Theses on Memory and Identity: The Search for the Origins of the River Nile

1. As you are well aware, the constitution of the subject has been a matter of debate in contemporary theories. In modernism, we were told about the birth of the subject. In postmodernist discourse, we continuously hear of the death of the subject. This is tantamount to a celebration of loss: loss of representation, loss of ideology, loss of meaning; in a word, loss of identity. But when confronted with this kind of thinking, those of us coming from other cultures and nations must ask: Whose loss? Whose identity? The tragic separation of body and mind, its fragmentation in modern society, has resulted in the dismembering of subject and object; as a result, the Subject vanishes and becomes an object.

We have never acknowledged either the birth or the death of the subject. Ours has been an ongoing search for the unseparated subject. In other words, the metaphor for the West is the human life-cycle (birth, life, death); the metaphor for non-Western cultures is unity/oneness/totality, etc. The former lends itself well to narrative – it is a narrative; the latter isn’t, except in fragments and anecdotes – a paradox! To us this search, perhaps for a partial totality, enforces and continues meaning, thereby allowing us to inhabit the domain of memory.

2. Though the “Self” is private, it is never so private. It is social. It is for this reason that memory and identity are inextricably interlocked in our search for subjectivity.

[Please allow me at this juncture to be somewhat autobiographical]

3. Imagine a person, like myself, born into a village environment in the southern part of Ethiopia where the very young are all brothers and sisters, where the old are either aunts or uncles, and the elderly, grandparents. Let us suppose that at age eight or nine this young person moves from his area to attend elementary school, where he encounters for the first time children of landlords, peasants, merchants, and priests. He observes that some of the students come to school on horseback, while others walk long distances. Some have lunch brought to them, while others go with nothing to eat. This young person begins, at a very early age, to understand social relations, i.e. serfdom, landlordism. Let us suppose he then moves to High School in a city even further from his home. In the city, he begins to observe a pre-capitalist social formation. To make a long story short, he then wins a scholarship and goes either to a capitalist or to a socialist country (or even both).

4. I have indulged in these sketches as a way to show that, in modern times, we might live processes, which Marx described taking a thousand years, in one life experience: from communalism to feudalism, to capitalism, to socialism. The individual moves rapidly across these modes of social formation and economic development. What we recognize in a situation like this is the transient nature and the traveling character of identity. In cinematic terms, it is like the effect of a swish-pan or a dolly shot past a series of events and historical processes. The superimpositions of various stages and modes of development are contained in one life experience. The question then is: what happens to identity in this sort of compression of time and space? Identity becomes a mere fleeting memory, which is beyond words and which can only be captured in images, feelings, and sensations, as if looked at from a step outside the picture, or outside the frame, so to speak.

5. [À propos to this point: once upon a time, we measured space in terms of time (the distance from London to Cairo was measured in days of traveling time). Now, we can measure time in terms of space by taking someone’s life and describing it via images or memories, which are spatial.]

6. As a form of knowledge, memory is of several kinds, of several components. Here, I wish to distinguish two of these; on the one hand, we have memory which is voluntary and habitual. This kind of memory, which we characterize as retrospective or recollective memory, can be recalled and narrativized. On the other hand, there is memory which is involuntary and spontaneous. This is a memory that we perceive through the language of the sense rather than the language of thought. In this instance, Memory is triggered by smell, touch, sound, silence and sight. This kind of memory is not recallable at will and it cannot be narrativized. It is not available to re-telling. How we came to acquire language, knowledge, and our being a subject is not available to consciousness. These are deep fundamental experiences but are not narratable – not available to consciousness. How paradoxical! Though we know it in some fundamental way and remember it at some level, we cannot narrate it. Memory appears to be like language but language is the child of memory. Before we enter into the world of language we have memory. Language is not only the child of language or one of the expressions of memory; language is also the first creative impulse of memory. Memory is thus comparatively more inaccessible than being actually a subject. It remains hidden/invisible in our consciousness, and, like snap-shots from our past, it sneaks in and out of consciousness, acting like a hook by which we maintain a tactile but unspoken knowledge of our personal history.

