First of May and the clouds weren’t blocking the sunshine in Belgium. What a difference from a couple of days ago when there seemed to be a war of moods going on in the sky resulting in hail, melting snow, rain, and sunshine to compete for attention above our heads. Not a bad day to visit the World War I memorials in the area of Ypres (Ieper), long overdue. Never before had I visited these specific places to my own surprise. Especially, considering I’ve spent most of my life in Belgium, and most of my friends have had school trips to remind them of the importance of the events during that time period for contemporary Belgium – and the world at large. To combat that I mobilized my parents to join me in this campaign.
What follows are flows of thought pivoting around possible experiences of wars and contested memories as they sprung up during the visit and subsequently. Questions ring much stronger than answers at this moment.
To begin with let me just quickly point to the term World War I itself. There are different words to point to this event, or more accurately a set of innumerable events, such as Great War, Global War and War of the Nations. Each set of words has a different ring to it with different associations to be made. But to my knowledge North Korea did not partake in this World War. Of course, the use of singular terms is meant to provide some analytical clarity and one might argue, correctly, that it’s not simply the physicality of war that is at stake here. This is already a reminder that interpretations are political and that any quest to talk about it will have to deal with this.
Be that as it may, let me turn to the Menin Gate in Ypres now. Walking from the central square towards this monument I got the feeling that this was meant to be impressing, and it was. The grandiose grayish triumphal arch greets you with the following words on the top beam: ‘To the armies of the British Empire who stood here from 1914 to 1918 and to those of their dead who have no know grave.’ As with many of the memorials in this region the main focus lays on military casualties of the British Empire, later refashioned as the Commonwealth, but no less imperial.
Standing in the middle of the mausoleum the seemingly endless row of names is griping. So many names, all men, with so many life stories to be untold. Most of them carrying the lowest military rank of private. The lower stratum carrying the heaviest burden, this seems an oddly familiar historical lesson. As much as this visible war debris reveals, nevertheless there is at least as much hidden. What was going on with the family members, partners, friends, … back home? What about the approximately 1.5 million colonial troops and their experiences?
I was surprised to read the engraved names of soldiers from the Bhopal infantry, the Sikhs divisions, Burmese and Assam military police, and more. The explanatory plaques accompanying many of the monuments seem to highlight the diversity of people involved in these events, which is a good way forward to counter the whitewashing of history, but the road ahead is still vastly under construction. For example, how many of us who have gone through the primary and secondary school system in Belgium have learned about the wars in Belgian Congo, or for that matter, the vile colonial history of this country?
In psychological literature amnesia is regularly viewed as an adaptation of the mind to deal with troubled memories. In this sense it is a coping mechanism that can help a person from being confronted with painful experiences in the past. The problem of amnesia on a societal scale is that it renders reconciliation very difficult (yes, I know that the idea of reconciliation is a moral stance, but then again what isn’t). The flip-side is that by remembering some things while neglecting others one gets a powerful tool to (re)construct group belongings. A poignant example in this case is the Ijzertoren memorial in Diksmuide that commemorates the killed Flemish soldiers at the Yser front. As such it plays a big role for the idea of the Flemish independence struggle. This is just to state the obvious: dealing with the past is a highly contested power game. Who gets to tell the story is a big ass deal!
Back to the Menin Gate. As I walked up the stairs to reach the upper left side of the memorial I encountered rows of circular red rose formations with personal messages. Flowers and death are a common partner around the world. At burial ceremonies in Kinshasa, Jodhpur, Srebrenica, and Antwerp I’ve witnessed the use of flowers with context-dependent meanings. In this specific case it was the written message that got me thinking. A person with an experience in the Royal Army Medical Corps expressing their feelings about this place through charity funded materials. Morphing together contested past, present and future on a paper. One could distill different intended meanings here and result with a multiplicity of interpretations, but this is a reminder that “all of us (without exception) wallow in a phenomenological swamp of signs and symbols” (Bourgois 1990: 53).
The fogginess of this swamp should not inhibit us from taking a critical stance to question the powers that be. For example, when you reach the top of the staircases there is an etched plaque on the right side referring to the Australian involvement in the war. A part of the writing is explicit about the links between past and present. This is a portrayal that contemporary possibilities in life with a Belgium passport are influenced by these past events. Leading me to ponder about how much of war is related to a form of community-building.
Beneath, in the middle of this plaque, the phrase ‘Lest we forget’ pops out. A combination of words that I encountered at many different places during this visit. Something very similar is often said and written about Srebrenica: ‘Da se ne zaboravi’ (that it’s not forgotten). The idea of not forgetting seems to be an important part of making sense of violence. I’m not sure how much of it is therapeutic in learning to live with pain. This is very dependent on the context of the violence and personal involvements in it. How different is it to talk about reconciliation with the past form a viewpoint of someone who has lost their entire family due to war, and someone who’s idea of war is rendered through historical and televised images?
Let me finish by coming back to the title of this piece. Using the words memory wars is intended to highlight the continuity of material wars. But the danger exist that this implies rigid opposing views of a war. More accurate is to say that there exist many different conflicts of memory in any one person, and society at large. We can claim, rightly so, that fixed identities are an illusion and that violence is not simply a product of antagonistic identities. Thus that violence is exactly a way in which ideas of fixed identities are produced (see Appadurai 2006). But this does not take away that those varied senses of self that people cling on to are felt as illusions. So when I read on many gravestones that ‘death divides memory clings,’ it is a real expression of separation in flesh and connection in memory. However, Lest we forget indeed, wars are also an exercise in community-building (see Gourevitch 1994), and that, in a perverted way, death divides and unites alike. And contested memory is left to make sense of it all.
“That’s not normal,” Aiša said agitatedly, as her arms moved upwards only to return down and slap her legs. “Tell me, how can it be normal?” Her voice had elevated a pitch or two from the previous phrases. Emin agreed, nevertheless he wasn’t sure what exactly was abnormal about it. Maybe the norm, which had meticulously been reproduced under constant individual revision through years of bodily movements, was becoming displaced. Or, the norm she was referring to was one that all should abide by, but most didn’t seem to care for anymore. Then again, all could produce the norm, each time anew, thus coming closer to how normal could be rewritten as norm-all.
All these thoughts gyrated through his mind as she continued to express her disbelief by the state of everyday life in this transitory city. A city locked in a movement between past and future without actually coming close to a present. To be in the present would imply that she hoped for a better future, but all she did was yearn, painstakingly. Aiša lived in a punctuated time and space somewhere between here and there connected to a place called Sarajevo by a set of shifting trickster lifelines.
Her work, as a schoolteacher, was there only to “earn a living and survive;” her family resembled a Sisyphean rock that needed to be pushed up the hill as the day progressed only to roll back down by nightfall; her engagement with the oppositional political party was more a pragmatic exercise of building up a network of people because she didn’t “care about Politics.” At the end “when the masks fall, they’re all the same shit.” Viscerally Emin was inclined to agree, but he wasn’t sure what to make of that statement exactly. Surely, we are all political animals, as one Asian-rendered-European wrote once in a distant time and place not so far from their own locality. Thus, not caring about party Politics doesn’t stop it, or any other form of politics, from invading every molecule of our being. Probably, his own educational background in Western philosophy inhibited him from giving her words a proper place for themselves.
As the two workers entered the apartment on the ninth floor the conversation shifted direction to a more neutral topic, if there exists such a thing. Aiša started joking with them about the time she also ordered a new sofa and the workers forgot their screwdrivers. “Please don’t tell me you forgot your tools.” Emin was sitting on a chair, accompanying the table they had moved to the wall 30 minutes earlier to make room for the new sofa, feeling a bit awkward. He didn’t exactly know what to say to the guys so he stood up and proposed to make coffee. “What are you saying,” Aiša asked him with slight amazement. “Sit down, I’ll make the coffee.” Emin tried to refuse the implied gendered role division and said “who do you think makes the coffee here when you’re not around? You do know that I can make coffee and that I cook,” he said with a smile. “But, you don’t know how to make Bosnian coffee,” she responded to his smiling critique.
