Meet Zander & His Golden Magic Shoes | Mapping Diaspora class #unfinal and next steps

In the course of the last semester, students in Mapping Diasporas met with five refugees, and interviewed them about their memory objects.

Memory objects are objects held and cherished by displaced people, and that end up symbolizing concepts of “home” and “identity,” and that also carry innumerable layers of memory and feelings. The are tangible artifacts composing an archive of the invisible.

The refugees who visited with our class all live in the Bay Area, are approximately the same age as the students in the class, and—with the sole important exception of a man who left Nazi Germany in the 1930s as a child—have been recently relocated here. They were recruited by a member of the Mapping Diasporas working group, documentary film-maker Sam Ball (of Citizen Film). Several of them settled in the Bay Area through the fantastic work of the staff and volunteers of the Refugee & Immigrant Services at Jewish Family and Community Services of the East Bay.

We first met in class, shared introductions, and, sitting in a circle, passed around the objects that our guests brought with them. A fruit bowl smuggled from Germany to the US in a hat box. A keychain that used to hold keys to a lost home in Damascus. A traditional Afghan costume. Pakistani currency, a prized possession for Afghan refugees who could not find work once they left their country escaping the war. Bracelets made in a refugee camp in Kenya, full of memories about Uganda and hopes about the future. Photographs (not many), as well as smartphones containing digital images, songs (and playlists), and facebook contacts, were discussed as essential vehicles of memory and identity for displaced persons.

My #ucberkeley class, #mappingdiasporas meeting #refugees & exploring the evocative power of #memoryobjects today @themagnes #germany #syria #pakistan #uganda

Following this initial meeting, Sam returned to class to hold a training session on how to conduct interviews. Students learned how to plan an interview session, how to formulate questions, stay on target, and manage time. Subsequently, five interview teams were created, and we all worked on preparing interviews with the five refugee/guests.

On December 14, our class #unfinal (as I like to call the projects that I create in lieu of formal final exams) focused on welcoming back to class the refugees, and on carrying out five distinct interviews. Each interview was done as audio-only: a way to respect the privacy of some of our guests, whose faces could not be shown in order to protect the safety of their families, and to continue focusing on memory objects rather than on individuals.

A preliminary tangible result of this work consisted in five distinct audio files, which I then uploaded to the Pop Up Archive, where they can be heard and where their transcripts (which are still being edited) can be searched.

The semester ended, and some works of magic began.

First of all, several students in the class offered to continue working on the project, transcribing the audio interviews and examining the photographs of the memory objects taken during the #unfinal. This work, which was carried out throughout the entire spring semester, continues to this day.

The narratives that emerged from this process are all compelling. The focus on objects seems to have directed the interviews towards an array of specific concerns that are in line with what was discussed in class throughout the semester. Paying attention to material culture allows for unexpected details of an individual story to emerge, and also seemingly took some of the “pressure” off the interviewees, who were free to focus on the details they had not previously been able to express. Themes of identity, memory, and a history of feelings, were—and continue to be—omnipresent.

Secondly, Sam began working on a documentary prototype. Here it is, focusing on Zander, an LGBT refugee from Uganda now living in Berkeley:

This video, along with short segments about the other interviewees, was presented on June 22 in Berkeley at a sold out event, titled What We Carry With Us: A Refugee Storytelling Lab, hosted by the JCC East Bay.

Our goal is to continue working on the object-based narratives, to create more documentary work based on the other interviews, and to bring everything we collected—audio files, interview transcripts, still images, videographies, and maps—together into an integrated web platform. It is still a work in progress, and the progress is astounding.


The Book & The Choreography of an Argument

This week’s reading, Hypercities, presented us—along with an in-depth investigation of the scope, boundaries, and limitations of “thick mapping” (the multi-layered structure of digital maps)—with an outline of the relationship between text, performance, and non-linearity that we have been exploring since the beginning of the semester:

[Hypercities] is not a book about “maps” per se but about exploring, participating, and listening, something that transforms our conception of mapping into a practice of ethics. At the core of this book is an idea about the possibility of expanding participation and of the value of knowledge in the service of the public good.

