Return is visceral. Among other tasks it organizes the body toward some normal, the first shock of re-location progressively routinized in small details, eventually inscrutable. At your first American airport upon return those slow-moving lines are familiarities encountered abruptly, added to your assemblage of pithy comparisons for friends—how thingsflowed differently, better, where you were. The Texas sun impossibly enduring, yet arguably less immediate in sweaty-ness than humid Kyushu. The hungry absence of onigiri at convenience stores. You forget by annotating, buy a rice cooker for home and retain the references, fragments of evidence that you were once away and now are returned.
Return is more than once. It instructs through repetition; what it repeats is forgetting.
My view of forgetting as a human talent and curating survival draws from psychoanalytic theory but owes particular thanks to Jasbir Puar, whose talk on lifelogging technologiesI attended last fall. As Puar argues, in digital we observe the estranging paradox of forgetting pathologized andremembering disembodied. What about an alternative, forgetting as a gift? In this way, we might witness resilience, possible through selectively dislocating memories, ways for the body to move without the weight of its worst knowledges and by displacing trauma outside of presence. But obstructing such relief is an anxiety. That is, a fear that in catharsis we might lose our forgettings—in the future of recalling them, discover their total absence from the intimacy of our cupboard, from our archive.
Such an anxiety is legitimate, and particularly for women of color and survivors of colonial histories. The extractive geography of colonialism is more than soil; empires build themselves on alienation and historically, U.S. colonialism has abused indigenous, diasporic, and enslaved communities through the occupation of memory. Saidiya Hartman shows with painful clarity that the colonial archive, what we can know of ourselves,is already ruptured (the title of this essay takes some inspiration from “Come, Go Back, Child,” a chapter in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along The Atlantic Slave Route). That is, like all knowledge and emotion, power has converted memory and forgetting to property—therefore, vulnerable to colonization and other structures of exploitation.
Forgetting is political: in constructing itself, the nation-state appropriates forgetting, deploying and releasing strategically. We are afraid to forget, but want to stop remembering. Official actors and public sites enter as custodians of our un-lost memories, experts and places out of view until the appropriate days, when we are ready. I saw this fear translated to tourism in my research of Japanese museums of atomic memory (as I call it) in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and upon my return in the lead up to 9/11's tenth anniversary. In the math of the memorial, the monument provides a presence to conjure memory and the memory subtracts from ourselves. We will never forget because we have entrusted this task to our discourse-makers. They are better equipped to care for the memory than us. We visit and return from the memorial, to forget.
The normal to which we both can and can't return is an illusion of safety, the anchor of any nation-state and particularly evident in U.S. exceptionalist politics. Americans are safe in where we live outside the memorial, supposedly, because this segregation is enforced militarily and economically. Like the memorial, the violence and danger exports itself to places and peoples outside our view, until we are called by our guardians to remember, to recognize and pay for their protection. The dependency of forgetting and safety as a politics is not exclusive to the U.S., but was rather visible in my research of Japan. There is something important happening and that has happened.
Then there is the question of when not all of us return. Some begin and live dislocated by geography, others are exported and lost, and then both. And what of them, what of us?
[This essay is part of a series on my 2011 summer research on atomic memory in Japan and also appears on my blog: http://veegee.tumblr.com/]