Transnational objects to awaken sense memories

The transnational object in Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991) is a wooden bird her mother carved in the Japanese-American detention camp. It comes to resonate on another historical level when Tajiri finds a photo of the birdcarving class in the National Archives. One day, going through a box of documents from the internment camps, Tajiri comes across a photograph of a roomful of people working at long tables, labeled “Bird-carving class, August 1941.” The archive – in this case, the literal archive – is as ignorant of Mrs. Tajiri’s private history as she is willfully amnesiac of it. The bird, traveling from the prison camp to the family home, embodies a recollection that is now lost. The carved figure that now resides in Mrs. Tajiri’s jewelry box is material evidence of a trauma she has almost wholly forgotten.

In Shauna Beharry’s Seeing Is Believing (1991), it is the sari of her deceased mother that works like a fetish. The artist, mourning, is unable to remember her mother by looking at photographs of her. It is only when she puts on her mother’s sari that she feels she has “climbed into her skin.” The feel of the fabric awakens a flood of memories lost in the family’s movement from India to Europe to Canada. Both History and Memory and Seeing Is Believing restore the history that has become fossilized in an object. Ultimately they de-fetishize the object, by teasing out the narrative it contains.

As these examples demonstrate, some objects embody memory as well as labor. Theories of fetishism describe how a value comes to inhere in objects that is not reducible to commodification. Of the many theories of the fetish that operate in anthropology, psychoanalysis and Marxist analysis, I focus on those that explicitly attend to it in terms of a series of historical, intercultural displacements. Objects can encode cultural knowledges that become buried in the process of temporal or geographic displacement but are volatile when reactivated by memory – like fossils, or what C. Nadia Seremetakis calls “the stratigraphic witness of the artifact.”  Fetishes get their power not by representing that which is powerful but through contact with it, a contact whose materiality has been repressed. As such, they an indexical relation to an original scene like that of a photograph. The objects I discuss here encode material conditions of displacement as well as well as discursive ruptures.

I attempt to build here a recuperative notion of fetishism, but certainly the critical notion of fetishism is still at play in the transnational movement of objects. Fetishism aptly describes the violent colonialist impulse to metonymize living cultures and suspend them outside of time. Critics such as Edward Said, Johannes Fabian, Trinh T. Minh-ha and Homi Bhabha have skewered this fetishistic quality of colonialism with finality. I want to claim other meanings of fetishism in order to describe other aspects of transnational movement. For example, In and Out of Africa follows a trade route built precisely to materialize fetishistic colonial desires for a primitive authenticity. Yet in following this route, the film not only deconstructs the collectors’ desire but also reveals that the African sculptures are precisely intercultural products. Commissioned by the trader Baare, they are the result of their African producers’ reasoned second-guessing of Western collectors’ fantasies. This precisely meets the definition of the fetish proposed by William Pietz.

Pietz describes the fetish as a historical nexus of different material discourses, a node of meaning that is not proper to a single culture but produced in the abrasive contact between two. “In Marxist terms, one might say that the fetish is situated in the space of cultural revolution.”  Colonial power relations in particular, with their propensity for cross-breeding indigenous and imported meanings, are prime sites for the production of fetishes – which often turn out to be commodities as well. Pietz’s etymology of the word fetish uncovers a long and complex history of colonization, appropriation and translation. Significantly, the notion of the fetish was mobilized during an imperial expansion predicated upon Enlightenment dichotomies. European intellectuals such as Marx borrowed the idea of the fetish from the written travelogues of European merchants, who portrayed African fetish worship as the perversion of rational self-interest.

If we understand fetishes as properly the product not of a single culture, but of the encounter between two, then we see how fetishes are produced not only in the course of built-up time, but also in the disjunctive movement through space. Postcolonial life is producing these lateral fetishes at record speed as people become displaced, especially as they emigrate to their former colonizers’ lands. Hence the proliferation of auratic objects in the gray areas of the global economy.

This fragmentary survey of the way film excavates the traces left by transnational objects has moved from films about the most abstract, highly commoditized of objects to films about the most personal. While the former are richest as records of the global movements of capital, the latter are best able to expose the cultural differences in which fetishes are produced. Let me end by demonstrating how films draw on the memory of the senses in order to draw out these cultural differences. As a record of sense memory, film is a medium for diasporan experience and other experiences of suppressed histories.

