Wounds of returning: Violence and memory in twentieth-century American culture
This project examines attempts to find elusive, even illusory, points of origin, revealing the violence inherent in the process of remembering, in both figurative and material senses. I emphasize the materiality of remembering as I examine its less benign aspects, for I am interested in how past traumas get made into the livable present---by those who have suffered them, but also by those who have inflicted them. Examining images of 'return' to points of social and cultural origin, I explore ways in which, in the construction of collective selves, historical violence is contained, repressed, explained, celebrated, and commodified. Crucial to this process is the transformation of sites permeated by painful struggle into sites of leisure, and of pleasure. But, as I demonstrate, such transformations are never fully accomplished. The repression they require is impossible to maintain, due to the often bitterly contested but necessary interdependence between what is being repressed, and what is doing the repressing. The paradox of U.S. identity is that these processes cause the dominant culture to be utterly dependent upon what it tries to destroy. Because the dominant cannot conceive of itself as its margins, it ends up in the position of denying crucial elements of itself. It manages to endure, however, due to a tortured evolution forced by the fact that its others have not simply become its surrogates, but instead assert an overpowering agency of their own. Within the nation's sociocultural sphere, mirroring and doubling across lines of race and class simultaneously create the social structures that define the United States, and radically defamiliarize them. Those who have been defined as 'other' and relegated to the margins of culture and society return---and with a vengeance. The dominant culture becomes reinhabited, even 'possessed' by those that it has itself possessed, or whom it has stripped of citizenship in other ways, as prisoners or 'savages.' In this way, whiteness---and, in the end, dominant culture as a whole---become estranged. They are themselves defined as 'other,' by means of the same structures that they have set up to differentiate themselves from 'others.'