MLA Panel: Antimemorials: Sites of Countermemory, Future Memory, and Forgetting

Sunday, 11 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 19, VCC East

A special session

Presiding: Naomi Howell, Univ. of Exeter

1. “Proleptic Commemorations and Entombed Futures in the Arthurian Vulgate Cycle,” Lucas Wood, Durham Univ.

The Prose Lancelot and the Queste del Saint Graal, the central texts of the thirteenth-century French Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian romances, stage numerous adventures involving funerary monuments and tombs.  However, almost none of them serve a straightforwardly memorial function.  Rather, these monuments foreground the complicated, sometimes self-contradictory temporal structure of the romance cycle, which obsessively generates genealogical narratives and histories of translatio as back stories for the diegetic present while collapsing these retrospective diachronies so that they overlap and interact with the present.  The tomb episodes also connect questions of temporality to hermeneutic problems.  They conflate historiographical and allegorical discourses of “senefiance,” asserting a fundamental continuity between the two interpretative perspectives that compete to determine the meaning of narrated adventures.  The tombs, which exist primarily for those destined to find them rather than for those they memorialize, are repositories of meaning to come, generative matrices of narrative futures.  By demanding that the commemorated past be reinterpreted and typologically fulfilled, they put history itself back into play and at stake.  Furthermore, the tomb adventures thematize the transformative rewriting and reinterpretation of the Lancelot and of its eponymous hero in the Queste, where Lancelot is superseded by his saintly son Galaad just as secular chivalry (and its textuality) give way Christian chivalry and theological romance—as was prophesied, but never inevitably or completely, as foreshadowed by Lancelot’s earlier adventures at his own ancestors’ graves.

2. “Isolated Trauma: Cap 110 and Collective Memory,” Erika Serrato, Emory Univ.

Facing the coast of the Martinican city of Diamant, large stone figures stand rooted to the spot. The life-size white torsos stand somber, overlooking the sea. This ensemble of statues, a memorial entrusted to artist Laurent Valère, commemorates the shipwreck of a clandestine slave ship that capsized on a tempestuous night near the coast. In this paper, I will argue that the Cap 110 monument problematizes the negotiation between historical reference and memorial. Instead of informing or encouraging the Martinican population to question the events surrounding the wreckage, the memorial serves as a muted homage to the lives of the would-be slaves that perished on 9 April 1830. Though aesthetically striking and deeply evocative, the memorial operates as more of a sculpture. The isolated location renders the negotiation of remembering an arduous task. Like the awareness and discussion of both clandestine and legal slavery, the memorial is relegated to the margins of oblivion. The form of the memorial is equally problematic. The figures stand still. The audience is compelled to contemplate, not to become actively engaged in deciphering the past and its ramifications for the present. The artist’s vision, of course, cannot be discarded in this discussion of the effectiveness of the memorial. As such, this paper will touch on a few of Valère’s other works wherein he treats issues pertaining to slavery, plantation culture, and the relationship to the sea.

3. “The Queer Memorial: The Golden Gate Bridge and Suicide,” Yetta Howard, San Diego State Univ.

This paper explores San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge as an unlikely memorial to the suicidal subjects who have jumped to their deaths from it. I ask how the suicidal body gets mapped onto the Bridge as an icon of the sexually libertine city and how it becomes an historical site that cancels out its history as one of the most desirable locations for suicide. Functioning to erase rather than memorialize its jumpers, the Bridge, I suggest, instead stands for an erotics of suicide that offers a way to articulate queer modes of attraction in its modes of memorializing. Drawing on expressions of suicide from this monument, I use Jenni Olson’s experimental trans-narrated film The Joy of Life (2005) and Eric Steel’s documentary The Bridge (2006) to rethink conventional points of erotic encounter and frameworks of commemoration. Exceeding geographical and embodied spaces of desire and architecture, this world-famous suspension Bridge emerges as a queer memorial that maintains a suspended relationship with its history as a suicide spot. This paper is in conversation with José Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, Sara Ahmed’s Happy Objects, and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism.

4. “‘A Metonym of Its Disaster’: Ground Zero as Antimemorial in Teju Cole’s Open City,” Ann Keniston, Univ. of Nevada, Reno

My paper begins by locating a fundamental ambiguity in Pierre Nora’s discussion of memory, history, and the lieu de memoire: for Nora, the site of memory signals both the failure of memory and the possibility of recovering it. Teju Cole’s 2011 novel Open City, I argue, explores a similar paradox. The novel contains extensive descriptions of memorial sites encountered by its narrator Julius, a Nigerian psychiatry resident, during a series of solitary walks through New York City. These descriptions do more than describe these sites and the events they memorialize; they also consider the situations in which the memorials were constructed and the histories that they excise. Through such discussions, Julius in a sense performs an act of restitution, expressing in words what the physical site only hints at. In contrast, the site of the 9/11 attacks in lower Manhattan, which Julius repeatedly visits, is characterized almost exclusively by absence: it is, he says, an “erasure” and also an emblem of how the attacks themselves have been “sectioned off” in ways that reveal a larger American failure of “mourning.” Ground Zero does not interpret or make sense of past events. Instead, it reiterates them, functioning as “a metonym of [the] disaster” itself. These descriptions are, of course, physically accurate: at the time of Julius’s visits, no memorial had been constructed in the empty space of Ground Zero. Yet this site, Cole makes clear, resembles the others Julius has visited: all of them “section off” the dead, hinting at traumas that cannot be fully remembered or represented. This failure has deeply ethical implications, as the novel makes clear. In a late scene, a Nigerian friend of Julius’s accuses him of having raped her years earlier, an event of which he claims to have no memory. This moment has been read by reviewers as raising questions about Julius’s reliability as narrator, which it does. But, read in the context of the novel’s recurrent concern with memorialization, it also suggests that for Julius, and perhaps for post-9/11 America more generally, memory has been replaced with what Julius’s friend repeatedly calls “forgetting.” Julius’s repeated evasion of responsibility for the rape implies something even more troubling: acts of forgetting are paradoxically—and in ways that recall Nora’s paradoxical description of sites of memory—facilitated by contemporary culture’s insistence on the need to memorialize and remember.