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 second half of the exchange between Moses and Rothberg; you can find the first part here. We hope you will join the conversation and leave a comment.
Michael Rothberg’s points are so well made that I don’t need to elaborate further on them. What I would like to explore is the relationship between a politics of memory that leads to differentiated solidarity – the attractive ethical vision also advocated by Lucy Bond and Jessica Rapson – and an investigation of the remembering subjects’ material conditions. The latter is a socio-anthropological exercise, a scholarly undertaking animated by an analytical rather than activist or political ethos. It is a precondition to a politics of memory with ethical potential. At the same time, it is also a transcultural praxis, because ideally it engages empathetically with all ‘sides’ of memory conflicts.
Transcultural scholarship, as exemplified in this volume, manifests a choice to analyse memory conflicts for the sake of understanding them rather than participating in them in a partisan manner. Investigating the material conditions of memory in a transcultural spirit, as Michael Rothberg suggests, then, is in itself an engagement in the politics of memory with ethical effect. If successfully executed, actors in memory conflicts could gain some critical distance to their memory commitments after confrontation with scholarly accounts of their activism; they would understand better what they are doing when advancing specific arguments and making certain claims. It allows the scholar to challenge the politician’s manipulation of memory, whether in the “bloodlands” or the Middle East. It is no accident that universities – as institutionalized sites of rationality – and academics are routinely attacked by nationalists for selling out the country’s narcissistic narrative – whether apologetic or self-congratulatory – by empirically challenging its claims and by exhibiting the transcultural ethics implicit in its praxis.
As an example of contestable partisan memory, take the entreaty, in 2009, of Asaf Shariv, Israel’s consul general in New York, that Holocaust education in Gaza would solve the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Condemning Hamas’s refusal to allow the Holocaust to be included in an UN-sponsored human rights eighth-grade module, he declared that “To deny history and the humanity of victims of genocide is to prepare for future atrocities”. Without mentioning the blockade of Gaza that oppresses its population, or the civilian casualties that Israeli forces inflicted there, let alone the fact that most Gazans are refugees from Zionist forces’ ethnic cleansing campaigns in 1948, he noted that, in contrast to the Palestinian indoctrination of hate, “The first word that every Israeli child is taught in school is shalom, peace. I know that when peace is a word that is taught to every child in Gaza and the West Bank, then peace will be around the corner”. What the consul was asking his readers to believe was that Holocaust education would end the regional conflict, though he did not provide details, nor give any indication of agreeing with the proposition that ending the occupation would be part of a just peace.
A transcultural analysis that attends to the material conditions of the conflict might observe that the consul was in fact arguing, or hoping, that Palestinians renounce their national claims, consent to the annexation of the West Bank and subservience within Israel, or even leave Palestine, once they understand the Jewish Holocaust experience, and that the consequent claim of Jews, as the universal victim, trump those of the aggressor, the Palestinian. This is memory invoked to deny the history and humanity of Palestinian victims in Gaza and elsewhere. Given this agenda, who could be surprised that Palestinians are wary of Holocaust education? Not that I think that learning about the Holocaust is a bad idea for Palestinians – or indeed anyone. I don’t. But in this mode, it represents the far end of the banalization-sacred spectrum mentioned by Michael Rothberg, perhaps even joining both ends.
The transcultural analysis would continue by challenging the consul’s lazy culturalist assumption that hasbara – simply changing narratives – will resolve major geopolitical and national conflicts. Instead, one might study the production of memory in the subject’s body and how this body is affected by its material conditions, whether those of war, occupation, exile, rape or incarceration. Powerful affects are experienced in all these cases, and the psychological literature tells us how they are literally inscribed into the brains and mental processes of its victims. Resistance and revenge narratives are the ineluctable cultural responses to these experiences, constructed to invest the exiled or occupied subject with the dignity that his and her humiliating material conditions have stripped from them. It is hard to see realization of transcultural memory’s ethical potential while those conditions obtain. Just as hard is it to see the transformation of those conditions when its masters feel terrorized by history, a legacy of previous trauma whose effects are transmitted through the generations in stories of suffering that convince them that they are actually victims, or potential victims, vulnerable to the same fate as their ancestors. Analysing paranoia and the cultural sources of its self-automatization belongs to a material analysis as well.
Dirk Moses has advanced this dialogue on transcultural memory in important ways. On the one hand, he has deepened our reflections on the ethics, politics, and analysis of acts of memory. On the other hand, he has supplemented our discussion of one geo-political hotspot – the Eastern European “bloodlands” – with another unavoidable and even more tension-filled site: the Middle East. As his contribution demonstrates, a theory of transcultural memory has the greatest chance of developing when dialogue is established between methodological questions and case studies of cultural exchange and conflict.
Let me start with the methodological question of the relation between analysis, activism and the politics of memory. Dirk Moses usefully distinguishes different social arenas in which struggles over the past play out – from educational institutions such as the university and the school to the more properly political realm of diplomacy and on to the trauma-marked bodies of victims of extreme violence. Such distinctions are necessary both for understanding the dynamics of memory and for preserving a space of critique outside immediate ideological demands. Yet I would also emphasize the permeability of these different realms to each other: conflicts over the ethics and politics of memory often take place in the interstices of various public and private spaces. In particular, I would point to the intertwined production of knowledge and memory about the past by activists and scholars. Academics can also be activists, while activists outside the academy often contribute insight into events that have remained taboo among more institutionally bound scholars. The most powerful example of the former type would be the late Edward Said, not only a paradigm-changing literary and cultural historian, but someone who worked tirelessly to reshape the public narratives about the Palestinian past and present and who had a distinctly transcultural approach to the intersecting memories of all the players in the Middle East conflict. The French activist-scholar Jean-Luc Einaudi would provide an example of the second type; his basic research on the 17 October 1961 massacre of peacefully demonstrating Algerians in Paris not only preceded academic scholarship on this “forgotten” event, but has also helped stimulate the public, transnational and transcultural memory work around October 17. This transcultural and “trans-disciplinary” bleeding into each other of different realms was especially dramatic during Einaudi’s powerful testimony about the 1961 massacre of Algerians at Maurice Papon’s trial for crimes against humanity pertaining to the Nazi genocide of European Jews.
I am certain that Dirk Moses would agree with me about the transit between different realms of memory work, but there still may be a slight difference in emphasis here between the two of us because of disciplinary assumptions about the relation between memory and history. That is, as a historian, he emphasizes the power of empirical historical research to interrupt nationalist narratives and check the memory manipulation of overt ideologues, although in a recent article he has speculated on the reasons for resistance to this mode of reality checking in the Middle Eastern case. Coming from literary and cultural studies, where there is a greater skepticism about the status of empiricist claims, I am less likely to see a clean break between memory and history, and I am rather less sanguine that humanist scholars are always quite so objective and distanced as he implies. We all know about the university positions held, for instance, by perpetrators of recent atrocities in the Balkans. But even beyond such dramatic cases, ideology – say, neoliberal ideology—shapes scholarship in more banal ways every day as well. Even here, however, I suspect we are largely in agreement. I would readily admit, for instance, that an important part of Einaudi’s intervention with respect to the October 17 massacre was his uncovering of hard facts about the past, while Dirk Moses ends his last remarks with the very astute suggestion – which is indeed central to his own work—that psychological states and cultural contexts shape actions in the present as well as practices of remembrance.
Discussion of the subjective and objective conditions of memory brings us back around to the question of conflict and the possibilities of transcultural memory. On the topic of Holocaust memory and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I think we have another case of a large degree of overlap and a divergence of emphasis. Dirk Moses’s example of the consul general’s offensive attempt to instrumentalize memory of the Shoah is a powerful one, and I can only concur with his analysis of its implications. At the same time, and despite the existence of many more such outrages (really, on all sides), I maintain a degree of optimism about the possibilities that transcultural memory practices can offer, even for seemingly unresolvable conflicts such as the one in the Middle East. I think of Edward Said’s writings about the “bases of coexistence” in overlapping narratives of remembrance by Jews and Palestinians, or the photography/video work of the Israeli-British artist Alan Schechner that establishes solidarity between iconic victims of the Holocaust and Israeli occupation.
My point could also be put in slightly less rosy terms, though, closer to those of Dirk Moses: I don’t see how we can have any optimism about the situation in the Middle East at all without a belief that some form of transcultural exchange – including, but not limited to exchange about the past—can evolve between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living under occupation as well as in Israel and the diaspora. To be sure, such an evolution has to be accompanied – or, more likely, preceded—by radical change in the basic political conditions of Palestinian life, by an end to the occupation and blockade. Ultimate reconciliation will only be possible, however, when cultural change joins political transformation – and cultural change will have to include a painful, but unavoidable transcultural memory work. This is true for other hotspots of remembrance, too, such as Turkey, where rabid genocide denial continues, while, simultaneously, tens of thousands of citizens march in memory of an assassinated Armenian-Turkish journalist and carry signs that read “We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenians”. Such a dynamic of denial, conflict and solidarity represents the current dialectic of transcultural memory. This volume helps us make our way through the contradictions, constraints, and possibilities of the transcultural turn.
 I briefly discuss the literature in “Genocide and the Terror of History” (2011, 90-108).
 Exemplary is Ghassan Hage, “‘Comes a Time We Are All Enthusiasm’: Understanding Palestinian Suicide Bombers in Times of Exighophobia” (2003, 65-89).
 See, among other works, Jean-Luc Einaudi, La bataille de Paris: 17 octobre 1961 (1991).
 On Schechner and Said, see my attempt to work out a transcultural ethics of memory in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in “From Gaza to Warsaw: Mapping Multidirectional Memory” (2011, 523-48). A comparison between this essay and Dirk Moses’s “Genocide and the Terror of History” (2011) provides an illuminating picture of the commonalities and differences of emphasis in our approaches to transcultural memory. Both of these essays were presented as lectures at the ‘Transcultural Memory’ conference organized by Lucy Bond, Rick Crownshaw and Jessica Rapson in London in February 2010.
 See Sebnem Arsu, “Thousands in Turkey Protest Verdict in Journalist’s Murder” (2012).