A central question that occupied discussion at the Diasporic Memories, Comparative Methodologies conference regarded our object of study – what exactly is a transnational memory? Bracketing the question of memory, what does it mean for it to be transnational? Aleida Assman played off a familiar dichotomy and highlighted prescriptive and descriptive approaches to the term. Whereas the former gets at the normative potentials of a transnationalism that might be (which provides, e.g., a way of escaping the statist strangle-hold on national memory), the latter takes already-existing global flows as its starting point. But we might add a third term – already present in Assmann’s discussion, but brought out more forcefully in a paper presented by Ann Rigney – namely, the imaginative. Rigney suggested we think in terms of the “articulation” of groups, in its double sense of putting into words and of joining. Such a term sees the joining of cultures as a poetic act, a way of imagining the future.
It goes without saying that the descriptive, prescriptive, and imaginative are all aspects of a single system/field of inquiry, but they nonetheless also represent distinct impulses and directions. Whereas prescriptive and descriptive transnationalism might be said to exist in the definite space of memories, imaginative transnationalism exists in the still inchoate realm of remembrance, where space is given the shape, contour, and meaning that is taken for granted in prescriptive and descriptive modes of analysis. Approaches to imaginative transnationalism thus insist on the dynamism of memory’s terrain. The emergence of categories and experiences of distance and proximity forms the locus of its interest.
Where we fall in this constellation of terms is going to both determine and be determined by what we take as our objects of analysis. The circulation of texts or the movement of migrants, for example, are empirical questions and hence firmly on the descriptive side of the triad. But the question of how people’s understanding of their location in the world comes into being leans more toward the imaginative. As scholars, we fall in different points at different times. None of us is likely so foolish as to cling statically to one side or the other. The productivity of our discussion, in fact, and many of its tensions seem to come from trying to navigate a way of engaging all three. Given that we are academics, this navigation is taking place primarily in the realm of language – of vocabulary. And indeed we were treated to a wealth of wonderful distinctions and terminological possibilities in the papers and discussion that followed.
Part of the difficulty we faced, though, in developing this vocabulary is inherent in the very notion that framed the conference: diasporic memories, a term that seamlessly blends space and time. Contemplating this has reminded us of something we know well by now: that space and time are inextricable. But whether it’s the phenomenologist or the physicist telling us this, it does not make it easier for us to talk about them in a meaningfully unified way – to articulate them, as it were. For her part, Jessica Young offered the metaphor of the virus as one entry into a discourse about transnational/diasporic memory. The virus, after all, has the curious ability to both move and not move, to be transmitted without leaving the host. The virus exposes unseen connections across time and space at the same time that it acts as gatekeepers of a community, through collective immunity that may not be shared by intruders. Later in the day, Hapsatou Wane offered other metaphors, such as the womb and Edouard Glissant’s “point of entanglement.” This proved quite resonant, and the language of entanglement and knots, whether from Glissant or elsewhere, recurred in comments and presentations throughout the day. But while these terms (and others that came up over the course of the conference) opened up intriguing possibilities and facilitated great discussion, they also encountered resistance when the metaphorical was returned to the literal. We are rightfully hesitant of mining trapped or suffering bodies for metaphors, particularly when the practical connections between the body and the metaphor remain unclear.
Questioning a too-quick turn to the “trans-,” Peter Fritzsche reminded us of the continuing vitality of the nation-state, both in terms of its relevance in the formation of memory and its usefulness for achieving concrete political goals. It is a useful reminder that imagination does not work in a vacuum. New affiliations may articulate themselves, but they do so within a world that is structured by (among other things) national politics and imaginaries.
Fritzsche also raised another of the conference’s major sets of themes, namely new media. But discussion about the new and unprecedented, about technology and the media, also could not escape the terminological questions that I have been discussing. We saw this above in Jessica Young’s example of the computer virus, but Fritzsche’s linking of language, brain structures, and the new media is perhaps a more striking instance. Suggesting that there are no universal structures to the brain and that it is the grammar of media such as language that structures our thought, Fritzsche posed the question of what structures of the past new media do and will offer. Although not a metaphor for memory in the same sense as contagion or the womb, Fritzsche’s invocation of new media is nonetheless tied explicitly to spatial and temporal imaginaries and their creation/elaboration in language.
I don’t want to suggest that we are searching for a vocabulary that will exist at some privileged point among the three modes. Rather, I think it is about navigation and finding ways for unimpeded movement between them. Astrid Erll’s comment that the graduate student papers tried to think genealogical memory beyond postmemory and Ann Rigney’s point that diasporic memory moves in realms not limited to the communicative can be taken as suggestions in this direction of openness and movement rather than toward a closed vocabulary or definite site of inquiry.
Matthew Nelson is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois. His work draws on memory and translation studies in an effort to rethink theories of place in the postcolonial context, particularly as articulated in Modern Sanskrit and Indian English poetry.