Ghosts of Memory || Introduction: Ghosts of Memory

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    Introduction: Ghosts of Memory

    2 Janet Carsten 2

    Residents of a marginal and decayed railway colony in Bengal are persistently troubled by domestic ghosts and by uncanny events featur-ing their recent ancestors. Pre-empted from asserting communal soli-darity or continuity with the Indian polity in the idioms of caste, village, or national ties, these families express their links to the past in tales of haunting and in commemorative practices that bind them to the places where they live. Sex workers in London apparently have diffi culty in telling their personal biographies as a coherent sequence of events linking the past to the present. Instead, their pasts are frag-mented, refracted through different lives and sets of relationships that are associated with the different names and personae that they have adopted. In Mongolia, nomadic herding, migration, and political per-secution disrupt peoples connections with absent or deceased kin. In these circumstances, womens embroideries that capture signifi cant events and emotions in their lives, photographic montages of ancestors, and accounts of reincarnation, provide alternative media for displaying connections to the past.

    These three examples indicate just some of the subtle and complex interconnections among everyday forms of relatedness in the present, memories of the past, and the wider political contexts in which they occur that are considered in this volume. They point to the myriad articulations of temporality, memory, personal biography, family connection, and political processes that are manifested in subjective dispositions to the past, and in the imagination of possible futures.

  • 2 Janet Carsten

    They suggest, too, some common forms and themes that recur across the diverse geographical locations and social contexts that are threaded through the essays that follow: pasts disrupted by migration, personal trauma, or political upheaval; the present disturbed by ghosts and hauntings, illness, absent or abusive familial relations. In different ways, these essays explore how their subjects German Jewish families, Buryat pastoralists in Mongolia, Polish peasants in the Tatra Mountains, sex workers in London, displaced Muslim refugees in Sri Lanka, patients attending an HIV clinic in a North American city, Anglo-Indian railway workers, adult adoptees in Scotland, an alterna-tive healer in Switzerland are located in personal and familial histories that connect to the wider political formations of which they are a part.

    These essays stand at the intersection of three strands of scholarship. One is recent work on memory in history, a theme in which writing on the commemoration of war, and on the Holocaust, has been par-ticularly prominent. The second is a literature on anthropology and memory, which has attended closely to the politics of memory. The third is recent studies of kinship in anthropology. These have illumi-nated the experiential, emotional, and everyday dimensions of related-ness, but have tended to leave aside the political signifi cance of kinship.

    The work of Nora (198492) on sites of commemoration in France, and of Yerushalmi (1996[1982] ) on Jewish memory are key texts to understanding the role of memory in twentieth-century European identity. In the wider literature on European memory and history, the Holocaust has fi gured as the turning point in grand narratives of twentieth-century modernity. If the Holocaust is the trope for twentieth-century obliteration, then the injunction to remember, depicted by Yerushalmi as a key paradigm in Jewish history, is what emerges in the literature on history and memory in late twentieth-century Europe. This injunction necessarily encompasses not only the collective memories of killings on a mass scale, but also the personal and intimate aspects of loss.1 The imperative to witness and record the details of these events is the prerequisite for twentieth-century iden-tity.2 The massive disjuncture of the Holocaust can be said to stand behind other disjunctures of familial loss, displacement, or migration, which are the recurrent motifs not just of the academic literature on war and displacement, but also of fi lms, memoirs, and fi ctional writing

  • Introduction: Ghosts of Memory 3

    that deal with personal or familial aspects of dislocations whether as the direct result of the major events of European history, or in a minor register, of small-scale personal or family history (see Hodgkin and Radstone 2003). The sociological notion of collective memory (Halb-wachs 1980, 1992) draws attention to various kinds of ritual and sites, realms of memory (Nora 1989, 198492), in which such memories may be elicited, reinforced, or produced3 including war memorials and rituals of commemoration of various kinds, and these have been the focus of a rich vein of historical scholarship (see Connerton 1989; Mosse 1990; Nora 1989, 198492; Winter 1995).4

