(MLA 2023) This was a presentation on January 5, 2023 in the context of celebrating the imminent publication of Critical Memory Studies: New Approaches from Bloomsbury Press. The panelists in this Just in Time panel, “All the Memory Work that Isn’t Done” were asked to reflect on the links between our contributions to the volume. Citations are from the panelists’ contributions to the forthcoming volume.
Since we’ve been asked to talk a little bit about our own contributions to the Critical Memory Studies volume, and then to make some links between each of our approaches to memory in the book, I’ll start by introducing my own contribution which departs in some significant ways formally and thematically from the contributions of the other panelists and also from most of my own work, such as the writings on Japanese intermedia art and media theory in my recently published book, Feeling Media: Potentiality and the Afterlife of Art, which came out from Duke UP last month. While Feeling Media is more aligned with the main threads of my academic work—and aligns also with the work of Lilya Kaganovsky in this volume on 1960s cinema in that it is interested in experimental arts also in the 60s and 70s—the piece of nonfiction writing I included in critical memory studies is a departure from my work on Japan and from the forms of scholarly writing. Yet it resonates with the contributions of our other panelists on a number of levels: first, with Debarati Sanyal’s because of her inquiries into paradoxical “enfleshment,” what she calls the “corporeal significance” of allegory, the relationship between “literal embodiment and ever proliferating figuration,” where she argues that “allegorical procedure confounds matter and meaning.” Second, my work resonates with Lilya Kaganovsky’s because of the question of postmemories, the relation of the next generation to stories of those who came before that are characterized, she writes following Marianne Hirsch, by “imaginative investment and evocation,” in her case writing about an era called “The Thaw” in Soviet 1960s cinema. With Ethan Madarieta, who writes about Mapuche hunger strikes in Chile and the “presence and innovation of Mapuche cultural memory” what stands out for me is the idea of the “nourishing archive of cultural memory,” a phrase Madarieta draws from Kwame Edwin Otu. Though traversed by violences and pain, this form of cultural memory also offers, takes, and generates what Ethan calls “another form of sustenance” that can potentially be “re-habilitating” of the land and even a “symbolic detoxifying” of the body. So with these three points in mind: (1) the question of paradoxical enfleshment (2) the imaginative investment of postmemory and (3) the potential of a nourishing archive, let’s move into my own contribution.
Of course it’s a little weird when you write a story to then more or less embark on a literary analysis on that story. I took some tapes of my grandmother, whom I call Sabti, telling her Holocaust story of passing as non-Jewish during World War II with my mother. The story happened mostly in Galicia, which is now Western Ukraine, but was then Poland, and the secular Jews like my Sabti, who was born around 1907 or 1910 (although everyone’s birth dates as well as names got changed around a lot) was assimilated into the Polish intelligentsia and was one of probably a few Jewish women who graduated from the Jagiellonian University with a degree in law and took the bar. She was clerking for a judge and married to another lawyer when the war broke out, and they left their little town and my mother was born in a farmhouse on the straw in 1939, on the road after the train was bombed. So one part of the book is this whole story of Sabti and her little baby which is my mother running around Poland trying to survive. The other part of the book is more of a memoir, and in the chapter that is excerpted in this volume, I go back to the places where she was—like the town of Lopatyn, where she lived with a young Polish couple, the blacksmith Tadzik and young Ziutka—and the story narrates that strange and paradoxical and difficult process of trying to see something that’s not there in a place where it was, and the emotional impact of finding and not finding. I’ll read you a little excerpt (we meet one 96 year old hanka, and there is another Hanka in this place):
Of course I wanted to see where the Liegenschaft had been, to find out even the tiniest detail about Tadzik or Ziutka. I would be satisfied even to peek inside one small workshop of any blacksmith whatsoever in Łopatyn who might still live here. I wanted to watch him work, to see even one tiny scrap of his discarded metal, like the scraps at the Liegenschaft that Tadzik used to make my little mother a ring. Perhaps I was only too willing to put chance things together, to compile and follow any trail unfolding. Let one metonymy layer upon another—Hanka’s face shifting and placing itself over my Łopatyn of Sabti’s memory, a translucency with just a bit of uncomfortable skew.
Hanka shook her head. No Liegenschaft, no memory of here before the war, not even in a rumor. Many memories of the hard Soviet times, of all that followed for her, and the weight of those bags she carried even today. The silence of the missing orphans seeming to resonate in the streets. The red-faced men standing by the sausages in the store, their TV with the soccer game, the silence of the dirt road, empty of all cars beside ours; this other Hanka—I should not photograph Hanka’s face. She is not an object from Łopatyn to be stolen or taken home. But I longed to hold to something of her.
Here you see the strange paradox of embodiment or enfleshment: on the one hand it makes perfect sense to go back to where a story took place in its incarnation today: even if just to see the missingness of what is gone, to see the skew between what is and what was, to begin the process of imaginative exploration. On the other hand it risks fetishizing place, and arguing for an “authenticity” of something that covers over the missingness of something else, and the real politics of the place today, in which this Hanka that we met is participating in a legacy of struggles between Ukraine and Soviet/Russian control that is so central in today’s war. The uncomfortable and complex relationship between the Soviet/Ukrainian conflict and antisemitic acts and the Holocaust is well articulated by Lilya, Brett, and others in the volume. The relationship between those elements is a problem of history as well as very much a problem of allegorical procedure and complicities like that worked on by Debarati in her book, where the question of “corporeal significance” remains one that cannot be finally answered but proliferates meanings while confounding matter and meaning.
In addition to this problem of embodiment or enfleshment, my story is one of postmemory’s “imaginative investment and evocation,” taking on of Sabti’s story and travelling into it—and so, eventually, elaborating not only the traumas of WWII and the holocaust, but an understanding of the layers of history and loss that permeate this past. So Sabti’s voice emerges in the chapter to evoke what came before the war, and I quote a little part:
“When I was maybe six or seven,” Sabti said, “there was a big epidemic, and I lost my brother, who was older than me. Dysentery, dysenteria they call it, which we used to say in his case came from eating an unripe apple. At that time I also lost a lot of friends, little girls and little boys. I knew that my brother was not alive, and when another child died that time in the epidemic my mother would say to me, this way your brother will have a friend to play with. I was sorry that he was not alive, but I always held onto the idea that he is in heaven, and he has a friend, so he is not badly off. However, I also knew that his body was in the ground. On rainy days I covered myself up with my mother’s or my father’s coat, because I felt very sorry that my brother was in a grave and that the rain was falling right onto him. I did know that he was in a grave, but also in heaven, with angels.
We hear about this boy, this brother—most of the story people are lost because the Germans shoot them, but here there is a lost that precedes the others, that she mostly did not talk about at all, and we imagine the little girl covering herself up with her coat when it rained, fearing that the rain was falling right onto the body of her lost and buried big brother. And yet, standing in Lopatyn, to be able to assemble these stories, in some way perhaps presence or evoke a memory in that space, while also metonymic in structure can maybe serve as something of a sustaining, a taking or generating of if not exactly a ‘nourishing archive’ or a re-habilitation or detoxifying of the land in Madarieta’s sense, then at least an acknowledgement of the structures of what is still stuck there in that spot, in that history, the resentments and the unmourned losses; and further, that there might be something nonetheless helpful or sustaining in some way in the forms that memory work can be and do. A boy with freckles who used to play on the playground. Embodiment, postmemory, archive.