But why write a book? A book allows for the choreography of an argument. While you can certainly start at any point in the book or skip around at will, if you read the pages sequentially, you will be brought through the argument as a choreographed experience, much like watching a dance ensemble perform a piece from start to finish. The authors imagine the book as a stage upon which a performance takes place, one in which many voices and movements come together in time. In this sense, the book is not a simple linear narrative; rather, it is a staging of various kinds of narratives and media in a spatial arrangement that is cumulative and recursive. In other words, the book represents a practice of mapping, an emplotment of many narratives and voices at once. (p. 7; emphasis added).

We have been “performing the museum” and discussing the performative power of cultural objects for some time now. Hypercities, and other online projects linking history, memory, and material culture, such as The Curio Project (recently launched at the University of Texas, Dallas) or the ones explored in previous weeks, are helping us in further direct our research.









Mapping for Survival | Memory, Objects, and Places

This week, Mapping Diasporas focused on the topic of memory, and specifically the relationship between memory, knowledge, and displacement. We also watched a movie, read a novel and the memoir of a memory champion, and discussed further applications of Virtual Reality (VR). And we also worked on “putting” some highlights of UC Berkeley’s history on a map (while pondering the implication of the expression, “to put [something] on the map”), thus experimenting with a GIS (geographical information systems) tool available at our fingertips, Google Maps.

Our first source was none other than Jason Bourne. In the last installment of his cinematic saga, Bourne—who, when he is not killing someone or blowing things up, is very concerned with the loss of his own memory, and later on, with its recovery—that “remembering everything doesn’t mean you know everything”:

In an age obsessed with memory (and memory loss), the question, “is memory something we have, or something we have lost?” holds many overlapping meanings.

In considering this matter in terms of culture, and cultural loss, we tried to decipher the many elements that constitute new media artists Ziv Schneider and Laura Chen’s project, RecoVR Mosul:

The project is an attempt to create a virtual environment that “brings back to life” the historical collection of the Mosul Museum, raided by IS [or ISIS, or daesh] in 2014.

With more than 3,500 archeological sites, including centuries-old religious and historic excavations, Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul has the majority of the country’s archaeological wealth. On June 10, 2014, Mosul was occupied by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Images of the destruction of historic sites and artifacts in the city’s museum made international headlines and shocked the world. RecoVR: Mosul, a Collective Reconstruction is a virtual reality installation created in response to this destruction, allowing us to visit the museum again and find out what happened to some of its key pieces. While walking through the museum we see the destroyed artifacts, digitally reconstructed through crowd-sourced imagery. This virtual environment was created by new media artists Ziv Schneider and Laura Chen. Apart from bringing the historical collection back to life, it also sheds light on ISIL’s war on cultural heritage.

The project involves VR technologies, crowdsourcing, collecting, oral history, digital research, and more.

We then focused on the recent works of two brothers, Jonathan (b. 1977) and Joshua (b. 1982) Safran Foer. In his debut novel, Everything is Illuminated (2002), Jonathan Safran Foer deploys, among other things, a delicate memory game played by a small “team” of intergenerational characters, all engaged in trying to recover a memory that is forever lost (specifically, to the destruction brought by  the Holocaust in the Ukraine during WW2), and that was suppressed, for very different reasons, by both perpetrators and victims. In the novel, memory is both recovered and presented in the impossibility of its recovery through a manic form of collecting fragments of the world that once was. A world that existed in a place, “Trachimborod,” that is no longer (even) on a map, and only exists in (some) people’s memory…

“Here are my maps,” he said, excavating a few pieces of paper from his bag. He pointed to one that was wet from Sammy Davis, Junior, Ju- nior. Her tongue, I hoped. “This is Trachimbrod,” he said. “It’s also called Sofiowka on certain maps. This is Lutsk. This is Kolki. It’s an old map. Most of the places we’re looking for aren’t on new maps. Here,” he said, and presented it to me. “You can see where we have to go. This is all I have, these maps and the photograph. It’s not much.”

