Food Conjures Memory: Making Memory in the Museum

Making the Record from Memory: A Case for Documenting the Personal

Vivian Wong, Department of Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles / Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, Los Angeles, CA, U.S.A.  

Vivian Wong is a doctoral student in the Information Studies Department at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests include the documentation, collection, preservation, and dissemination of historical and cultural records in Asian American communities and archival forms/formations in the Asian diaspora.  Her work explores issues and ideas of history and memory in personal narratives and migrant and diasporic experiences.  She is also an award-winning filmmaker who received her MFA in Directing from the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. Her films have screened internationally in film festivals, academic conferences, and on PBS. 

Abstract

Conceptions of records have progressed from their institutionalized beginnings as documents of the affairs of the governments that produced them to a more progressive and inclusive present. Individuals can make records of themselves – records that have evidentiary value that document their lives. These personal records preserve individual histories, memories, and experiences in the archive that has the potential for anyone and everyone to be remembered in the record. Archival theory and practice have made strides toward inclusion and multiculturalism in the late 20th century and into the new millennium as postmodern thought entered the debate regarding the archive. While the postmodern perspective underscores the mandate of the archive to work with neglected and marginalized, as well as traditional groups, the record keeping and documentation processes are still ones centered on physical records. 

To challenge the textual proclivity and assumption of fixity in the notion of records, this paper explores the relationship of memories and records – a dynamic process where each makes the other and one is the other in some form. Records make memories and memories make records, while memories are themselves a kind of record that represents personal identity, history, and experience. It advocates for other kinds of things to be regarded as records when documenting, collecting, and preserving the personal. For certain individuals in the Diaspora, the ability to produce tangible and textual records of themselves is denied through political, social, or economic circumstance. Although these groups cannot create records of themselves, their experiences are nonetheless real. The understanding of the archive and archival theory and practice should be broadened to include the past in recorded memory of previously marginalized groups such that the archive becomes an inclusive representative of all people and their diverse histories and experiences.

“Where the storyteller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence.”

- Isak Dinesen, “The Blank Page”

“We are communal histories, communal books.”

- Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Introduction

I have a memory of playing on a beach in Malaysia when I was six years ago. It is low tide and I am digging for small clams with my toes in pools of water by the shore. This memory is one of the earliest and strongest that I have from the first trip my family took back to Malaysia to visit my grandmother. 

The memory is “real” to me in the sense it exists “in” me.  I can remember it vividly, recall it at will, and relive the experience in my mind’s eye.  But unbeknownst to me at the time, the act of me frolicking in the sand and surf was being documented by my father on his Super-8 film camera. I only discovered that piece of film footage decades later as an adult when I was making a film about my grandmother shortly after she passed away.

My film really came to light, literally and figuratively, when I saw those moving images captured from my youth.  In the moment of watching those grainy pictures flicker across the screen of a Super-8 viewer, I knew the film I was going to make. I realized the story I would tell and visualized how I would construct a narrative through those pictures.  How I would move from the past to my present through those series of images of me as a child on the beach, “jump cutting” space and time to join together two distant places – Malaysia and America – and the personal experiences recorded through these pictures. I would weave my grandmother’s story with my own life to tell a story of history, memory, and loss, imagined from my own perspective. 1

I relate this story to illustrate the relationship of memories and records this paper will explore, arguing that records make memories, memories make records, and that memories are themselves records. Through consideration of these dynamics, the paper will pose some challenges to the textual proclivity and ideas of fixity in the notion of the record, to advocate for other kinds of “things” and forms of “things” to be regarded as records in the archival and documentary sense.

For certain displaced, transient, and immigrant groups, the ability to produce tangible and textual records of themselves is denied through the experiences associated with migration and resettlement in other countries. While they cannot create records to document themselves, their experiences are nonetheless real, and should be included in the collective consciousness and recorded memory of our collective past.