It mustn’t be normal for him to do any informal underappreciated work in front of these formal working men. Or, maybe Aiša just genuinely thought that Emin couldn’t prepare a proper local coffee. After all, he wasn’t raised there. And where he lived Senseo coffee machines were the primary providers of authentic coffee. So he sat back down feeling uncomfortable with this norm that clearly didn’t work well for all.
When Aiša opened the tap the noise ringing from the kitchen was similar to a car engine approaching from a distance. Sometimes it takes a second or two for the water to run out because it gets cut off on irregular moments, mostly at night. “Last night they closed the water,” Emin said, explaining the sound. “I know. For fuck sake, I don’t get why they have to close it with all the sources we have in Bosnia,” Aiša responded, lifting her voice above the running water. The hammer hits from the sofa-in-construction were also competing for Emin’s attention by now. Together they created a buzz that made it hard to distinguish which sound to favor.
Perhaps that’s what the norm is alike. A constant flow of sounds, most of it distracting, all roaring on a hierarchical continuum to grab our attention. And we, the individuals, attune to and disapprove of this cacophony continuously.
It’s 4 a.m. and I cannot sleep. How I wish this wasn’t a recurring theme in recent years, but, alas. I need to get some thoughts of my mind concerning my fieldwork, semester abroad, thesis work, uncertainties, in other words, life quandaries in general.
Past summer, after I visited the mass graveyard in Potočari (Srebrenica) and my birthplace Višegrad, I wrote a blog post about my experiences of those places of pain. Visiting them opened up a jar that has led to some unexpected results. I hoped that by being there I could invoke a much needed healing process for myself, and in many ways I did. But running over the last six months makes me realize that it had extraordinarily debilitating effects as well.
From September until January I spent time in Montréal for a semester abroad. This was supposed to be an all out positive learning experience whereby I could explore the North American educational system while soaking in the ‘multicultural’ tastes of the city. Unfortunately that’s not exactly how it went down. I did meet wonderful people, and the experience in its totality was an interesting learning school. But, at the same time, it was there that my unprocessed feelings kicked in and culminated into a deep state of haze. Before, I had experienced similar feelings of existential numbness, but never in such a prolonged manner and with such negative effects on my productive capacities relating to university work. It seemed that I was incapable of writing anything coherent that would pass the academic approval stamp.
Fast forward some months and here I am reflecting on the still lingering haze. I am reminded of Renato Rosaldo’s experience of losing his wife and how that informed his understanding of Ilongot Heandhunter’s rage. Less than a month later he wrote in his journal about the initial moment: “I felt like in a nightmare, the whole world around me expanding and contracting, visually and viscerally heaving” (171). Maybe his work resonates so deeply with me because I have a similar feeling relating to the effects of my fieldwork on me. Similarly, I share the idea that juxtaposing my experiences about uncertainty, violence, and pain can inform me about those of the participants’ I engaged with.
To do this, I first need to let my own experiences find a place of acceptance, which is much easier said than done. In order to let free the hope that was left inside Pandora’s jar I need to decenter my logocentrism to let my body feel and speak, as it obviously needs to deal with some shit, in order to better relate to the subtleties of everyday intimate embodied violence in Sarajevo. Because, when the body talks it often whispers, and whispers are only heard if you lean in close enough. Unless you can read lips of course…
Not so long ago I attended a seminar with the appealing title What is the Matter with Sociology? A Seminar on being a public intellectual. The ‘intellectual’ who was going to enlighten us on this occasion was Sudhir Venkatesh, and on the event page he was described as a “William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology and member of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. Dr. Venkatesh is known for his best-selling urban ethnographies, including Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist takes to the Streets winner of the Best Book award from The Economist…”
Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of him before the public lecture he gave the day before. I was intrigued by his research topic, and attending the lecture and seminar seemed like a righteous way to procrastinate from working on my thesis.