    Drawing inspiration from this historical work, one strand of a recent anthropological literature, focusing on the production of shared memory within particular social groups, has explored the politics of memory and the signifi cance of memorializing practices to the politics of the nation and the state (Boyarin 1994a; Hodgkin and Radstone 2003; Pine, Kaneff, and Haukanes 2004a).5 Such explorations have been fruitful in understanding the role of commemorative practices in pro-ducing or reinforcing political ideologies of nationalism or ethnic soli-darity. While this work has tended to foreground political processes and collective rituals rather than familial, intimate, and everyday prac-tices of relatedness, it also provides telling examples of how personal, familial, or local memories may explicitly or silently challenge offi cial versions of history.6

    Anthropological studies have also documented the links between memory, colonial history, and/or political dislocation outside Europe, demonstrating the centrality of political autonomy to the possibility of performing commemorative acts in colonial and post-colonial contexts, or under repressive state regimes. In China, Madagascar, and else-where, anthropologists have shown the myriad linkages among com-munal rituals, kinship, mourning, and state policies in their historical unfolding.7

    In contrast to writing on memory, however, recent work on kinship has, with some exceptions, often left aside the political implications of everyday processes of relatedness.8 Scholars in this fi eld have moved away from conceiving kinship as a discrete domain in terms of par-ticular analytic paradigms, such as functionalism or structuralism, or technical models that focus on kin classifi cation and instead have prioritized the lived experience of relatedness. Much of this work has highlighted indigenous practices and concerns. Studies which focus on

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    the practical and symbolic elaboration of one or more facets of kinship the house, procreation, personhood, feeding, naming, gender, or ideas of bodily substance have illuminated the diversity of local practice.9 None of these idioms are taken to exclusively defi ne or contain kinship in any specifi c setting. Rather, they provide a fi lter through which local understandings and practices have been viewed by their ethnographers.

    While scholarship on memory points back to the signifi cance of major political events, and work on kinship highlights the symbolic elaboration of the everyday world of the family, this volume is an attempt to bring these themes together. The essays that follow suggest how, cumulatively and over time, small everyday processes of related-ness such as narrating stories of past kinship, tracing family histories, constituting small ceremonies of commemoration, making medical histories, creating or storing material objects have a larger-scale political import. To bring this conjunction of the intimate and the political, the ordinary and the momentous, more sharply into focus, I turn to Veena Dass writing on critical events (1995) that dominate local political and social imaginaries and change the shape of the lives of those who are caught up in them.10 Das has characterized critical events as moments when everyday life is disrupted and local worlds are shattered. But more than this, they bring into being new modes of action, which in turn change the categories within which people operate. People learn to relate to each other in new ways. Nor is the impact of these events confi ned to particular institutions or localities. Rather, their effects ricochet between different kinds of institutions, localities, and actors. Critical events are not only translocal, they are also necessarily open to expression in many registers. They involve individuals, families, law courts, multinational corporations, and the state (Das 1995:46).

    These events are often apprehended and experienced at the time as chaotic and unexpected, accounts of them may be faltering or inarticu-late, experiences of time may be discontinuous and fragmented. The idea of the critical event is premised on the existence of multiple and often muted voices which express the suffering that has been visited upon them. Das proposes an anthropology which does not search for the meaning of these events they cannot be accounted for in any simple way. Indeed, she suggests that in constructing metanarratives of such events, certain kinds of institutions including the state

  • Introduction: Ghosts of Memory 5

    appropriate the experience of victims for their own ends (1995:223, 2001). And here the passing of time plays a part in the absorption of dislocation in national and familial narratives. Stephan Feuchtwang (2005) suggests that, especially in the generation following the one that experienced them, such events constitute shared breaks and points of orientation, or caesurae, in which generational reckoning and his-toriography coincide.