7.  It is this spontaneous, invisible form of memory which is in fact the primary inspirational agency to the arts, for it is that which triggers the imagination and ignites the new awareness which in turn make memory more accessible to our consciousness. This practice of after-memory/after-consciousness is the domain in which art flourishes. In this respect, art can be considered as a triumph over memory. Moreover, it is also possible to say that art is perhaps the unique path we have in order to come more fully in touch with our identity, and thus, with our future. It is in this sense that we maintain that memory is a leap back into the future and always in a process of retroactive becoming. [Those of us involved in the cinema know that a film about the past is never a depiction of actual history, but rather it is merely a reference point with allusions to the future.]

8. Memory also can, and does, help us change the plot of the past for the purpose of helping us to anticipate the future. Precisely because Memory harbors and retains secrets, it enables us to construct new insights and knowledge about the past. At times, what is recalled is not the actual event but what has been socialized/ideologized. Let me illustrate this by way of an example. Take an anecdote by V.S. Naipaul in Mimic Men, where he relates the following: He remembers, when he was growing up in Isabella (Trinidad), giving an apple to his teacher; how strange,” he says, “apples did not grow in Isabella, only oranges.” Nonetheless, what remained fixed in his memory is that he gave his teacher an apple. Here, we have a case where the edited version remains sealed in memory, while the actual is transformed or displaced. How an event changes from “A” to “B” in the recollection of memory is still a mystery, and it seems as if some kind of magic or illusion is at play here. Indeed, what occurs appears to be a result of colonial socialization. This is in fact precisely the enigma of memory which is in need of further reflection. In a way, the anecdote establishes an intriguing link between a certain type of displacing or screening of memory and the constitution of the colonial subject.

9. Our memory is always subject to change depending on several factors. To some, Memory is an impediment, something to be forgotten. But the power of memory is such that in struggling to forget, isn’t one in fact reinforcing the very power to recall? In other words, anytime memory is suppressed, it gains power. While we consider memory at times to be a matter of choice, it is not so readily determinable. There is, however, an element of choice which is intriguing and rewarding.

10.  There are many examples of this conviction in both African and in diaspora practices. For instance, in rural Africa, when a woman gives birth to a child, the placenta is immediately buried in the ground to anchor the child in memory, community, and history. This can be seen as symbolically significant for all of us of African descent. For whenever our ancestors may have been forced out of Africa, their placentas remain buried in the land of our origin. Let me illustrate this in another way. Some fifteen years ago, I took part in a birthday party for an eighty-eight year old black woman in San Diego. After asking me where I was from, she reflected for a moment and said, “You know, I will make it home some day.” At the time of her statement this statement did not strike me; or if it did, it did so in another way. Now it is something I can share. Though distanced by language, cultures and geography, the fact that this elderly woman could speak with certainty of return after four hundred years marks the place of the meaning of immutable identity. (Or perhaps, its more of an intellectually comforting thing – she doesn’t actually have to go to Africa to experience her connection. In fact, going to Africa might rupture that umbilical cord forever.)

11. Let me illustrate this same point by citing another example that truly clinches what I have been saying all along about the identity and the immortality of memory: in New Orleans, among African-Americans, when somebody dies, there is a custom in which those closest to him or her try to “capture” the dying person’s last breath. It is an attempt to capture a moment in non-moments. It is a beautiful gesture, for that alone. [In cinematic language, it is analogous to a “freeze frame.”] The meaning of this custom of capturing the breath of the dying hangs in the air. It is a silent, secret and sacred agreement between the dying and the living. It also implies the burden of responsibility, for it makes the person capturing the breath responsible to the deceased for carrying on. This is perhaps a way of refusing to acknowledge death, or better yet, it is a refusal to acknowledge that death ends anything. Yet one might think of it as a practice of death which is actually a renewal of memory. It renews a tenuous link with a past projected forward through the next generation: the past of an African tradition in which the family gathers together at the moment of a kin member’s passing away. It evokes for us this punctuated continuity of identity to which I am referring.