In the cinematic version of the novel,  by Liev Schreiber (2005), this “memory work” is presented in the form of collecting.

The collector (and author; and, in the movie version only, the protagonist of the story) carefully selects seemingly unrelated fragments, and places them on an invisible map, a map that cannot, as we will learn, ever be recovered in full. In fact, these fragments are objects—more precisely, the cultural objects of a displaced/vanished culture. His collection is what in class we have been calling an archive of the invisible.


In Moonwalking with Einstein (2011), reporter Joshua Safran Foer—the co-founder of the online collaborative project, Atlas Obscura—tells the story of how he became the 2006 USA Memory Champion, able to memorize (and repeat) the random sequence of 52 cards in a deck within 1 minute and 40 seconds. In telling this story, the author also explores the history, and the functioning, of a variety of memory techniques that go back to (at least) late antiquity, and that eventually developed into “memory palaces” and “memory theaters.”

Physiologically, we are virtually identical to our ancestors who painted images of bison on the walls of the Lascaux cave in France, among the earliest cultural artifacts to have survived to the present day. Our brains are no larger or more sophisticated than theirs. If one of their babies were to be dropped into the arms of an adoptive parent in twenty-first-century New York, the child would likely grow up indistinguishable from his or her peers.

All that differentiates us from them is our memories. Not the memories that reside in our own brains, for the child born today enters the world just as much a blank slate as the child born thirty thousand years ago, but rather the memories that are stored outside ourselves—in books, photographs, museums, and these days in digital media. Once upon a time, memory was at the root of all culture, but over the last thirty millennia since humans began painting their memories on cave walls, we’ve gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids—a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years. Imagine waking up tomorrow and discovering that all the world’s ink had become invisible and all our bytes had disappeared. Our world would immediately crumble. Literature, music, law, politics, science, math: Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories.

If memory is our means of preserving that which we consider most valuable, it is also painfully linked to our own transience. When we die, our memories die with us. In a sense, the elaborate system of externalized memory we’ve created is a way of fending off mortality. It allows ideas to be efficiently passed across time and space, and for one idea to build on another to a degree not possible when a thought has to be passed from brain to brain in order to be sustained.

The externalization of memory not only changed how people think; it also led to a profound shift in the very notion of what it means to be intelligent. Internal memory became devalued. Erudition evolved from possessing information internally to knowing how and where to find it in the labyrinthine world of external memory. It’s a telling statement that pretty much the only place where you’ll find people still training their memories is at the World Memory Championship and the dozen national memory contests held around the globe. What was once a cornerstone of Western culture is now at best a curiosity. But as our culture has transformed from one that was fundamentally based on internal memories to one that is fundamentally based on memories stored outside the brain, what are the implications for ourselves and for our society? What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory?

In our class discussion, we explored how the two extreme approaches to “memory work” (remembering and forgetting, acquiring and losing) expressed by the “Safran Foer Brothers” meet in the gesture of collecting and placing “memory objects” on a map, however imaginary it may be.

We also discussed how museums are environment in which memory can be performed as a modern enactment of ancient memory practices that pre-date the advent of writing, and of the printing press.

Finally, we began to evaluate how today’s digital mapping practices—in the form of the digital footprints left by GPS-enabled portable devices, of online “reviews” of places ranging from cultural venues to restaurants to hospitals—can be linked to the “memory work” brought forth by our sources.

In doing so, we also “played” with Google Maps:

Our collaborative exercise, however, went beyond the idea of locating a place of interest on a map and sharing it with “friends.” Instead, we attempted to perform what, at first sight, should be a fairly simple feat: add a selection of significant achievements in the history of the University of California, Berkeley, to a Google Map. Here’s an example of a map made by students in class.

