Deconstructing Mountains and Memory

Prints and lace on the edge of the mountain - Phnom Bokor, Kampot

Prints and lace on the edge of the mountain – Phnom Bokor, Kampot

“Look here and push this.”

I was trying to explain, with my limited Cambodian vocabulary, to an aunt, how to take a picture using a camera phone. She flatly and bashfully refused at first, claiming she was too stupid and incapable to accomplish such a task (a common example of “Cambodian modesty”).

“I can’t see you,” she said, warily waving the phone before her, as if it was radiating a disease. “Push what?”

After a second demonstration, I scurried back to my perch on the rock overlooking the mountain and tried to smile before she put the camera down and said she was done. Here is the action she caught:

The first picture Aunt Thine took - Phnom Bokor, Kampot

The first picture Aunt Thine took – Phnom Bokor, Kampot

The second picture Aunt Thine took - Phnom Bokor, Kampot

The second picture Aunt Thine took – Phnom Bokor, Kampot

The third picture Aunt Thine took - Phnom Bokor, Kampot

The third picture Aunt Thine took – Phnom Bokor, Kampot

It’s no wonder she couldn’t see me – I literally was not in the picture. My legs could have just as well been a pair of stubby denim-colored tree stumps in her eyes. But who cares about me. The real mystery is, where did the red and pink fuzzy pics come from? That shall remain a mystery.

This lesson in basic photography took place during one morning on Phnom Bokor (phnom is “hill” or “mountain” in Cambodian), in the province of Kampot. The billowy forest-clad majestic mound of Bokor planted in a shroud of fog is breathtaking, especially in comparison to what seems an eternally dry stretch of flatland in the Phnom Penh area.

All's a forest beneath (debris and trash not pictured) - Phnom Bokor, Kampot

All’s a forest beneath (debris and trash not pictured) – Phnom Bokor, Kampot

When we reached Bokor’s top, the mist was even thicker. It was a while before I realized things kept disappearing and reappearing because the wind was moving the fog along, sneaking us peeks of cliffs and abandoned buildings, and then hiding them up behind its curtain again. For a moment I was wondering what reason I had for crying, until I noticed drops of dew were collecting on my eyelashes, the tip of my braid a thick, damp paintbrush on the collar of my shirt. We were actually inside a cloud. It was the first time I was wet, and it wasn’t because I was sweating.

Sojourners stop at the shrine of Grandmother Mao to pray for safe travels - Phnom Bokor, Kampot

Sojourners stop at the shrine of Grandmother Mao to pray for safe travels – Phnom Bokor, Kampot

I had only a foreigner’s surface-level knowledge of Bokor before we reached the top. I heard it was tall, I heard it was pretty, I heard there was good trekking. Operating under the mentality of a trail-happy Westerner, I guessed we would walk and eat and chat (a.k.a. innocently gossip, Cambodian female style) up there, in the company of aesthetically pleasing geographic formations. However, this was not the case. When I noticed every woman in our taxi van was wearing a white top and dark skirt, I knew we were not going to be picnicking in the middle of a Cambodian meadow. We were going to a temple.

“That’s no problem,” I told myself. “Alright, let’s do this.”

My trio of aunt companions (plus one other woman I don't know), faces in delight - Phnom Bokor, Kampot

My trio of aunt companions (plus one other woman I don’t know), faces in delight – Phnom Bokor, Kampot

I was ready, accompanied by my three aunts, including the one who participated in my photography lesson as described earlier. We were an odd group: there was me, an Asian-American in her 20s who spoke broken Cambodian, with my arm clamped (sometimes violently) by three older Cambodian women – Aunt Thine in her 50s, Aunt Channary in her 60s, and Aunt Sumpha in her 70s. I thought I would make some sociological, intergenerational observations about our female squad on this trip. This didn’t happen. I was much more distracted by something else – essentially everybody else.

We got to the top of Bokor and I was taken aback by the life there, everywhere – little ones, big ones, the young and old, solemn ones and loud ones, the zealously religious and the casual observer, the shoddily dressed and the regally clad. They arrived pouring out of taxi vans and hopping off of motorbikes, each one a sojourner up the holy mountain to join the holy party. Shocking neon fabrics draped tents and tables, vendors were selling food smoking off the grill, chanting danced off of an extensive loud speaker system, and an enchanting string of pennants, draped along the edge of the cliff – precarious ropes dangling scraps of delicately printed cottons and woven laces.

Bustling life at the mountain top temple - Phnom Bokor, Kampot

Bustling life at the mountain top temple – Phnom Bokor, Kampot

The temple on top was quite the stomping ground. It was most certainly not a place of sober meditation. (I thought I found a couple of spots for said sober meditation, but every time I thought I did, someone or some group crept into my quiet zone. I gave up trying to claim such a space.) The human activity flying across the Bokor compound reminded me of the bustle of life at synagogues described in Old Testament accounts – not that I was around during those times, but that’s what I imagine it was like, without the caged monkeys, megaphones, and giant golden Buddhas of course.

Besides for the beautiful scenery from up there, this is the impression Bokor left me with: clearly, religion is not dead in Cambodia.

