Bad Memory, Bad Taste: Revolting Archives
I recently encountered a fortune that had an unsettling cookie of wisdom, it said aphoristically: “One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.” But what is a “bad memory” anyway, and how could it possibly relate to joy? I took the fortune in two ways, both of which seem plausible: one, that a person cannot know the good without also knowing the bad, that a good memory is not knowable without its opposition, establishing a knowledge through difference; and two, that a bad memory might be the failing faculty of memory, a forgetful state of mind, and through forgetting one can move on from past pains. This failing bad memory, perversely, is one which seems common and acute amongst us under the 45th presidency, under the alienation of the quarantine of this pandemic, after the loss of nearly one quarter million Americans’ lives, after continued state and extra-state acts of violence and repression against citizens who refuse to sleep on structural racism, and under the threat of this economic depression, while also not affording much “happiness.” Whatever your politics, most of us are under some common duress for survival, one which produces for us daily traumas. I am personally more and more forgetting what day it is, how many days have passed, what my goals were for the future. I am at least experiencing some bad memory. My short-term memory is one which also seems to begin to fail me.
This last four years have left a bad taste in my mouth and plenty of bad memories. So when I was asked to contribute a piece for the design of the 45th Presidential Library, the aphorism of that fortune cookie stuck with me, it got me thinking: how can we memorialize someone who has traumatized us? If we are compelled by acts of congress to continue to produce Presidential Libraries, what can we do for a president who has left a searingly bad taste in the mouth, and one who has particularly “bad” taste? The Presidential Libraries in part function as memorials to the former presidents, museums of their lives, archives of their administrations’ documents, and of course, participate in the construction and maintenance of “good” citizens by creating grand narratives with which we are asked to identify. Former President Obama speaking through the Obama Foundation, in commenting on the goals of his own presidential library, explicitly refers to this participation in the production of “good citizens”: “we’re building a living, working center for good citizenship… we hope you’ll join us”(1). Like all memorials, the Presidential Libraries construct grand historical narratives from the perspective of the powerful, and as designers we are asked to enjoin in this ideological entreaty that reinforces the status quo through the archival institution of architecture (2).
The problem is that grand narratives inevitably leave many out of the picture, usually the most powerless amongst us, and those who cannot meet the criteria of “good citizenship” in the first place. Those who are omitted from and therefore fail to identify with such unified narratives become the “bad” citizens. Should we as designers agree to such an enterprise, we are then asked to omit, euphemize, or historicize cultural and personal traumas. Should we refuse to cosign the narrative of the victors, we then join ranks with the omitted bad citizens. For a president who is a bad memory, who has bad taste, and one who in turn desires to create for all Americans a cultural amnesia (in particular of structural inequalities), a shared cultural bad memory, what is a designer to do? Is it possible to forget past pains? In this instance should we strive to be “bad” designers?
Trauma is not just any kind of bad memory. When a trauma returns to us we do not merely remember it, we feel it in our bodies: we become nauseous, we can taste its’ acidity in our mouths, our bodies twist and convulse incontrovertibly. The thing about trauma is its lingering stickiness on the palate. Its revolting taste enacts for us a revulsion, a revolt, a refusal, a rejection through disgust. Disgust is a feeling that produces inherently political effects: it is an enactment to reinforce the distinction between self and other. For scholar Sianne Ngai, disgust produces for us in its object a “refusal or inability to ingest” and an “intense and unambivalent negativity;” and in the context of our political moment, and in the design of a Presidential Library, disgust propels us to reject “what consumer culture proclaims all should want or desire [us] to take in,” in particular, of the actions, ideologies, and aesthetics, which constitute the archival representation of the president (3). The political effect of disgust dispels ambiguity and impels us to act: a revulsion turns to a revolt.
But perhaps bad memory and bad taste have some liberatory qualities if we can locate value in both a different timescale of memory—as a reminder rather than a memorialization—as well as in the revolting affect that a bad taste produces for us—disgust. If the purpose of the perfect archive of long-term memory (and that closely shared with the public-private institutions of the Presidential Libraries since their institution through the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955) merely seeks to reproduce hegemonic class and racial conditions, and that trauma already resists a sort of memorialization, then perhaps embracing a different timescale of memory in relation to the last four years may become liberatory.
Trauma itself is a kind of reminder that resists representation, it recalls distinct feeling but lacks clarity in memory and form, and in the hopes of mastery it compels repetition. For Freud, trauma’s “compulsion to repeat also recalls from the past experiences which include no possibility of pleasure” (4). Even after the close of the 45th presidency, the collective traumas will not be erased, the affected will continue to see and experience the phantom pains and symptoms, and a Presidential Library which portends to master these feelings will ultimately fail. If both memorialization (the reproduction of grand narratives of the victors) and forgetting (the amnesic effect of the absolution of responsibility in a crime) attend to the maintenance of the status quo, then perhaps the logic of the reminder, rather than the memorial, shows a way forward.
Reminders are ephemeral and local, they side-step grand narrativization and compel action. Designing for the reminder encourages participation by all in shaping our shared stories. The 45th Presidential Library would work best as reminder, not dissimilar to the stain of orange Cheetos on the tongue. The force of a disgusting memory will linger and will compel us to act without ambiguity. “Bad” citizens are revolting after all.
Obama Foundation, “First look at the Obama Presidential Center” Youtube, commentary by President Barrack Obama at timestamp 40 secs, and video description text. (YouTube: 3 May, 2017): https://youtu.be/5Se4xSAIz_U. President Obama explicitly speaks to the ideological function of his 44th presidential center, in saying that “more than a library or a museum, it will be a living, working, center for citizenship.” The Obama Foundation, which serves the interests of the former president, says the silent part out loud, to say the library’s goal is the production of not just any citizenship, but “good citizenship.”
Memory and the archive do similar work to the presidential library as architecture. Jack Halberstam describes the queerness of forgetting against the constitutively normativizing mechanism of memory, or for us long-term memory: “Memory is itself a disciplinary mechanism that Foucault calls “a ritual of power”; it selects for what is important (the histories of triumph), it reads a continuous narrative into one full of ruptures and contradictions, and it sets precedents for other ‘memorializations.’” and goes on to say that “forgetting becomes a way of resisting the heroic and grand logics of recall and unleashes new forms of memory that relate more to spectrality than to hard evidence…” See Jack Halberstam “Low Theory.” The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press: 2011): 15. Additionally, architecture itself is already a kind of archive, which Lucas Crawford describes: “architecture is seen to both record and preserve the past by building ideologies and conventions into lasting forms and also to build for an unknown future, placing new (sometimes experimental) forms into our environments […] architecture is an archive: it is the relic matter as which a cultural idea enjoys its afterlife.” See Lucas Crawford, Transgender Architectonics: The Shape of Change in Modernist Space (Ashgate: 2015): 6.
Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press: 2007): 353-354.
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Dover Publications: 2015): 14.