In doing so, we realized that we needed more than one campus map to achieve our goal. We used the map that is available via the UC Berkeley portal, but also resources made available by the Environmental Design Library and Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association websites. (Big thanks to Susan Powell, the fabulous GIS & Map Librarian at UC Berkeley, for the invaluable inspiration she provided in conceiving this in-class activity!).

We also soon realized that we needed to make very important decisions regarding the location of events that were not immediately “mappable,” thus evaluating whether they would be represented on our maps at all.

In considering our daily mapping activities, and the immediacy of GIS tools available to many of us (in this part of the world), in the context of memory work, we were thus immediately confronted with the implications of remembering and forgetting, of “having” and “losing” a memory, or history, and how tenuous memory is when people, and cultures, are in motion. At the same time, by practicing the gesture of connecting knowledge to a place (history to a map, in our case), we also began reflecting on the power of memory, and its essential role in mapping diasporas, or cultures in motion.

Diasporas as Mindmaps | Themes and Variations on Cultural Hybridity

This week, we approached culture in diaspora in its dimension of hybridity. In order to master its unruly landscape, we tackled it in two related fashions.

Frist, we discussed the topic of theme and variations. Our core case studies were: Exercises in Style (1947) by Raymond Queneau (1903-1976), a collection of 99 variations on a basic narrative; and “the mother” of all musical themes and variations, aka Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations (published in 1741). Here, we pointed to two (well, perhaps three) elements of interest.

Moving away from the idea of building musical variations on a melodic theme, Bach used the bass line, rather than the melody, of the introductive Aria as the generative structure upon which each of the following 30 variations were composed. This approach tends to make the elements of continuity in the structure of the variations somewhat imperceptible to the listener. By connecting the variations via an underlying inaudible structure, Bach was thus able to use the variation as a template to build upon the stylistic canons of music past and present, crafting each individual variation as a summa of diverse musical ideas. The GV stand before us as both an anthology (or “collection,” a museum of sorts) of musical thought, and an archive of the invisible. We will investigate the related notions of collections, archives, and invisibility, in the coming weeks. For now, we focus on how to recognize patterns that tie together seemingly unrelated narrative units, and therefore how to “map” a unified atlas of cultural diversity.

In continuing to explore musical connections, we also examined how Uri Caine designed an innovative, yet faithful, approach to Bach’s Goldberg Variations under the sign of cultural hybridity (2000).

Through Josh Kun’s “Introduction” to Audiotopia, we connected hybridity and American popular culture. Kun pointed us to Pete Seeger’s cultural manifesto, All Mixed Up (1955), which is always worthwhile listening to:

We also noticed how Kun exposued the agenda of cultural (musical) hybridity in a contested political space. This allowed us to bring our opening theme — the relationship between culture in movement and the status of stateless refugees, displaced persons, and “undocumented” immigrants — back into our conversation. The “two countries” celebrated, and deeply questioned, by Los Tigres del Norte, pointed us to notions of cultural (when not existential) hybridity, of poly-identity, and multiplicity, which are inherent to diasporas.

Can the structure of diasporas be explained in terms of invisible themes and hybrid variations? Can diasporas (and cultures in motion) ever be “mapped,” or is their natural fluidity resisting such attempts?

In order to answer these questions, we worked on the etymological hybridity of the constellation of concepts that surround the notions of diaspora. Thus, the overlapping and conflicting notions of diaspora, as dispersion and as exile, as loss of political referents and of divine protection, and the meanings acquired by the word, diaspora (including its etymology), provided us with a series of theoretical questions. Among other things, we noted how the word diaspora, a Greek noun initially used to described the dispersion of the Jews, appears in most language in its Greek form, while in Hebrew it corresponds to a series of terms that share very little with their universally used Greek correspondent.

Diaspora: Meaning

The challenges in “mapping out” (or explaining) the cultural hybridity of diaspora also provided us with a series of practical issues. Here’s an attempt to map Jewish diaspora through time and space. It is presented in the form of a “mind map,” and is the work of the artist Ward Shelley (b. 1950).