My own family’s diasporic experiences stem from my great-grandparents migration to Malaysia from China, which led to the subsequent journeys taken by future generations, as they moved to other countries. I am a second-generation Chinese American who was born in the U.S. after my parents settled here as adults.

To form this framework of broader inclusion, this paper will begin by establishing the postmodern conceptualization of the record in contemporary archival theory and practice, as a means to facilitating a discussion about memories as a kind of record. I will connect these ideas back to my film, which I construe as a record made from memories and realized through various forms of recorded memory. Ultimately, I argue, this is an evidentiary record of my own identity and my grandmother’s life.

Records in the Postmodern World

Archival theory and practice have made strides toward inclusion and multiculturalism in the late 20th century and into the new millennium as postmodernism entered in the debate of the concept of archives and records.  In the wake of this deconstruction of dominant ideology aligned with Western theoretical traditions and institutionalized power structures, the archival establishment began to question its notion of the record. No longer considered “static physical objects” and “passive products of human administrative activity”, records were reconceptualized as “dynamic virtual concepts” and regarded as active agents in the “formation of human and organization memory” (Cook, 2001a, p.4).

Ideas of what records represent, the qualities they possess, how they are made and even who can make them have all been expanded, compared to the early 20th century, when records were thought of as the “one true thing,” documenting affairs of state and institutions. Post-modern thought encompassed a broader view that records are evidence to the affairs of society and its people. The record has been recast to include many narratives, serving multiple purposes for different people over time (Cook, 2001b).

In addition, the context and conditions in which it is formed is critical when considering the record, because both the context and the record can change so that they both evolve as one effects the other in a joint relationship.

    The record is now perceived as a trace of missing universes, as a kind of trick mirror distorting facts and past realities, reflecting the intentions of its author and the receptivity of its contemporary audience as much as its actual informational content. The record thus becomes a cultural signifier, a mediated and ever-changing construction, and not some empty template into which acts and facts are poured (Cook, 2001b, p. 27).

The record can be created and recreated in relation to its use, and depending on the situation and circumstances in which it is seen. It constitutes and reconstitutes “things” – ideas, events, and people – and makes them into records. Moreover, it is representative of a past in the present, so that it exists in our midst in an abstracted state. Despite lacking physical form or textual interpretation memories nonetheless have a structure of sorts that allows for their being remembered, realized, and recorded in some way. These processes may lead to subsequent memory-creation if the condition presents itself for another reconstruction and re-imagining of the record.

Records as structure and memory

Records in physical form and of a textual nature are a kind of structure. It is studied via the area of archival science called diplomatics, which is derived from the European archival tradition, and seeks to read, understand, and interpret the structure of a record as a document to judge its authenticity. Duranti defines diplomatics as follows:

    Diplomatics defines form as the complex of the rules of representation used to convey a message, that is, as the characteristics of a document which can be separated from the determination of the particular subject, persons or places which it concerns (Duranti, 1998, p. 134).

Diplomatics only conceives of records in fixed forms and of a textual nature, and does not give allowances for other kinds of records that do not meet these criteria to be records of an evidentiary nature.

However, structure is not just something that is fixed and physical.  There are structures that are unseen, but nevertheless exist as a way of organizing and ordering things:

    Order is, at one and the same, that which given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront one another, and also that which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language; and it is only the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression (Foucault, 1970, p. xx).

Foucault writes about a “system of elements” that, in their similarity and variations, constitutes a “form of order” (1970, p. xx). This order imposes an inner law which can be thought of as the interaction of structure and form. That is, structure as an organizing principle or “force” that gives form its shape, while also allowing these structured forms to effect and engage other structural forms. Structure defines some “thing,” while also informing things or giving things substance or properties, thereby creating agency or an ability to act. If the relationship of memories and records is taken in this context, then memories are in and of themselves a type of record.

