Monday, June 23, 2008
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?