Berger Cemetery

Barger cemetery is surrounded by apartment buildings on its north and east faces and an office building to the south. Tom’s Creek Road brushes against its western face. I remember visiting it without enough insulating clothes to make it pleasant on a windy 45 degree day. When I was asked there what kind of research one might be able to conduct there, I was unable to respond due to the conversation direction being taken by the group down a different direction which I now cannot remember. It occurred to me after the visit what I might have answered had I had a clear mind at the time, one which suffered from a lack of sleep.

Cemeteries, among other things, can be sites symbolic of spaces for the return to the repressed, a Freudian invocation of a psychological state in which a subject returns to a trauma repeatedly as a kind of “working through” and overcoming. The immortal images from the opening of Michael Jackson’s Thriller point to the kind of fantasy at the heart of cemeteries’ contents returning from their repressed states. Zombies dig themselves out of their graves and come for our brains. Ghosts float through wood and dirt and glide on cold winds seeking revenge. Often times journeys through nature can also tell stories of transgression and encounters with monsters.

So I guess I can see cemetery research perhaps in the different kinds of representations of the repressed. Cemeteries are sites for remembering and commemorating, but I wonder what archeological underpinnings might hold evidence for a link between commemoration and repression.

I Visited a Cemetery and a Museum in a Very White Town

Abingdon, VA draws it population from I-81 in a very western region of Virginia. It’s a small town with a thick history. When we took our field trip there, I was really not expecting to encounter white supremacist nationalism so close to the surface of every message and aesthetic encounter I read and experienced. The trip was split between one visit to the William King Museum of Art, and The Sinking Spring Cemetery. I will discuss two forms in which I saw white nationalism manifested at both sites: two forms appear in the exhibition and two in the cemetery, and they correspond to the continuity of white nationalism. One form is narrative and one is aesthetic.

I was quite enraged by the curatorial statement, which seemed as some capitulatory nod to the shaky ego of white males in the region. Statements such as “They came to the wilderness and they began to tame it—to cut down trees, build homes and fences, start families… The wilderness became a little less wild,” vexed my slightly educated sensibilities. It seemed so heroic and historicist, catering to the predominantly white audience. Then there was this claim, which almost seemed a slight against the “progress” of railroads and coal: “Where once we saw isolation and freedom in the trees, we soon began to see profit.” This actually touches on something quite prescient of the coming of railroads and coal: the opposition between freedom and profits, which is seen so starkly today. The same logic is more or less at work in gentrification: artists move into a dilapidated area of, say, Berlin, having at first a great deal of freedom as they colonize a wilderness. This comes with danger; their spaces are always more prone to crime, fire, and disease (in Orlando there was a recent fire ending the lives of many artists, and it started because of poor wiring and improper fire escapes). Soon the wealthy discover they can mine, in the general case of gentrification, the cultural gold (or coal) artists discover through their activity. All analogies are a bit lame I suppose.

The aesthetic non-encounter I had with white nationalism at the historical exhibition was with the “diversity” corner, which I had totally glossed over during the visit. It didn’t register with me at all. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention. But there was a similarity I saw in this pathetic corner (made visible to me in conversation later) and the encounter I had with the black slave section of the cemetery. Both are rather difficult to see against their surroundings. The “diversity corner” just kind of blends in with the rest of the display, which makes sense if one considers there were simply far fewer black and brown miners. However, can you imagine the exhibition centered on black miners—the reaction that would incite? Similarly, the black slave cemetery barely has an entrance, which is a little scary to get to even (no sidewalks, and rather heavy traffic), and looks more like an empty lot, waiting to be bought, than a cemetery.

Since aesthetics often bleed over into narrative, I would think the “narrativity” of the placement of the cemeteries, their separation, and the level of accessibility can be discussed. However, I will zero in on the difference between two different types of namelessness I see present in the cemeteries. The first kind of namelessness is that of the forgotten and nameless confederate soldiers. A special section of the cemetery is afforded them, and it seems as though their namelessness grants them some special honor in the context of their heroism. They are remembered as having been forgotten and lost to anonymity. The other kind of namelessness is in the black cemetery. This one is subtler. It resides in the namelessness of the nameless there, a double namelessness through the inaccessibility of the cemetery and its unaccounted bodies contained within. It seems like an object designed not to be visible, and it contains the nameless. The confederate anonymous, however, is a highly visible object, and it contains the nameless. So it is as if being forgotten and white is special, while we (they?) just want to forget we’ve always also been black; our story is one of blackness.

April 16th

During our visit to the special archives, there was one phrase that struck me harder than all the other objects we encountered; it produced a very weird ambivalence in me, because I found myself oscillating between irritation at the group of words, as it seemed to be bringing up an issue that had little relation to the events that took place in 2007, and catching a glimpse of a profoundly disturbing framework in our country that needs to be addressed now more than ever (maybe I am a bit hyperbolic here, but I think it worth the risk). The phrase to which I refer is “why not have a wall for the 3000 soldiers too?”