Memory is a structural record in the Foucauldian sense; it is the record not visible, but within us. It is in our mind, latent and waiting to be activated, or available for recall, should a situation present itself. In addition, memory is associated with an event that can be documented, collected, and preserved at the time of its occurrence, thereby creating a record of the event with the memory attached. However, the event may go undocumented so that all that exists is a memory of it as an awareness of something that happened in the past. It is a past experience that is not visualized or expressed outside of one’s imagination (yet).

Arguably, memories occur in the form of a system, because they become associated within the mind, allowing the reconstruction of other memories (Halbwachs, 1992). Our past experiences are formed into memories that are “stored” in our minds. They are a kind of record of our past that we can recall later.

Rather than being a solitary process, memories are often formed and remembered collectively: “[I]t is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories” (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 38).  A group with a particularly salient place in our collective memory creation is family. As Halbwachs observes,

    There is in short no object upon which we reflect that cannot serve as a point of  departure, through an association of ideas, to retrieve some thought which immerses us again, in the distant or recent past, in the circle of our family (1992, p.  61).

Furthermore, we can relive those experiences when we activate the memories associated with them and we interact with these imagined experiences, or re-imagined memories, in the present. If the memory is particularly strong or invested with some deeper meaning, it can affect us in ways that are visible, which makes them more “real” to us. We are reliving the memory like the experience is happening all over again, so that we are caught up in the past as if it is our present.

Memory as the past is always with us and in us: “The past surrounds and saturates us; every scene, every statement, each action retains residual content from earlier times” (Lowenthal, 1985, p. 185). We can account for, as well as understand ourselves, through our past experiences as we remember them. It is through our memories that we retain a sense of ourselves throughout our lives. “Self-continuity depends wholly on memory; recalling past experiences links us with our earlier selves, however different we may since have become” (Lowenthal, 1985, p. 197). Memory as conceived and perceived in oneself is one type of record that could be used to form a sense of self as defined by one’s past experience.

Identity

Identity is important: it is vital to the development of our sense of self, and the means by which we know ourselves. The “search for identity,” this desire to understand and know ourselves intimately, is a uniquely human process; it is the search for our self (Taylor, 1989).  However, our understanding of the self, and notions of selfhood are shaped and formed as much by our internal psyche as by the influence of others. While we work towards establishing a personal identity that is unique and individual, it is also developed in communion with others. We are described by the people around us and exist as a person among others, so that the conception of self can be defined beyond the individual (Taylor, 1989). We can consider our relationship to others and allow their relative position to ascribe us. One is an individual to other people and one describes oneself in relation.

Arguably, the most common space in which our identity is constructed is in a familial structure. Family is the fundamental organizing force in our lives and the formative point from where we develop perceptions of self. We live most of our lives with our families and they have a great influence on us (Halbwach, 1992). Simply put, we are born into the world, which immediately puts us in a familial structure. It is within the family where we will mostly reside, build more relationships, and evolve our identity.  Therefore, as our memories are mostly formed with our family, so is our identity shaped through our family. Furthermore, as we are collecting memories through experiences, we are also continually forming and informing our personal identities as we move through our lives. Taylor recognizes the malleable sense of self that is constantly growing and becoming (1989). While there is a temporal element through which one lives, development of self in a lifetime suggests a fluidity of identity:

    And what is in question is, generally and characteristically, the shape of my life as a whole… I don’t have a sense of where/what I am… without some understanding of how I have got there or become so…It is also that as a being who grows and becomes, I can only know myself through the history of my maturations and regressions, overcoming and defeats. My self-understanding necessarily has temporal depth and incorporates narrative (Taylor, 1989, p. 50).

We keep a personal narrative of our life as we simultaneously live it; we construct our life story even as we are experiencing our life. This act of narrating life is central to the construction of identity and the process of knowing ourselves. We begin to recognize and recall the milestones and markers of our lives as we tell our story, so that we claim our identity as we know our past, understand our personal history and experiences. A person’s identity is contained in her autobiographical story that she continually constructs from her life as she interacts with others in her everyday world (Giddens, 1991).

