The Ma(r)king of an Event
Gun control legislation, efforts to increase the number of women in engineering programs, and the design of monuments7 can be readily understood as strategic remembrance practices—practices that tie the legacy of the Montreal massacre into contemporary political efforts to achieve a redeemed future. Indeed, such practices are easy to identify as having helped “us” move on. As Peggy Curran (Montreal Gazette, 4 December 1999, emphasis mine) puts it, commenting on the national campaign for stricter gun control that was initiated as a result of the massacre, “[this campaign is] without question, still the most significant memorial to the Montreal killings.” However, I propose that strategic remembrance is not limited to specific political strategies per se but, rather, is widely constitutive of the prevailing public memory of the massacre. This is a memory that can be read as containing the motivation for the killings and, concomitantly, a way to remember both the women murdered and Lepine.
I propose that one of the formative strategic remembrance practices has been the ma(r)king of the murders as an event in and for public memory. This is a practice that results in a deeply ambivalent memorial relation to the killings and their legacy. On the one hand, such demarcation renders the murders distinct and out-of-the-ordinary; on the other hand, the very character of this distinctness functions as a limit on interpreting what has occurred. In de Certeau’s (1988,96) terms, delimiting the murders as an event “is the means thanks to which disorder is turned into order. The event does not explain, but permits an intelligibility. It is the postulate and the point of departure…of comprehension.” Such demarcation has been centrally fashioned through constituting the murders under a proper name: outside of Montreal the murders are known by the sign “Montreal massacre,” within the locale they are known by the sign “Polytechnique” or, more starkly, “Poly.” What is it that is made intelligible by these orderings? First, the term “massacre” means “to kill indiscriminately or in large numbers.” While this is a naming practice that brings to the fore the impersonal relation between the women killed and their killer, it makes inconspicuous the gendered nature of his act; for he did not kill indiscriminately, he targeted women whom he constituted as feminists and thus as his enemy. Moreover, “Montreal” inscribes a geographic reference but obscures the specificities of the site, the victims, the political motivation, the killer. Similarly, “Poly,” while referencing the site, depends heavily for its interpretation on access to and knowledge of local discourses.
I suggest that these are not inconsequential memorial naming practices. The obliqueness with which they signify the killings can be understood as a distancing of “us” from “them” (both those murdered and their killer)8 and a
strategic containment of the losses resulting from the murders. For what neither naming calls attention to is the specific “ruptural character” (Johnson 1999, 23) of the murders,9 which Collette Guillaumin describes as “a shock of the known.” According to her:
One cannot regard the slaughter in Montreal as an act devoid of meaning, a senseless act, just a break in the normal course of events, an unpredictable event that is limited to creating a “shock.”Yes, it is a shock, but it is not a shock of the unknown, it is a shock of pain, of anger. In fact, it is a shock of the known, the “I can’t believe it” of the known that is not acknowledged—of unbearable reality. (Guillaumin 1991,12-13, emphasis in original)
The shock that Guillaumin directs us to is the shock of the known that cannot be borne, a shock forged through a decisive linkage between the traumatic impact of two distinct ruptures initiated by the murders in Montreal. The first of these was the rupture of what was expected and anticipated for women attending an institution of higher learning in late twentieth-century North America (i. e., that they [we] were [are] safe, welcome, and therefore could attend classes without the threat of death). The second was a rupture of the necessary and everyday systemic refusals to attend to the horrors of oppression that pass as normal—refusals that are, paradoxically, necessary to the very continuance of daily life. These are key markers of the massacre’s
Nave for Fourteen Queens—Steel Pillars in Snow, Montreal (with permission of Sharon Rosenberg).
“difficult returns.” While I am not suggesting that a different naming practice (e. g., “anti-feminist massacre” or “mass killing of women in an engineering school”) would be all that is needed to address these rupturing effects, I do suggest that their explicit absence from memorial namings can be read as a trace of how the legacy of the massacre has been (and is being) constituted as a limited and limiting memorial event.