Negotiating Sites of Memory

When I chose Negotiating Sites of Memory as the theme for the MLA convention held in Vancouver, British Columbia, in January 2015, I hoped that my colleagues would consider the large and many-faceted topic of memory sites—broadly construed as locations marked as significant—in relation to verbal processes of negotiation. Temporally complex like Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, negotiating sites of memory starts in the present and looks both to the past and the future. Negotiating encompasses a range of communicative acts that human beings perform when they seek agreement in the face of conflicting views on something important, such as the value of material or immaterial goods. In more than two hundred sessions, MLA members engaged with the presidential theme, often by interrogating it, and expanded my understanding of negotiation, memory, and site. The organizers of Transnational Memories: Sites, Knots, Methods (session 716), for instance, observed that while the modern (that is, post–World War II) field of memory studies “was linked from the outset to national memory cultures, institutions, and sites,” the recent turn to “transnational approaches” challenges the conceptual value of the “‘sites of memory’” as an “assumed framework” for the field (Program 1076). That is certainly true if “sites” are associated with a fixed geographic space or even with the “lieux de mémoire” explored by Pierre Nora, such as flags, popular songs, or the names of Parisian streets. Such sites may be portable, but they do not typically travel across the debatably “irrevocable” distinction Nora draws between the borders of the nation or between modernity and premodernity (7). In ancient cultures that predate Nora’s European (medieval) premodern era, however, and that continue to trouble the MLA’s own institutionally drawn distinction between the modern and the ancient (Greek, Latin, and Hebrew) languages, there are many sites of memory that move across geographic, temporal, and linguistic borders and that become objects of study through translations into new media or Internet accessibility. Speakers in a session on Hortense Spiller’s complex concept of the “flesh” undertook to “negotiate rupture as a possible or impossible site of memory” (Program 983), and a paper in the Presidential Forum, by Saidiya Hartman, took as its site of memory textual and photographic figures of a black African slave girl “arriv[ing]” from a southern space and time into a modern northern city’s slums (“Northern Phase”). Hartman, who had previously told an irony-laden story of her quest to find her Ghanian forebears in her book Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, used her paper to discuss images of abject African subjects as sites of racist memory. These sites prompt both forgetting and efforts of resignification.The Vancouver convention itself took place in a deeply contested geographic site of memory. Negotiations over land and resource extraction rights continue in and near Vancouver despite and because of failures in the province called “British Columbia” to reach agreements over land use that most indigenous negotiators could consider just. One small sign of (potential) progress, however, lies in a gesture that it is hard to imagine elected representatives of other contested memory sites making: in June 2015, the Vancouver city council voted to acknowledge that the city occupies “unceded territory” of three native groups, the Musqueam, Tseil-Watuth, and Squamish peoples, who lived in the area before George Vancouver arrived in 1791 and named landmarks and waterways for Englishmen. There were a number of MLA sessions that explored indigenous peoples’ cultural memories as these have traveled from a distant past to a present in which members of indigenous First Nations challenge the logic of the modern capitalist nation whose critics often categorize it as a “settler colonialist” state. Contested borders between modern nations as viewed through contemporary indigenous filmmakers’ eyes became a site of competing memories in several 2015 MLA sessions, including one linked to the Presidential Forum and called Modes of Memory, Modes of Production: Across Indigenous Americas. MLA sessions in Vancouver featured some of the ways in which educators, artists, writers, union members, and others are attempting to imagine what a truly postcolonialist future might look like.The five papers delivered in the Presidential Forum, three of which were revised for publication here, performed as well as reflected on acts of negotiating contested sites of memory. In “Bush Sites / Bush Stories: Politics of Place and Memory in Indigenous Northern Canada” Peter Kulchyski explores a large geographic territory and analyzes epistemological gaps between indigenous concepts of memorial sites and the concepts that underlie English appropriations of those sites. He takes the carved rocks located “near Curve Lake First Nation at the northeast end of Anishnabwe territory” as a key example: the rocks were a sacred site for ancient indigenous people and are called Kinomagewapkong, the Teaching Rocks, by modern speakers of the Algonkian language. The cultural meaning of these rocks—known in English as the “Peterborough Petroglyphs,” a phrase that suggests that they belong to a British colonial place—has been carelessly blunted, he argues, by the modern building that now ostensibly protects them from the elements while also altering the signs and sounds encountered by indigenous visitors to this habitat. Kulchyski studies the Teaching Rocks along with other marked places (some of them threatened by and one already lost to an energy development project) as part of a collective effort of negotiation, protest, translation, and education across cultural and temporal divides.Two other forum papers, by Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi and Ihab Saloul, focused on a site of memory so contested that those who should be officially negotiating its future often do not agree on its name. Some call this territory Israel/Palestine, with the slash a signal of the site’s contested pasts, presents, and futures both as a geographic territory and as a set of texts, photographs, films, and screen images that are constantly reproduced for different political agendas: the Wikipedia site “Israel/Palestine” was the locus of such bitter editing wars that it has been closed for the time being; if you go to that site you are redirected to “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” The title of one MLA session, arranged by the Division on Ethnic Studies in Language and Literatures (now the forum TC Race and Ethnicity Studies), refers to “Israel” and “Palestine” as separate entities and poses the stark questions “Whose Border? Whose Memory?” (Program 1007). Both Ezrahi and Saloul confront that question in careful acts of unofficial negotiation addressed potentially to readers of Hebrew and Arabic, as well as of English. Drawing on his experiences both as a professor of literature and memory studies in Amsterdam and as the child of parents who lost their house and village in Palestine in 1948 during the Nakba (“Catastrophe”), Saloul asked in Vancouver how Israelis and Palestinians could imagine a use of language in which each group could designate the other as part of a first-person plural entity—a “we.”Writing from her experiences as a scholar of comparative literature and as an Israeli citizen who taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ezrahi offers an interpretive space for such a “we” to exist—and work—against the despair created by more than a half century of failed negotiations over physical and metaphysical borders: “the much-battered ‘two-state solution,’” she writes, “is about where the Israeli self ends and the Palestinian other begins—and vice versa.” At a time when the two-state solution is off the table for official negotiators, Ezrahi models a way of negotiating meaning that acknowledges the cultural value in the ancient texts of both Muslims and Jews about a deity who binds and almost sacrifices a son—Isaac in the Hebrew Bible, Ishmael in the Koran—in a place that some messianic Jews locate as and in the Temple Mount (Har ha-bayit) rising from the so-called City of David (now a contested excavation site ) in Jerusalem. Writing against those right-wing Israeli archaeologists engaging in a dig that discards evidence in which they are not invested about a place also sacred to Muslims and called the “Noble Sanctuary” (Haram al Sharif), Ezrahi practices a mode of interpretation that leads to a nuanced, pluralist understanding of Isaac’s binding in Genesis. She weaves that interpretation into a resonant argument against some Israelis’ tendency to misinterpret a textual place where human beings called on God as a single physical place that can be seductively viewed as belonging exclusively to Jews because it is where their God “dwells.” Ezrahi combines the roles of interpreter, cultural critic, and mediator to challenge a reductive use of biblical authority to legitimate policies she sees as leading to more tragedy for the two peoples who inhabit Israel/Palestine today.

