Other ways of remembering

Discussing the physical context of remembering offers a corrective to dominant modes

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Lake Chi-kay, Kampoeng Chheuteul, Cambodia, 2005 - LYE TUCK-PO

If one definition of culture is shared and learnable knowledge, transmitted across generations in space and time, then memory is obviously a key concern for ethnographers.

But there is a problem in “capturing” memory. What people say they remember of certain events or episodes is different from what they actually remember. The former are their narratives or meta-narratives, if you will, which involves representation in language and is “not just situated in [social] process, it is moulded and modified by it to a significant degree” (to quote Maurice Bloch). The latter, their memories, might not involve language at all.

That aside, we contend with powerful exclusionary practices, the politics of forgetting. As anthropologist Geoffrey White puts it, “acts of representation are also acts of mystification, silencing, and exclusion.”

In remembering the past, selectively, some aspects will become marginalised. Marginalisation too is not just in who is remembering or what is being remembered, but also includes their memory practices.

State-sponsored knowledge – as communicated through school curricula – tends to be homogenous, imposed, and is often experienced as such. The problem is that official ways of thinking tend to become normative, even hegemonic. In dominant modes of memory-making, memories are filtered through printed words, personality cults, commemorative practices, monumentalism and the like.

When dealing with preliterate societies, people may not even be that interested in posterity and legacy. Still, that doesn’t mean a lack of historical consciousness; it is just understood and expressed differently.

I suggest the need to look at alternative modes of remembering. I want to discuss the social-spatial context that makes memory-making possible – the physical environment or the landscape in which such memory is cultivated.

The setting is Kampoeng Chheuteul, an agricultural village on the banks of the Stueng Saen River, which surrounds the Sambor Prey Kuk temple complex, Cambodia. The first time I saw Lake Chi-kay was early in my fieldwork, mid-October 2005. It seemed a huge body of water situated between the village and the temple complexes.

Received lore was that the name Chi-Kay commemorates its origins: kay means quarrying, and chi refers to old people or ancestors. In other words, villagers believed the lake was caused by the quarrying of soil for temple bricks.

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It was not until February that I finally located all the water bodies discussed earlier and could place these features on a map. By then, my knowledge of landscape included knowledge of neak ta: sites. Neak ta (lit. old people) is commonly translated as village spirits. Altars for worshipping these spirits are found throughout Cambodia. On Lake Chi-kay, these sites have been documented by archaeologists as ancient remains.

Shimoda Ichita (then of Waseda University, Japan) gave me an archaeological map based on 1992 aerial photos (in a lovely example of collegiality). I found the map a valuable resource for it gives a good birds-eye view of spatial relationships. However, as an archaeological map, it superimposes external knowledge onto the villagers’ landscape. As an anthropologist, I find the map necessarily lacking in cultural detail.

I recount all this to exemplify how landscape becomes legible to an outsider. It is made through practice: farming the fields, villagers uncover bricks and kilns; praying to ancestors, they become aware of cultural meanings; collecting firewood, they remember stories of ghostly encounters.

As landscape is made through practice, so too memory. The past is all around, but not everyone is aware of it or could decipher it. These stories may be shared by networks of people, but only long-term residents can interpret the broader social geography.

How about places as they are sensed? Events leave traces, but in this case, the traces are material and sensorial. I call these marks ‘signals’. For this, we turn to Batek and Penan hunter-gatherers of Malaysia. (Batek are Orang Asli, Penan are not. Batek live in the peninsula; Penan in Sarawak.)

Signals are reminders of that which has gone away. Footprints, smells, and sounds linger, thus continuing to indicate presence until the marks fade. Both Batek and Penan (Eastern and Western) are much affected by these traces, particularly in the case of death.

Both groups place the emphasis on visual markers. Batek say they cannot bear to see the place where a loved one died; mothers talk about their feelings when seeing the place a deceased child “walked and played”; Western Penan told ethnographer Peter Brosius that “seeing the uban [traces] of someone who has died causes them great pain”.

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For both Penan and Batek, the response is moving away, to avoid seeing traces of the loved one. For Batek, death is usually followed by a swift exit from the place of death – returning only after months and perhaps not for years.

Penan and Batek also talk about their feelings: tawai for Penan, haʔip for Batek. These can be roughly glossed as feelings associated with nostalgia. I have described haʔip as “that inexpressible feeling of longing for something or someone that is absent”. For Penan, as the great anthropologist Jayl Langub puts it, “tawai is an expression of nostalgia, fondness and longing for the landscape… Tawai binds the group and individuals to the landscape.” Haʔip can be painful but tawai (based on 2015 discussions with Eastern Penan) seems to be a wholly positive feeling that they treasure and fear to lose. It seems clear that landscape, memory, and sentiments are closely related.

Signals transform the character of a place – it is ever thus associated with what happened there, who lived and died there, the sensations afforded by the landscape and its biota, and the sentiments associated with biographical events. The place becomes home, where people feel belonging and security. Collectively, these mark the history of the place, rendering it more than just a campsite or settlement. Rather, I suggest, they establish presence and belonging, thus rendering the place knowable and therefore returnable.

Landscape is integral to social and cultural process, but social process is what gives landscape its character, and it is through social process that cultural memories can be uncovered. Everyday talk becomes a source of history: who came by, who stayed and who has left.

For local peoples, their ways of remembering – their practices which make the landscape a home – are only likely to bring attention when deemed (by outsiders) to be destructive, eg if it involves forest clearance or capture of endangered animals. Up until now, activities with a high mnemonic content, such as the Batek’s replanting of wild yams, are largely documented by anthropologists only.

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While analysing the Batek’s environmental discourse, I was struck by how often the word for “remembering”, ʔiŋit, occurred. For example: “We remember the old people. Their burials are here, here is where we remember the paths. This place is our heritage.”

ʔiŋit is a loanword from Malay. Using loanwords usually suggests that some historical shift has occurred, in this case, the shift from remembering as a cognitive process (for which indigenous words are available) to, perhaps, remembering as politics. (A glossary of Batek lexicon is available here.)

Do local peoples – hunter-gatherer, farmers, and others who are ‘missing’ from historical records — remember in the same way? In subjecting memories to maps, we (for I am implicated here too) alter the knowledge by the very act of documentation.

Among Penan and many other indigenous peoples, local cartographies, originally transmitted orally and through bodily practices, are now being committed to paper, to render their land claims legible to the state. This may be necessary and even essential, but it contributes to the marginalisation of their local ways of remembering. Indigenous memories – originally fragmentary stories – have to be made ‘narratable’ so that they can be communicated elsewhere.

In local practice, stories only come out fully when relatives are together, each one adding something particular to a shared narrative. Once all of this is written down, we lose the performative aspect of sharing.

So how would it be beneficial to participate in constructing memories? The most obvious is that establishing presence is one way to establish claims, to counter land displacement. Discussing the physical context of remembering offers a corrective to dominant modes and contributes to building a collective historical imagination which recognises diversity in ways of thinking and remembering. – New Mandala

This article was based on a seminar titled “Other ways of remembering”, which was presented in the ANU Malaysia Institute Seminar Series 2021 on 30 September 2021.

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Wong Soak Koon
4 Oct 2021 3.27pm

Fascinating. Dr Lye has given us thought about remembering, memory and what she terms “signals”. As someone trained in LIterature ( engrossed in the printed word because my focus is modern literature not older oral and other non-print forms of remembering), good to reflect on other ways of remembering. Important too to see how remembering can be impacted , even manipulated by politics and other contingencies.