Friday, November 13, 2009

Readings for November 16

This weeks readings were Angela Landsberg's Prosthetic Memory and Jay Winter's "The Generation of Memory: Reflections on the "Memory Boom" in Contemporary Historical Studies".

While at a GHI lecture ("Der DDR: Was Bleibt?") about a month ago, I realized how much easier it is to talk about History and Memory in German than it is English. German has such good words for memory and remembering. Much better than English. The 'memory boom' Jay Winter speaks to did not leave Germans in a frantic search for a term defining the memories of a group for which English tosses around collective memory and public memory at great debate. Groups, cultures and nations have Gedächtnis. People have Erinnerung. Memorials are Denkmäle. The words for groups remembering and the activities there in, such as memorials, are taken from the word 'to think' and not the word 'to remember'. I feel the challenge of learning how to differentiate these terms and their meanings was worth the depth the language can bring to discussing memory and history. As Winter stated, memories have come to be associated with trauma, the nation, its politics and identity. Germany has a traumatic past and particularly traumatic 20th century, encompassing 7 different political regimes, all of which people still (potentially, depending on life span) have living memory. Now that Germany is reunified, discussions of memory have intensified, particularly wondering how reunified Germany will remember its fragmented past (and present; ask any German, political unity does not mean unity in identities), made even more complicated by their role in the European Union.

I spent the entirety of last year reading Pierre Nora, Halbwachs and Aleida Assmann and Rolf Goeble (some among many) in an attempt to come to terms with how Berliners (and their memories) relate to their communist past. I wish I had read Landsberg's text last year while I spent hours wracking my brain trying to define the memories Berlin's have for a particulars buildings, despite having no living memory of them. I ultimately had no great moment of genius and that section got hacked out of my thesis. While her particular presentation reminds me why I stopped taking English Literature courses freshman year of college, Landsberg's concept of Prosthetic Memory really intrigues me. Cultures and people have memories of events and places of which they have no legitimate experience. Do they thus not count? How these said memories are created and how they shape a person's relation to their own past and history in general is illuminating. In the case of Berlin, people have spent millions upon millions of dollars to tear down one building simply to resurrect another, neither of which they have any living memories. But they have prosthetic memories, created from pictures, news stories, romantic ideals of Prussian exceptionalism and sometimes unreasonable accusations of East German cruelty. In Berlin, one history disappeared, and another has become the sanitized party line because of Prosthetic Memories.

So, in lieu of spending your space and time explaining this whole thing, here's the story of what went down in Berlin. It's hard to get a neutral voice, and the government site isn't ideal (they did vote to destroy the one building, and pay to rebuild the new one) but they are less sensational about it. It's also the only one in English.


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