At first I was reactionary, quite offended at the need to bring up an unrelated issue to the grief that was being so felt at the time. It was like someone talking about their dead relative at their friend’s funeral. I soon realized this was an inadequate analogy to whom ever’s little objection on Virginia Tech’s wall of grief and mourning. The phrase’s placement simply would not mean what it does without the writer having accepted the risk of vexing the mourning of others. A political statement is only ever effective if it ruptures.

One wonders what source of pain that person harbored to express their sense of neglect in such a way. Could they have been a soldier who lost a friend or perhaps a mother who lost a son? Maybe the writer was a victim of rape, and although their body survives, they never really came back from the betrayal they endured in Afganistan at the hands of their comrades. Death visits us in many forms, but only one we don’t experience.

At any rate it seems to me deducible from the relationship between spontaneous memorials dedicated to civilians killed in their everyday activities and those to dead soldiers that they do not mean the same thing. Spontaneous memorials arise much like the events that lead to their emergence: unexpectedly. My use of the term “unexpectedly” here has deeper meaning than just surprise. The system of civilization itself precludes from our everyday symbolic network of relations that terrorist attacks will happen; we cannot expect them, or our days would be banal nightmares (perhaps they are now). And my point is not that we know our civilization creates the conditions for so called American massacres. This is common knowledge. Our symbolic framework is such that our proliferation of domestic firearms is symbolically inscribed into the maintenance of our safety. The point is that violence such as that which was seen on April 16th 2007 was not part of normal violence. It was not inscribed into the corporeality of United States civilization.

What I mean by normal violence is the kind that registers on our collective psyche as necessary or at least expected in relation to the activities the victims were taking part in or even by nature of who they are. Many kinds of people might be included under this category. As brutal as it sounds, I think we must admit black male deaths are by and large included in this category, although this is maybe changing. Black males are expected to be more violent, their bodies more open to violent forces. It is common knowledge the white understanding of black males assumes them criminal in nature, in their activities. This brings me back to the phrase left by the bereft soldier or perhaps parent of the soldier. There seems to be some special value held to spontaneous memorials and shrines that is not conferred on those institutionalized and reserved for soldiers because of the nature of soldiers and their activities.

It is not to say that spontaneity does not happen in institutionalized war memorials; the Vietnam memorial is an example of such a one where people leave seemingly random objects for the dead. However, there is at least an emphasis on claiming and reappropriating space in spontaneous memorials that is not present in institutionalized memorials for soldiers. Their (war memorials) very mode of institutionalization, for me, provides the first clue that soldier death is inscribed into the fabric of our civilization in a special way: it’s expected. We know going to war will provide us with dead soldier bodies. Soldiers go to war for the defense of our country’s interests, its national security, and the safety of its citizens. Soldier death is normal. There is always talk of duty and honor when it comes to soldiers. These terms lay justification over the effects of illegitimate institutional behavior.

Is this not the inverse of those institutionalized memorials for civilians? Soldier memorials frame the deaths they memorialize as having been given. A civilian victim figure never gives its life. These frameworks start to break down, however, when a political rupture happens such as that which I think happened with the little complaint of neglect on the wall of mourning. It hits the point at which the value we Americans put on death becomes hypocritical. Take the fact that a United States soldier is an employee under contract. This is what gave Trump the ability to say “he knew what he was getting into” to a bereaved mother of a soldier KIA. In an incredibly brutal way, Trump was right: dying for duty is impossible in our armed forces today. Our soldiers are informed and give their consent. I think this also gets at what the complaint on the VT wall of mourning was about.

It seems to me that there may be a profound hypocrisy and injustice to war memorials. First, the claims to duty and honor are clearly not possible, since duty and honor are more closely associated with conscription rather than a job with a paycheck. Second, war memorials valorize, in general, the collective activities of our country’s endeavors abroad, activities which are usually regarded as heinous by those whose countries we invade. An exception to this trend is found in the Vietnam memorial, which is maybe completely devoid of value judgements. The spontaneous monuments we have briefly studied seem to tap into an energy that at least starts to participate in both mourning and the raising of issues central to the understanding of why the event/events took place. This is what the complaint was about. Those surviving the death of their beloved child-soldier know the betrayal given to them by our government, and an institutional monument is insufficient. It wreaks of hypocrisy, to claim honor in despicable acts. Perhaps spontaneous monuments need to change or grow in scope to include more general critiques of culture, while maintaining a certain aim or gravitational pull. One would not criticize the beef industry on a wall of mourning for a church shooting.