Édouard Glissant, in his lecture titled “The Poetics of the World: Global Thinking and Unforeseeable Events,” states that “archipelagic thought is thought of the many, the multiple” (7). Glissant’s concept of archipelagic thought was not on my mind when I ventured out to take photographs of the Susquehanna River in the late afternoon of the Autumn Equinox. Initially I wanted to shoot at the river because both the Washington footbridge and the foliage surrounding the river maintain a color scheme this time of year that reminds me of Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves. I was seeking tension in the juxtaposition of a still medium like photography and the evocation of movement in the content of the photos.
When I arrived at the river, however, a series of rock formations just shy of the bridge immediately called forth Glissant’s concept. The first set of photographs capture archipelagic rock formations as signifying totalities, while holding in tension “the one”—the singular rock—and “the multiple”—the island-like formations made up of many rocks that shift with the movement of the water and the movement of the camera’s point of view (7). The Susquehanna photographs contain many repetitions with difference. This first set, taken together, constructs circular movement through the shifting and varied viewpoints of the same rock formations. The effect—compounded by the ways in which the editing process announces itself through saturation—could be double: one the one hand, suturing together multiple viewpoints of the same formation constructs an impossible or unimaginable imaginary (4), wherein the viewer can “see from all sides.” On the other hand, the repetition of the rock formations with subtle differences in each photograph lends life, but also strangeness, to the stone archipelagos. Visually moving through the set, the rock formations come alive in the shifting formal construction of the photographs.
While in this first set of photographs stone evokes life as a form of movement, in the second set of photographs (taken at the Riverside Cemetery and the Westlawn Cemetery) stone becomes a medium preventing spiritual movement. At the same time, stone symbolically conveys memory of lost souls. The idea of shooting in a cemetery came to me on a whim. Originally I thought I could connect the two photographic sets through Glissant’s above-cited lecture and Valérie Loichot’s article in Callaloo titled “Édouard Glissant’s Graves.” However, in researching cemeteries I stumbled onto a blog post documenting a Holocaust monument in Riverside Cemetery with photographs. The monument, surrounded by white stones, was erected in 1952 making it one of the earliest Holocaust memorials constructed in the United States (Gruber). I was compelled to visit the monument, thinking a stronger connection might be made between the stones in the Susquehanna photographs and the stones at the base of the monument.
In my visit to both cemeteries, various kinds and constructions of stone announced themselves prominently, but especially in the stones placed on top of the grave markers. While the Jewish custom of placing stones on top of grave markers is far from foreign to me—I’ve placed stones on the grave markers of my grandparents, great-aunts, and great-uncles—this project provided the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the custom. Already familiar with this practice as a form of marking the memory of the dead, my research elucidated another reason for marking headstones with rocks. Rabbi David Wolpe, for example, writes about this practice and identifies its roots in Jewish mythology and superstition. As he puts it, “The superstitious rationale for stones is that they keep the soul down.” Further, Wolpe draws a connection between memory and superstition when he identifies solidity as one of the main characteristics of stone. In their solidity, stones keep memory alive while simultaneously weighing the soul down, “prevent[ing] the kind of haunting that formed such an important part of East European Jewish lore” (Wolpe).
In the multiple capacities of the stones marking Jewish cemeteries, movement becomes the central crux of haunting, memory, and migration, and while I strayed from my original idea of connecting the two photo-shoots through Glissant, I found myself coming back to Loichot’s article after editing the cemetery photographs. Both Loichot’s discussion of the dynamic and interactive aspects of Glissant’s grave (1021), and the relation she draws between life and death in Glissant’s image of “hollowing out the earth” (1015-1016), can be read relationally to the practice of placing stones. Stones, as markers imbued with memory, connect the living with the dead through the interaction between the living and the earth.
In retrospect, the cemetery photographs maintain a sense of opacity, or, in terms of Glissant and Loichot, incomprehensibility (1024). Rarely, if ever, do the photographs expose the names of those occupying the graves. One can only know so much about the relationship between the dead and the living through the images of the stones resting atop grave markers. At the same time, some of the stones and objects used as markers, such as the seashell or the glass beads, begin to hint at these relationships. Furthermore, the images evade context in their formal composition; instead, they isolate stones and tiles, fragmenting them or blurring them through the framing and editing processes. The inclusion of the Holocaust monument at the head of this second set of photographs acts as a reminder of the migratory nature of memory; the monument was erected as a way of marking the memory of Holocaust victims who perished in the concentration camps without a proper burial or grave marker. The memories of those victims migrated with and lived through the family members that survived, finding their way to Binghamton. Further, interred beneath the monument lay a copper box containing a list of names. The names on this list stand in for the lost victims’ bodies (Gruber). According to the cemetery’s caretaker, Arieh Ullmann, the cemetery has also created a digital database of names added by new Jewish residents of Binghamton during annual ceremonies held at the monument, or via email. The monument, then, connects members of the diaspora across time and space—spiritually, physically, and digitally.
The two photographic sets, when read together, are meant to document the life cycles of the stones themselves. Simultaneously, the collection of images as a whole exposes and suspends the “extreme process of violence” that “engenders movement, change, and sometimes, transfiguration ... and which bursts beyond reason’s mastery” (Glissant 4). Within the photographs, stones are movement, stones move, and are moved. Stone Cenotaphs only begins to hint at the forces behind this violent process of movement, for any attempt at petrifying such violence into a permanent object risks continually finding, according to Glissant, the “actualized equilibrium of this violence” (4).
Glissant, Édouard. “The Poetics of the World: Global Thinking and Unforeseeable Events.” Chancellor’s Distinguished Lectureship Series, translated by Kate Cooper Leupin, April 19, 2002, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lecture.
Gruber, Samuel D. “USA: In Binghamton, NY, Rediscovery of an Early ‘Holocaust’ Memorial.” Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art and Monuments, 13 Nov. 2015, http://samgrubersjewishartmonuments.blogspot.com/2015/11/usa-in-binghamton-ny-rediscovery-of.html. Accessed 18 Oct. 2017.
Julian, Isaac, et al. Ten Thousand Waves, Isaac Julien Studio and Victoria Miro Gallery, 2010.
Loichot, Valérie. “Édouard Glissant’s Graves.” Callaloo, vol. 36, no. 4, 2013, pp. 1014-1032, DOI: 10.1353/cal.2013.0204, Accessed 18 Oct. 2017.
Ullmann, Arieh. Personal interview. 15 Oct. 2017.
Wolpe, David. “Why Stones Instead of Flowers.” Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, Kindle Edition, edited by Jack Riemer, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012, Accessed 18 Oct. 2017.
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Assistant Professor of English/Film Studies
Transnational Cinema, Decolonial Methodologies, Feminisms, Neoliberalism
Winona State University
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