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The Imagined City (ii)

7 May

Another way of negotiating the city is that utilized in artistic practice, which may present itself as critique of the place in which one finds oneself, as an attempt to tame the chaos of space, or as a mixture of the two. Fernando Pessoa is an interesting example of such practices in that he provided a variety of different ways of mapping the city of Lisbon. The most obvious, and arguably the least interesting, is a tourist guide to the city which he wrote in the 1920s but which remained unpublished until after his death. Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See was written in English and presented a conventional description of the city, detailing the various monuments, parks, museums, churches and other historic buildings. It is an interesting exercise to compare this Lisbon with the city of the present and the book’s historical detail is useful, but there is little sense of the lived city. Citizens make only an occasional appearance, such as in this revealing snapshot of Alfama:

The tourist who can spend a few days in Lisbon should not omit to visit this quarter; he will get a notion no other place can give him of what Lisbon was like in the past. Everything will evoke the past here – the architecture, the type of streets, the arches and stairways, the wooden balconies, the very habits of the people who live there a life full of noise, of talk, of songs, of poverty and dirt.

(Fernando Pessoa, Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2008), p. 31.)

Apart from this, the people are mainly absent from Pessoa’s account of Lisbon, perhaps not surprisingly for a writer who often displayed an ambivalent attitude to his fellow citizens in his work. However, Pessoa’s literary work conveys a mentality that is lacking in his guidebook. Even when describing his own kind of ‘non-place’ in the form of an imaginary journey, Pessoa is able to lay claim to the importance of place and journeying in mental life:

I didn’t set out from any port I knew. Even today I don’t know what port it was, for I’ve still never been there. And besides, the ritual purpose of my journey was to go in search of non-existent ports – ports that would be merely a putting-in at ports; forgotten inlets of rivers, straits running through irreproachably unreal cities … I found myself in other lands, in other ports, and I passed through cities that were not the one I started from, which, like all the others, was no city at all … My voyage took place on the other side of time, where it cannot be counted or measured but where it nevertheless flows, and it would seem to be faster than the time that has lived us.

Fernando Pessoa, ‘A Voyage I Never Made (I)’, The Book of Disquiet, tr. Richard Zenith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001), p. 461.

 

This fantastical voyage relates the importance of the process of arriving and departing while maintaining a stubborn remove from any ‘real’ city, a remove, however, that is more provocative than the official presentation of the city and its real places given in Pessoa’s guidebook. More often, however, Pessoa steered a course between this city of the imagination and the real city. The Book of Disquiet is both a meditation on consciousness and recognizably a book about Lisbon, where its narrator Soares is able to claim that ‘the street is all of life’. At another point, Soares makes the observation that ‘[t]here is no difference between me and these streets’, suggesting a relationship between citizen and city that one finds given visual representation in M.C. Escher’s Metamorphosis I (1937). There is an indeterminacy to the life he witnesses in the streets: ‘The people passing by on the street are always the same ones who passed by a while ago, always a group of floating figures, patches of motion, uncertain voices, things that pass by and never quite happen.’ This impressionistic portrayal of city life suggests that citizens are much like the city itself, always coming into being and never completed.

Jonathan Raban’s Soft City (1974) attempts a similar idea to Pessoa by presenting the city as something which becomes gradually ‘legible’ to the citizen. For Raban, the city is an ‘emporium of styles’ from which the initially confused ‘greenhorn’ (the newcomer to the city) learns to select. This notion of choice is expanded to include the playing of roles – city life for Raban is always performative and the city is as much a collection of stages as an emporium. If the city does impose its ideology, it has to be recognized in this formulation that, while the city is always at work on us we are always at work on the city too: this ‘work’ involving both the constant rebuilding of the city and the effort put into the performance of identity. This involves a physical and a mental building, the latter represented by Raban’s suggestion that, as we reinvent ourselves, the city rebuilds itself around us.