Identities are constantly being created, even as we are being identified—which also in turn gives one’s identity an association with the past. Our narrative is ongoing and memories help us with our never-ending story as they are the “thing” that constitutes our past. Memory makes our past the past:

    Memory is, therefore, neither Perception nor Conception, but a state or affection of one of these, conditioned by lapse of time. As already observed, there is no such thing as memory of the present while present, for the present is object only of perception, and the future, of expectation, but the object of memory is the past (Aristotle, para. 3).

 

One such “object of memory” is the story recounted from my childhood, in which I am playing at the beach. This memory is significant to me because it is part of an experience associated with key milestones in my life: the first time I traveled to another country and the first time I saw my relatives in Malaysia. In the course of my lifetime, I have invested more meaning into that experience, and the memories informed by the event account for a part of my self-identity. I have allowed those memories to define me; they are “things” that attest to my Chinese ethnicity, to my family’s experience as members of the Chinese diaspora. These experiences mould my conceptualization of my personal history and self-identity. Since that memory was documented on film, I can use its physical manifestation in another type of record that is created – such as a film – to make another record, multiplying the records of me and by extension my family.  However, the memory itself is also influential in constructing the record as a film in the way that the experience as I remembered it helped me structure the story I would tell as the film’s narrative.

Records of self and personal memories

While memory can be a kind of record, it can also make records. One can take the memory of one’s past and create other kinds of records, so that memory as a structural record can be realized and represented in a visible record, made (or created) as record, as well as documented (or captured) as record. As a filmmaker, I write my memories as a narrative, combine them with visual records such as home movies and old photographs, and make films that are another kind of record. These represent a more typical record as they have physical form, but venture from this traditional definition because they are imagined, self-expressive, and purposefully realized in a popular medium ready for presentation.

In the case of my film, Homecoming, that record is a representation of me, as well as my grandmother who is also part of the film. To quote the title of Sue McKemmish’s article on personal recordkeeping, it is a kind of “evidence of me.”

    Recordkeeping is a ‘kind of witnessing.’ On a personal level it is a way of evidencing and memorializing our lives – our existence, our activities and experiences, our  relationship with others, our identity, our ‘place’ in the world (McKemmish, 1996, p. 29).

The records we create in the course of our lives are evidence of our existence; they are our proof of life. Moreover, and more importantly, the various kinds of personal records we create in our lives extend beyond our physical corporeal lives. They are markers and memorials of ourselves to be remembered. They insure we do not forget, and that we are not forgotten.

I am intrinsically connected to the film as its creator, but more important is what the film is about and what it stands for; the film is about my grandmother, so that she exists in the film as a record. Her life story is a part of the film’s narrative, and some of her personal effects are represented in the film. The film is truly a record of her and was created as a memorial to her after (and perhaps because) she passed away. Through the process of screening this film, this record of her prevails, presenting the record anew and renewed. My grandmother is re-imagined by each new viewing, and her memory lives through the film. She is captured in a particular time and culture that is fleeting and surely fading from society in Malaysia. My grandmother came from a family who was part of the late nineteenth century of Chinese migration to Malaysia, following earlier Chinese immigrants who settled the area since the fifteenth century. These Chinese became known as the Peranakan, Malaysian Chinese who adapted and adopted a culture that was a mix of Chinese and Malay traditions. The traditions she embodied and expressed through the way she lived, the clothes she wore and the foods she cooked, is becoming a cultural past as Malaysian Chinese women of her generation grow older and pass away.

My grandmother was a private person. She was a woman who stayed in the home to raise a family. She did not produce textual records – she was not able to attend school as a child. Nevertheless, her life is still a record deserving of recognition. The record was her experience, everything she knew and did that expressed who she was and embodied a part of the history of our family in Malaysia. While my grandmother made no tangible records of herself in her life, the film I made about her is the physical record of her. It is her record that she could not make herself.