Both History and Memory and Seeing Is Believing draw on the ability of transnational objects to awaken sense memories (and of tactile memory to create a communication between daughters and mothers that words, and audiovisual images, could not). Nonvisual sensory information is a casualty of commodification, and of the extraction of objects from their cultural contexts, as curator Laura Trippi points out. Discussing an installation by artist Sowon Kwon about the traffic in Asian porcelains, she notes that the work “calls attention to the way that conventions of fine art display, taking objects out of context, stimulate a tendency to experience vision as if it operated objectively, independently of the other senses and even outside the contingencies of history.”

The memory of the senses can be enlisted to discover the cultural histories of auratic objects lost to the flattening effect of cultural appropriation. Or, conversely, such objects may call forth buried cultural memories by eliciting the memory of the senses. In cultural transformation, and especially in the diasporic movement to the modernized West or from rural areas to metropolitan centers, where certain senses are devalued, information about specific cultural histories seems to get lost.

But perhaps it is lost so much as encoded in ways it takes special skills to decode. Hamid Naficy writes that it is especially important to consider the non-audiovisual ways that exiles experience film and television:

The exiles produce their difference not just through what they see and hear but through their senses of smell, taste, and touch. Indeed, these aspects of the sensorium often provide, more than sight and hearing, poignant reminders of difference and of separation from homeland.

What is left out of expression registers somatically, in pain, nausea, memories of smells and caresses. How can knowledge be embodied in senses other than the visual? How can one form of sense knowledge embody another?

Vivian Sobchack has provided some important answers to how film evokes sense experience, by examining the relation between the film viewer and the film as a relation between two sensing bodies.  The film viewing experience sets up relays between the audiovisual image and the viewer’s own circuits of memory, enriching the image with associations that are not simply semiotic but occur at the level of sense perception. I want to propose that an audiovisual medium can remember the experiences of other senses. Vision can evoke touch or smell, for example; sound can evoke the kinaesthetic. But it is not simply a matter of association; senses can translate the experience of other senses. “Sensory memory is a form of storage. Storage is always the embodiment and conservation of experiences, persons and matter in form of alterity.” Hence film itself can function like a fetish: it can encode a given material experience in altered form.

I do not want to speak of touch, smell and other senses as individual. They encode collective, cultural experiences. The senses, however, are educated differently in different cultures and classes; sense memory is also inflected by gender. The primal scene in History and Memory is, significantly, one of touch. The single recollection image Tajiri attributes to her mother is of gurgling water that overflows her canteen. Its cool wetness as she splashes her face is a moment of relief on a hot, dusty day. A tiny puncture of pleasure in the eternal vigilance the woman must hold in order to survive the concentration camp, it will be the only image to remain years later, when that other narrative of deprivation has been put away.

Seeing Is Believing, as mentioned earlier, is a mourning piece. The tape evokes the closeness of daughter to mother expressed not in terms of vision, which would imply distance, but of touch. While Beharry tells her story, the camera looks closely at the silk fabric of a sari in a photo. When the tape superimposes a smaller image of the portrait on the folds of the sari, it emphasizes the startling differnce between two ways of seeing. I realized that the tape had been using my vision as a sense of touch; I had not been looking at the image of the fabric so much as brushing it with the skin of my eyes. Beharry has said she wanted to “squeeze the touchability out of the photo.” It makes us realize that memory may be encoded in touch, smell, or kinaesthesia, more than vision. Between two cultures’ regimes of sense knowledge, she suggests, memory can be lost in translation.

It is important not to overvalorize the theme of Westerm capitalist commodification versus non-Western integrity, but rather to see the dynamics by which objects change in cultural translation as a complex intercultural and interclass movement. Similarly, Beharry’s excavations are not just about finding an Indian “voice” silenced by generations of life in the West. They are excavations of histories that were repressed at home as well. Fetishism as an intercultural relation involves a tremendous amount of translation, decipherment and excavation. And ultimately there is no question of getting to a truth about either culture, for the fetish is produced only in their power-mediated difference.