A more critical version of this has been that associated with so-called  ‘psychogeographers’, from figures related to surrealism and situationism such as André Breton, Louis Aragon and Guy Debord to more recent writers like J.G. Ballard, Iain Sinclair and Paul Auster. Of these, Iain Sinclair’s work has perhaps come closest to the exploration of the city as museum, with various books dedicated to physical and psychical explorations of forgotten areas of London.  Psychogeography has come to be associated with taking control of one’s place and agency in the controlling city, a project in which the act of walking is crucial, as Merlin Coverley highlights:

The wanderer, the stroller, the flâneur and the stalker – the names may change but, from the nocturnal expeditions of De Quincey to the surrealist wanderings of Breton and Aragon, from the situationist dérive to the heroic treks of Iain Sinclair, the act of walking is ever present in this account. This act of walking is an urban affair and, in cities that are increasingly hostile to the pedestrian, it inevitably becomes an act of subversion. Walking is seen as contrary to the spirit of the modern city with its promotion of swift circulation and the street-level gaze that walking requires allows one to challenge the official representation of the city by cutting across established routes and exploring those marginal and forgotten areas often overlooked by the city’s inhabitants. In this way the act of walking becomes bound up with psychogeography’s characteristic political opposition to authority, a radicalism that is confined not only to the protests of 1960s Paris but also to the spirit of dissent that animated both Defoe and Blake as well as the vocal criticism of London governance to be found in the work of contemporary London psychogeographers such as Stewart Home and Iain Sinclair.

(Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006), p. 12.)

Psychogeographers attempt to utilize the lost elements of city as the basis for a kind of militant remembering. The connection between a textual, ‘readable’ city and the processes of change inaugurated by the demands of capitalism brings us back to David Harvey’s work. As Edward Soja writes, with Harvey in mind, capital is ‘a crude and restless auteur’ when it inscribes its narrative upon the city streets.

Harvey opens The Condition of Postmodernity (1990) with a discussion of Raban’s Soft City and suggests that we should read it ‘not as an anti-modernist argument but as a vital affirmation that the postmodernist moment has arrived.’  The play that Harvey finds in postmodern art and architecture is linked, in his mind to a lack of any sense of historical continuity:

Given the evaporation of any sense of historical continuity and memory, and the rejection of meta-narratives, the only role left for the historian, for example, is to become, as Foucault insisted, an archaeologist of the past, digging up its remnants as Borges does in his fiction, and assembling them side by side, in the museum of modern knowledge. 

(David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 6.)

It is precisely as a ‘museum of modern knowledge’ that many of those concerned with the loss of the city of the past have come to treat it. For Iain Sinclair this means putting together a ‘book of disappearances’ that attempts to discover the ‘missing pieces’ of London. For Maria Tavares Dias it involves the publication, over two decades of a nine-volume set of books on ‘disappeared Lisbon’. The motivations for such projects will be varied and will not necessarily coincide with Harvey’s view of such work as simple ‘lining up’ in the present. As many writers on memory have noted, we go to our past not only for trophies to place in a cabinet of curiosities but with questions that may help to deal with impasses in the present. Sinclair suggests one such motivation in compiling his book on London: ‘By soliciting contributions to an anthology of absence, I hoped that the city would begin to write itself (punningly, in both senses)’. By collectivizing the authorial voice, there is a possibility for an ‘anonymous’ documentary of the city that may also help to ‘right’ some of the wrongs inflicted on it. And there is another sense in which ‘right’ can be attached to the city, as Tuan suggests:

An old run-down neighborhood should be saved from urban renewal because it seems to satisfy the needs of the local residents, or because, despite a decaying physical environment, it promotes certain human virtues and a colorful style of life. The appeal is to qualities inherent in established ways and to the people’s moral right to maintain their distinctive customs against the forces of change.

(Tuan, p. 197)

It is this ‘moral right’ that seems to be voiced in the fados identified by Michael Colvin that cry out against the urban renewal inflicted on the Mouraria. Henri Lefebvre, meanwhile, speaks of a ‘right to the city’ that is ‘a cry and a demand’ and that ‘slowly meanders through the surprising detours of nostalgia and tourism, the return to the heart of the traditional city, and the call of existent or recently developed centralities.’ Lefebvre contrasts this with the encouragement by the dominant powers to focus on the right to nature and to locate leisure outside the city. Rather than renovate the deteriorated sites of the city, citizens are encouraged to avoid them for the pleasures of the countryside or of some form of ‘nature’ brought into the city. The right to the city, however, should not be a simple visiting right but ‘a transformed and renewed right to urban life.’ (Henri Lefebvre, ‘The Right to the City’, in Lefebvre, Writings On Cities, ed. & tr. Eleonore Kofman & Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), p. 158.)

Memory Work (II)

15 Apr

As with endless loss, if we follow the logic of ‘everything is worth remembering’ to its extreme, we quickly realise the impossibility of such an undertaking. Hence, Jorge Luis Borges’s hapless character ‘Funes the Memorious’, unable to forget the detail of anything he has perceived. Forgetting, as Borges reminds us, is essential to our ability to function in other spheres:

With no effort, [Funes] had learned English, French, Portuguese and Latin. I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

(Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Funes the Memorious’ (tr. James E. Irby), Labyrinths, ed. Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1985 [1964]), p. 94.)

