The Tangible’s Intangibles

The title could also be The Intangible’s Tangibles. The point I want to make in this post is the undeniable bond between objects from the past and intangible pasts such as language, customs, memories and emotions that are caught up in them. While in many academic circles the tangible and the intangible are severed in order to better understand the processes involved in their making, the responses obtained from the ‘meaningful pasts’ posts reflected a much closer link.

Proust's madeleines. Image courtesy of URL:

Proust’s madeleines. Image courtesy of URL:

Marcel Proust’s madeleine is a common example to explain this phenomenon. In À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust recalls a memory when he has a biscuit (a madeleine) that he dunked in his tea. Academics have emphasized numerous angles deconstructing the process of memory involved in this scene: the dunking of the biscuit awakens the memory; without the teacup there could be no tea; the memory resulted from intangibles: the scent and taste, not the materials, etc. But for me, the memory occurs because of an amalgamation, a juxtaposition of both tangible and intangible elements. This combination happened in a moment, at a time that was completely unrelated to what was occurring, and the unexpected and involuntary nature of the memory has a profound effect on the emotional transformation of Proust.

Cooking was mentioned a few times in the responses, particularly when part of the customs or traditions that were important to some people was getting together for Christmas or New Year’s. In that sense, the process and practice of getting together are important here: the effort to get to the place, the planning of buying gifts and bringing goods, baking a traditional recipe, sharing, eating, spending time together. This in itself involves both intangible and tangible aspects. In other words, the Yule log as mentioned by Post #6, like Proust’s madeleine, has no meaning when taken out of context. It’s the practice and performance of doing the Yule every year, eating and sharing it that consists in the tradition that can be passed down.

Discarding to forget

Another example of linking the tangible with the intangible is how attachment can be ‘locked in’ an object; to rid oneself of the object is to attempt to rid oneself of the sentiment. This is particularly important in past relationships, mentioned in some of the posts. Post #14 speaks of ‘memory bonfires’ in order to get rid of pasts associated with attachments, with the quip that the success rate is questionable.

It’s not necessarily the end product that is the target, however: the act of burning or throwing away is a bigger part of the process of letting go. As Post #6 mentions, not retaining items from broken relationships is a way to move forward and not get ‘stuck’ in the past. The idea is to feel hope and contentment at the possibilities that the future will bring. There is a sense of taking control, and taking responsibility for one’s outlook on life.

More complicated is when children are involved. One person told me that when her father left the family nucleus, her mother threw away all the photographs of him. She grew up with no memories of him except for the one-sided versions her mother would relate. On the one hand, she felt robbed of her own lineage: she had a right to at least see her father in pictures. Yet on the other hand, she recognizes that her mother wasn’t thinking of the family legacy; at the time, she had to find a way to move forward and raise her daughter.

Tradition includes change

An interesting theme that came out in the posts is the idea of embodiment: the use of performance to preserve intangible pasts.

Couple dancing in Barcelona

Couple dancing in Barcelona

Yet song, theatre and dance suggest that both the tangible and intangible are intricately connected. To do something that ancestors did re-creates a ‘present-past’: a present movement that captures a tradition. As Post #14 aptly puts it, it’s about ‘Practice and performance. Repetition and change.’ This sequence of performing movements with each generation adding or modifying a particular move, speaks to adapting the past in the present.

Many people referred to particular dialects and expressions that they wish to pass down and preserve. Post #13 also mentions the process of language: how they’re developed and how and why some, in time, become extinct. When I first visited my grandmother’s village in Italy, I distinctly recall locals’ wonder at me – a girl born and raised across the Atlantic – speaking their village dialect. I remember feeling proud. But the dialect that was spoken and transmitted by my grandparents had slightly modified: words in québécois and in English were morphed and added to the vocabulary. I’m not sure that my and the next generation will pass down this modified dialect. Dialects need practice and repetition, they need daily use and a network of people to keep it alive. They also require a need and an urgency to continue its use. Should I feel concerned if this particular dialect spoken by an emigrated few disappears?

Some considered thoughts, ideas and beliefs to be part of intangible heritage, with a few posts intimating that thoughts can be acted upon, and that these actions have consequences, and that some of these consequences changed the course of history, such as defining borders and territory…

Let's ponder this image for a moment... Map courtesy of URL:

Let’s ponder this image for a moment… Map courtesy of URL:


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