Palimpsests of Memory?

Monday, June 23, 2008

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

Written by Kevin Healey, Institute for Communications Research

Editor's Note: This post is part of a summer-long series that includes the writing of Kevin Healey (Communications) and Martha Webber (English) as they attend Cornell's SCT (School of Criticism and Theory) during the summer of 2008. As always, feel free to join the conversation.

Carolyn Dean began our 6-week seminar on the notion of “victimhood” by assigning Andreas Huyssen’s Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Dean is a historian, and Huyssen is a literary theorist, so most of her analysis and critique of Huyssen stems from that difference. In his discussion of “memory culture,” Huyssen does tend to draw parallels between geographically and culturally disparate phenomena: a memorial park to the victims of state terror in Buenos Aires; the Jewish Museum in Berlin; a sculpture by Doris Salcedo. Most interesting (or perhaps problematic) is his juxtaposition of the twin towers in New York City and the two Buddhist statues destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. He offers some speculation about why such sites have come to take on increased importance in recent years: namely that the processes of globalization have caused an increase in uncertainty about the future, resulting in a need to “slow down” which people (apparently all people around the world) address through a “hypertrophy” of memory. Dean’s main critique of Huyssen is that in his discussion of these sites, the parallels he draws between them, and his explanation for their increased salience, he does not provide adequate historical context. But perhaps we should forgive him for this deficiency since he is not, after all, a historian.

Nevertheless, from the standpoint of textual analysis, Huyssen does provide some interesting tools. His driving metaphor of the palimpsest—a text which has been partially erased to create room for new text—is compelling. He offers the idea of the palimpsest as a methodological tool for evaluating sites of memory culture (the aforementioned sites, among others). His goal is to distinguish mere monuments (which can easily be overlooked and forgotten) from sites which catalyze ongoing engagement, interaction, and recognition of the multiple layers of memory. He cites the memorial park to state terror in Buenos Aires as a good example since it combines architecture, landscaping, and urban planning to invite continued attention from the public.

The strength of his argument, then, rests on whether the metaphor of the palimpsest is helpful in discriminating among different sites of memory. April Marshall, a professor of Hispanic studies at Pepperdine, remarked that his adulation of the memorial park in Buenos Aires is misplaced, since the inhabitants would not agree with his analysis, preferring other sites instead. So we might distinguish his methodology (the palimpsest metaphor) from his peculiar application of it. But, bearing this distinction in mind, does the metaphor of the palimpsest offer a valuable means of evaluating contemporary sites of memory construction? In constructing monuments to contemporary and past traumas, should the overarching goal be to create a space where visitors are confronted with multiple layers of memory—some clear, some partially erased, some still being written? Is this the success of the Jewish Museum of Berlin? Will it be the success of the memorial constructed at the site of the World Trade Center towers?


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Michael Rothberg said...

Kevin's post raises two very important and related topics: memory and disciplinarity.

Personally, I find Huyssen's notion of the palimpsest useful. It gets at something I've found again and again in a study I've just been completing on Holocaust memory and decolonization: public memory rarely stays focused on one event or history at a time; instead, multiple histories jostle against each other in public space (often in ways that are productive, sometimes in ways that seem problematic).

This "promiscuous" tendency of memory to unmoor itself from particular histories leads to the next point about disciplinarity. When confronted with the kinds of palimpsests Huyssen addresses, historians are always complaining that X does not equal Y (e.g. that the Holocaust is nothing like colonialism). This complaint is often on target when considered from a historical perspective--but the question Kevin raises is, is that the best perspective for considering these kinds of phenomena?

My feeling is that the historical contextualization of memory is important, but primarily to understand the cultural significance of apparently unhistorical conjunctures and palimpsests. In other words, the point is not to figure out that the Holocaust and colonialism represent different histories (though they're related, actually), but to figure out what it means that people continually make these kinds of analogies and comparisons. Understanding the cultural work of memory can't be done within a strictly historical frame--it also requires the kind of interpretive lens that critics such as Huyssen supply.

Renée Trilling said...

It seems fitting to me that a literary critic should use a literary metaphor to think through the politics of creating memorial spaces, but I wonder if part of the reason that it falls short, for historians, rests on the very constructedness of those memorials. Palimpsests are not generally intentional; they are what happens when the demands of the new outweigh the value of the old. The palimpsest has long been an apt metaphor for, say, the history of a place, where stories, placenames, and landmarks preserve the accumulated layers of history in collective memory. Place matters. Perhaps memorial spaces draw their memorial power from an inherent connection between place and event; after all, it was very important, in the WTC memorial and in Oklahoma City, for example, to preserve the actual space where the events took place, rather than building the memorial at a neutral site.

People have been working through this problem at least since the Anglo-Saxon period, which is where it appears in my work, and probably for much longer. In an age where few of us inhabit the same spaces for our entire lives, it is easy to feel unmoored from history; perhaps that is why the need for public memorials is so emotionally and politically charged. We don't witness or participate in the accumulation of historical memory in the same way that my medieval poets did, and our places don't bear the same kind of collective memory. The deliberate aestheticization of that confluence of place and history that takes place in a memorial, then, is certainly at one remove from history, but it is also, I would suggest, a necessary step for us in processing the meaning of events.

Michael Rothberg said...

Renée makes some interesting points about the need to historicize our understanding of memory and memorials. I believe this is part of Huyssen's point as well in the book that Kevin references--Huyssen is trying to make sense of the recent explosion of memory discourses and sites by connecting it to transformations in our experience of temporality brought about by technological change, globalization, migration, etc. (Kevin's implicit point that these transformations may not be evenly spread across the globe is a good one, but I'm not sure it fundamentally contradicts Huyssen's argument.)

As far as memorials vs. "natural" or unintentional palimpsests: I think it's true that there's a useful distinction here; on the other hand, much of the recent work on memorialization shows how memorials quickly become unintentional palimpsests by virtue of the uses people make of them and the political and cultural histories they inevitably become part of. The work of James Young is especially good on this dimension of memorials--see, for example, his discussion of the Warsaw Ghetto Monument in his important book The Texture of Memory.