PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1 (2001) 18-32
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Failures of Self-Seeing: James Luna Remembers Dino
Consider Pierre Nora's claim that today history is replacing memory. Nora, editor of the seven-volume opus on French history Les lieux de memoire (Places of Memory), claims that history, embodied in the coldly official text, datum, and archive, eradicates memory, which is not embodied because it is body, cannot be written because it is lived. Memory's body is, for Nora, "displaced under the pressure of a fundamentally historical sensibility." It "has taken refuge in gestures and habits, in skills passed down by unspoken traditions, in the body's inherent self-knowledge, in unstudied reflexes." Because we are products of Western civilization, citizens of capital and industry, the news media and simulation, change and progress, Guy Dubord's "society of spectacle," we are estranged from customs and performances of remembering. Driven away by neglect, the "living," "actual," "affective and magical" past has but one haven today among those societies bound to "rituals of tradition"--what Nora calls, "peoples of memory." Real memory, he says, is "social and unviolated, exemplified in but also retained as the secret of so-called primitive or archaic society."
Nora's thesis uncomfortably rehearses Western historiography's fetishization of the "native" other. It upholds, under the banner of critical theory, the ambivalent discourse of primitivism, the suspicion by whites (presumably peoples of history) that salvation lies in tribal "secrets." I support Nora's interrogation of Western culture's reliance on official history, and the damaging ideological effects of its mindless reverence for the uninspected category "information." Yet, his firm distinction between history and memory depends on a belief that the former is textual and Western and the latter is experiential and native. How do Nora's claims help justify the development of technologies for reading and writing these lost authentic memories? How do his assertions embolden Nora to make historical claims on memory whose inviolate purity he has himself discursively produced? How does his thesis ultimately endorse the need for historiography, a practice he ostensibly seeks to dismantle?
The ambiguity of Nora's phrase invites a mis-reading. When he writes "peoples of memory" does he mean those who remember, or those who are remembered? And [End Page 18] does not the former depend firmly on the latter? I am concerned here with what balances on the point of that "of," with the conclusions to which its double meaning leads. Let us consider the damaging effects on one hand of claiming that archaic societies are more mnemonically successful than our own, and on the other hand of presuming that such societies exist pleasantly in memories of our own past. The stakes here are high because although peoples who remember may be envied by whites, as Vine Deloria points out, native memory, "pre-historical" legend, and mythology have a hard time competing for legitimacy in Western epistemology. What manner of violence is done when memory is tied like a stone to the foot of the native and then is tossed into a sea of postmodern cynicism? If, as Nora claims, self-knowing is inherent in the body, a living aspect of memory, then the native body itself stands both as proof of memory's purity as a category and as cause of its elusive nature and incommensurability with authoritative discourse. In that sense, what results from self-knowing cannot be known in a theoretical sense, cannot be written, cannot really be expressed.
The results are no less troubling when we consider peoples who are remembered, for to be remembered means inherently to exist only in the past, to succumb to the process of forgetting and blurring, the "misty watercolor memory" of Barbra Streisand's song. When Nora writes of archaic or primitive secrets, he reveals something about the sources of his own memories. Vivian Sobchack writes that, just "as filmgoers have not been able to escape the lessons of historiography, so, on their side (and try as they might), historians have not been...