|The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny
A work of Continental Philosophy by Dylan Trigg
Ohio University Press, 2012
Reviewed by Devin King
Coming the morning after a large battle, Book 11 of the Aeneid begins somberly. Aeneas is set to perform two tasks: bury his dead and pay his vow to the god of war. Traditionally, Romans buried their dead first, but Aeneas chooses instead to first pay his dues, building a totem of Mezentius, whom Aeneas has slain:
Of all the diverse memorials I thought of while reading The Memory of Place, Dylan Trigg’s new book on uncanny spaces, this scene affects me the most; the parting shot of Aeneas, the “this is Mezentius, as fashioned by my hands.” Aeneas crafts his enemy’s flesh into bloody wood, manipulates the revenant from somber representative to war cheer. Trigg’s work is concerned with what Aeneas enacts in doing so, and the questions this activity begs: To what degree do we have control over our own memories? To what degree do they have control over us?
Trigg begins The Memory of Place, his second book, with an investigation into monuments. Trigg argues that the monument “disrupts and offsets the world,” making room for embodied silence by drawing a boundary and unifying a space for silent reflection. At the same time, Trigg argues, the monument establishes a paradoxical relationship between the viewer and the language of that silent reflection: “Coming forward ‘as death’ means retaining a dynamic narrative, in which the event of death perpetually springs towards the present rather than being consigned to the stasis of nonactivity.” Rather than existing always and forever in the past, death eternally recurs in the present via the monument—“assimilated as an enduring event.” In so doing, the monument shows death as everlasting, but forms a relation between a) itself as a representation of the collective whole and b) the viewer as a “finite entity.” We look at the monument and experience everlasting death simultaneously both collectively and as of our own “singularity.” “Mighty deeds have we wrought…away with all fear…this is Mezentius.”
The Memory of Place begins with a discussion of a specific type of monument (the architectural, one could call it), yet Trigg’s concern here is with memory in general, and thus the monumental in the broader sense of its Latin root “monere,” “to remind.” His analysis here encompasses memory, ghosts, the Shoah, reading Kant in Las Vegas, ruins, 9/11, his childhood home, even black holes! Ultimately, he argues that the uncanny is not just a subset of our experience but the very root of it. This becomes clear towards the end of the book in a discussion of the popular theoretical idea of hauntology, a term originally invented by Derrida (in reference to the specter of Marxism hanging over academia) that has now made its way into the popular media as a rubric for anything that hints of disembodiment, nostalgia, etc. Trigg critiques the nebulous usages of the term as deployed by the media (and the “porous interpretations” it permits), and argues that what began as interesting work has since turned into “a metaphor, a metonym, or a trope” (ie a term currently lacking intellectual rigor). And yet, Trigg most definitely is interested in the validity of the phenomenological idea of “a lived experience that assigns a supernatural category to natural phenomena.” In this, he quotes one of Derrida’s original formations of the ghost: “There is no Dasein without the uncanniness, without the strange familiarity of some specter.”
Trigg inherits his arguments in favor of the uncanny mostly from the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (though Edmund Husserl and Gaston Bachelard are also cited quite frequently). Merleau-Ponty was interested in what he termed the ontology of flesh, whereby experience is embodied before it is known: first, one’s body experiences sense, then one’s mind interprets this sense. With this, because our own body, our own flesh, is constantly intertwined with the world – as Trigg paraphrases Merleau-Ponty – “body and world do not stand in a static and oppositional mode of existence, but continuously intertwine.” This intertwining is key to Trigg’s argument, and he argues that certain places are animated by other subjectivities that interrupt and confuse our own bodies prior to our own conscious perception. Trigg calls this effect “alien flesh”—“the lived-body becoming the host for an interstitial memory foreign to the cognitive spirit of the event.” Like a crude war totem, it is possible for our body to be made by another, and our experience of our own body to be “subject to another subjectivity.” If this is possible, to what degree? “Mighty deeds have we wrought…away with all fear…this is Mezentius.”
Trigg’s first book, The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason was an investigation into modern ruins and urban decay—factories, city streets, staircases. Certainly, melancholia is a defining mood of Trigg’s works thus far. Were one to nitpick, one could say the work is limited by its persistent humorlessness. In a sense such nitpicking is of course unnecessary, and indeed even unfair—Trigg argues that fragmentation and the uncanny lie at the root of our experience of the world. Should one even attempt to make light of that? Still, one wonders if one doesn’t unnecessarily limit this uncanny, ghostly phenomenology by only viewing it as melancholic. What monuments might we build to ghostly pleasure? How might Mezentius not be fashioned out of war?
Devin King is a writer, musician, and teacher working in Chicago, IL. His long poem, “CLOPS,” is out from the Green Lantern Press, Chicago, where he is now the poetry editor. A new chapbook, The Resonant Space, is out from The Holon Press, Chicago. Both are available at http://thepapercave.com>. More at http://dancingyoungmenfromhighwindows.com.