Week 10: Trauma and Oblivion


Many threads today. Many strands. And while I cannot say that I left class with a sense of our having twisted the many strands of our reading and conversation into a tidy rope (equal to supporting our weighty obligations as historians or permitting us to climb towards our high ambition to transcend, if only for a moment, work-a-day historical conventions), there was for me a very definite nexus — a moment that felt to me like a dense little tangle of our themes.

I am thinking of that moment where the gravity and diligence of our earnest effort to attend closely on what might fairly, I think, be called the “primal scene” of modern trauma studies — the collapse of an Auschwitz survivor giving testimony at the Eichmann trial — suddenly exploded (dissolved?) into the glitch-kitsch of our shared twenty-first century information carnival, that twilight zone where the dream of the universal archive regards itself in the fun house mirror of an all-night, all-right global bazaar we call the internet.

How did it happen? Well, first we were trying to understand (with Carolyn Dean) what we might do with the eruption of silence — the unspeakable itself placed before us — in Yehiel De-Nur’s inert body, through whom neither reason nor emotion could pass.



What was (what is) the “witness status” of this absence? In what ways might this moment of self-undoing help us think about the relationship between individual and collective memory (as invoked by Paul Ricoeur in Memory, History, Forgetting)?

So much in all of this! After all, De-Nur, just before standing up and losing consciousness, had been invoking the many eyes that he felt upon him continuously in the wake of the camps — the eyes, we presume of all those who did not survive. The collective was thus, in some sense, present in his individual memory. The collective (or at least a collective) attended on his remembering.

So much to think about. Such an intense moement. Everything in play. Everything at stake.

Well, we reasonably wondered, what did De-Nur himself say about this moment of his collapse? Several of us had seen an allusion to his own later discussion of the collapse on the Wikipedia page that sketches his fascinating (and strange) biography. We opened the page from the display monitor on the screen at the front of the room.

And there was the (remarkable) account: apparently De-Nur had told Mike Wallace in an interview that he had collapsed upon suddenly becoming cognizant that the monstrous killer in the dock was in fact really nothing other than a simple human being, and in this sense, no different from himself — with the implication that he himself, the victim, might really just as easily have been himself the sinister architect of the destruction of European Jewry.

Here is the quote from the web:


Fascinating. Extraordinary. Hard to bear. Shades here of the redemptive (?), secularized (?) “harrowing humanism” that we identified in Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing. Much to think about here.

And then, in a moment of idle click-curiosity I popped open the reference on the Wikipedia page, and then followed the hyperlink. And what popped up but:


Um. Well, some sort of Christian self-help book that I had definitely never heard of and that had (despite its claim to being a bestseller) a rather questionable air, in my view, as a source text on holocaust memory. Certainly room for concern that the “redemptive” hue of De-Nur’s account had been, well, touched up.  Or even painted-on.


Why did this moment feel so significant? After all, it’s quite possible that De-Nur actually did say those things. And it’s also possible that pastor Getz’s book is perfectly reputable (he is also the author of Rich in Every Way: Everything God Says About Money and Possessions, which offers “102 supracultural principles” for handling wealth).

We didn’t do the follow up.

The moment right to that point seemed to want to be held as such — as something to be reckoned with.

I think the reason it felt so significant (to me, anyway) was certainly the sudden juxtaposition of “high” and “low.” But is this even right? No. Not really. It was really more the simple immediacy of the register shift — he jump-cut effect that abounds in the algorithmic search spaces and worm-hole ontologies of the web.

Things in that world (which is our world) so often feel folded, shuffled, and recombined. The giddy pleasure of the ALL at our fingertips cannot but erupt into mad laughter at the bizarre juxtapositions and odd fellow propinquities with which this plenum is liberally laced.

We had flipped from one world to another. And though it is uncommon to have that happen on the blackboard in a graduate seminar in history at Princeton, it is the most common thing in the world in all of our daily lives.

And so this was part of what made the moment feel significant, for me, anyway.

It was almost as if fate had suddenly “voted” for Norman Klein over Paul Ricoeur.

Klein.  With his ellipses and shrugs.  His stunned silences.  His “docufables” and invented memories. All of it haunted by solipsism (if of a rather noble and other-regarding-or-anyway-wish-I-could-really sort [btw, I have to confess I really developed a quiet love for this text]).  Here is just an exemplary snippet:



Ricoeur – Klein / Klein – Ricoeur.  We had already spent a moment on this pairing/antinomy. On the one hand, these were two philosophically-inflected works dealing with history, memory, and forgetting. At certain moments it seemed as if they might fit together like two puzzle pieces. But at the same time could two works be more different? Could two works more completely instantiate incommensurable cosmologies? On the one hand, the magnificent, measured, ruminative, omniscient, and responsible thought-world of Ricoeur (prolix, immersive, tireless, focused). And on the other hand, the demotic-shambolic blatancy of Klein (digressive, polysemic, A.D.D., street-level). On the one hand, the magnificence of the continental philosophical tradition in all its rigor and soulful urgency. On the other, the shattered fragments of critical bricolage left to the hustler-sage. On the one hand, EUROPE (from a Nazi prisoner of war camp to the École Normale Supérieurez). On the other, AMERICA (from immigrant Brooklyn in the 1950s to a taco truck somewhere on Alvarado south of Sunset). On the one hand, the world before the internet. On the other, the world of the internet.

One could feel, for a moment between two worlds. Or perhaps, one could feel like a bi-national, carrying passports for each.