His talk mostly centered on his research concerning youth violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods. I haven’t read the book Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist takes to the Streets so it’s not my intention to criticize or support the main arguments of this work. Even though, I am amazed at the self-aggrandizing title, not to mention the cover picture with him taking on a tough pose next to a staircase. Blessed be the tenured professor, who daily loadeth us with intellect, even the God of our salvation. Selah (Psalm 68:19 – my interpretation). Excuse my cynicism, or don’t, but, it’s not to be interpreted as an all out negation of the tremendous integrity many in that privileged position do display!
Be that as it may, in this short stream of thought I want to highlight a peculiar distressing thought he displayed after I posed a question regarding his own upbringing in an upper middle class milieu and the way it relates to his research participants. I was pointing to the ways he positions himself among them, which the naive and foolish me thought would be in some sort of friendships. I know, strange of me to assume that the people ‘researchers’ spend so much time with in the field could be considered friends.
He went on to explain that he doesn’t consider them as friends, even though, he is godfather to some of their children. He is after all a scientist, and in order to produce valuable data (you know for the sake of the state – Staatswissenschaft/statistics) one cannot become too intimate with the subjects. Lest we forget, the governing/governed dichotomy should not be undermined too much!
Seemingly the legion of feminist and post-colonial critiques on such an objectifying and dehumanizing gaze have not penetrated to all upper echelons of the intellect.
This piece is not meant to single out one person. I simply used this example because it was the latest one I encountered in a long list of crap ‘intellectuals’ say and do.
Get your front plan up, your back plan is now secondary. Smile, shake hand, don’t look at inappropriate places, don’t eat with your mouth open, …
If you practice long enough you’ll be able to fit in. They won’t even notice that you’re acting, just like they forgot about their own drama. It’ll seem that this is who you are and if you’re fortunate enough you’ll find a group of individuals that resemble your performance.
Is this not what you’re after? To belong among others longing to be.
One day when you’re alone and you ponder on the limits of your being – when you feel yourself liminoid – you can ask yourself: did I act or re-act?
He’s sitting in a coffee shop in the Mile End area of Montreal. It’s the kind of place where the coffee is absurdly overpriced and where so-called hipsters assemble to profess their alternative lifestyle. He wonders what’s so alternative about them when everywhere he looks he sees similarities: beanies that don’t cover the whole head, thrift-shop scavenged oversized clothes, sarcasm as a mode-of-being. Aren’t they just a different kind of mainstream? Maybe hipster would be more accurate of a word if most shared the experience of a hip replacement.
He can’t hide his uncanny feeling around them. How can he trust the screams for revolution out of the mouths of bourgeoisie children whose most profound experience of distress is choosing a place to drink a coffee and talk about how important Simone de Beauvoir or Michel Foucault are. And still, he’s sitting in this coffee shop worrying that they are not so far from him as imagined.
The bowl of coffee is empty and the residues have formed paths on the side as if they are showing different lines of flight that come together in this place. In front of him is Kathleen Stewart’s book ‘Ordinary Affects’. The whitish cover collides with the run down brownish table. Is he reading it or is it there as part of a self-presentation to portray a belonging to the educated class?
It’s tiring living this life, often caught in ‘stereotypes so strong they thicken the air like stench’ (Stewart 2007: 13). He tries to keep his mind at place but repeatedly slips away to recite random poems in his head pretending he was an accomplished lyricist. His ‘attention is distracted, pulled away from itself. But the constant pulling also makes it wakeful, “at attention.” Confused but attuned’ (ibid.: 10).
Distracted is a good way to typecast him. Imagining so many things he could do only to fall back behind his laptop looking at the screen flashing images that fulfill the short term hedonistic urge for pleasure. This post was supposed to be a vignette of a scene experienced in Sarajevo but for now that has not solidified. That doesn’t mean we won’t get there.