virtual

Exploring Space: A Walk among the Gravestones

 

I suppose it speaks to my interest in the virtual that I wrote a whole post about spatiality last week without moving an inch. On the surface, that doesn’t seem quite in line with the so-called “spatial turn” I mentioned in my last post: the trend in humanities scholarship towards the importance of place and space to ideas and power. Then again, many of the concepts we associate with the spatial – the panoptic nature of surveillance, the power of the wanderer versus a top-down view of the world, the distinction between geographic space and humanized place, that sort of thing – were probably for the most part mulled over in armchairs, in the mindscape of the scholar. I wonder how much all things are born from the virtual…

I was probably thinking something along those lines as my phone announced it was beginning to die. Yanked out of my own head for the time being, I found myself back in Oakwood Cemetery, on the steps of a mausoleum, with a tattered American flag in my hands. It wasn’t often I strayed off the path during my runs – my feet followed a 5k race route whose markers faded long ago – but since I found myself in a wandering mood, I decided to do some exploring.

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Founded in 1859, Oakwood Cemetery lies about a block away from Syracuse University in what used to be the outskirts of town. The graveyard is sprawling; at 160 acres, Oakwood plays host to over 60,000 individuals and counting. Between the oaks, monuments, and mausoleums plotted along the rolling hills wind approximately 10 kilometers worth of trails (some paved, others dirt) shared by visitors and mourners alike. It is very easy to get lost among the stones, as I soon found out.

You never really understand just how odd a graveyard is until you try to walk among its stones. The place is full of conflicting messages. The architectural features of so many grave markers beckon visitors closer, whether than be because of interesting architectural features, places to sit, or just tiny print. Or all three, in the case of this massive monument:

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This makes sense, of course – graveyards, like funerals, are for the living. We are encouraged to visit the resting places of our loved ones to mourn or to give gifts or simply to talk. In Western culture, at least, these acts help to create an aura of reverence around those who have passed on, sanctifying the ground under which their remains are buried. Much like the concept of nationhood, this layers a virtual space upon material reality, giving what were stones and dust the weight of the secret and the sacred.

This makes things incredibly hard to navigate when you have something like this blocking your path:

 

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For the superstitious or the particularly pious, a graveyard is a nightmare to navigate. Perhaps the dead do not mind people stomping all over their resting places. There is, after all, six feet of earth and a coffin to insulate them from the tremors of the world above. But once I knew there was someone beloved under there, I created a virtual barrier of reverence in my mind. Such a thing is hard to unsee.

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Another odd thing about graveyards is their aesthetic of incompleteness. All around Oakwood were stairs that led to nowhere, pillars holding nothing up, archways huddled over aborted paths, locked iron doors without working handles, and yards and yards of unused space. Even some of the gravestones themselves like stray slabs from unfinished foundations, especially those that have been overgrown or worn down with age. All of this lends cemeteries the same uncanny air a ruin might have, hinting at some former glory that now goes unremembered.

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Oakwood in particular also has more mausoleums than I’ve ever seen in a graveyard, and these fascinate me most. They sit in the muddled middle between monument and place, having all the fixings of shelter but (for the most part) being eternally locked to anyone who would want to enter. Whereas headstones seem to jut into the physical space of the living, the barred doors of these larger structures create a clear barrier between the living and the dead. Gravestones can be touched, stroked, grasped as if they were virtual stand-ins for the one interred; the remains within mausoleums, it seems, can only be peered at through barred or broken windows.

How does one mourn at a mausoleum? Must it be opened to bridge the void between the living and deceased, or does the distance not matter? And what does it mean to sit on the steps while pondering these questions only to find you are standing on an actual welcome mat?

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(Seriously, why is there a welcome mat?)

Graveyards are odd places, to be sure, but they are also very human (perhaps I repeat myself). The burial of the dead is one of those cultural touchstones that seem as ancient as they are ubiquitous, and are perhaps the oldest constructed spaces known to humankind. As easy as it is for some of us to put them out of mind in day-to-day life, it is important to remember that these “Cities of the Dead” (as one old flyer for Oakwood proclaims) are built for the living. This not only means that we are obliged to respect and protect them – burial grounds are frequently neglected, littered, or (all too frequently) bulldozed – but that we ought to find time to visit them in order to look into ourselves. We will all end up like those buried beneath, after all, and I find graveyards are one of the few urban places that are quiet and empty enough to allow for self-reflection.

So, what I’m saying is go visit a graveyard. Turn off your phone and take an hour to meander the grounds, read the epitaphs, pick up any litter that’s blown in. Take a look at what there is to see before it gets too cold. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find there is life among the stones.

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John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.