The final paper I want to introduce from the Vancouver Presidential Forum is by Wai Chee Dimock, who reflects on negotiation as mediation and calls on university professors of language and literature to direct their attention to students, and potential students, in the growing population of incarcerated persons in the United States. Dimock, who asked her colleagues to think beyond the time and space of the nation-state in her study Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time, now invites readers to think about a way “higher education might intersect with the criminal justice system” through teaching “done under the rubric of a program called Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI).” That program exists in a number of United States cities, including New Haven, where Dimock teaches. She reflects on how she and other college and university educators might build pedagogical bridges between our sites of professional memory—Dimock’s key examples are passages from Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos and an iconic image of the cage in Pisa, Italy, where Pound was imprisoned during the last year of World War II—and the sites of memory of students who have spent time in prison and who can discover, through ATI, a temporary reprieve from their daily routine and, potentially, an alternative site of education.

Dimock’s forum paper, like those by Kulchyski and Ezrahi, can serve not only as a memento of the 2015 convention but also as a provocation to think of our work as readers of literature and as humanities educators through the lens provided by the notion of negotiating. The verbal noun implies the willingness to take risks, to engage in acts of “communication or conference” with one another for the purpose of “mutual agreement,” “settlement,” or “compromise” (“Negotiate,” def. 1a). We know of course that negotiations can be and have been undertaken in bad faith—as tactics for delay and as distractions for an interlocutor perceived as an enemy to be defeated by any means. Such negotiations make acts of speech and writing a cover for violence rather than an alternative to it. We also know that negotiation and lying have been intimately linked in history and that tactics of negotiation have often migrated from the battlefield to arenas of diplomacy and trade—and back again. The ancient Chinese had a collection of thirty-six proverbial nuggets of wisdom for achieving military success that are now touted as valuable strategies for CEOs seeking a competitive edge: for example, “kill with a borrowed knife” (借刀杀人), translated as “attack using the strength of another person” (Barkai 8).

Despite the compromised nature of the concept of negotiation in some anglophone educational and political contexts—the 2015 MLA subconference, which highlighted contingent labor issues in academia, was, for example, a call to action entitled Non-Negotiable Sites of Struggle—I hope that the papers from my forum can reanimate a meaning implicit in the Latin term negotium: its negative particle prefix tells us that whatever negotiating is, it is not the kind of leisure (otium) typically enjoyed by the Roman upper class. As Jacques Derrida argued about the ethically difficult kind of negotiation that is required “when there are two incompatible imperatives,” “[o]ne does not negotiate between exchangeable and negotiable things. Rather, one negotiates by engaging the nonnegotiable in negotiation” (13). Such negotiation rarely has a definitive ending, and it may well seem tedious and unglamorous work. In ancient Rome, it was often performed by verbally gifted servants acting on behalf of their masters’ desires. In doing this work, the negotiators were constrained in what they could accomplish; nonetheless, they can offer a model for us because they sometimes found ways to transform intransigent desires into propositions open to change and compromise.


For a longer version of the argument Saloul made in his forum paper, see his Catastrophe and Exile. I would like to thank Lee Emrich, a doctoral student in English at the University of California, Davis, for her help in the editing of this set of essays.

Works Cited

Barkai, John. “Thirty-Six Chinese Strategies Applied to Negotiations.” Social Science Research Network, 2008, pp. 1–24,

Derrida, Jacques. Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971–2001. Edited and translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford UP, 2001.

Hartman, Saidya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007.

———. “The Northern Phase of a Southern Problem: The Slave Girl Arrives in the Slum.” Presidential Forum: Negotiating Sites of Memory. MLA Annual Convention, 9 Jan. 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver. Address.

“Negotiate.” The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1989, p. 303.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Memory and Counter-memory, special issue of Representations, no. 26, Spring 1989, pp. 7–24. JSTOR,

Program: The 130th MLA Annual Convention: Vancouver. Issue of PMLA, vol. 129, no. 5, Nov. 2014, pp. 897–1099.

Saloul, Ihab. Catastrophe and Exile in the Modern Palestinian Imagination: Telling Memories. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Margaret Ferguson is distinguished professor of English at the University of California, Davis, and a past president of the MLA.


Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>