A. Dirk Moses and Michael Rothberg
This dialogue is excerpted from the forthcoming volume The Transcultural Turn: Interrogating Memory Between and Beyond Borders, edited by Lucy Bond and Jessica Rapson (Berlin: de Gruyter, March 2014). It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher and editors.
This blog post is comprised of the first half of the exchange between Moses and Rothberg; you can find the second part here. In the meantime, we hope you will join the conversation and leave a comment.
A. Dirk Moses:
This is a timely book. Memory studies, so long focused on “the nation” as the master unit of analysis, has joined the trend in the humanities and social sciences to study its chosen phenomena in a globalised and transnational – or, rather, transcultural – mode. We are not talking about intercultural encounters between distinct traditions that otherwise bear no relation to one another. This book goes further, making “transculturality” its object of inquiry rather than solely discrete ideas or memories whose circulation can be traced or boundary crossing analysed. That is, the very constitution of local memories, especially those pertaining to war and occupation, are shot through with references to other cultures and nations, and not only of oppressive ones. Traumatic memory is necessarily analogical: we did not just suffer; we suffered like this or that, or we suffered more than or differently from them. Even claims to unique suffering are implicitly comparative, that is, transcultural.
Without analogues, it is difficult to successfully bid for recognition, because the common sense of a public sphere will ascribe significance to certain types of suffering and not to others. As a number of chapters here note, the Holocaust has been held up as representing the West’s common sense standard of suffering. How and why it has come been constructed as the “gold standard” in the Western memory regime is being investigated by scholars, Michael Rothberg among them. His notion of “multidirectionality” brilliantly captures the spatial quality of memory. Transculturality gestures to the temporal dimension of memory’s analogical aspect. Contemporary memories are not only interpolated by other cultures but incorporate within them an archive about their relations in the past, whether stories of victory and exultation, defeat and humiliation, or relative coexistence, if with an emphatic sense of hierarchy.
The editors and some authors here plead for an ethics of transcultural memory; consciousness of implication in others’ mnemonic archive makes subjects “acknowledge our implication in each other’s suffering and loss, and to begin to imagine a more equitable future in which such violence might be minimized through an acknowledgement of our common humanity, grounded by the awareness of our mutual experience of histories of destruction”. Just as I applaud this cosmopolitan ethic, I ponder its challenges. Consider the ugly debate transpiring today about the ‘double genocide’ thesis in Eastern Europe and particularly in Lithuania. Since the independence of the former Soviet Baltic republic, which chafed under Soviet rule for generations, ultra-nationalist political forces have insisted on describing the Lithuanian experience as genocide, and indeed the country’s parliament has passed a law broadening the United Nations definition to include deportations and attacks on cultural (“spiritual”) genocide. Not for nothing is the institution dedicated to the Soviet occupation called the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania. By contrast, the Holocaust is marginalized in Lithuanian official memory, not least, say critics, because heroes of the resistance – nationalists – were co-perpetrators of the Holocaust of Lithuanian Jewry, of whom only 5% survived.
The same memory constellation is apparent across east-central and northern Europe, that is, where relatively smaller countries were occupied by the Soviets: “the Russians”. The “double genocide” thesis, which posits that Baltic and Slavic peoples were subject to Soviet genocide just as Jews were victims of the Nazi genocide, is of course a species of totalitarianism theory. Its point is to replace the hierarchy of genocide apparent in the West’s memory regime – with the Holocaust at its apex, as in the Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in 2000 – with an equalized memory field. That is why the new states of east-central and northern Europe prodded the European Union to pass the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism in 2008, and establish the Platform of European Memory and Conscience in 2011; they are dedicated to researching and memorializing the crimes of totalitarianism. As in Lithuania, Poland’s bearers of this memory project are also those dedicated to national(ist) memory and resistance against Russian imperialism, in this case, the Institute of National Remembrance and the Warsaw Rising Museum.
These developments represent a full frontal assault on the Western memory regime. It is certainly transcultural, but hardly cosmopolitan. Regrettably, the canard that Jews in this region – called the “bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder in his recent book on Stalinist and Nazi crimes in the 1930s and 1940s – supported the Soviet Union and were therefore attacked by their Christian neighbours when the Nazis passed through, is apparent in this debate. Also unfortunate is the zero-sum game structure of these rival memories; to isolate the Holocaust – or more concretely, say, the Jews of Vilnius – as an object of memory is experienced by Lithuanian nationalists as an unbearable effacement of their nation’s travails under communism. It is “Jewish memory” rather than Baltic memory, indeed a form of Western domination. Likewise, for many others, the double genocide thesis, while not denying the actual killings, though soft-pedalling local collaboration, is an unbearable flattening out of distinct forms and intensities of violence (see http://defendinghistory.com/). What are the ethics of transculturality in this situation?
The Transcultural Turn is dedicated to exploring new tendencies in memory studies from a tri-focal perspective that suggests the need for attention to theoretical definitions of actually existing transcultural and transnational connections; the ethical and political problems that attend the circulation of memories; and the possibilities for counter-narratives and new forms of solidarity that sometimes emerge when practices of remembrance are recognized as implicated in each other. The rich essays collected here offer just that mix of interventions: they trace diasporic networks, delve into dispiriting conflicts about the past, and chart constellations of unexpected relationality. Such a multi-levelled approach to collective memory is necessary in our dynamic, globalizing world. Yet, as Dirk Moses argues pointedly in his remarks above, the actually existing realm of transcultural memory often seems primarily to be a place of bitter contestation, competitive claims, and righteous victims. How, he asks, can we actualize truly cosmopolitan attitudes and transcultural ethics in such treacherous terrain?
Before returning to this critical question, let me step back for a moment and consider the framing of this book in terms of transcultural memory. The category “transcultural” operates in the vicinity of other adjectival qualifiers that have recently emerged in the rapidly growing field of memory studies – most prominently “transnational” and “global”, as the editors of this volume suggest. Within that constellation of terms, the term transcultural does a particular kind of conceptual work. It points us toward the fact that the founding texts of collective memory studies are not simply or uniquely embedded in the assumption that remembrance can only be understood in national and local frameworks – an assumption thus in need of transnational and global methodological innovations. At an even deeper conceptual level, these theories have reproduced assumptions about what constitutes a culture that are no longer tenable; they have assumed that only discrete and homogenous cultures and social groups can become bearers of memory. Astrid Erll has usefully traced this assumption back to a conception of ‘container-culture’ inherited from the eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (among other sources), a conception that persists in much recent work on collective memory. In the foundational theories in the field, “cultures […] remain relatively clear-cut social formations, usually coinciding with the contours of regions, kingdoms and nation-states”; there is, in other words, “an isomorphy between territory, social formation, mentalities, and memories” that blocks recognition of transcultural dynamics. Even as we have begun to acquire a usable history of memory studies – for example, through Erll’s own work as well as the creation of valuable new source books such as The Collective Memory Reader—we need to turn a critical eye on the background assumptions of the field.
Thinking of memory as transcultural means seeking to break through the isomorphic imagination that underpins – still valuable – models such as Maurice Halbwachs’s “collective memory”, Pierre Nora’s lieux de mémoire, Jan and Aleida Assmann’s “cultural memory”, and Avishai Margalit’s “ethics of memory”. In contrast to these models, which risk inadvertently instituting “ethnified” notions of memory, the wager of a theory of transcultural memory is that other collective agents of memory exist who are not indebted to the Herderian notion of discrete cultures. Transcultural memory also offers a vision that cuts across the different scales evoked by the frameworks of transnational or global memory. That is, there is nothing inherently transcultural about transnational or global dynamics and nothing inherently monocultural about the local. A transnational formation such as Europe may be tendentially monocutural in its ideology or effects – note the attempted construction of a common “Judeo-Christian” culture in contemporary Europe that excludes Islam—and globalization has long been recognized as having homogenizing effects as well as being a force for heterogeneity. Meanwhile, most locales are deeply transcultural – not only cities (like the Berlin discussed in the essays of Tomsky and Meyer) but also the villages whose assumed homogeneity served as Nora’s nostalgic model for the idealized milieu de mémoire that preexisted the intrusion of modernity. The transcultural turn offers a necessary intervention into the study of memory at all these levels: it draws attention to the palimpsestic overlays, the hybrid assemblages, the non-linear interactions, and the fuzzy edges of group belonging.
But if the focus on the transcultural is a valuable methodological intervention – directing us toward heteromorphic constellations instead of isomorphic territories of memory – how does it help us to evaluate the plateaus, problems, and possibilities offered by the disparate practices of memory discussed by the contributors to this book? What, indeed, are the ethics and politics of such an approach? Dirk Moses draws our attention to one of the “hottest” zones of memory conflict: that unfolding in the territories of the former Soviet bloc where multiple legacies of extreme violence coexist in explosive constellations. In describing the current conflict over the “double genocide” thesis, he already suggests some important parameters for the ethics of memory. When transcultural analogies and comparisons emerge, they often fall into two extremes: an “isolation” of histories from each other and a “flattening out” of differences between histories. These extremes represent the far ends of a continuum that runs between what we could call equation and differentiation and that constitutes one of the important axes of a transcultural ethics of memory. At the extremes of this axis of comparison we find attitudes represented in the current double genocide debate and much of the worldwide discourse about the Holocaust: relativization, on the one hand, and sacralization, on the other.
This distinction is recognized by many scholars but I now believe we need a more nuanced approach. In formulating an ethics of memory, we need to supplement the axis of comparison with an axis of political affect. The affective axis asks to what ends the comparison is being made; here a continuum runs from competition to solidarity. Thus, for instance, the discourse of double genocide often represents more than a thesis about historical comparison: it represents a competitive assertion that seeks to seize the ground of recognition from people with other experiences of suffering. So, for that matter, do sacralizing discourses of the Holocaust’s uniqueness. Mapping practices of memory across these two axes of comparison and affect establishes four larger categories with distinct political valences and opens up the possibility of degrees, gradations, and tendencies within those categories (competitive equation, competitive differentiation, and so on).
An ethics of transcultural memory, in other words, would ask both how and why histories are imagined in relation to each other. Whether we equate or differentiate histories and whether we do so for reasons of solidarity or competitive antagonism matters. That doesn’t mean such an ethics can always give us the ‘right’ answers to the kinds of dilemmas Dirk Moses describes, however. My personal predilection is for visions of history that opt for a differentiated solidarity – that is, that allow us to distinguish different histories of violence while still understanding them as implicated in each other and as making moral demands for recognition that deserve consideration. But the notion that we as scholars can ‘choose’ how collective memory should be articulated is false. Here we need to move, I think, from the ethics of memory to the politics of memory. We need to ask: what are the material conditions – social, economic, political – that lead to memory conflict and what are the material conditions in which ethical approaches to the past become possible?
Read the second part of this exchange here.
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The Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies
is an interdisciplinary program based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Founded in 2009 and located within the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, HGMS provides a platform for cutting-edge, comparative research, teaching, and public engagement related to genocide, trauma, and collective memory.