But, in the end, we really do live, increasingly, in Klein’s world.

Loving Ricoeur deeply as I do, when I clicked on that footnote and opened into some weird google books info page about an Evangelical Christian self-help book, I felt a little of Baudelaire’s “love at last sight,” felt for a moment as if I were regarding the thick tome of Memory, History, and Forgetting before me on the desk like the ghost of Persephone, pulled away from me as I looked back over my shoulder.

But that was nothing compared with what came next.

The floor beneath us had not yet truly opened.

That yawning chasm-experience would require Jon noting helpfully/critically/semi-sheepishly that the actual video of De-Nur’s testimony that we had been watching had actually been posted by an internet persona with a rather scarifying goth-Valkyrie handle whose YouTube channel gave ample evidence of his commitment to the wholesale denial of the holocaust as such!

Indeed, that weird moment in the (charismatic, black-and-white) trial footage where suddenly a Buck Rogers polychrome carton flashes a rocket ship and the banner headline PLANET AUSCHWITZ (which I presume most of us let pass, because the internet is weird and one learns to let certain things go by) was in fact promotional material for his broader indictment of the whole “holocaust thing,” which s/he seems to regard as some sort of marginal pseudo-subject along the lines of ufology or moxibustion.

And then… you’re supposed to go back to page 456 of Ricoeur?

But how?


Maybe I am exaggerating, but I really find/found the whole thing very difficult. Though I should be clear:  there is no argument I see that makes Ricoeur’s discourse — his analysis, his perspective, his tools — incapable of handling the conditions, people, and source-problems I am describing. Not at all. Ricoeur has a lot to say about the reliability of witnesses. About the authentication of the documentary basis for historical inquiry, etc.

Intellectually speaking, I don’t see any reason to treat the work as somehow “superseded” by the conditions of the internet and/or the rabbit-holes we suddenly found ourselves contemplating.

But there is a mood thing. A climate. And something didn’t feel right.

Maybe climate really is the right metaphor. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an elephant in any circumstance. The elephant is a big, beautiful creature with a large brain and an extraordinary capacity for social behavior. There would still be something very strange about seeing that elephant step ashore at McMurdo Base in Antarctica. Klein looks like a seal. He can get by in these parts. Ricoeur? I’m not so sure. I am worried. Can we lead that creature to a greenhouse or something?

But all of this is, of course, quite stupid. Ricoeur isn’t going anywhere. Universities provide a distinctive microclimate for the maintenance of exotic flora and fauna. That’s the whole idea. And we did our duty as tenders of that garden. Or we did our best anyway. For nearly three hours. We talked about a number of important themes and features of the text.

A survey of the image of the board (supra) will offer an inventory of our coverage. A full résumé of all that conversation-territory is beyond me. But I will pin up here the aforementioned page 456, the pivot to the extraordinary epilogue on “Difficult Forgiveness”:



I think most of us had felt challenged, as historians, by the invocation of something like an ethical “duty” to forget, but it was difficult not to be moved (or difficult for me not to feel moved, anyway) by the idea that a “happy” (or “correct”?) forgetting must serve as the hinge between justice and amnesty. One senses Ricoeur endeavoring to construct a post-theological and post-metaphysical (and therefore essentially historical) theory of mercy. I cannot say I really get it. But the very idea of it can just about bring a tear to my eye.

No less moving, I think, was the end of Part II, p. 280, upon which we lingered:



“The present image of an absent thing.” This is what we are after. This is what we do/make. If one follows Ricoeur in his careful parsing of the past into “not being any longer” and “having been,” and then closely regards the peculiar status of that which claims to “take the place” or “stand for” something that is past (in this double sense), one can, I believe, experience something of the vertigo that should attend a properly felt reading of the last sentence on page 280.

[A last thought about all of this — about the class as a whole.  It occurred to me after I wrote all of this up.  The remarkable, deranging “This Is Your Life, Hanna Kohner” (which jumps to my top ten list of amazing discoveries in this class [thank you, Jon]) can perhaps be thought of as a kind of exquisite conjunction of Ricoeur and Klein, no?  Here is LA managing to remember the holocaust — via a theatricality of remembrance that is something very close to a total erasure.  It can perhaps be thought of as something like the Hollywood edition of Memory, History, Forgetting.  Incredible.  Anguishing.  At the same time, bizarrely magnificent.  And I mean Hanna Kohner.  For she is “giving witness” in a very real way. And doing so via silence — a silence that could not be more different from De-Nur’s.  But I am not sure it is less affecting.  Or less effective.  She swallows at 9.42 in our video.  Watch it frame by frame.  It is almost impossible to bear.  Here is a still from 9.45:




There was other stuff that happened in our discussion, too. It was interesting to turn the Carolyn Dean piece on some of the moments in Tense Past that exemplify her concerns for what we might call the general “discursive/articulate” biases of commentators and theorists of trauma. And, of course, we had a series (again!) of really superb pre-class posts to get us thinking about all of these questions, both discursively and in other modalities. I am thinking here of Tayor’s images in particular.

And that leads to images. I was very struck by the early part of Ricoeur’s “Memory” section, in particular his discussion of the classical tradition and the eikōn form of our individual memories. Memory as an “image.” An image of a thing/situation/person/action that once was and is no longer. This is the “degree zero” of the historical problem. And I found Ricoeur’s phenomenological approach refreshing and rich. So I went ahead and proposed an exercise.


It went like this: Close your eyes. