Ruin and The Other: Towards a Language Of Memory

As I am from Africa, where our heritage is one of story-tellers, it is appropriate for me to start by relating a story to you:


The story has to do with a female American cultural anthropologist who was studying the Beng culture in a rural West African village on the Ivory Coast. 1 The Beng are a little known ethnic group who appear to understand best those things which are invisible. Every morning, the cultural anthropologist went out with them to study their work habits, their farming, their social organization and their cosmological systems. Her husband, who was an aspiring writer, would take his typewriter, pens, pencils and papers, and sit at a small clearing in the village pulling his beard, rubbing his chin, waiting for inspiration for his work. During the course of his work, he would continuously be distracted by people coming over to touch his hair, and whispering among themselves in groups gathered around him. He made his annoyance at such distractions known, until one day an elder visited him at the small clearing where he worked.

The elder asked the writer what he was doing. 'Writing a story," the writer responded. The elder's immediate response was: "But you don't write stories, you tell stories." "In any case," the elder continued, "is this work inspired by the spirits?" A bit startled by the question the aspiring American writer said: "No." "Well," said the elder, "what is the story about, anyway?" The American responded: "It is about a man who lost his shadow." "Ahh," said the old man, "the spirits were responsible. They took the man's shadow away because he was a witch."'

Here, then, is a classic clash of two cultures: one, oral based, steeped in its own tradition and another, print culture, with its separate orientation. One day soon after, the writer and his wife were invited to see a noted woman diviner along with the villagers. In a very quiet, solemn atmosphere, the woman diviner put down white powder, red cloth, some black pebbles and small statues, and started to mumble. Then she began to speak, healing people who were sick, revealing the causes of illness, who is bewitching whom, advising others on matters pertaining to the village, and discussing impending crises which might develop if left unattended.

That night, around a campfire, the writer asked how the woman was able to do all that he had seen that day. An old woman explained that when she puts the white powder, red cloth, black pebbles and statuettes in front of her, they invited the spirits. Initially she mumbles until she is able to dear the voices of the spirits. Then, she is able to start speaking to them. "You see," the old lady explained, "we are people of oral tradition." The diviner listens to the voices of the spirits who tell her what to say. She is simply a transmitter of the voices, not an inventor of the voices. Startled, the American writer explained to the old woman that, "it sounds a bit like what a writer does. We hear voices too." "Yes," said his wife, suddenly excited, "voices try to tell him their stories. And that's what he writes down. When he gets on his typewriter, with his paper, pens and pencils laid all around, he too is waiting for voices - they are what he uses to draw the voices to him." "So, you too are like us," the old lady responded, "you also listen to voices."

The next day, the writer was back at the small clearing with his typewriter. This time, he was not being bothered by anyone, but noticed that many people were standing nearby looking at him. Now they were able to see the spirits. "Don't interrupt him," they exclaimed, "he is listening to voices. If he's interrupted, the spirits will leave and their stories will not be told. Shhhh!!"

I tell this simple story to highlight the point that in quite a few cases, it is such intangibles, such minutia of voices, which surge out from where silences dwell. It is here that a healthy cross-cultural understanding between peoples, races, cultures can occur. My hope in this paper is to make silences speak to reach a level of cognition. I attempt this partly because it is perhaps here where we may find the fabrics for a meaningful dialogue. Let me explain it in another way: in how waves work and how nodal points come about. When two competing musical waves come in contact they produce a new sound, and correspondingly, moments of silence. We know this in our own personal experience when we try to angle a speaker in our rooms to get rnaximum sound. We also suppose that at some location in the room there win be very little or no sound. It does not mean there is no sound at all but that sound is intelligible from that position. The nodal point where the space of silence is located is where we find interesting stories. I also believe that these points of silence have existed throughout histories and throughout cultures. I am referring here to things that one cannot comprehend, cannot see, and things that do not appear to exist but that we know they exist. Here is where the trick of the story-teller and the poet lies. The question then becomes, not whose voice but which voice do we listen to?


Let me give you another instance. This pertains to a problem of interracial understanding, where a simple word and its spelling created a difficulty in white-black communication. This example occurred in the media's reportage of the Los Angeles riots in late April and early May. In the Los Angeles Times, there was a story about the burning and looting, noting how some of the stores in South Central Los Angeles had put up signs indicating black ownership, most of which did not get burned. In reporting the story, the writer pointed out that some of the signs spelled out "B-L-A-K OWNED!' instead of B-L-A-C-K.

Although perhaps not intended by the writer, he touched upon a certain impression, based on racial codes, regarding the poor education of blacks, implying that those store owners didn't even know how to spell "black." Had he only asked anyone in the neighborhood, he would have understood that this was actually a code within the community: to differentiate between the two major black gangs, the "Crips" and the "Bloods," the spelling of the word "black' without the "c" ("c" stood for Crips) was in fact an indication of being in Blood turf, where Crips are unwelcome.

I suppose that if the journalist had asked why they posted that particular sign, he would have received an answer. But in failing to do that, he fell into a racial stereotype which he may have not intended. Of course, no one would volunteer to write or to call the L.A. Times to explain the situation, as the code is one which operated within the community, and thus the Times failure to understand it was not unexpected. Both institutions can be seen to have their cultural codes - the community a code which differentiates local power groups, the Times a code which differentiates and characterizes racial groups.

In a way, the reporter writes and reads for the specific "taste" of his readership -- in doing so he is also reinforcing it. Ironically, we are all the losers in such failure of cross-cultural communication; that is, the failure to communicate was our collective loss.


Another instance, which appears minor but profound in its implications, was evidenced a few years ago at UCLA when we hosted an Australian film series, co-sponsored by the Australian Film Commission.

I happened to have been one of the advisors and was shown the list of films and categories under which they were to be screened.  One of the categories was "aboriginal films," coming under the title of "Savage Cinema."  I was shocked and surprised at this kind of open bigotry. We subsequently called the Australian Film Commission about the offensive nature of this title. They responded that they too had been astonished, but that the word "savage" was used at the request of the Aborigines themselves. Little did anyone know that the (ab)Origines were screening the word "savage" and reclaiming historical ruin, as a kind of privilege - as an emblem.

Let me try to clarify this concept of historical ruin as privilege by relating to you two more anecdotes.  I need to do this to be able to discuss, in the second part of this presentation, the implication of a few of the concepts I have touched on.


A student of mine from New Zealand was doing a dissertation on Maori representation in the cinema a few years ago, selecting from among the most racist of Maori depictions to present to the Maori for their reaction. He was able to find an excellent example from one of the earliest films depicting Maori society in the most racist of terms. He was gently advised by the people of the New Zealand film industry that this selection was unwise to show to the Maori, owing to its extreme stereotyping and misrepresentation.

Nevertheless, he went ahead and showed the film. To everyone's astonishment, the Maori "loved" the film. They were excited to see their ancestors, their costumes, rituals, the traditional sites of ceremonies, etc. The film's racist overtones were simply discarded as an "excess" that they had no need for. Here, it seems, the Maori disregarded what had been so visible to the white New Zealanders, focusing instead on those aspects that reinforced their cosmology. For them, the film was no more than a confirmation of what they already knew.

What we see here is that, though this film, like many others, purports to tell a history, to build a history - a fixed history, when a different reading is applied to it, it immediately falls into ruin. The film has no vital relationship to history, but rather to memory which, it seems, is always a ruin - scattered, buried and invisible. The experience of seeing the film becomes, therefore, a continuation and, indeed, an excavation, of the archeology of one's culture, of one's cultural memory.


A last example: among native American Indians there is a custom where in healing ceremonies an elaborate sand painting is done, with meticulous detail and a great deal of meditation invested in it. This elaborate sand painting is then erased when it is finished, and a healing ceremony proceeds. The painting is a living history in the form of prayer. In this instance, we are being reminded that History does not live in the object, but lives in the culture. That the object has to be destroyed in order to be remembered is part of that culture. The sand painting cannot be objectified and cannot be preserved, like the marble and bronze monuments of Western history. To live, it must be ruined; it must become a memory. The central idea here is that what has been erased, made invisible, ruined, is also history. Any attempt to restore it or preserve it is paradoxically an attempt to erase history.


Indeed, do we not, in restoring ruins, always engage in the erasure of history, of our cultural memory? What I am proposing, then, is that we must learn to live in the midst of ruin not literally, of course, but figuratively - i.e., amidst invisible ruins.

To live amidst the invisible ruins of cultural memory does not mean that we ourselves are ruined or lost. Rather it is these ruins which preserve, indeed constitute, our identities. All too often, oppressed peoples have defined themselves strategically as ruined, their identities have been tampered with or lost. There is a large difference between living among ruins and being ruined oneself. To live among ruin is to live on the margins; it is not necessary to be marginal. There is a qualitative distinction between the marginality that is imposed and the marginality that one consciously chooses. It is to live in, as bell hooks says, "a space of radical openness," - a space that allows a sense of cultural identity, cultural memory, to be opened - not dosed, preserved or fixed. 2

Indeed, ruins can be shared in a way that preservations can not. To restore a building, to preserve it, is to close it off, to make its walls and roots solid, to surround it with fences to protect it. We ask: protect it from what, from whom? Ruins, on the other hand, can be gotten into; they do not exclude, even though they may have been excluded, condemned and marginalized.

To live among ruins, then, is to exhibit a particular kind of identity, a particular kind of subjectivity - to recognize that we are various forms of subjectivities - that we never reach the "ends" of the subject, the end of our path: we are more like nomads. This subjectivity among the ruins and on the margins entails a sensitivity to the invisible, the ephemeral, to the spirits of one's past, to the ghosts of one's own memory. Was this not precisely the way in which the Beng defined their identity? Was it not the ghosts of their past that the Maori saw flickering between the frames of a racist film? The sand paintings of the Native Americans, like all prayers, are ephemeral; they slip into ruin, into memory, but they do not cease to exist. They remain, hovering and invisible; and it is around just such ineffable memorials that the Native Americans define themselves.

There is, I believe, a lesson here for notions of Black and other minority identities. The struggles to define a black, or African-American, or Chicano identity (or others) have too often been seen as attempts to overcome a lack of identity, an identity as oppressed and victimized, by achieving a fixed identity, as though "the Black subject" were a bronze statue to be built and preserved, fenced off and defended against vandals and thieves. This is not simply a question of "essentialism" vs. "relativism." It is a question of a fixed, visible essence - the bronze statue - versus a more ephemeral - dare I say, more spiritual - essence - the sand painting, the spirits of the ancestors, cultural memory itself. It is these ephemeral ruins that we must learn to live among in order to define ourselves.


One way that people in the contemporary world talk about ruins is in terms of displacement. Nowadays, prior positions are increasingly regarded as empty structures, which can be occupied by floating subjectivities. We are thus dealing then with comprehensive and multiple spaces - spaces that are fragmented and overlapping, spaces that are always in flux. There is a global complexity that has never been the case before. There appear to be new dynamic forces shaping events that cross cultural boundaries. One such dynamic force is television.

Television is helping to erase the formal division between the real and the imagined. This television does to conceal the fact that it itself is made of ruins. Both in its news functions and as an institution, television often seems to depend on disasters and ruins.

Recall that Rodney King in the first 1992 trial, was not called to the witness stand, that he did not appear on his own behalf? It was his personal ruin - his video stand-in and the hospital photographs of his bruised face, that appeared in his defense. The lack of King's body in the trial froze history in that it is not King's healed body which appeared but the wounded body of the past. This translation of King's body into the body of evidence forces history to loop back to the time of the beating, resurrected as the simulacrurn of history, appearing as evidence, and as the reduction of King's body to a mute collection of wounds, that is, to a mute collection of ruins.

Television also tends to break down the dimensions of space and time. It takes images occurring in different places and times and it creates a news narrative out of them, which is constructed with a sense of continuity and coherence. Television is a major part of the process of present day transformation in shaping events and operating under simultaneity. It is truly baffling that a war can be fought and the major actor is CNN!

One account of this transformation process is worth stating here: CNN's shaping of events and its ability to operate immediately - across the world - changes our sense of spatiality and of times. It alters our notion of spaces, our shifting and multiple identities. A very revealing example was that of an elderly Jewish lady who was watching CNN's coverage of the Gulf War while lying in bed in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles. Live satellite broadcasting showed that at that moment, an Iraqi scud attack was being launched on Tel Aviv. Upon hearing the sirens go off in the live report from the Israeli city, she immediately called her relatives there to be sure they were awoken to the impending danger. Her call actually woke them up, and they thanked her and immediately donned their gas masks.

The tightening of the time gap equally tightens the space gap. This illusion of intimate closeness enhanced by TV, this warping of the time/space differential into pure information gives a sense of immediacy to the universe previously felt only by religious ascetics living perpetually in the spirit world, as with the Beng people in West Africa where everything was a reflection of the Spirit.

Today, it is the ephemeral "spirits" of television and popular culture generally around which people define themselves, identify themselves. Indeed, as R. L. Rusty and James Wiltgen have recently noted in the journal Strategies, this same kind of "spirit" can be seen in the ghost of Elvis Presley, whose multiple, multiform appearances bespeak of an invisible point of contact for diverse peoples.' 3 Elvis has become a kind of ruined and ghostly Sphinx, haunting the collective memory. That is, he has ceased to exist in the "real" world, he is purely figure, symbol - he is pure spirit. Elvis may be in that sense America's most famous ruin. As such, he is a great tourist attraction, but also, as a sign, he is always in transit.


What do I mean by ruin? A ruin is not a frozen relic. I am not referring to a past stored in ruins, but a ruin that is mobile, shifting, nomadic. The following apt observation by Manners and Gourgouris speaks, I believe, directly to this notion of ruin as nomadic, as opposed to a notion of "preservation" that attempts to "freeze" the past, to "set it in stone."

"The Nazis,... to prove to the world that they were not barbarians but the legitimate offspring of [the] Greeks, determined not to bomb the Akropolis; doing so would have meant descending to the level of Venetians, Turks, Frenchmen, and Englishmen in their defiling of the origin. The Nazis would not repeat this mistake; they chose to preserve the Spirit in its full Hegelian splendor. Not bombing the Akropolis becomes indeed the necessary flip-side of the German occupation of Greece: as with the neutron bomb, killing villagers and communists is considered more provident than destroying buildings and monuments."' 4

Here, preservation serves to fix a history in which the Nazis become the inheritors of ancient Greek culture. To do so, however, they must repress any "non-Aryan" elements from this history, a repression which Martin Bernal (author of Black Athena) has convincingly observed even in contemporary Classical and Art historical studies. Ruin, on the other hand, would allow a multiplicity of histories to converge and diverge at a particular site. Thus, the notion of ruin implies a fluidity and mobility of discourses.

Let me now apply this notion of ruin and preservation to narrative. Narrative takes events separated in time and space and strives to make them continuous. Cultural narratives are essentially attempts to preserve, to restore. Narratives and historiographies are about a past that is no longer there; that perhaps never was there (e.g. the Aryan past cited above). Narratives, then, always rely on the suppression of Otherness. In this regard poetry, which always deals with fragments, is unabashedly dependent on the concept of ruin. Narrative is less evocative of ruins than poetry or the poetics of film. Both are essentially dependent on ruins. Both deal with emotion, loss, the past, relying not so much on full or completed narratives but on collections of fragments. In this way, film and poetry can be considered as the archetype of a new kind of discourse which define the states of voice and image fragmentation. Thus they occupy the site of the ruin - a marginalized discursive space that might best be described as nomadic.

Here, nomadism refers to a state of mind with reference to a style of thinking and of signification. Moving through time and space along a varying path, this form of discourse rejects fixed positions. It is a form of discourse that does not accept the notion that there is only one narrative or one truth. The nomadic sensibility, as a form of discursive strategy, thus acknowledges and accepts undifferentiated histories and narratives. Because narratives are subject to ever-changing articulations and meanings, they too are always nomadic and transient. The issue here is therefore how narratives are transformed and how they become "set." And when a narrative becomes "set," when it is "preserved," the question becomes: whose story is being preserved and whose is being erased?

The narrative-as-ruin partakes of the technique that makes things invisible. A good illustration is what happens in magic shows. The intention of the performer in a magic show is to create the illusion that the natural laws of reality have been suspended in order to induce in the audience a primitive fascinating with the magician's ability to control and create objects. Though the magician appears to be working miracles, all of the tricks are, in fact, accomplished through techniques which depend on speed, dexterity, and distraction. The magician draws the attention of the audience away from the site of the trick by producing activities elsewhere. This elsewhere is imperceptible by the innocent participant. Because the audience has been watching the magician's hand flourishes and other such distractions, and is, at the same time, ignorant of the technique of the trick, the process of the trick proceeds invisibly. In this manner we can ascertain that the interest of any narrative always resides elsewhere.

