Steve Zeitlin

As a folklorist, I sometimes speak metaphorically about “cultural capital” and “social currency.”  But what if there were an actual currency of memory and meaning? This unit might be called a myen, a unit backed not by gold bullion, but by human values and associations.

Myens work differently from money. Money is distributed unequally: some people are born into it; some steal it; others earn it. Some people have a knack for making money. And money makes money.  Myens correlate with the time and emotional energy that human beings invest each year in the places and things they love. By investing myens on houses, communities, or places that matter—you cannot actually buy them; rather, you protect them from being bought or destroyed, or foreclosed on by the banks.  If a particular place has not accumulated sufficient myens—memories, values, stories that equal its value in money—then it can be bought and sold on the open market.

The U.S. dollar was once backed by the gold bullion held at Fort Knox. The myen is backed by and correlated with time. People invest their myens according to the places and communities where they spend their work and leisure time—and according to the depth of experience attributed to these places. Historical sites with powerful memories and associations yield a dividend in myens, and, likewise, sites of ongoing use earn myens according to the value the community invests in them.


  1. hsunairi

    The idea of myen sounds intriguing and I would actually like to really see some examples or models of what myen has become to some communities. I also appreciate the concept stands independently from the market or money. I am curious to see it in shape. Perhaps this festival or in the lecture, we will see it.

  2. tarai

    Hi Steve:
    I loved your wistful quote, which playfully, but pointedly comments on what should have real currency and meaning in today’s world. As a public artist, I am involved in the preservation of community histories, so your proposal to use social currency as a way to encourage us to think about ways to protect places that matter is a wonderful way to begin this conversation. I would pose a couple of questions that have come up while doing research for a project, entitled, Archeology of Change: Mapping Tales of Gentrification in New York Chinatown. While attending meetings of the Chinatown Working Group last year, (a broad based coalition formed to deal with concerns that residential and commercial development was displacing large numbers of poor and working class residents), issues of preservation were sharply contrasted and often posed in opposition to the need for affordable housing. (and in more cases than not, the need for not-so affordable housing in the form of condos, etc.) While your suggestion that we consider investing in our neighborhood spaces was posed metaphorically, how do you think these ideas actually play out in terms of public policy? How do we, in the words of Jane Jacobs, continue ‘the flow of life and use’ in a neighborhood, and maintain a sustainable mix of old and new without resorting to the commerce-driven municipal policies of redistricting and the widespread privatization of public space? How do we insure that the preservation of spaces of meaning does not exclude the public? Couldn’t transforming these spaces in the process of use actually be desirable? And how can we embed relevance into these places of memory, so that long after the original users of these spaces are gone, they will meet the challenges of a changing world?

  3. cathy

    Dear Tomei and Steve,
    I am equally intrigued by the question of currency, the critique of capital, and the connection to space (and ways of making space meaningful). What I pose comes out of a recent project I completed on 1.5-generation Cambodian American artists, who — in their respective projects — re-member what most outside of Cambodia know as the “Killing Fields” era. Whether it take the form of hip hop, slam poetry, performance art, or life writing, such work is consistently tied to what Lisa Lowe provocatively termed as a “tireless reckoning” with the past. Although their own memories of the Khmer Rouge era are incomplete (because most were young children at the time), they seek ways to create alternative sites of memorialization that fall out the purview of the nation-state and engage a transnational analytic. And they often use their parents’ stories of survival as a primary text. On another level, I am curious how this notion of currency is uniquely suited as a potential critique of neoliberal forms of memory-making that at times fit the problematic contours of “atrocity tourism” or “dark tourism.” The more local approach — which involves claiming neighborhoods — is wonderfully provocative.

  4. rhayashi

    OK, Café

    When I was twelve we took the Big Family Vacation—to California where we visited rarely-seen family and where my Dad drove around his hometown, Sacramento, taking “shortcuts” that got him lost. We forever kidded him about the utility of his native knowledge.

    Thirty years had passed since he almost drowned in the Sacramento River, stole peaches from the truck that always had to downshift at the corner from his house—thirty years since he and his neighbors had been relocated. Nothing looked the same.

    In the closet behind me, in a box labeled “Slides” is a Kodachrome slide from that trip: faded painted letters on a dirty glass window: “OK Cafe.” One of my relatives had excitedly recognized it as the restaurant of someone…in the family? A close friend of someone? I never did get the story. Or don’t remember it…didn’t care to at the time. I have no one to ask now.

    What I have is the snippet of a memory, an image of a relic of a place. And recorded with a medium increasingly obsolete.

    Steve’s ideas about a currency of memory and meaning made me think about how I could measure the currency of this place, a repository of pre-WWII Japanese American communal life. And what then the value in myens of this old color slide would be and how I could assert that value.

    The exercise elicited the vexing problems, some suggested by Barbara’s posting, that often confront us when we seek to establish and memorialize. How do we work through the separate currencies of meaning individuals and groups attach to places? The fact that some currencies have greater value than others in the public sphere? And that many diasporic communities have only ephemeral representations of places that now exist only in memory.

  5. tarai

    Richard: Did you know that my father’s family is from Sacramento and the restaurant you remember so fondly was owned by my grandfather, Juhei Arai? I’m sure we have never met, so this is an amazing coincidence. When I read your response, I emailed and phoned a number of relatives and they confirmed that the OK Cafe was owned by my grandparents, who lived above the restaurant with their six children until about 1939. My father helped out in the restaurant by cooking breakfast for Mexican and Japanese laborers before he went to school. I had a wonderful exchange with an 85 year-old uncle who remembered a Hayashi family (are there any dentists in your family?) while growing up. During our conversation, I was struck that even the smallest shared memory has the power to spark a chain of narratives about the past. It reinforces my belief that memory is not just an archive stored somewhere in our brains; but is a visceral experience that is activated through the people around us:
    “We do our remembering with more than our brains; we engage in a process of recall. This process is a social phenomenon through which friends, family and community facilitate and influence the way we remember events and it is intimately bound up with thought, emotion and perception. As part of this social context, we store information in the people and places closest to us and when we lose those co-holders of information, it is easy to feel that we have lost part of ourselves…” (from an essay I wrote for a catalogue for the 2009 show, “Out of the Archives” at the Asian American Arts Centre in NY) Thank you so much Richard. By sharing your remembrances of a mysterious place in your family’s past, you have inadvertently helped to keep my family’s memories alive as well. I would love to see the image of the OK Cafe, if you still have it.

  6. rhayashi

    Dear Tarai,
    This is extraordinary! No, I had no idea you were from Sacramento. This image is just something that lodged itself in my memory–one of the pieces of a narrative that I heard growing up that formed my sense of my family’s past, their home. Your quote well articulates the process of recalling Sacramento for me now that no one is really left to recall it for me. Or, so I thought! Yes, my uncles were dentists and it was my uncle Akio, the only one who remained in Sacramento, who asked me to photograph your grandfather’s restaurant. It obviously was important to him. Not surprisingly, I have been tearing through that closet looking for the slide, from the first roll I ever shot, and so far have been unable to find it. If I do, I will certainly send it to you. But, in the meantime, what a wonderful gift you have given me, too, by providing me with more of the story.

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