And it is not only the potential for mental overload that too much remembering can bring; there is also the connected danger of being haunted or trapped by the past. Andreas Huyssen provides a critique of what he sees as the conservative aspects of memory obsession. He points out that the obsession with discourses of loss does no justice to the ‘politics of memory’. In the introduction to Present Pasts he writes, ‘At stake in the current history/memory debate is not only a disturbance of our notions of the past, but a fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures.’ (Andrea Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 2). Huyssen recalls Nietzsche’s call for ‘creative forgetting’ in the latter’s Untimely Meditations. As Sylviane Agacinski points out, Nietzsche and Freud are unusual in that ‘they taught the value of oblivion’, Freud in his insistence on working-through and Nietzsche with his creative forgetting: ‘Life has always needed forgetfulness more than memory and even the desire for commemorative monuments satisfies the desire to entrust memory to material reminders – to better free us from the past.’ (Sylviane Agacinski, Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia, tr. Jody Gladding (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003 [2000]), p. 14.)

While it is necessary to recognize these points, they do not make the obsession with memory and loss disappear; in this sense, at least, loss cannot be lost, for forgetting, like remembering, is only ever partial (making it both partial and endless). This is what brings about haunting, the spectral permanence of the past in the present. Although the various thinkers I have mentioned have different notions of the politics of memory, they all share an obsession with remembering and all, we might add, have strong ideas about what they want memory work to be.

Yearning is a process that relies on the notion of some form of community in that it derives from prior experience. As Christine Boyer notes, drawing on the work of Maurice Halbwachs, ‘memories [are] recalled by time periods, by recollecting places visited and by situating ideas or images in patterns of thought belonging to specific social groups.’ It follows from this that memory is always social. In Halbwachs’s words, ‘the individual remembers by placing himself in the perspective of the group, but one may also affirm that the memory of the group realizes and manifests itself in individual memories.’ Furthermore:

[T]he collective frameworks of memory are not constructed after the fact by the combination of individual recollections; nor are they empty forms where recollections coming from elsewhere would insert themselves. Collective frameworks are, to the contrary, precisely the instruments used by the collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society.

(Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, ed. & tr. Lewis A. Coser (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 40.)

However, for Pierre Nora, whose work draws on Halbwachs, it is no longer clear that the collective memory knows what to do with itself. It may not even recognize its own existence:

Things tumble with increasing rapidity into an irretrievable past. They vanish from sight, or so it is generally believed. The equilibrium between the present and the past is disrupted. What was left of experience, still lived in the warmth of tradition, in the silence of custom, in the repetition of the ancestral, has been swept away by a surge of deeply historical sensibility. Our consciousness is shaped by a sense that everything is over and done with, that something long since begun is now complete. Memory is constantly on our lips because it no longer exists.

(Pierre Nora, ‘General Introduction: Between Memory and History’, in Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past Vol. 1: Conflicts and Divisions, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman, tr. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).)

Because there are no longer milieux de mémoire, defined as ‘settings in which memory is a real part of everyday experience’, there has arisen a need for lieux de mémoire, ‘sights … in which a residual sense of continuity remains’. As for the relationship between memory, often associated with individuals despite the work of Halbwachs and others, and the collective autobiography that goes by the name of ‘history’, Nora sees clear differences: ‘Memory … thrives on vague, telescoping reminiscences, on hazy general impressions or specific symbolic details. It is vulnerable to transferences, screen memories, censorings, and projections of all kinds.’ History, on the other hand, ‘calls for analysis and critical discourse’. In short, ‘memory is an absolute, while history is always relative’. Due to its relativity, and of the multitude of ways of telling its stories, history requires its own history, bringing about the practice of historiography, which ‘begins when history sets itself the task of uncovering that in itself which is not history, of showing itself to be the victim of memory and seeking to free itself from memory’s grip.’ For Nora, there has been a renunciation of ritual, leading to an ignorance around what to make of the ever-increasing archives that have taken the place of memory: ‘Museums, archives, cemeteries, collections, festivals, anniversaries, treaties, depositions, monuments, sanctuaries, private associations – these are relics of another era, illusions of eternity. That is what makes these pious undertakings seem like exercises in nostalgia, sad and lifeless.’

