Phantom Limb as Memoir

In 1994, while writing The History of Forgetting, I used the term “phantom limb” for the first time, as a spatial metaphor more than a neurobiological phenomenon. Many famous sites in downtown Los Angeles had been leveled after 1961, particularly a hilltop neighborhood on the western brow of downtown. And despite redevelopment, their absence was still quite evident in 1994—faint traces.

For example, on Olive Street, the lanes alongside the Museum of Contemporary Art looked unusually bald, like an odd shaped skull. On each side of Hill Street, a different century presented itself, as if an axe had separated them. On the western face of downtown, a new skyline had been implanted like a gold tooth.

I felt that urban “phantom limbs” like these were remnants left by failed policies, like an aftertaste behind the disinfectant. But it was not clear that this loss was noticed at all by many residents of Los Angeles. So I wrote a history of their being forgotten. Now that condition has changed somewhat.

As of 2005, much of downtown is being restored, even re-inhabited (over 50,000 people had been forced out between 1931 and 1985). But the “phantom limb” locations are being systematically ignored more than fixed. None of the blanks left by the sixties urban plan are slated for redevelopment. Only the districts further east of these are getting the full treatment, as downtown converts into a bedroom community for the upper middle class.

In the past few years, I have often been asked to discuss what I meant by phantom limb. Students in my class are using the term. Architects mention it. And now this splendid conference and anthology appears. I have started to clarify how to use the concept– a very personal grammar for my new literary and media projects. Perhaps a brief memoir on this grammar might be of use.

1) Phantoms as Story: Absence is Presence.

A number of projects on urban forgetting have appeared recently, some using GPS systems, some using movie locations, some as films on megacities like Sao Paolo, others as mapping systems on computer, some as architectural interventions pointing out the racist memory traces in cities. I worked on a few myself, even a few art installations, and finally a DVD-ROM cinematic novel entitled Bleeding Through (2003). I am convinced that all of these share at least one common intention: they are converting the specificity of phantom memory (limbs) into story.

Our civilization is quickly losing many of the paradoxes that characterized the industrial culture of 1860-1960. Through the entertainment economy, we are increasingly becoming tourists in our own cities, and even in our own bodies. It is a vast hollowing out, a horizontalizing of power and “presence.”

In that cybernetic, neutralized condition, we must learn to study degrees of desensitivity much more carefully. We must learn to emphasize the power of absence as presence. As part of my newest project, on how the twentieth century was imagined before it happened (to be completed by November, 2006), I am studying the world as clinic circa 1900. I am trying to locate what absence and presence meant to the industrial Euro-American culture, under the fantasies about x-rays, electrical therapies, and particularly the fascination with synesthesia, how one sense was a phantom for another.

It is clear that phantom limb is essentially a narrative pleasure (an ache can be a pleasure as well). It is the Rembrandt effect within the body itself; and within collective memory as well. The polish of newly minted bedroom downtowns throughout Europe and the US leave us fewer tools for noticing this pleasure. So I try to archive absences within cities, within collective misremembering of the future, within narrative traditions like film noir.

Imagine a DNA molecule that has gone slightly bald. Locating that spot becomes the event of the season among scientists. Researchers try to imagine what the lost gene might have meant. It is a story in absence, an archeological pleasure, a science fiction; and very quickly leads to a rash of novels and movies, even a term used by political analysts; finally, a slang word, and a sexual entendre.

2) The Politics of Phantom Limbs: The media blackout in the US has approached epic proportions.

Recently, an editor from a major German newspaper asked me if Americans have any idea how much of their news is being left out. I answered that in some way they did, unfortunately. I said unfortunately, because the sense of being lied to does not seem to awaken Americans to action. Quite the contrary: like a fundamentalist version of deconstruction, the message returns in a very unlikely way. Imagine a neo/retro-conservative radio host telling his listeners that news can’t be trusted. A pox on all your houses. So vote for the far right wing, because at least they have a plan, even if it is liar’s plan.

Politically speaking, the phantom limb is a kind of low-grade nervous breakdown. All truth is relative. All action is artificial. Only those who lie on behalf of God can be trusted, because in some phantom ontological way, they are delivering man’s frail version of God’s truth.

There are no names for the political crisis in the United States. It is somehow new compared to twentieth-century models of right-wing governance. But that stillness, that aching sense of loss, is vaguely familiar. We sense the risk, when the social and economic power drifts away from us. It is a phantom sense that the future has moved somewhere else. Obviously, the conditions are not phantoms at all. They are very visceral. But a collective repression, reinforced by media, allows us to drift. Fierce political facts are ignored, and turned into phantom limbs, into an aching sense of betrayal.

3) Phantom Limbs as Spatial Amnesia: Spatial ambiguity is arguably the cultural challenge for artists

and writers today. Whereas a century ago, speed and simultaneity and “the crisis of representation” dominated cultural theory, today it is very much the sense of space itself. We quickly review examples: the instantaneity of cell phones; blurred national boundaries under the shock of immigration; horizontal power structures; trans-national and trans-local models of space. And so on: this is hardly a discovery, simply an accepted fact in architecture, cultural studies, media, cognitive psychology…

Phantom limbs always refer to the aching sense of alienation, to be separated from a source, to be disembodied. Now the phantom is a space itself, let us say a sense of place, of future. In cultural work, phantom limbs are a migration pattern. They reveal how alienating is being ignored, but is still achingly present. The more it is absent, the more it is ignored. But the way that we ignore our alienation dominates our behavior politically, morally. It is a narrative through an echo chamber, through traces.

In the late nineteenth century, these traces were obsessively detailed in stream-of-consciousness fiction, in emerging systems of psychoanalysis, in Symbolist painting, in early models of collage. Indeed, modernism could be called the diagramming of phantom limbs across the culture. Now, cultural work has to follow where this synesthetic irony has gone next. As always, within the sense of absence, the tools for telling stories in fresh ways can be found.