The politics and ethics of curating others’ memories

by Annette Markham

As we (curators) consider ways to build future archives (memories) for others, I offer some postmodernist doubt, think about how we work through these to meet the challenge, and then talk a bit about autobiographical prompts. This post is a part of an ongoing conversation. Specifically, I follow and respond to the provocations here, posted by Dalida Maria Benfield and Christopher Bratton here

Doubts, First:

My doubts, first: In this process of refining our attitude toward the construction of memory on behalf of others, whose lived experiences we harvest and transform into something still again Other, I am simultaneously goaded into action and paralyzed by guilt. The goad is to do something, anything, to make visible what often remains invisible; to give voice; to make meaning that means something more, to more of us. The guilt is a response to my own privilege of being the curator of experience, taking the role of translator or artist to creatively re-imag/e/ine Other. The impossibility of it is not what causes paralysis, but the sheer audacity of presuming it is my right, or even responsibility, to engage in this process at all, where the outcome likely ventriloquizes Other in what can only be parodic fashion. This sort of doubt is a lingering effect of any reflexivity about the role of science. It’s a healthy recognition that science has power (and i’ll leave it at that, since there’s so much packed into that statement it would take volumes to unpack. I learned the use of the term ‘ventroliquist’ in this way from folklore scholar Elizabeth Fine, and over the past two decades have found it an invaluable way to double check my voice. There’s a recent book length treatment of this idea by Diane Goldstein and Amy Shuman)

The Challenge, Second:

I take to heart the notion that, as we consider the function of archiving, curating, and exhibiting, which seem to me key elements of Museum-ing, we can only strive to do better. It is inevitable that we as humans collect, edit, and reproduce human experience. The ethical path is one that strives to intervene with a moral code –yes, moral, as in normative–to show how this documenting of lived experience could be otherwise. This is perhaps an unremarkable statement, as it simply repeats a taken for granted premise behind contemporary archiving practices. Still, it bears reflection, in the backward-looking critique of a future-making ambition. Put more simply, why didn’t we see it in the first iteration of the Museum? Is this our scholarly shortsightedness or a more fundamental flaw of playing around with, perhaps carelessly, others’ memory making?

Ah, i have not yet moved from the first point, so let me try this again….

The Challenge, Second Attempt:

The challenge, again: Let’s consider the interpretive scholarly position taken up by Madeliene Grumet in 1987, the height of various ‘turns’. “Every telling is a partial prevarication,” she remarks, reminding us that anything we attempt, in our efforts to make sense of others’ experiences, will be incomplete, not only because any rendering after the f/act is abstracted from the experience, but also because we, the storytellers, the scholars, the analysts, the storytellers, are deeply embedded in an attempt to tell our own story.

In prompting others to speak in a certain way, we ask them to formulate a story. I must have repeated my Madeline Grumet mantra thousands of times in the past twenty years to move past the paralysis of speaking for others, and to trust my own story as one that wants to be spoken also:

“We must come to form in order to be in touch and so we speak. Our stories are the masks through which we can be seen, and with every telling we stop the flood and swirl of thought so someone can get a glimpse of us, and maybe catch us if they can.”

The inevitable precarity of this situation is that our choices matter. Future possibilities are encouraged or denied as we engage. To prompt is to begin a series of steps whereby certain memories come to the foreground for consideration for packaging into something more visible and therefore, somehow, more meaningful. The form is neither neutral nor value free.

The question in a more practical sense is how to keep the form from locking down meaning in too narrow a way? How to prompt participants in such a way that they both question and value their own lived experience, in negotiating the self as part of a larger context called public, Aarhus, Denmark, or culture, whatever those terms might mean? In her essay on the politics of personal knowledge, Grumet jokingly says, “maybe there’s time to go back to statistics.’

We can only move toward the challenge, not away, which returns me to the idea that we bring with us a normative stance, a moral code, a particular ethic. The only way through this tangle, for me at least, is to take the role of the pedagog. To understatnd that the point of all of this is not to create a museum but to engage citizens in a process through which they can think about their own memory-making tendencies, and perhaps consider if only for a moment, the power of the Museum in preserving particular stories and not others, that any attempt to archive will fail if it mythologizes the value of completeness or universality. Therefore the process of prompting is a pedagogical one, whereby the outcome matters less than the consciousness raising that might come alongside or after the act.

Autobiographical Prompts:

Critical pedagogist Amanda Lichtenstein, in speaking of Autobiography as a Form of Resistance, notes, “As we gather in that fluid space between soul and intellect, autobiography — the act of reading and writing one’s personal story — reveals the self as plural and infinitely connected to universals snarled and sleeping within each of us.” The snarl, as she and many others evocatively note over the past two decades, is the dehumanizing impact of the technological present. The heady rush of instantaneous and apparently loving feedback on our instagram posts, snapchat stories, and facebook updates keeps us coming back, striving for more and more attention. The capacity to take multitudes of pictures as we walk through our everyday worlds creates the equivalent of mountains of images in our various communication and storage devices. The equal and pressing importance of events everywhere presents a dizzying array of news to keep up with. What is relevant to who Gergen aptly labeled the multiphrenic self?

As Lichtenstein writes, “Autobiographical awareness calls on each of us to remember the past so that we may confront a collective future worth knowing.” An admirable ambition, where does autobiographical awareness come from? How is it prompted? What questions might lead to to the blissful silencing of the screaming realities around us to find a core strand of the meaning of the self? Other than a month of meditation in the mountains away from any internet connection, how can we provide a space whereby one could articulate a brief but reflexive and productive act of stopping the swirl of experience for a moment to extract a thread of meaning before taking another step into the river?

So I add to the question raised above: What questions might prompt an autobiographical moment of reflection?

This is part of a series of articles related to Creating Future Memories, an Aarhus University funded research project exploring speculative, future-oriented, and participatory methods for citizens to understand and better control the data being produced through and around the everyday use of digital media.

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