Imagining Space: America the Virtual

I went on a run today—something I mean to do more often than I actually do, it seems—and my feet took me down a familiar route to Oakwood Cemetery. On my way down the looping paths, I saw a crumpled piece of red and white fabric on the side of the trail. It was a tiny, tattered American flag, the type mourners like to put by the gravestones of loved ones who have served.

I stopped and picked it up, turning the torn, cheap fabric in my hands over and over again. The object struck a strange chord with me, and I ended up sitting on the steps of a mausoleum and just staring at it until my phone battery drained down to 10%. The entire time, I didn’t notice a single person walk by.

A lot was going through my head then, and still more is going through it now. It got me thinking about space, place, and what it means to be home—“affective spatiality”, as one might translate the thought into an academic paper. The idea might loosely be defined as how spaces tell stories, convey emotion, and allow for meaningful interactions within them regardless of whether they are material or virtual. As such, these posts could conveniently be swept up in the dizzying amounts of ongoing “turns” within humanities discourse—the spatial turn, the affective turn, the turn towards digital technologies—all of which will be explained in good time. But right now, I’m not interested in the vertigo that can come from navigating the shifting sands of academic trends. Right now, I’m interested in a flag.

I am not the type who usually wears patriotism on my sleeve, but I’ve only ever identified as an American. Branches of my family have been here since at least the Civil War, sluffing off our Anglo-European identities somewhere during our trek across the Midwest. Myself, I grew up in the suburbs of Eagle River, Alaska, a conservative state with a relatively high proportion of national parks and military bases scattered across its landscape. Perhaps it was these facts that fueled my reaction to the flag on the ground. There is something tragic about it. Forget the fact that this particular flag was a one of a million identical facsimiles, the fact it was probably mechanically mass-produced overseas; forget the fact that the Stars and Stripes have been emblazoned on everything from party trays to boxer shorts—that flag stands for a place I have called my home, and it didn’t feel right to see it dusty and torn.

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But what kind of place is America? In one sense it is very material, as tangible as the dirt caking the edges of that flag. Haven’t we taken pride in those “amber waves of grain”, those “purple mountain majesties” that adorn our anthems and postcards?  Don’t we take a similar pride in our great cities—Chicago, New York, Boston, LA—those behemoths that have been raised out of the earth by paid and unpaid labor in order to feed and clothe and house the human form? And yet, to see only the material was to see the object before me as cheap fabric and inexpensive dyes. From Florida to Alaska, from Puerto Rico to Guam, “America” is a name we give to acres and acres of material things which in and of themselves have no concept of ownership at all, despite our insistence to the contrary.

No, the America I am more interested in (both as a bumbling pop-culture/new media scholar and bumbling human being) is the immaterial “placeness” of America, the virtual America. In one sense, “virtual” means constructed and mediated. The South, the Midwest, the Northeast, the West Coast, Red States and Blue States, even the concept of States all together—America is a patchwork of these virtual places, each of which carries meanings and connotations that go beyond the geographic and into the human. Our identities are formed by these arbitrary distinctions, whether they are made by us or for us, and through us they are given actual, material form. That is why it bothers me to see a discarded flag; interwoven with those cheap threads are the virtual expressions of nationhood, and a tear in one seems to suggest a tear in the other.

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But there is also an older sense of the virtual in which I am interested. As new media theorist Marie-Laure Ryan describes the concept in her book Narrative as Virtual Reality 2, “the virtual is not that which is deprived of existence but that which possesses the potential, or force, of developing into actual existence” (18). The virtual is the oak that lies dormant within the acorn; in other words, the virtual is about what could be rather than what is, the openness of multiple futures rather than the closed conception of one truth.

When I look around at Black Lives Matter Protesters and police officers, First Peoples and ambitious industrialists, ideologues from both sides of the aisle and the spaces in between, I see people who have put their faith into their own virtual America, an America not yet (nor ever) complete, but one moving ever closer to new potentialities. That is, to me, the core of American optimism.

Does that make us unique? No, or at least I’m not qualified to say. But I think that does make us American.

To be clear, I do not agree with all of these visions or the ones who try to weave them into our flag—my virtual America is one that will fight to keep particularly hateful virtualities from ever becoming actual—but I know that all of these people are my People. I cannot see them as otherwise. Regardless of how they constructed their virtual America—whether on an idealized version of a forgotten past or new understandings of the principles on which this nation was founded—they are all still fighting for a vision of the same material land on which we stand. As for me, my virtual United States depends upon a state of unity, at least on a human level of civility. That is the place and people that come to mind whenever I see a flag, no matter how superficial or gale-torn it may be.

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John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.