12. And it is a punctuation which, as it must be, is also autobiographical. It has made my own recent work something of a “return,” in Aime Cesaire’s sense, to my native Ethiopia. This “return,” in which the foldings of memory and identity converge, is becoming concrete in a film-project anticipated for the future. It has become, in a sense, already a way for me to re-engage, across the mediating distance I have traveled, my own cultural memory and identity, a way to mark out its aesthetic terrain. An idea sets me within a field of memory that precedes my own biographical origins: the idea of the Blue Nile. This idea, this imagined Nile, forced itself upon me when Ethiopia’s struggle with the drought was first being portrayed on the news. Just as the phenomenon – as result of its disseminated representation – has become part of a larger social memory, it has entered into me. And I have entered into it.

13. My immediate obsession became the discourse on water. How strange, I thought, that the river of rivers, the Nile, which flows through and replenishes Egypt and the Sudan, leaves behind it, at its origin, Ethiopia, drought and death. The film project, then, tentatively titled “The Search for the Origin of the Nile,” became the moment in which I found my reflections on memory and identity converging. [Perhaps I am intellectually posing a solution, a sort of an opposite, a contrary force to the overwhelming threat of drought – like a dream, or like the removal of all the top-soil which ends up at the Nile Delta.]

14. Why the Nile?  Its importance, of course, goes back to Biblical times. And locating the source of the Nile has been the immemorial obsession of many great military commanders, explorers, geologists and anthropologists. We are told by historians that Alexander the Great was obsessed with finding its source. He sent numerous explorers throughout Ethiopia in vain. We are also told that Kambises of Persia transversed much land with a mighty army, only to return after the loss of many men. He, too, was equally unable to find its source. It is recorded that Julius Caesar was so desirous of knowing where the Nile had its origin that he stated it to be the one thing he most coveted to know in the world, adding that he would quit Rome for the satisfaction of knowing its source. The later Roman Emperor, Nero, had similar interests, but he was equally unsuccessful in gaining an answer. In recent centuries, the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Swiss, the Swedish, even the Australians and North Americans, have ventured to do the same, all to no avail. Closed off to colonial powers, ironically, the inaccessibility of the Blue Nile allowed it to be the only part of the continent which resisted the invasion of the motor car until the 1930s. And even then, it cannot be said that the motor car made the journey across the valley under its own powers. The only way the car could be brought into the valley was to be taken apart and carried on the back of a mule. (It was then re-assembled at the site, only to be disassembled again and brought back down.) Subsequent ventures to find the source of the Nile were only able to reach as far as the Sacred Springs (called Ghion by Ethiopians) in the mountains of the Nile Valley. But this proved to be only one of the tributaries of the river. Still, the source could not be located.

15. This history, these facts, were instrumental in my convictions that such a film needs to be made. It is the film(ing) of a metaphor. More precisely, we can recognize in the imagined Nile a double metaphor: on the one hand, a metaphor of searching for the journey itself, and on the other, a metaphor for identity. The Nile is much more than the river of rivers; it is a metaphor for an expedition of memory for all of us seeking the source of our identities. The history of black people is encased in the Nile’s mystery and in its historical significance. While it has been coveted by all colonial powers, it has been conquered by none. Similarly – or metaphorically – what matters for African peoples in general is that we, too, have not been vanquished. In spite of all that has happened and the scars we all carry as a result of colonialism and enslavement, we have managed to survive with our memory intact.  Memory of an ancient homeland.  Memory where the idiom is not the burden of defeat, but the value of constant struggle.

16. This film – that is yet to be realized – will show how memory and identity find harmony with history. The cinematic payoff is neither the story nor the problem of finding the origin of the Nile, but rather, the renewal, the process of discovery itself. In this film – that is yet to be made – it is discovery, the journey, the ability to survive the passage that is singularly the issue.

Just as one cannot find the origin of the Nile, so is the origin of identity inaccessible. However, that origin is less the issue than is the process of the quest itself. The search for identity is a journey outward and back, transversing the geography of imagination. The origin and meaning of both the Nile and our identities (be they secure or unstable) are, thus, perhaps written in the wind that carries the rain across the Nile and all the way from Africa and beyond.

This was a speech given at a conference on Speaking of the Subject: Post-structuralism, Postmodernism, and Black Theoretical Practice at the University of California, Santa Barbara on May 26-28, 1989.

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