Nora imagines a society so obsessed with the present that it spent all its time recording itself while postponing any self-analysis. He claims this is not the case with our society, which has become obsessed instead with history. But Agacinski offers a point of view more closely allied to the situation Nora denies. While agreeing that responsibility for remembering is handed over to the archive she claims that we are more interested in recording than analysing. Indeed the act of recording has become a part of the experience of the present – any significant present moment cannot go unrecorded. But, once recorded, it is seldom looked back on. For his part, Andreas Huyssen distinguishes memory from the archive precisely by the former’s location in the present; ‘it is this tenuous fissure between past and present that constitutes memory, making it powerfully alive and distinct from the archive or any other mere system of storage and retrieval.’

Memory Work (I)

15 Apr

Joe Brainard's I RememberIf the impossibility of dealing with loss comprehensively has led to a sense of a ‘task’ to be achieved, then it is perhaps no surprise to find the term ‘memory work’ increasingly used in contemporary cultural theory. And if one method of going about this work is to employ a ritualistic, or repetitive, process for ‘listing’ loss, then it is worthwhile considering an example of just such memory work, from what I call the ‘I remember’ school of writers inspired by Joe Brainard’s book of the same title. I Remember was first published in 1975 and consisted of a series of entries, all beginning with the words ‘I remember’, in which Brainard recollected moments from his past, some of them highly individual and others doubtless shared by an enormous number of his contemporaries. To take a typical trio of consecutive entries:

I remember the first time I saw television. Lucille Ball was taking ballet lessons.

I remember the day John Kennedy was shot.

I remember that for my fifth birthday all I wanted was an off-one-shoulder black satin evening gown. I got it. And I wore it to my birthday party.

(Joe Brainard, I Remember (New York: Granary Books, 2001 [1975]), p. 9.)

The originality in Brainard’s technique lies in the intermingling of personal and collective memories and in the recognition that the catalogue of human life as compiled by memory is made up equally of intense personal experiences, public events, fads, fashions and myths. Brainard’s work shows how each person simultaneously carries within them official and unofficial histories, the contents of which are always at varying stages of being recalled or forgotten. The Kennedy assassination, for example, is an event unlikely to be forgotten in either official history or the unofficial history of a certain group of people alive at a particular time and in at least some level of connection via mass media with the rest of the world (Brainard’s generation, in other words). Indeed, for such a group, whose hegemony over these matters is only recently beginning to wane, this event has become the classic example of such individualized-yet-shared memory, with people being said to know exactly where they were when they heard the news of the president’s murder. In the new millennium this event has been succeeded for many by the events of September 11 2001. Yet if these events are subject to both official and unofficial memory, highly personal recollections such as those collated by Brainard still have within them a quality that is transferable to others who have experienced something comparable or who can connect to them simply through the fact that they too have remembered (things). Indeed it might well be said that it is in the highly personal, idiosyncratic details (Brainard’s evening gown) that the possibility for a universal recognition resides.

Georges Perec's Je me souviensThat is not to say, however, that such memory work is necessarily translatable to other cultural contexts. Although Brainard’s book was translated into French by Marie Chaix, the French ‘version’ of I Remember which found most success and which has itself come to be regarded as a classic of the genre, is Georges Perec’s Je me souviens (1978).  Perec reduces the autobiographical elements of Brainard’s work to a certain extent, although these are still a prominent feature of his version alongside a higher proportion of memories likely to be shared with others. In producing a more pronounced cultural bias to the book, Perec is forced away from literal translation and towards the creation of a new work steeped in the resonance of the French imaginary. Perec’s intention was to seek out, via his own recollection, moments of memory that could be ‘deconsecrated’ and returned to their ‘collectivity’; speaking about the book he claimed, ‘what came out most clearly for me was that I wasn’t the only one to be remembering. It’s a book I might call “sympathetic”, I mean that it’s in sympathy with its readers, that readers are perfectly at home in it.’

Gilbert Adair's Myths & MemoriesThe fact that Perec’s work increased the ratio of culturally shared to personal memories from Brainard’s original was recognized in 1986 by the British writer Gilbert Adair when he decided to publish his own version of the ‘I remember’ template in his book Myths & Memories. The book was devised partly as a homage to two French writers he admired, Roland Barthes and Georges Perec, and partly as an attempt to apply the techniques of Barthes’s Mythologies and Perec’s Je me souviens to a British context. In Adair’s opinion, Perec’s version of Brainard’s work was distinct enough to warrant its own ‘translation’ but a literal rendering of the French words would be pointless: ‘the fact of its being anchored in a French experience has rendered [Je me souviens] definitively untranslatable; or, rather, translatable only by way of the metamorphosis, the kind of total Anglicizing, which it undergoes here.’ (This observation has an obvious correlation with my earlier discussion of saudade. As for a Portuguese language version of I Remember, the closest parallel would appear to be a Brazilian text entitled Memorando, by Geraldo Mayrink and Fernando Moreira Salles (Sao Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1993). I have not been able to consult this text to see how it compares with the three versions mentioned here.)

