultural system. Specifically, chaos theory results in a non-linear model of culture change which states that small perturbations to certain parts of the system can result in the disruption of the structure of the entire system, resulting in instability” (1999, p. 111).

Since 9/11, the Madrid and London attacks, the revolts of the French suburbs, we talk more and more in terms of order and disorder. Chaos theory could find its utility in the attempt to understand some of these phenomena. It could help in analyzing complex, dynamic, or non-linear categories, including those of identity—which seems to be, in our days, multiple, fluctuant, in crisis, built, negotiated, and especially omnipresent.

The usefulness of chaos theory in other contexts than pure sciences is well supported by Dewaele’s work (2001) in linguistics and by Esfandi (2006), who has used it to originate an analysis framework for Echenoz’s novels. Finally, Wilcox (1996) links chaos theory to David Lynch’s movies. In the following, I explore some ways of applying chaos theory to cultural anthropology, more precisely to interpreting narratives.

The memory, as the identity, can be chaotic; it includes souvenirs as well as obliviousness; it can be confused, disorganized, and even abused (see Ricoeur 2000). There is nothing unusual in this, especially if we agree with Candau (1998) to say that a society uncomfortable with its time—like the modern age seems to be— will also be uneasy in the way of relating to the others, in the past and in the future. This generates the apparition of centrifugal memories; the meta-memorial discourse is therefore embracing the idea of the dissolution of the long-term, large-scale collective memories to the benefit of the multiplication of mosaic-like memories.

A memory without forgetting, a memory without loss is a dead memory (Pontalis 2000). Augé (2001) sees a similitude to the relation between life and death: memory needs forgetting, as the life of some needs the death of others (“la vie des uns a besoin de la mort des autres”). However, oblivion is an ambiguous category: on the one hand, memory erodes, on the other hand, it comes back; on the one hand, there are the experiences that are meaningful to the daily life (the habits, the habitus), on the other, their immemorial aspect.

This dichotomy between remembering and forgetting is admirably described by Caruth (1996) as the dialogue of knowing, seeing and listening. And this is not easy, especially when it implies death. “It is not necessarily good […] to recall the past. It is not wrong to forget, it is not necessarily sad to forget, and we should not, cannot, strive strenuously to remember everything we ever knew”, says Douglas (1995, p. 15). This can explain the “memory holes”, which makes think of the unspeakable and its consequences when remembering becomes a narrative.

In Agamben’s words, the unspeakable describes a “whatever singularity”, who, by not having a face or a history, cannot attest his own absence. Thus, the “whatever being” represents the total loss, the bare life. The unspeakable is not only the impossibility to testify about…, in the name of…, but also the interdiction, the censorship, or the fear related to it. Finally, it can represent a secret, a hidden souvenir, a state or a sensation that can, in certain contexts, show up, come out, be told. We are not far from Proust’s representation of memory and even closer to the Freudian slip. And there is a link to do with the way that chaos works: perturbations (even minor) can change the way memory and remembering function.

These particular moments can organize or, on the contrary, disorganize the narrative; often dramatic, they are moments without rules, wordless, in an atypical, non-temporal time, a time with no sayings and yet full of meaning. How shall we approach in methodology the witnessing of unspeakable? What is the language of the “whatever singularity”? Because, despite difficult souvenirs, people believe in and feel the need to testify, often on behalf of the absent ones.

For Agamben (2003), the figure of the unspeakable inhabits the state of exception, the nomos, the camp, the “whatever singularity’s” limbs. Thus, the unspeakable is not universal, nor particular, but it is singularity, a “whatever singularity”. For Gaonkar, “there were no aesthetic limits that could not be transgressed, no moral norms that could not be subverted. One must explore and experience anything – including the demonic, the artificial, and the fugitive – that would spur imagination, quicken sensibilities, and deepen feelings” (2001, p. 2-3). This also applies to the field of arts, where the question of representation is central. This approach has its limits, especially “[t]his thing is not death, it is not murder or burned houses, it is not even extermination. It is the will to extermination” (2003, p. 115). if we have a look at the work of Nihanian (2003) on the Armenian pogroms. Everything can be expressed through language, everything can be understood, accepted, excused, and even loved, says Nichanian, with one exception, and “[t]his thing is not death, it is not murder or burned houses, it is not even extermination. It is the will to extermination” (2003, p. 115).

In order to be able to narrate the total experience of bare life, the language will eventually transform; the language of witnessing is to become a language that loses its signified, evolving into a non-language (a sub- or supra-language). The act of witnessing can then be described as a system of relations between the inside and the outside of the language, between speakable and unspeakable. Zarka (1993) identifies “language cracks” when the narrators mention things they did not seemed to hear. There are “enclaves” of apparently coherent discourses; there are flashes and short phrases that are describing atrocious scenes.

Is this a Freudian slip, a psychoanalytical loss? It is possible. During narratives I recorded in 2005 in post-communist Romania, I could observe various moments indicating a loss: be it of a chance, of a beloved one, of an object, of humanity.Even the researchers would suffer a loss during their interviews, as they can miss something essential for the story, miss asking a question or hearing an answer, avoid an eye contact at the right moment, so on. I would name these moments Freudian slips of the narratives; given their unconscious aspect, they could make a synonym to the unspeakable. In both situations, the remembering is possible in particular contexts, in presence of certain stimuli that are making the act of recollection unpredictable, chaotic.

Chaos and complexity theory would thus find their pertinence, as they can create a logical framework facilitating to represent and to understand the links between past—present or absent— and future. It can help to comprehend the global story, to realize how, in reality, a fragmented narrative can be quite complex, as the moments of silence, the oblivions, the story losses, the black holes are legitimate and can be explained. The question of remembering and witnessing would hence be interpreted as comings and goings between the outside and the inside of the story, between the language and the non-language, between the speakable and the unspeakable, between immanence and transcendence. The narrator as well as the researcher need to be ready to occupy the whatever singularity limbs; they have to accept seeing and feeling the non-language of bare life. It is experiencing a time and a space of silences and holes, but as long as there is will to understand and to accept these moments of loss, there is a chance to open the way to nomadism and flexibility in the becoming (see Pandolfi 1999).

The text that will house this testimony will be that of a poetics of the unspeakable. Four individuals are needed, otherwise the representation is not complete: the one who is absent, the person who testifies, the one who receives the testimony, finally, the reader. Chaos theory is helpful for translating these various presences and relations by making it easier to understand what is unclear or apparently senseless.

In our days, the struggle seems to be linking memory and forgetting, repairing the abuses of memory, fighting the manipulation of the memory, putting together fragments of memory (memories), creating lieux of memory. To do this, we shall not be afraid to deconstruct and demystify the memory; we probably would learn to forget in order to be able to remember. Chaos and complexion theories can be useful in this attempt, as they can create sense where we could not find any for a long time.

Alexandra Dorca in an anthropologist living and working in Montreal. A first version of this text was published in PAVILION 9/2006, “Chaos: The Age of Confusion”, www. pavilionjournal.org