What is invisible in a story is always the key site of the discourse of nomadism. The nomadic intervention in discourse attempts to shift the reading and viewing of a given text elsewhere, towards the margins, towards that silent space of ruin where various narratives encounter other narratives, where a marginal narrative can rewrite a dominant narrative and where several narratives overlap. The ruin is thus revealed to be that site of discourse where multifarious identities, memories, nostalgias, stories and experiences reside. These were once a source of personal sustenance, but now they disappear, like ghosts, into the mythic other as forms of personal and social imaginaries. Thus, ruin is best understood, as a field of mediation, that is, as a metaphor for an expedition into memory.


Let me tie these points together by ending as I began, with a story except this time I want to reach deep into the recesses of my own memory:

Over twenty years ago John Adair and Sol Worth, authors of Through Navajo Eyes, were engaged in an experiment with young Navajo who had not seen or used a motion picture camera before.' 5  Their experiment was to find out whether film grammar was intrinsic to the apparatus or culturally learned. In other words, they were interested in finding out, what kind of filmic grammar would emerge, if you taught someone only the mechanics of filming with a motion picture camera and rudimentary editing techniques. When the filming had been completed, all the students screened their rushes. One particular shot in one film by a young Navajo especially struck me and it has since remained sealed in my memory. What follows is therefore my reaction, from memory, of a conversation about that particular shot that I presume took place between Sol Worth and the student.

Sol Worth : Why did you include this shot of the empty clearing on the ground?
Navajo boy : Well, it is important.
Sol Worth : But, there is nothing there, it is just dirt.
Navajo boy : Yes, but there was a snake there.
Sol Worth : I don't understand, there is nothing now!
Navajo boy : But, it does not really matter, the snake was there before.

For the young boy, it was not necessary to shoot the actual snake but to film instead the actual image framed in his memory because the image nested in his memory was more valid than the pro-filmic event. Indeed, to the young Navajo the snake does not have to be there; the site still marks the place of meaning for him.

What I told you thus far is drawn from my memory of reading the cited book some 12 years ago. After I wrote these thoughts as herein described, I reread the book and the passage that triggered my memory. No sooner had I thought I spotted memory than I lost it. What I found in the book was very different from what I remembered. First, there was no dialogue between Sol Worth and the Navajo boy. Indeed, there was only a short description that served as a caption to a blurry image of the ground that I had completely forgotten. In other words, what I had remembered turned out to be not the text I thought I remembered but the image which had eclipsed it. What I had remembered was what I had read into the image and not what I had read into the text.

I now realize that in memory there is always a built-in ruin. Just as the Navajo student insisted on his memory-image, I too favor my remembered version. After all, when something is turned into an image, isn't something sapped out of it, leaving behind the thing itself as ruin? For in the ruins of my memory, I - like that young man - had constructed an important, if shifting, narrative. This is not to say that my version is more true than what was actually in the book. Truth, is neither interior, nor exterior or objective. Telling "truth" is not telling it as one actually saw it but as one sees fit to tell it. Truth is constructed between these two tellings, in the ruined between site of memory. It is a site that is always elsewhere: enigmatic, shifting, nomadic. Yet, what is the relationship between ruin, memory and the image? The link is no more than an imprint in the sand - those shifting sands upon which lie the ruins among which we live. To live among ruins is therefore to live in a perpetual state of rehearsals - in a state of continuous screening of memory-images and memories of even those things, events, and peoples, who are long forgotten.


  1. Philip Graham, "A Writer in a World of Spirits: A view into veiled worlds of creativity and the Beings who live there," Poets & Writers magazine, Vol. 17, #3, May/June 1989.
  2. bell hooks, Yearning: Races, Gender, and Cultural Pohtics,(South End Press, Boston, MA, 1990), pp 22.
  3. R.A. Rusty and James Wiltgen, "Marx After Elvis: Politics/ Popular Culture," Strategies: A journal of Theory, Culture and Politics, No. 6, pp. 3 and passim.
  4. Marilyn Manners & Stathis Gourgouris, "On the Road to Ruin and Restoration," Strategies, No. 3, 1990 p. 231
  5. Sol Worth & John Adair, Through Navajo Eyes,(Indiana University Press, Bloomington, London, 1972). See Photo. #5 in the Photographic Section between pages 134 & 135.
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