Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Michael Rothberg

In Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009)[379pp], Michael Rothberg takes up the problem of how to think about the relationship between the suffering of different groups of people.  For example, can the memory of the Holocaust be compared with slavery and colonialism?  Does a hierarchy between traumas have to be established?  Rothberg admits that the memory of the Holocaust enjoys a privileged place in public memory and begins with an example in which literary critic Walter Benn Michaels asks why there is a federally funded US Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, DC when the black holocaust was 100 times worse than the “so-called” Jewish Holocaust.  “Why should what the Germans did to the Jews be a crucial event in American history?”  Michaels suggests that the commemoration of the Jewish Holocaust is in fact a form of denial about the black holocaust (2).  Since not everything can be re-membered in the present, Michaels builds his critique of public memory on the idea that remembering always includes forgetting or leaving out something else.[1]  In this view, public memory becomes a competition in which certain memories win out and others fall into oblivion.

In response to the dynamic set-up by Michaels, Rothberg poses a non-competitive way of looking at memory; he suggests that memories are not hierarchical, but are instead in dialogue with each other: “I suggest that we consider memory as multidirectional: as subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; as productive and not privative”(3).  In this view the Holocaust becomes a platform for other traumatic memories instead of a privileged memory that crowds out other memories from public spaces.   Rothberg shows that Benn Michaels' critique of the US Holocaust Museum allows him to quickly harness the Holocaust as a platform for bringing up the history of slavery, colonialism and genocide in the U.S. and in this way the memories of slavery and the Holocaust are working together instead of in opposition.   

The multidirectional approach to memory is inherently transnational and cosmopolitan and uproots constructions of cultural memory and group identity.  Rothberg argues that the histories and memories of others can serve as a way to work through one’s own memories as long as one is willing to give up exclusive claims to ultimate victimization and ownership over one’s own suffering.  Multidirectional memory allows for a third way between the appropriation of the pain of others and the silence rooted in Adorno’s argument against the representability of the Holocaust.  W.E.B. Dubois’ double consciousness takes on a more general meaning here in which the “conditions of minority life are given shape in order to ground acts of resistance to the bio-political order”(131). Rothberg argues that the Holocaust is not only something that can be represented, but that it can also be compared productively with other traumas and global events.

One of the problems that I see in Rothberg’s Multidirectional Memory is his concept of “screen memories” in which the Holocaust functions as an easily digestible stand-in for other memories that are harder to face.  It is easier for the US to condemn the Germans, for example, than to confront the genocide of the blacks and Native Americans on which the US is founded.  I wonder if it is enough to understand the subconscious undertow at work in “screen memories.”  Isn’t this still a problematic form of silencing?  I’m not sure that one can get away from the hierarchy of memories given that public space and the resources for memory work are limited.  I am not entirely convinced that these memories can coexist in a cooperative relationship without competition.

In the end, Rothberg’s Multidirectional Memory provides a useful theoretical discussion about comparing the memories of various countries in an ethical manner. 

[1] Rothberg defines memory as does Richard Terdiman, as something concerned with the past that takes place in the present and requires an action or form of work (4).