Andreas Huyssen’s Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory

La sala memorial de los mártires, UCA El Salvador
Huyssen’s Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (2003) [177pp] is a fascinating and refreshing take on memory culture that refrains from waxing apocalyptic.  The author begins by pointing out that the past has become part of the present given media, the Internet and historical scholarship.  The temporal boundaries have weakened and the past can be readily experienced in the present.[1]  “Our contemporary obsessions with memory in the present may well be an indication that our ways of thinking and living temporality itself are undergoing a significant shift” (4).  The discourse of memory has not captivated the attention of nation-states until recently.  Previously the focus was always on a forward-looking modernity, on progress and the future.  He ends the chapter by problematizing re-presentations of the past in the present.  For example, it is not enough to just share the memory artifacts online.  What do we do with the past? (10)

In “Present Pasts: Media, Politics, Amnesia” Huyssen focuses on the rise in memory discourse and on the “culture of memory.”  He argues on the one hand that there is a commodification of memory, but also that memory as a commodity can compensate for a loss of national or communal identity: “Nora’s lieux de mémoire compensate for the loss of milieu de mémoire just as musealization compensates for the loss of lived tradition” (24).  The commodification of memory also carries with it the threat of oblivion because a surge in memory also means there is a surge in forgetting.  “Memory, after all, can be no substitute for justice, and justice itself will inevitably be entangled in the unreliability of memory” (28).  He argues that the surge in memory culture is a reaction against the acceleration of culture: “Our own discontents flow instead from the informational and perceptual overload combined with a cultural acceleration that neither our psyche nor our senses are adequately equipped to handle” (25).  The “culture of memory” is part of a new configuration of time and space.  New technologies such as the book, the railroad, the telephone, the radio, the airplane, and now, the Internet have always transformed the human perception of time and space in modernity.

In “Monumental Seduction: Christo in Berlin” Huyssen discusses the monument in relation to human memory and argues that monuments as a fast-road to forgetting.  He describes Germany after 1980 as a nation immersed in a memory mania for monuments and memorial sites.  He brings up the ironic problematic of monuments as forgetting: “Recalling Robert Musil’s observation that there is nothing as invisible as a monument, Berlin-and with it all of this memorial-crazed Germany-is opting for invisibility.  The more monuments there are, the more the past becomes invisible, and the easier it is to forget…” (32).  He describes Christo’s Veiling of the Reichstag as an anti-monumentalism installation project that pushes back against the invisibilization of the monument.  He ends the chapter with a discussion of the Internet as the new space of monumental seduction where monuments are erected to facilitate forgetting.

The chapter on “Doris Salcedo’s Memory Sculpture: The Orphan’s Tunic” is in dialogue with the dilemma of the monument.  “The Orphan’s Tunic is objet trouvé, kitchen table, used and abused, material residue and witness.  The object that appears simple and unassuming at first sight begins to come alive upon closer inspection.” (113).  Salcedo’s work incorporates human hair that calls up images from Holocaust photography.  Salcedo’s Memory Sculpture evokes private reflection rather than a collective sense of history.  Huyssen concludes that art like Doris Salcedo’s helps us not to forget and instead “to look with fresh eyes at the way we ourselves negotiate space and memory in our everyday lives” (121).        

In the “Voids of Berlin” and “After the War: Berlin as Palimspest”, Huyssen examines the city of Berlin as a text that can be read and analyzed.  As the architecture of memory, the city is a necessarily palimpsestic space.  Huyssen gives the Leipziger Platz as an example of the memory architecture of Berlin.  The Leipziger Platz is an octagonal square in the center of Berlin that was reduced to ruins during WWII and that manifested as a void surrounding the Berlin Wall.  It has since been reconstructed in its original configuration, albeit with modern architecture.

“Fear of Mice” continues Huyssen’s examination of the city as text, this time his gaze is on Times Square in New York City and Disney’s incursion into this space.  Many object that a Disney store would replace an old seedy version of Times Square.  Huyssen ends this chapter with a look at the twin towers and the irony that many people also objected to that construction, but after 9-11 it has come to be an icon of the city. 

In “Memory Sites in an Expanded Field The Memory park in Buenos Aires” Huyssen shows that memory sites are imbedded in both national and global discourses.  The author points out how the structure of the Memory park in Buenos Aires draws on two contemporary icons of memory culture: Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial and Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin.  In the same vein, Huyssen argues that most of the memory discourses in the world have drawn on the memory work associated with the Holocaust.  Huyssen ends this chapter by pointing out that the public debates surrounding the construction of memory monuments are critical to memory taking hold in the social and political imaginary. 

“Of Mice and Mimesis: Reading Spiegelman with Adorno” takes up the question of how to represent trauma ethically.  Huyssen specifically analyzes Art Spiegelman’s Maus and suggests that Spiegelman’s approach to representing the Holocaust through the comic book genre is a good strategy.  He points out that Spiegelman creates distance between the Holocaust and his representation of Vladek and Anja’s experience in Poland.  Vladek destroys Anja’s diaries and so Artie’s version does not purport to portray her experience.  He accuses his father of silencing Anja forever: “God DAMN you! You…you murderer!”(I:159) “Artie’s frustration about the destruction of the diaries only makes explicit the ultimate unbridgeable gap that exists between Arties cognitive desires and the memories of his parents.  Indeed it marks the limits of mimetic approximation…” (133).  Spiegelman’s constant flashbacks from Vladek’s telling of the past in the present and the portrayal of the characters as animals also contributes to the distance created between the Holocaust and its representation in Maus.  In this sense Maus addresses Adorno’s statement: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” in a similar way as does Albertina Carri in Los rubios.  The focus of both Speigelman and Carri is on showing the distance between the past and its representation in the present while also representing the continued impact of the past in the present.  Huyssen argues that representing this distance is critical to an ethical portrayal of memory.

In “Rewritings and new beginnings” Huyssen examines German literary production after 1989.  Huyssen draws on W.G. Sebald’s essay Luftkrieg und Literatur (The Air War and Literature, 1999) to show that narrative, document and history are linked in the literary production after 1989.  In this book-length essay Sebald asserts that German writers (and historians) have been remarkably silent since the end of World War II about the air war waged against German cities and, perhaps more significantly, about the impact of that massive destruction on the German people, their consciousness, and their culture.

The final chapter “Twin memories” is interesting in that it again takes up the icon of the twin towers, how 9-11 is remembered and how the collapse of the towers can be interpreted as a symbol of the end of urban modernity, of public space, and of the skyscraper.  “Early suggestions to protect New York by closing Times Square to traffic, transforming it into a tourist mall, were joined by such ideas as limiting access to railroad terminals and to public parks-all in the name of creating defensible public space”(160).  However, Huyssen says that instead of seeing the end of public space as the opposite of modernity, he suggests that it is the very product of modernity.   

In sum, Present Pasts is an important book that looks at the ethics of representing memory and reflects on the reasons behind today’s “culture of memory”.




[1] This discussion of breaking through temporal boundaries reminds me of a Youtube lecture that I found recently of one of the six martyred Jesuits, Martín Baró.  I have come to know of him through the memories of others that knew him and through the re-presentation of his life at the UCA.  This was a unique opportunity to get a sense of what he was like in person and to experience his charisma for myself.  What does this ability to experience a fragment of the past in the present mean?