Making Sense of Memory


About the Cluster
This Research Cluster will explore memory’s movements across the borders of geographic space, historical periods/events, generational divides, and the spaces between bodies, places, objects, and subjectivities. The cluster brings together several faculty and graduate students engaged in the study of the afterlives of distinct historical events (slavery, indenture, colonialism, genocide, apartheid, anthropocene-era planetary violence) from the perspective of memory. There is a strong orientation in memory studies toward trauma, drawing from a psychoanalytic and psychological approach to the processes of remembering, repressing, reenacting, and reconciliation, at the levels of nation-state identity and cross-regional ethnic identities. This cluster seeks to supplement that orientation by considering how memory can be approached through other critical paradigms, notably those that center on bodily affects and the realm of what May Joseph calls “sense memory” — memory activated and reproduced through the sensorium of sight, smell, sound, taste, touch. Housed in an “unstable and pulsing place,” Joseph’s sense memory requires going deep into the past of the cultures of migration, exile, and diaspora, taking up the call of “mnemonic traces,” “shards of exchange,” and the “striated spaces of the senses [that] are violent repositories” so as to generate “intuitive ripples into tactile knowing.”1 Communities shaped by histories of movement are especially rich in such cultures of sense memory, which encompass anthropological practices of kinship; literary, musical, and visual expression; and critical theory.

This cluster seeks to elaborate a critical methodology for memory studies now, taking account of the established fields of trauma and memory studies, comparative or, in Michael Rothberg’s term, “multidirectional” memory studies (linking the Holocaust, slavery, and empire for example), and the recent explosion of multi-genre critical theory that mines inherited memory to articulate Black Studies and Indigenous Studies (Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, Dionne Brand, Tiffany King). We are especially interested in bringing this diverse material, and our own span of critical and regional interests (spanning East and South Africa, the Indian Ocean World, Southeast and South Asia, Europe, and North America), into dialogue with new methodologies of sense memory, embodied memory, and affect theory.

Principal Investigator
Vilashini Cooppan (Literature)

Affiliated faculty
Gina Dent (Feminist Studies)
Marc Matera (History)
Megan Thomas (Politics)
Nidhi Mahajan (Anthropology)
Anna Tsing (Anthropology)
Mayanthi Fernando (Anthropology)

Affiliated PhD students
Gillian Bogart (Anthropology)
Joe Klein (Anthropology)
Kelsey McFaul (Literature)
Stacy Schwartz (HAVC)
Axelle Toussaint (HAVC)
Xafsa Ciise (History of Consciousness)
Crystal Smith (History)


Coming Soon

1 May Joseph, “Old Routes, Mnemonic Traces,” in Cultures of Trade: Indian Ocean Exchanges, eds. Devleena Ghosh and Stephen Muecke (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007): 62-75, 62-63.