In addition to reflecting on that thought, wandering the top of the mountain reinforced a question I have been struggling with:

Why do Buddhist sites manage to thrive in Cambodia while many genocide memorial sites – often located on temple grounds – are forgotten or unheard of by local Cambodians?

This nags me daily and is one of the many causes of my current bout of researcher’s block. The symptoms: I am unproductive and can be found scratching my chin and staring blankly into the distance.

Alas, I think I made a teeny, tiny breakthrough last week (after a long drought of not much intellectually worthwhile to think about) when I read a statement by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Now, a disclaimer: I am no trained philosopher at all. (I’m ashamed to say that when I see the name Plato, the first thing I think about is how much fun I had with Play-Doh as a kid and how fun it would be to play with it again.) However, afford me grace and allow me to play around with Derrida’s thoughts on deconstruction in relation to memory.

In an interview at the inauguration of a doctoral program in philosophy at Villanova University, Derrida shared his thoughts regarding the act of saying ‘yes’ in James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Saying ‘yes,’ Derrida said, was the equivalent of making a commitment to a memory:

… deconstruction is “yes,” is linked to the “yes,” is an affirmation. As you know, “yes” is the last word in Ulysses. When I say “yes” to the other, in the form of a promise or an agreement or an oath, the “yes” must be absolutely inaugural. Inauguration is the theme today. Inauguration is a “yes.” I say “yes” as a starting point. Nothing precedes the “yes.” The “yes” is the moment of institution, of the origin; it is absolutely originary. But when you say “yes,” you imply that in the next moment you will have to confirm the “yes” by a second “yes.” When I say “yes,” I immediately say “yes, yes.” I commit myself to confirm my commitment in the next second, and then tomorrow, and then the day after tomorrow. That means that a “yes” immediately duplicates itself, doubles itself. You cannot say “yes” without saying “yes, yes.” That implies memory in that promise. I promise to keep the memory of the first “yes.” In a wedding, for instance, or in a promise, when you say “yes, I agree,” “I will,” you imply “I will say ‘I will’ tomorrow,” and “I will confirm my promise”; otherwise there is no promise. That means that the “yes” keeps in advance the memory of its own beginning, and that is the way traditions work ….[1]

Reading this made me feeling immediately guilty about the way I sometimes throw around my “yesses.” Once I get over the pang of guilt though, I focus more on the lovely concept Derrida has to offer here about how our “yesses” may act as memory contracts – the act of saying “yes,” that is, of affirming and recognizing and acknowledging, forms what should be an unbreakable agreement between the past, present, and future. That is the memory contract, which produces what Derrida points out is the origin of a tradition. The memory contract is what continues to bring Khmer people to Bokor, and to any other temple, consistently, with steadfast dedication (whether consciously or unconsciously ingrained).

Derrida closes the interview by emphasizing the active nature of saying “yes”:

…. So “yes” has to be repeated and repeated immediately. That is what I call iterability. It implies the repetition of itself, which is also threatening, because the second “yes” may be simply a parody, a record, or a mechanical repetition. You may say “yes, yes” like a parrot. The technical reproduction of the originary “yes” is from the beginning a threat to the living origin of the “yes.” So the “yes” is haunted by its own ghost, its own mechanical ghost, from the beginning. The second “yes” will have to reinaugurate, to reinvent, the first one. If tomorrow you do not reinvent today’s inauguration, you will be dead. So the inauguration has to be reinvented everyday. [2]

Saying “yes” does not end with a handshake or signing some document. The memory contract, Derrida explains, is not a dead, inanimate agreement. It must be deliberately kept alive. This might be a reason why many local genocide memorials in Cambodia look like forsaken, lifeless forms of identifiable or unidentifiable physical matter. It’s because they are, well, forsaken, lifeless forms of identifiable or unidentifiable physical matter. I mean that in both a literal and philosophical sense. Physical memory is not enough to seal a “yes.” In many cases, a local genocide memorial may just be the “mechanical ghost” to which Derrida refers, one of many obligatory monuments intended to record proof that the genocide did indeed occur. However, without the embodied memory – that is, the continuously operating participation of Cambodians reexamining, contesting, and basically, deconstructing the history of the genocide – the genocide memorial is, as Derrida, warned, dead.

I find myself always coming back to some statement made by James Young when it comes to the treatment of memory, and this is just another example of one of those appropriate moments. “For memory never stands still,” Young noted. [3] Memory does not stop when stating the initial “yes” or inaugurating a memorial. He added:

For were we to passively remark only the contours of these memorials, were we to leave unexplored their genesis and remain unchanged by the recollective act, it could be said that we have not remembered at all.[4]

Indeed, for if we were to commit such a(n) (non)act, it would make all of our “yesses” the stuff of lazy language – a hollow, meaningless statement. And then where would we be if our words meant nothing at all? That would most certainly appall our dear Derrida.

[1] John D. Caputo, “The Villanova Roundtable: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida,” in Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, ed. John D. Caputo, 3-28 (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997) 27.
[2] Caputo, “The Villanova Roundtable: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida,” 27-28.
[3]   James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), x.
[4] Young, The Texture of Memory, 15.

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