Adair’s conflation of the work of Barthes and Perec serves as an intriguing invitation to think about the concept of mythology alongside that of memory. This has been a strategy taken up by a number of historians in recent years, especially those concerned with memory’s associations with place. Prominent amongst these have been Raphael Samuel and Pierre Nora. Samuel’s ‘theatres of memory’ and Nora’s lieux de mémoire are both influenced by the work of Frances Yates, whose exploration of ‘the art of memory’ relies on notions of myth and place, yet there is an equally important role played by repetition – indeed, memory thought of as an art is born of the desire to be able to repeat. In this sense, it is interesting to note a connection between these historians and the work of the ‘memorians’ of the ‘I remember’ school. In the latter we find a recourse to a ritualistic process (anamnesis, recollection) grounded in the repeated act; this repetition is continued in the representation of memory as these writers follow the unchanging mantra of ‘I remember…’.

This is a device often used in popular songs, where memories are listed over various verses. Fado is no exception, containing a number of such songs. Katia Guerreiro’s ‘Romper Madrugadas’, for example, provides a verse form built upon lines that begin with the word ‘recordo’ [I remember]: ‘Recordo os segredos das noites da bruma / Recordo os teus dedos bebidos de espuma / Recordo o teu cheiro de amor perfumado / Tristeza em sorriso num corpo rasgado’ [I remember the secrets of the nights of mist / I remember your fingers dipped in foam / I remember your smell of fragrant love].  From an earlier point in the twentieth century, we might look to Alfredo Marceneiro’s ‘Lembro-Me de Ti’, each verse of which begins with the line ‘I remember you’ and carries with it another memory. With seven verses and a running time of nearly six minutes the overall effect is one of extended ritual punctuated and regulated by the highly emotional lilt given to the title line by Marceneiro. Indeed the song is straining with emotion, Marceneiro’s voice sounding as though it might break under the force of the memory and giving the song an emphatically nostalgic air.

The ritualized recitation of memory can also be found to account for irrevocable loss. Amália Rodrigues provides an excellent example in her self-written fado ‘Gostava de Ser Quem Era’:

Tinha uma louca esperança
Tinha fé no meu destino
Tinha sonhos de criança
Tinha um mundo pequenino

Tinha toda a minha rua
Tinha as outras raparigas
Tinha estrelas tinha a lua
Tinha rodas de cantigas

Gostava de ser quem era
Pois quando eu era menina
Tinha toda a Primavera
Só numa flor pequenina

[I had a crazy hope
Had faith in my destiny
Had childhood dreams
Had a tiny world

I had all my street
Had the other girls
Had stars had the moon
Had song wheels [children’s game]

I would like to be who I used to be
Because when I was a little girl
I had the entire Spring
Within just a tiny flower]

The ‘tinha’ (‘I had’) that begins each line of the first three verses of the song (the first is not quoted above) and that is multiplied in Amália’s performance by the repetition of the last two lines of each verse, produces a litanistic quality that hints, even though it is not stated explicitly, that these things have been lost forever. The final verse seals this assumption with the confession that the singer used to like being who she was, with the concomitant suggestion that she no longer does.

The potential infinitude of memory work suggests that there is little that is not worth remembering. Noting the ‘acceleration of history’, Pierre Nora writes, ‘Everything is historical, everything is worth remembering, and everything belongs to our memory.’  Accompanying history’s acceleration we find an acceleration of chroniclers and rememberers, both amateur and professional, a process that has been immeasurably widened by the invention and development of the internet. To take a couple of recent web-based developments in the growing ubiquity of chronicling and remembering, there has been an explosion in the amount of ‘encyclopaedic’ information available (most notable in the phenomenon of Wikipedia) and of personal archives (blogs), many of which contain both autobiographical information and theoretical explication or discussion of wider issues. It was perhaps inevitable that the project initiated by Brainard and developed by Perec and Adair would find its modus operandi continued via the medium of the internet with ‘I remember’ blogs. (See also Zeina Abirached’s comic book, Je me souviens: Beyrouth (sample pages here)).