The Life of Cultural Objects (memory/‘memorialisation’/memorials).
(The half-life of cultural objects…)
Cultural memory appears to move through two stages. Two very different qualities of experience appear to us as if mediated by an increasing distance. In reality their distinguishing feature lies in their degree of felt continuity. The first presents itself as a continuous past (proximate, continuous with the present). This stage involves the recent past together with an awareness of context, continuity, sense of place (in China no one wears a Deng Xiao Ping T-shirt as a cultural icon, despite his justifiable claim to be the architect of modern China, his memory is still felt to be recent and not yet mythical). The second stage offers itself as a discontinuous past (a past in some way discontinuous with the present). A past more distant (mythic, but also retaining the possibility of being of relatively recent origin).
More important to the second stage than actual historical distance is the sense of being behind a bar, of being set apart, of being unconnected with the present (a connection only present for historians). The discontinuous past is therefore mythic and iconic precisely because unconnected (therefore the possibility of the popularity of Mao T-shirts regardless of his actual historical record, which appears as if disconnected from his image). The allure of many cultural icons may be explained in this way; often linked to a sense of transgression, where a generational factor or fashion involved. But geographical distance can also play the same role. However the distance seems to guarantee that the icon, or cultural object, remains unconnected from issues today regarded as truly transgressive (that might be read as politics). Today’s cultural icon must be must be a little enigmatic as a well as attitudinal. The bar that separates the different types of past provides the mystique, the transgression the attitude. We here approach the realm where deification overlaps with fashion. Hagiography is driven by a need for heroes and heroines (immortals) and by the image industry’s awareness of this desire, a desire to be fulfilled in the realm of the image only – the rest, again, would be politics. And suddenly the distance from politics appears as a good thing after all; an image industry producing to the dictates of an ideology (even if one self-chosen) would quickly become part of a burgeoning fundamentalism. The more distant past, that which used to be called history proper, is simply forgotten (consigned to history books). Cultural objects, images too, do not usually manage to cross this limit, this event horizon of cultural memory (if they survive at all it is within the sacred confines of the museum supported by a historical record, unless rediscovered and repackaged for an advertising campaign or at the behest of a State-sponsored event).
The nearer horizon of the past (that dividing the continuous from the discontinuous past) also appears to be the event horizon for what is often called ‘memorialisation’ a term opposed to a more simple ‘recollection’ (there appears to be a similar bar dividing the future into a continuous, imagined future and a more distant fantasy/mythic future… the difference between a pragmatic politics of the possible and a safely distant politics of utopian perfectionism perhaps…). Recollection (the continuous past) offers a replay still embedded in the stream of time, in the flow of the impressions of the present becoming the past, such that we are aware of its provenance, whilst ‘memorialisation’ (the discontinuous past) displays the solid monolithic features of a disconnected and so isolated object of memory (even of recent memory). Important things only may survive here: or become so by surviving here. Monuments (and to a lesser degree statues) are indeed the material form of this kind of memory. A bid is made for eternity; indeed in cultural memory this is the stage before official canonisation, a received memorialisation or sponsored discontinuous survival (the difference between everyday evolving cultural memory and institutionally prompted memory). However the claim of the mantle of the eternal, the putting of itself outside of all contiguous (continuous) connection with the everyday or temporal is the central trope of the rhetoric of time… a claim therefore temporal in fact. Our awareness of the status of the claim to eternity as itself temporal (we can ‘see’ no further) reminds us of its use ‘this side’. As for the use of this awareness. A reminder of the strategic, fictional, provisional, indeed the axiomatised status of all claims to universality and a reminder of the impossibility of doing without such. This paradoxical ‘a-temporal’ re-temporalisation of our sense perceptions soon gains a life of its own, not least when it becomes incarnated in matter. Memory made matter is but a stage in the accession to the mythic. And for mythic we must read sacred, hence the hagiography. Hence the sense of a cult which always hovers around such persons and the objects connected with them.
Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk