Notes on The Generation of PostMemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, Marianne Hirsch

Photographer's grandmother, Maud Adamson, with his mother, right, her two sisters and brother in 1912. Photograph: Michael Green
A “post-generation” are the descendants of survivors, perpetrators and bystanders of mass traumatic events.  The second generation connects deeply with the previous generations remembrances and that connection with the past becomes a type of “memory.”  In these cases memory can be transferred to those who were not there even while transferred memories are of a different nature than those of witnesses and participants. “Hence, the insistence on ‘post’ and ‘after’ as qualifying adjectives”(3).  Post-memory is similar to memory in that it has an affective force and psychic effects, as opposed to history.  “Memory signals an affective link to the past-a sense, precisely, of a material “living connection” –and it is powerfully mediated by technologies like literature, photography, and testimony (33).  Hirsch describes memory transfer as something that occurs generally within the context of the family; post memory is a generational structure (35). More than oral of written narratives, photographs of the past undo the finality of past by reanimating it with the act of viewing: “Whether they are family pictures of a destroyed world, or records of the process of destruction, photographic images are fragmentary remnants that shape the cultural work of post memory (37).  Photographs allow the viewer to imagine and understand the body; they involve the viewer in the act of seeing and they inscribe an understanding in the imagination through images of bodies (38) But what are the limits of photography?  What does the image not tell us?  Hirsch disusses the limits of photography with the example of the small photograph of her parents Lotte and Carl Hirsch.  (See the discussion on that image here.

The post-generation inscribes memory through imagination instead of experience.  “Post-memory’s connection to the past is thus actually mediated, not by recall, but by imaginative investment, projection and creation” (5).  This point by Hirsch suggests that an engagement in fiction and art would be a logical way for the post-generation to construct a relationship with the past.  Do fiction and art then function as a way to chart a way through fragments of post-memory?

Hirsch takes a comparative approach to memory studies and deals head-on with the ethics of making comparisons between trauma experiences.  Instead of focusing on the collective memory, her focus is on the “connective” memory.  While she does not say this, I get the sense that a focus on collective memory tends to frame memory within the boundaries of the nation, whereas the connective memory expands out to encompass and international frame.  Her notion of  “connective histories” builds on the transnational memory studies of Huyssen, Rothberg, Nathan Sznaider, Daniel Levy and aims to think of divergent histories alongside and in connection with each other.  “Among these I would single out Daniel Levy and Nathan Sznaider’s The Holocaust and Memory in a Global Age, Michael Rothberg’s Multidirectional Memory; Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Andreas Huyssen’s Present Pasts and Gabriele Schwab’s Haunting Legacies” (21)

A key problem of post-memory is how to represent the pain of others without appropriating it as our own and calling undo attention to ourselves.  This reminds me a lot of the ice-bucket challenge that is popular right now.  The declared intent is to draw awareness to ALS and to raise funds for the cause, but at what point does the IB Challenge become more about us posting videos and challenges on Facebook than about people with ALS?  How are we appropriating the language and experience of ALS as a language to communicate with friends on Facebook?  And to what extent are we willing to overlook a little harmless appropriation as long as the donations keep coming in?  With an eye on the Holocaust, Hirsch asks: “How do we regard and recall what Susan Sontag has so powerfully described as the ‘pain of others?’  What do we owe the victims?  How can we best carry their stories forward, without appropriating them, without unduly calling attention to ourselves, and without, in turn, having our own stories displaced by them?” (2) 

It is easy to understand how the trauma of the previous generation might overshadow our own lives.  Their stories are so important to remember and nothing very transcendental has happened in our own lives, nothing like what they went through anyway.  I wonder about the toll of carrying the memories of others on our own lives and experiences.  Hirsch describes this experience of displacement: “Why could I recall particular moments from my parents’ wartime lives in great detail and have only few specific memories of my own childhood, I began to wonder?” (4) Hirsch describes being crowded out by her parents’ memories: “To grow up with overwhelming inherited memories, to be dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness, is to risk having one’s own life stories displaced, even evacuated, by our ancestors” (5).  Post-memory is a negotiation between displacement and distance (20).

Hirsch describes many conceptual approaches to the ideas of post-memory: “absent memory”(Ellen Fine), “inherited memory,” “belated memory,” “prosthetic memory” (Celia Lury, Alison Landsberg), “mémoire troucée” (Henri Raczymow), “mémoire des cendres” (Nadine Fresco), “vicarious witnessing” (Froma Zeitlin), “received history” (James Young), “haunting legacy” (Gabriele Schwab), and “postmemory.” (3)