ONCE UPROOTED, ONCE FORGOTTEN

For the exile, memory is constantly called upon to perform a daunting if not impossible task: that of replacing a certain live experience with images, signs, and symbols…Memory has to double its capacity, so to speak, for it has to perform the regular functions that memory does, and in addition, to hold and keep alive the information and experience of one’s most important and formative experiences from childhood to the time of the exile, without the incentive of the physical reality. The memory of the exile has to feed on itself to some extent, to keep creating and re-creating itself in order to replace that which has been lost in the physical realm. This double function of memory, however, is partly the source of creativity and of an enhanced grip on reality for the exile. It is part of the so-called gypsy nature of the exile in terms of the following paradigm: once uprooted always uprooted and once having left home, pretty much everywhere can be home.

– Domnica Radulescu, Realms of Exile: Nomadism, Diasporas, and Eastern European Voices

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4 thoughts on “ONCE UPROOTED, ONCE FORGOTTEN

  1. (Had to start a new comment thread, Jeff.)

    In that last paragraph, yes, I meant these two conceptions: one, “real exile, government imposed,” the geographic with the political (e.g., the Eastern European paradigm); and secondly an experience of “exile” more akin to expatriation, still geographic/bodily and with parallel personal/psychological effects, but the economic/political context is far different as there is no force/violence involved. The very term “exile” thus starts to reflect metaphoric usage in the second conception. By starting with these two conceptions and comparing them, further ones (e.g., technological) can be made within the metaphoric potentiality of the word.

    A lot of this is parsing semantics, but I am interested in how the word is used against this historical baseline (e.g., the Eastern European paradigm). In my view, accounting for other exilic conceptions – metaphoric, metaphysical, technological, etc. – must still be measured against this traditional one, however 20th century-bound it may be

    I definitely agree that this traditional conception is less commonplace, but that makes this metaphoric usage all the more debatable. For me the individual word “exile” is not to be used lightly; it’s loaded. Its use must start from the geographic/bodily and the political, and ask, what are people in exile for and from, what are the power dynamics, what is the role of choice, what are the roles of work/economic factors, how temporary is/was the situation, and is there return enabled? In the case of technology, these kinds of questions can be considered in light of the use of “exile” vs. some of the cornier terms out there, like “digital migrant” or “postmodern nomad,” or in light of how understandings of exile are changing vs. the need to use a new lexicon of displacement/alienation.

    Your point about technology having a strong degree of exilic agency is spot on, though I think these contemporary issues are really extensions of, again, a 20th century metaphoric exile. An assessment of commonplace mobility that equals exile is a little too loose for my taste, as ultimately it only calls in broader (e.g., “the loss of integrated community”) or more metaphysical (e.g., “we are exiled at birth”) conceptions for justification. Maybe my views are a little too narrow on this word in this case, though.

    What you describe as being habitually mobile with a sense of loose belonging and a split from the homeland is indeed pretty common, and this reflects the second conception of exile, the one involving more choice and an emphasis on the personal/psychological. This is of course common in expatriates and other types of migrants.

    However, there is a certain devaluing of “real” (historical) exilic experience when we equate contemporary habitual mobility (or the simple fact of having a smart phone) with being in a certain state of exile. In my view this type of devaluing has always been, for example, involved in the Lost Generation/Hemmingway-esque conception of exile (as compared to, again, the Eastern European paradigm). Similarly, I wouldn’t say a British EFL teacher in Prague is in exile any more than I would say a guy from Cleveland living in Brooklyn is in exile from Ohio. It’s too romanticized, and ignores the presence of choice (privilege?), option of return, and the absence of violence.

    Is Snowden already an exile in this most traditional conception?

    Your portrayal of the (male) retro gaming community is interesting, and the role of nostalgia and recreating memories does indeed seem strong. Though it makes me think about a few things. For one, don’t we all have a certain role of nostalgia in our leisure activities? I guess it depends on the degree to which we let ourselves “play” or be involved in play, the ways in which we positively/negatively equate play with childhood/childishness, and the outlets we have for play – video games, sports, or even a daily cycling commute and the innate desire for speed/competition. Two, is there a certain level of “manchild” culture going on here that is also fairly common, at least in a rather American conception? If so, what is the role of forgetting in “manchildishness” here – is it the “adult” parts of consciousness (e.g., “responsibility,” gender roles, etc.) that are being forgotten, or maybe this idea of there always being some split between the adult/child or man/child (this gets into some Gombrowicz territory, perhaps)?

  2. Jeff says:

    Curiously, this extract, perhaps because it’s out of its original context, applies as much to the resident as the exile. Doesn’t it describe the task of the culture industry and its ‘outreach’?
    Today, I described a development in 1990s technology to someone who would have been born at about its time. I felt like a museum guide. And yet, there was also something of telling stories at camp-fires about it.
    It’s hard to tell from your extract, but I wonder what’s at stake in its discussion? My technological history lesson simply served to explain how a ghost image can repeat itself on an A4 laser-print whenever there’s a mechanical drag. Laser-printers re-draw sections of print over the same small drum in order to keep the printer small. Drag can prevent the previous section’s erasure, hence it gets ghosted up a page. What I had to tell has use-value in understanding equipment failure. When this phenomenon ceases due to changes in print technology, it’ll change from obscure information to virtually unknown.
    Do I care? No. Was it an interesting history? Sort of. It may seem trivial, but how trivial does cultural memory need to be to not become part of its picture, the picture that uprooting deletes?
    I suppose when I read your quotes and posts about the exile, and I compare them with the tendency of modernity to estrange anyone from anything by way of acceleration, I wonder what the differences might be? Could they be ‘heart’? How about ‘commitments’? Or ‘investments’? What exactly?

    • Hi Jeff, thanks for your comment – again you’ve brought up some unexpected angles for discussion!

      I agree that the extract can apply to a resident/inhabitant, but only to the extent that these are not contradictory positions. It’s not that the exile becomes the resident somewhere else – it’s that there are inherent modes of exile induced by acceleration and modernity, as you reference, as well as the mind’s negotiation with the body, that prime anchor of location and spatial experience, among many other possible modes. As the concept of exile is expanded to encompass many varieties of experience and as it thus becomes somewhat innate and inevitable, this distinction between exile and resident/inhabitant breaks down even more – so much so that a interaction of metaphysical exile with contemporary political/economic alienation can be read into most commentary on exilic experience (and mnemonic experience and much else, for that matter).

      That there are many exiles is the point, but I think most authors who have experienced very specific modes of exile want to emphasize the differences between potential metaphoric uses and the specific political/historical implications of the term. I think that’s one of the main goals of both theorized memory/forgetting and theorized exile – specific parameters can and should be determined while awareness is maintained of just how far the terms-as-metaphors can be expanded.

      Thus this extract provokes questions within my blog’s interest. Memory is thought to allow reunion with the lost homeland/ideal home, but how does it fail in this “daunting if not impossible task”? If memory is such an important utility to the exile and thus seemingly inevitable in its presence, what role does forgetting play?

      This passage is part of Radulescu’s general conception of exile, but it is rooted in the 20th century Eastern European paradigm of exile – one that, as I mentioned in our earlier exchange, has been very much defined by Polish authors such as Miłosz, Wittlin, in addition to Gombrowicz, Zagajewski, etc. A Slavic paradigm of exile is often spoken of, too. Granted this is of course only an extract from Radulescu’s book and in fact the only real Eastern European referents are the author’s name and those in the book title – without those identifiers, you wouldn’t necessarily know the context, thus the general interplay of metaphoric and historiczed exile here that plays a role in your comments/questions.

      In most accounts of exile I’ve encountered, especially those that reference 20th century Eastern European experience, this desire to differentiate “real exile, government-imposed” as Jorge Edwards puts it from the metaphorical and metaphysical varieties is pretty strong initially, but gets more and more blurry as the writer expands upon experiences, consequences, and memories. Miłosz’s essay “Notes on Exile,” for example, while birthed from his personal Polish-Lithuanian experience, ultimately trades in the same generalities that Radulescu’s passage does, although it is more historically bound. His book “Land of Ulro” deals with the intersection of metaphysical/religious, literary, and political exile and so conceptualizes exile even more.

      I think these paradigms and historical examples can be romanticized to an extent, thus the overuse even of the term of “exile” to apply to a variety of contemporary conditions, not to mention, for example, the drastic differences between refugee experience on the one hand and expatriate experience on the other. It is the middle ground between politically-enforced exile and all of the metaphoric possibilities that makes exile such a potent concept, and that overlap of possible interpretations, that openness, is part of the intrigue of applying “exile” widely, I suppose – you find ways in which you relate to it, the stories become less grounded in their political/historical contingencies and more like allegories for being uprooted, for movement itself, the body itself, etc. Along with the romanticization, this expansion of the concept is dangerous too, with a sometimes willful ignoring of the historically-specific pain involved in exile which so many authors have tried to communicate to various degrees of success.

      I guess technology comes in this middle ground as something both imperative and difficult to pin down. Your connection to this ghost printer story is something I would have never expected or thought of. But ultimately I do think there’s a pretty huge difference between relating to one’s personal spatial experience of the world – with memories grounded in certain geographical spaces you may never see again except through media, Google Street View, etc., in which case technology not only induces its own certain exilic mode but alternately heightens and alleviates other personal spatio-temporal skews, which was the same case with the introduction of modern train travel, of course – and interactions with machines/devices that are operating within their own histories and mnemonic spans of ghostliness and drag. The difference I think is in the history involved, that both exile and the narrating thereof are ancient experiences, whereas technology always has certain limitations to its influence. Additionally, exile is first and foremost about the body, and technology can only come in a secondary material role. But both are difficult to get grips on.

      In that sense I do not think there is much triviality in cultural memory at all, unless overabundance equals triviality in the first place. There is clearly a kind of searching to overcome loss in all varieties of cultural production that parallels both the metaphysical and the historical implications of exile. For example, the continuing retro-cycles of musical influence (well into the shift from the 80s to the 90s now, I suppose), the Belieber cult, stories about the boring suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, USA – all relate to a certain intersection of memory and exile, the spatial and temporal base that uprooting deletes (or attempts to), like you point out, as well as that devouring of time that memory attempts to stay healthy against and forgetting seeks to digest.

      Ultimately I think the differences, between “real exile” with historical contexts, “exile” with deeply personal ramifications and still involving huge geographical shifts, and “exile” by way of modernity/technological acceleration/capitalist alienation is that the third conception of the term operates via the paradigms set by the first two.

      • Jeff says:

        I’m not quite sure what you mean by the first two. Do you mean ‘real’ exile as a bodily experience, an historical event, and the personal as the effects, the psychological impacts of exile?
        If so, then technological exile would seem to be a form of both. Technology has today the kind of exilic agency that political movements once had. It causes large-scale creation and destruction of community (mostly in the Far East). It also drives workers in the first world to work and play on the go, and in some cases, in places quite remote. Working arrangements are more likely to encourage moving home than was necessary in the industrial era. Leisure is increasingly connected, encouraging and facilitating travel by mapping out destinations in advance in great detail. In this sense, more traditionally understood notions of being an exile could prove to become less commonplace on account of people being so habitually mobile that their sense of belonging is too loose for them to see a spilt in their lives that comes about from having a homeland. But I think this consequence is likely to be experienced by a privileged minority and in many years to come.
        Gong back to the quote, there is something of the need to recreate memories evident in the retro gaming community. They weren’t the subject of my book, but they were a background source of info while writing it, and I’ve come to think of them as people (nearly all men) whose lives are split in two. There’s the adult version of themselves who has a career and family. Then there’s their adolescent self refusing to go away. This part of them still wants to go to their room and play the old games. So their evenings spent with their cassette tapes and joysticks are a continual re-staging of their memories about a time and a life that clearly isn’t going to return.
        Your point about forced exile is an important one. What I’m describing in technological exile is, although in some respects a forced situation, nothing like being literally ejected from your home and / or homeland. Not only is there a violence to this, which must be dealt with by the exile on many levels, but there’s no luxury of time to adjust. The uses of memory and forgetting may only have a few belongings to begin with anew. And there may be others left behind whose fate may remain unknown for some time.

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