Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Memoires Prothèse 2015

Unlike the ancients and even our ancestors who were walking oral memory sticks, today we have created material and symbolic memory sites to save ourselves from forgetting

Dharma Adhikari
The year 2015 turned out to be our annus horribilis. Even in the words of our ancient forebears, it was ativa papa-sama, a very bad year, indeed.

I want to forget the cataclysmic year, but cannot erase it from memory. Never before had such an unnerving sensorial acuity been forced on me; the quake and the aftershocks kept me on my toes for weeks and months. The human-made violence and tragedy in the south, and ensuing political polarizations, threats of secession or another civil war, and as if that was not enough, direct external interference seemingly called into question what means to be a Nepali in this new federal dispensation.

The only collective high point sometime later was perhaps watching Luju Ojha’s wet streaks on Mars, a sign of the potential for life out there in a borderless planet. It helped us transcend our petty impulses and squabbles down here.

But the devastation and the ruptured fabric of social cohesion made sense-making all the more important.  An event like this, instantly historicized by the media and entered into collective memory, however, is prone to myth-making. In our culture, traditional media, such as the viral sawai, the commemorative, narrative folk songs, instantly unroll every time something tragic of this dimension happens. This time round, I did not get to hear any.

On a personal level, for many, the year came down to a ritualized arithmetic, counting aftershocks, clauses in the constitution, protestors killed, fuel trucks, and the legendry aphorisms and one-liners of, who else, but PM Oli. We have nurtured a densely symbolic-mythic climate, perpetuated further by the media that purport to focus on the facts, and the here and the now, but as intermediaries, end up mediating more myths and rituals, thus clouding the collective mind.

Myths choose sensual over the rational, and competition and technology offer our media more playing-field to cater to these tastes. The hate radio, social media bigotry, and editorial balderdash all combine to create such effect.  Amidst the collective recollection (smiriti) facilitated by the media, even our direct experience (sruti), however real, looks feeble and out of place. We all look for a shared reference point.

Elsewhere, when it came to remembering, no matter how emotionally charged the quake here was, it did not even find a place in the Associated Press poll on global stories for the year.  In 2001, the palace massacre was voted as one of the top 10 global stories by AP editors.

Never mind, this year we have added yet more epochal events in our collective memorial heritage. We (re)define alter, transfer and preserve our self-image as we mourn, debate, challenge, celebrate, or critique these shared reference points. Collectively, and in our modern history, from the Gorkha conquest to palace massacre to Maoist War to Madhesh uprising, we form an elaborate string of events, processes and emotions. Add to those past devastations, notably, the great quake of 1934.

As much as we would like to, we cannot forget such epochal events that redefine who we have become. Would the world forget the holocaust, Hiroshima, the Asian Tsunami, or 9/11? Unfortunately, with more technology and our infatuation with the perpetual now fostered mostly by news media, retaining and preserving memory has become a huge challenge today. For instance, disaster coverage by news media is often stripped of context and reference to the past. And no record of the news coverage of 1934 earthquake exists in our national archives.

Unlike the ancients and even our ancestors who were walking oral memory sticks, today we have created material and symbolic memory sites to save ourselves from forgetting. French sociologist Pierre Nora calls these lieux de mémoire where our collective memory “crystallizes and secretes itself”. For example, Buddha and Tenzing, Gurkhas and Sherpas are our popular memory sites that crystallize our collective Nepali memory. The fear of collective amnesia is such that sites of memories, in the form of events, personalities, monuments, museums, publications, commemorations, and other devices continues to increase.

And in modern times, besides intellectuals, rituals, and other repositories of collective culture, the news media, the first drafters of history, have emerged as powerful sites of memory. Their elaborate but not always complete online archives function as “mémoire prothèse” (prosthesis memory).  But still, even with the ubiquitous memory sticks, remembering can be a difficult, selective, mythical, and even ideological act.

As a lieu de mémoire, 2015 stands out. The media, themselves a site of memory, mediated other agencies but they were also participants in the process of forming collective memory. Coverage of the quake, unlike the Madhesh tragedy, was unprecedented in volume, speed and feedback, and news was as much fragmented as collective memory itself. This pattern reflected in the international media as well, though some were criticized for cannibalizing our memory. The New York Times, which put regular updates, for example, had taken a whole week, following the 1934 quake, to print two brief reports on its front page.

That the Nepali media received significant editorial focus—over 350 stories, according to a recent study—was an indication that they, despite their many flaws, are emerging as a potent site of memory about themselves. Media in general remains one of the least covered beats.  Media coverage of media focused on their disaster reporting techniques and ethics, and mostly new technology use, data visualization, social media, and crisis mapping. Other stories concerned security of journalists, radio reporting, and backlash over Indian media, most of them in May and June.

Most media stories on Tarai agitation and the Indian blockade, however, covered complaints of Kathmandu media’s bias against agitators, and propaganda and hate speech in Madhesh-based radio channels.

Foreign media were often wanting in their representations.  For instance, the misattributed picture of two Vietnamese children, though inaccurate, crystallized the disaster in one frame for the world to see. Instantly, it became the site of memory, functionally successful, but betraying facts and the unfolding history. Even some local media were not far behind in mythologizing it. As another example, resilience, a motif to describe any nationality in tragedy, was often attributed to Nepaliness. In the duality of media coverage, as seen in Tarai, such a reassuring tide merely ebbed.

In terms of process of news, the recurrent theme, as always, was the security of journalists. One of the useful developments this year was the fact-checking initiatives, spearheaded by some individuals and even institutions. New tools and methods of journalism, such as data visualization and social media helped enrich mémoire prothèse with immediacy, interactivity, perceptibility, and easy retrieval. Predictably, as months elapsed, the earthquake story lost its currency in news, and receded from memory. The unfolding drama in the Tarai also offered a convenient excuse for shifting emphasis or lack of follow-ups.

Finally, no other year as a site of memory had been so mediatized as to prod and generate unprecedented reception with so much interpretive power. Nepali audience and prosumers are increasingly primed to share their voices from the demand side of the media equation although partisan prejudice, hate speech and vitriol persist in most platforms, including social media. This was apparent more in the context of political developments in Madhesh than in the discourse of the disaster. The study cited above on quake reporting also revealed the increasing interpretive power of the audience. Audience reactions were mixed, with most applauding their informational role, in particular the radio, and others challenging their facts and biases.

I don’t want to remember the past year, but the sites of memories are everywhere and inescapable. Perhaps I don’t want to be able to remember enough. In the long term, the event itself will matter little as the story is recalled and transformed and retransformed. For the media that shows little or no concern to the past, all the more reason to write a more accurate and complete first draft of history.

Published in Republica, 12 January, 2016