Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Fragments Shored against Ruins: Denis Byrne.s Surface Collection

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Fragments Shored against Ruins: Denis Byrne.s Surface Collection

Article excerpt

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.1

There is a kind of travel writing that dwells upon cross-cultural interaction and the experience of displacement, those 'crucial sites for an unfinished modernity'.2 Elias Canetti's The Voices of Marrakesh, W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, Stephen Muecke's No Road or, in a forensic and culinary mode, Peter Robb's Midnight in Sicily, are in this vein.3 Many of the best examples have been written by anthropologists: Paul Rabinow's Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco and Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land come to mind.4 Claude Levi-Strauss's compelling meditation on his anthropological travels in South America, Tristes Tropiques (1955), has provided the most influential model.5 Tristes Tropiques displays all the characteristic features of the genre: an exotic setting, both enticing and disorientating; culture shock celebrated as a path to insight and wisdom; and an ironic and valedictory voice, partly a reflection of traveller's loneliness, but also related to a darkening sense of historical or moral failure. This failure may be ascribed to modernity, as Clifford implies-the cultural depredations of colonialism, nationalism, and technological change-but its expression often points beyond contingent political and social conditions, to something inherent in life itself-the failure of language to communicate, of culture to satisfy, or to the blank inevitability of change, loss and death: to what Buddhists call durka.

Denis Byrne describes his contribution to the genre with characteristic precision:

I had just spent four years researching and writing on the subject of heritage management for my doctorate, and a lot of this had involved thinking about deterioration, decay, abandonment, and ruin in relation to 'built heritage'. Then in the lull following this work I started to think about the ways in which our own lives are also permeated by the experience of loss.6

Surface Collection is a juggling act that keeps several curiously assorted balls felicitously in the air. It is a wry and charming travelogue, a linked series of provocative studies of Southeast Asian histories and cultures, and an evocative meditation on transience and humanity's attempts to resist, assist or accept it. It is also exquisitely written.7 Perhaps such books are best savoured in transit. I read it in India, where mobile phones and pujas, shantytowns beneath billboards plugging infrastructure investment, the gargantuan energy of Mumbai and the decaying mansions of Goa, provided a fitting accompaniment to its themes.

Rabinow explained the purpose of Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco by quoting Ricoeur: 'the comprehension of the self by the detour of the comprehension of the other'.8 Byrne too is interested in the self, and vividly sketches his own: a sympathetic and perceptive flaneur, very conscious of his clothing, his accoutrements and his body, liable to states of slightly faux perplexity or indecision, frequently in the company of or in the process of connecting with a male companion whose clothes, ornaments, tattoos and so on are duly noted. He wants us to know he is a true cosmopolitan, both in the everyday sense of someone who feels more or less at home in a wide variety of cultural contexts, and also in the more rarefied sense of being a self-conscious 'citizen of the world' to whom 'nothing human is alien', one who not only accepts the human but identifies with it. Byrne's philosophical cosmopolitanism is of the 'thick' variety: he strives to respect all differences and to engage in open dialogue with everyone.9 These aspirations are noble ones, and challenging.

Though the destination of travel may be the self, the route it takes goes via 'the comprehension of the other'. Surface Collection exhibits many 'others'-there are glimpses of half a dozen or so Southeast Asian cultures-but its abiding topic is not a place but an activity: the business of heritage conservation. …

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