    The critical events on which the essays in this collection turn, and which are absorbed in ordinary life, include both national and local phenomena: ethnic violence leading to the creation of internal or external displacement and long-term refugee status; the diagnosis of terminal illness; familial disruption leading to adoption; state repression; familial abuse; radical dislocations or transformations of political regimes. In such circumstances, the safeguarding of personal and family memories, or their obliteration and erasure, may contribute to larger narratives that constitute, maintain, or negate difference locally and nationally. Conversely, through large-scale political events, as well as the institutional structures of the state that impinge on personal and familial life, kinship emerges as a particular kind of sociality in which certain forms of temporality and memory-making, and certain disposi-tions towards the past, present, and future are made possible, while others are excluded.

    In focusing on the place of kinship in memory, and of memory in kinship, the authors of these essays explore a more personalized terrain than most studies of the politics of memory. In so doing, they encom-pass biographical approaches to the life course and intimate processes of self-making. In the introduction to their edited collection, Tense Past, Michael Lambek and Paul Antze highlight the intricate, continu-ous, and reciprocal relations between the social and the intimate, and the centrality of memory, discursively framed, to creative refashionings of the self (1996:xx). Drawing on Benedict Andersons (1991) work on the imagination of community, they emphasize the mobile and permeable boundaries between imagined selves and imagined com-munities.11 The centrality of linkages between identity and memory to a Western sense of self, to which Lambek and Antze draw our atten-tion, thus provides another fruitful point of departure for this collec-tion. Their point that, when memory is not in question, neither is identity (1996:xxii), and the emphasis they place on the ways in which personal identities and wider collective ones are mutually

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    embedded, suggest the importance of an exploration of the connec-tions among personal and familial memory and narratives of the nation.12 Similarly, in proposing a study of history in persons, Dorothy Holland and Jean Lave have suggested that we should approach history as something that is in part made in and by persons, and . . . approach the study of persons as historically fashioned (2001:30). Paying attention to the mixing, discarding, and accumula-tion of apparently incompatible elements in projects of self-fashioning, necessarily also illuminates wider processes of political affi liation and identity-making.

    The Weight of Memory

    Does it make sense to talk about kinship and memory as separate things? Several authors in this volume suggest it does not precisely because memory is not a discrete thing in itself (see also Lambek 2003; Radstone and Hodgkin 2003). The entanglement is, however, the common terrain of novels, memoirs, and literary essays. I turn to this very different literature here for a commentary on how kinship and memory are intertwined, and on what happens when the many intri-cate connections between them are fractured or severed.

    Two novels by Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (2004[1980] ) and Gilead (2005[2004] ), explore the transmission of kinship memory down the generations. In Housekeeping, the weight of memories is excessive. Two young girls are brought up after their mothers death by their grandmother, and then by their mothers sister, Sylvie. All these womens lives are haunted by the deaths, fi rst of the grandfather, who drowns after a train on which he is working plunges off a bridge into the local lake, and then by the suicide of the girls mother, who, years later, drives her car into the same lake. Their aunt Sylvies pre-carious hold on reality is materialized in part by her previous life as a transient vagrant, to which, in spite of valiant attempts at proper housekeeping, she is always drawn back. The housekeeping is fated to miss the mark. Routine tasks are ignored; others, apparently pointless, are carried out with ritualistic fervor. The girls house is engulfed by their aunts tendency to hoard old newspapers and other apparently useless objects, and then by fl ooding, after which it never resumes its former sense of order. In a bizarre mimicry of normal housewifely

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    prudence and tidiness, Sylvie meticulously cleans and stores old tin cans, which she neatly piles up to no obvious purpose in the kitchen. Alternative transient places, haunted by vagrants and by the girls deceased relatives, threaten always to pull the girls and their aunt into a world of ghosts who inhabit the watery domains that surround them. As the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly explicit that, Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it (2004:194). Some at least of those left amo...