There’s this conference,…

There's this conference, on memory, coming up at Utah. I'm very tempted to submit something to it, given that this is a major locus of interest in my dissertation project. I could write something about the project, but given that I'll still be drafting the project this summer, it feels a bit premature (not to mention a bit weird, analyzing your own fiction). I started thinking about other ways of approaching the subject. I'd love your thoughts on the following -- questions, ideas, comments. This is obviously extremely preliminary -- if I want to do this, I'd need to send them a 250-word abstract by the end of the week.


  • I'm interested in the cultural production of memory, and the societal purposes it serves.

  • It seems to have a dual nature, and a divided purpose:

    • public memory (stories that are told and retold (or so familiar they don't even need to be told) in families or small social groups, which tend to reinscribe cultural hegemonies) -- the boy who cried 'wolf', the girl who ran away with a man who got her pregnant and abandoned her until she crawled home to her weeping parents

    • private memory (the secret stories that are never told, or that are told only to selected others in private, which act to subvert hegemonic structures) -- the queer aunt, the scandalous relationship that thrived despite being cut off from the family, the supposedly-dead but actually still alive relative, the girl who didn't get married and went to college (and sometimes got married later, and sometimes didn't), the marriages arranged by the family which failed

  • What happens when private becomes public? does this move disrupt the hegemonic structure (as one might hope)?

    • fictional function: has some effect, but undercut by fictional nature -- easy to dismiss as entertainment, sensationalistic, unreal

    • new element in the game -- online world:

      • online public (sometimes anonymous) journalling? (with and without comments/forums)
      • semi-private (but archived) mailing lists?

  • Specifically, what is the evolving function of South Asian women's online journals and mailing lists? Do they offer a potential path to reinscribing public memory, in ways that disrupt prior hegemonic discourse?

10 thoughts on “There’s this conference,…”

  1. A few quick thoughts.

    For me memory is very much tied up with “triggers” – mostly physical objects, but also phrases, sometimes sounds, certainly some smells (ask me about bay leaves for example), sometimes images – all then serve to be entrypoints into my mental memory.

    When I have notes or objects electronically – whether online or off, this changes somewhat – now the triggers have to be paths to the object (file names, search terms, URLs etc).

    Seperate question to posit – Does it “matter” what is declared, what is assumed, what is known and what is “unknown” when discussing something like “South Asian women’s online journals and mailing lists”?

    For example – a “simple” question “How do you know that a journal or mailing list you are reading is a “South Asian women’s”?

    Is it the content?

    The language (either vocabulary, terms, phrasings, or literally the language being used?)

    Is it context? – i.e. does how you get to the journal matter? (link from a site, from a search term, from a friend’s website, from an email from a friend?)

    Is it somehow different to be “public” in declaring who and “what” you are when you are wriring? (either on or offline?) Clearly it matters to many people – does being online change this?

    – simple question to illustrate this – how many people reading my post and my name assumed that I am female?

    (I am not, I’m male. This confusion happens to me at least once a month online – either in a mailing list, public forum or other online place, someone publically assumes that I am female. I can only assume that many many more times people assume it but do not communicate directly with me or the group about that assumption.)

  2. Shannon said:

    “For me memory is very much tied up with “triggers” – mostly physical objects…”

    Hmm…what this clarifies for me is that I’m not so much interested in the actual memories, but in how the memories are translated into stories and then transmitted to others (though perhaps a necessary adjunct to that that definitely would be of interest to my project would be the question of how repeated storytelling reshapes the original memory — (for example, I have at least one memory of a family event that the rest of the family denies ever having happened, and I think that what happened was that I heard about it happening to someone else, and that I told it to myself enough times that it ended up feeling like a memory) — and to what extent we end up being able to trust our memories; a lot of my dissertation project is wrapped up in family memories which look very different from different angles, and the difficulty of trying to elicit an objective truth from such necessarily partial and biased accounts

    “Seperate question to posit – Does it “matter” what is declared, what is assumed, what is known and what is “unknown” when discussing something like “South Asian women’s online journals and mailing lists”?”

    “For example – a “simple” question “How do you know that a journal or mailing list you are reading is a “South Asian women’s”?”

    Good questions. For the mailing list I was thinking of, it’s explicitly stated that it is, and obviously, for my journal, you can figure out that it is, though you might have to take a step back to my home page. I imagine it does change the question/result if that isn’t made explicit — that might be a good separation to make. If it isn’t made explicit by the author(s), then to what extent does it effect change in the community. Does it at all? And if it does, is it perceived as an insider or outsider effect?

    “Is it somehow different to be “public” in declaring who and “what” you are when you are writing? (either on or offline?) Clearly it matters to many people – does being online change this?”

    This would have to be a necessary part of the discussion I think, and would tie into the anonymity option online, something that isn’t available in the real world (but is available to some extent in print, both nonfiction and fiction).

    Thanks for the thoughts, Shannon. Helpful!

  3. I’m told (though I may be misremembering) that there’s evidence that each time you remember something, you’re effectively (to use a computer analogy) reading it from memory and then writing back to memory. Which means we’re constantly overwriting memories with new and perhaps slightly modified versions of them.

    Btw, surely no discussion of literature and memory would be complete without reference to Proust. So consider this a reference to Proust. 🙂

  4. I would also be curious about what fictionalized or defictionalized a given journal or mailing list. People know that someone with a political or social point to make could start a journal tomorrow and claim to be a member of a community they’re not, or to have experiences they haven’t had. I would think that in your case, your pictures of yourself and your specific details would help to make it clear that you, personally, were really a female of South Asian origins. Could someone have anonymity and get the same effects from their memory-stories, or would it be easy to discount their memory-stories as made-up or unverifiable because of the internet medium? It’s kind of the flip side of Shannon’s concern — I’m wondering how the difficulties in telling “for sure” make people view the medium as more or less fictional than other traditional media.

  5. Along Jed’s line of thinking…

    “Anything processed by memory is fiction.” – Wright Morris, whoever he is.

    See you at the WHA conference. According to the notice I got, abstracts are due TODAY.

  6. Just a thought on this, for what it’s worth; I’ve only dabbled in anthropology thus far, and am very, very sure you know more about this than I do, but hopefully it might spark something for you:

    Online, people tend to either deliberately reinvent themselves, or portray a rather exaggerated, almost cartoonish “essential personality”: doing things and saying things that are perfectly in keeping with their personalities, yet cross the lines of what one would consider acceptable/societal standard behaviour in face-to-face interactions. This could in and of itself produce a distortion of public and private space.

    On journalling: I’m not sure if the journalling phenomenon could be necessarily considered as a cause more than an effect of the blurring of the public/private boundary. People were doing the talk show circuit, the expose, the tell-all before journalling; it’s just more accessible now. Viewed in that sense, the idea is very much hegemonic.

    I think, however, that the fashion in which people expose their private memory and the idea of an online community could have interesting societal implications. People come together based on common interests as opposed to geography now, and a relationship can achieve a surprising amount of intimacy online. I feel “close” to a whole bunch of people I’ve never met (yet would consider friends), some of whom probably don’t know I read their journals or keep tabs on their day-to-day doings. In some ways, the internet is the great equalizer; people one might never approach in another setting can become close and valued friends when one is forced to see past the face.

    So…just a few thoughts, and probably none of them new. But hoping they’re helpful. 🙂

  7. Leah, could you uncompress this sentence for me? “Viewed in that sense, the idea is very much hegemonic.” I can tell there’s content in there, I just don’t know what it means.

    My first impression is that web journals are anti-hegemonic, in that personal narratives are elevated over group ones. I think this means I didn’t understand what you said. 🙂

  8. Dan, no problem. I wrote that while rather sleepy, and it may make little to no sense. There’s a few reasons why I kind of threw that idea out, but I’ll try and relate this to the thesis under discussion. Obviously I can’t speak to the societal norms in South Asian societies (varied as they are, and ignorant on that front as I am), but I’ll do my best. 🙂

    There’s a good point in what you’re saying, but I’m not sure journalling is really shifting the values of our society with regards to narrative.

    What I was groping towards there was the idea that the tell-all is very much in vogue in our society. There’s an obsession with personal information (and therefore personal narrative is already emphasized over group narrative), with exposing secrets, with removing the barrier between private and public information. Viewed a certain way, one could posit that in our society all information is considered public, and you could back that up with merely the sheer amount of things one can find about someone on the web. Or the fact that people will remember Bill Clinton by a cigar and a Gap dress instead of his policies. Or the fact that A&E has an entire Biography -channel- now. Or the idea of the modern cult of personality and our definitions of celebrity. We’re quite fixated on making all information public – on eradicating private memory. We’re in the information age, and the watchwords of our society are “knowledge is power”.

    In that sense, the idea of making one’s private narrative – one’s life – a public one through online discourse is very hegemonic. It supports the idea that all information is fair game, and spawns from the idea of fame – having one’s narrative be public – as a valuable and desired quality. It’s not at all questioning the value of this facet of our society. While it might provide a new platform for expression, the ideas being expressed are the same old ones. We, the participants, have agreed that public information is more valuable than private information. This practice merely confirms that social system.

    I could delve into the usages of online journals, and touch upon how they perpetuate the discourses with which we think as opposed to proposing new ones, but that’s a murky and complex line of reasoning. Suffice to say that we also consider (as a society) certain information to be valuable, and certain information not to be, and there’s a “readership” factor involved in journalling that can play to an audience in that manner: therefore, one can argue that the content of journals is dictated by hegemonic thought as well.

    Again, just a quickie response, but I hope it clears up that which I have made muddled by daring to post before I have had tea. 😉

  9. Thanks for the post-tea information, Leah! Very interesting.

    In this sense that you describe, is there any narrative that is *not* hegemonic? I’m arriving to that question via “narrative(*) = public information,” and “public information = hegemonic” from your note. I’ve undoubtedly made a wrong turn in there somewhere.

    I’m especially fascinated by your last comment about the audience driving the content of journals in a hegemonic way.

    In any case, thanks for taking pity on the under-educated! 🙂

    (*)narrative: Or at least, any narrative that exists beyond one person’s mind or a collusion of absolute secrecy.

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