Ward Shelley's Jewish Diaspora Painted Mindmap

Thus, we proceeded in examining, and testing out, a variety of mind mapping tools. We started from a very useful Wikipedia chart:

List of concept- and mind-mapping software (Wikipedia)

We then evaluated available options, their pros and cons, discussed technical needs and software adoption issues, and installed software on our laptops/mobile devices. This way, we were able to test if, and how, mind-mapping tools can be used to recognize patterns (and thus, “map”), with the goal of applying them to our initial examples of theme and variations (from Queneau to Bach)…

In class, we directly tested two mind mapping platforms:

  • Freemind: (as a stand-alone, multi-platform, open source application)
  • Connected Mind: (a web-based app that can also be added to Google Chrome)

We will continue to refer back to these tools in the coming weeks, as we proceed to explore and evaluate new ones.

Meanwhile, here’s a “mindmap” describing the first weeks of our course:

Mapping Diasporas MindMap1 (work in progress)

Fusion & Koiné | A Diagram for Jewish Languages

This topic always gets me in trouble, as any attempt to synthesize century-old debates tends to do. But that has never stopped me before…

This week, in Mapping Diasporas, we deal with the topic of “mapping the unknown.” We are doing so by juxtaposing theory and practice.

First, we analyzed the fantastic libraries described by J. L. Borges (in The Library of Babel) and Umberto Eco (in The Name of the Rose), connecting their descriptions to the relationship between labyrinths and the maps (or forms) of knowledge, as well as to the very important notion of “nonsensuous similarity” expressed in Walter Benjamin hermetic text on The Mimetic Faculty.

Benjamin on Nonsensuous Similarity

In a highly undigital fashion, we also tried to use paper and pencil in a (seemingly failed) attempt to draw networked labyrinths and the linguistic patterns of “nonsensuous similarity” that these texts pointed us to.

Moving forward, we will be working on organizing several cartons filled with Yiddish books. These books were printed in the course of the (early) 20th century in various parts of the world. They were assembled by the former Judah L. Magnes Museum in a (failed) community effort to create a shared Yiddish library (the attempt continued elsewhere, and propelled the creation of the Yiddish Book Center).

While a selection of these Yiddish volumes, all printed in California, has been cataloged and became the object of a digital humanities project (and map) I created with Erin Faigin (History BA, 2016), the remaining volumes are now used for instructional purposes.


While their language is a commonality, there’s very little else that unifies these books. Most of them (the totality?) will be unreadable to students enrolled in Mapping Diasporas, and therefore I expect that organizing them will be either an insurmountable challenge or (as I hope) and act of unforeseeable creativity. I will report back on the results.

In the meantime, I will also point students to resources on Jewish languages, and on Yiddish in particular. But I will also share my (very primitive) diagram of the “nonsensuous similarities” that one can detect in how Jewish languages are structured”, which in the past I’ve referred to as a “Jewish language galaxy,” or a “galaxy of meanings.”

The (equally impossible) map of this linguistic galaxy consists of an  array (or constellation) of satellite languages positioned around an intertextual “center” composed by a core language (German, for Yiddish; but Hebrew itself, for modern Hebrew) and its relations with Hebrew and Aramaic. (Note that the diagram was conceived specifically to discuss the linguistic arrays found in Jewish prayer books).

Jewish Linguistic "Galaxy"

I will leave it at that, for now…

Into The Web | A Review of Available Course Resources

As we get our feet wet with course materials, I want to make sure that everyone is aware of the resources I have set up for this course thus far:

As the semester progresses, more resources will be added to the various online venues listed above, and perhaps more will emerge. While using the additional resources, beyond bCourses, is not required, I believe that students may find some use in what is published there as well, especially in thinking about class projects and how to plan them.

As usual, do not hesitate to contact me should you have any questions.

Until (very) soon,

Libraries and Labyrinths (An Ngram Perspective)

Blue = Library
Red= Labyrinth
(Search in English)

Blue: Biblioteca
Red: Labirinto
(Search in Italian)

Blue: Biblioteca
Red: Laberinto
(Search in Spanish)

To be continued…