For our Public Memory and Rhetoric course we read James E. Young’s The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, which was an enjoyable and intelligent investigation into the production and reception of various Holocaust memorials in Germany, Austria, Poland, Israel, and the United States. A few important takeaway thoughts:
“[T]he ‘art of public memory’ encompasses not just these memorials’ aesthetic contours, or their places in contemporary artistic discourse. It also includes the activity that brought them into being, the constant give and take between memorials and viewers, and finally the responses of viewers to their own world in light of a memorialized past—the consequences of memory” (ix).
Young argues that the term “collective memory” is inadequate and prefers the term “‘collective memory,’ the many discrete memories that are gathered into common memorial spaces and assigned common meaning. A society’s memory, in this context, might be regarded as an aggregate collection of its members’ many, often competing memories” (xi).
One of the most striking things to take away from Young’s book is his speculation that it is more useful for a society to constantly debate how to memorialize something than it is to actually build a monument. Memorials may in fact evade memory, and “it may also be true that the surest engagement with memory lies in its perpetual irresolution” (21). Young writes, “the best memorial to the fascist era and its victims in Germany may not be a single memorial at all—but only the never-to-be-resolved debate over which kind of memory to preserve, how to do it, in whose name, and to what end” (81). He asks us to imagine an endless competition, held annually, for proposed memorial designs that would be exhibited for publics to discuss and debate. “Instead of a fixed figure for memory, the debate itself—perpetually unresolved amid ever-changing conditions—would be enshrined” (81).
He notes, “Memory-work becomes unnecessary as long as the material fragments of events continue to function as witness-memorial. Are we delegating to the archivist the memory-work that is ours alone? Do we allow memorials to relieve us of the memory-burden we should be carrying?” (127).
Another interesting discussion from Young’s book is about countermonument. A countermonument, he claims, “forces the memorial to disperse” (46). “It would remind us that the very notion of linear time assumes memory of a past moment: time as the perpetually measured distance between this moment and the next, between the instant and a past remembered. In this sense, the countermonument asks us to recognize that time and memory are interdependent, in dialectical flux” (47). That is, in my understanding, while a monument asks us to remember the past as a moment in the past, a countermonument asks us to consider the act of remembering as a current act. Countermonuments call attention to themselves in way that questions permanency, and “remarks also the inevitable—even essential—evolution of memory over time” (48).