October 28, 2009

Detail, Identity, and Architecture

Detail: minor, insignificant, trivial. Detail: in art, a thumbnail sketch; in architecture, a feature of a building. As it relates to Barthes: fragments of discourse (figures). As it relates to memory: bits and pieces of data.

Is it possible to “retain an absent identity"? And is this done though the use of detail?

The narrative documents what it can at any given moment. But documentation is sometimes woefully incomplete because we are unable to see everything. We are unable to have a 360-degree view of any experience, and so we detail the views that are available to us.

Daniel Schacter’s Searching for Memory explains how the “brain does not operate like a camera or a copy machine.” It only records “bits and pieces” of experience and is highly variable. Others can suggest and influence our memories; for example, if we are told a story about a childhood photo, we can begin to believe that the memory is our own. Memory is not complete. It is a constructed narrative we tell to ourselves about ourselves and determines how we define and create identities; memory is fragmented, in the same way that Barthes’ discourse of lovers is fragmented. An echo exists between the two texts as they erect a kind of architecture built around (of?) absence, memory, distance, relation.

There’s a real tension that exists between being allowed to voice one’s experience (for those who are minorities and in discussions around identity politics) and seeing identity as a construct (through the lens of post-structuralism, etc.). As someone who is an ethnic minority but who subscribes to the idea of the constructed nature of identity, I find myself trying to navigate the tension that exists here.

So, "what is the identity of absence?" I am reminded of my marginal position in certain instances, but must consider those margins as constructs as well. But if the self is "a consequence of absence," then what is left in that absence? Dialogue with the self (Barthes), as one navigates a new kind of architecture, one made of absence, which is in constant motion. That is, absence (like desire) is unstable. Not fixed or static.

I not only identify with the self that results as a consequence of absence, I identify with the selves that traverse the spaces between (lacunae): between this moment and the next, between presence and absence in relation, between this self that is minority and this self that believes identity is a construct.

In Beloved Integer, I write: “As the other who remains is not other.” And yet, the other who remains IS other. We don’t always see this. We don’t always understand the other in ourselves or see that other. We are limited in the way we construct experience, and as an extension, we are limited in the way we construct narrative in writing—though the nonlinear (experimental, avant-garde, non-normative, deconstructed, etc.) narrative attempts to form story in a complex way that acknowledges these limitations. And because of these limits, we live in a kind of constant absence…because memory is fragmented, because our POV is incomplete.

Perhaps we are constantly building and rebuilding an architecture of absence, only we aren’t always aware of this because of our inability to see the entire picture. Thus, there is a tension in who we are and who we think we are: “What we believe about ourselves is determined by what we remember about our pasts” (Schacter). If our “environments/living spaces reflect identity,” but our identity is a construct, then our environments only reflect a fragment of who we are. And only a fragment of what is possible in the narrative.

I was invited to Bhanu Kapil's workshop Narrative and Architecture yesterday afternoon to read from and discuss my book Beloved Integer. In preparation for my visit, Yasamin Ghiasi and Jonathan Bowman, two students in Bhanu's class and my own course Poetic Operation, emailed a few interview questions last week. They asked questions that probed the detail, memory, and identity, using the lens of architecture as a point of departure. This entry represents a revised response from those interviews.