Records need to be made because without them there would be no evidence of the past. All would be lost and forgotten: history, memory, experience, and identity.  As McKemmish notes,

    At a more profound level, destroy the memory – the evidence that those peoples ever lived in that place—and those peoples, those cultures never existed at all (McKemmish, 1996, p. 39-40). 

 

If records do not survive, we, in essence cannot survive as individuals, nor as a collective history or memory. Our experience will cease to be known, leaving behind no record of our experiences.

Finally, just as memories are records and memories can make records, the cycle of memories and records can turn on itself and records can make more memories. Put simply, experiencing, interacting, and engaging with a record can also be an experience in itself that is worth remembering. To illustrate this point, I will share another story related to my film: Despite my grandmother having passed away, I still return to Malaysia to visit my relatives. On one such visit, I also brought the film with me and had the occasion to show it to my grandmother’s sisters. That viewing still remains among my favorite screenings of my work. Through the film, I was able to bring a piece of my grandmother and her life in America back to the family she left in Malaysia—my grand-aunts could see their sister again. Sharing my grandmother with them in that capacity is another fond memory I have of trips back to my family’s country of origin.

Records are powerful objects for individuals and communities, regardless of the form in which they manifest. Through them, people can realize much about themselves and their own history as they interact with the record, and in some cases, those realizations can be profound experiences that make meaningful memories that can impact lives personally.

Conclusion

There are still communities and individuals who remain so marginalized that they have no means to create a record of themselves. Despite this, people still have the desire to be remembered, to have a record of the past. Jacques Derrida (1995) very dramatically states that we burn with the archives or we are consumed in a “fever” in regards to the archives.

    There would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression.  Above all, and this is the most serious, beyond or within this simple limit called finiteness or finitude, there is no archive fever without the threat of this death drive, the aggression and destruction drive (p. 91).

 

While we have memories we also want to be remembered so that the archive that is our memory becomes the archive that is “real”, actualized and realized, recorded memories that are documented, collected, and preserved as a kind of record in an archive that exists outside of our minds. The archive is in us, we are bound by it. The archive is our past waiting to be recorded and remembered apart from ourselves and our memories.

Records have come a long way from their institutionalized beginning as documenting affairs of state for the government to a more progressive and inclusive present. Today, individuals can make records from which they glean importance, and which have evidentiary value that documents their lives. These personal records make their history, memory, and experience permanent in an archive that has the potential for anyone to be remembered because we can now all enter the archive as conceived in our (post)modern time.

Many kinds of things and forms of things can be records, including things unseen, unfixed, intangible, and imagined. Memory is a record that exists in our imagination as awareness of events past. People are themselves records although they are certainly not textual or fixed in space or time, but their lives are an expression of their history, culture, and identity that is the record in practice and experience. While made from memory and imagined as self-expression, creative works are also records as they can document people and experiences that might not be actualized otherwise.

Nevertheless, there are still gaps in the record and there remain marginalized groups who are not included or evidenced by the record. Their record is easily lost and their lives most readily forgotten; it is their archival record that still needs collection, documentation and preservation. Nobody should be silent in the record, and the archives should be the story of us all.

1The film is Homecoming; it was completed in 2005 as my MFA thesis at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television.

References

Aristotle. (2009). On Memory and Reminiscence. Trans. J.I. Beare. Retrieved April 20, 2009 from http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/memory.1b.txt.

Cook, T. (2001). Archival science and postmodernism:  New formulations for old concepts. Archival Science, 1(1): 3-24.

Cook, T. (2001). Fashionable nonsense or professional rebirth: Postmodernism and the practice of archives. Archivaria 51(Spring): 14-35.

Derrida, J. (1996). Archives Fever: A Freudian impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Duranti, L. (1998). Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow  Press.

 

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things. New York: Random House.

Halbwachs, M. (1992). On Collective Memory. (L. A. Coser, Ed. & Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 

Lowenthal, D. (1985). The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McKemmish, S. (1996). Evidence of me… Archives and Manuscripts 24 (1): 28-45.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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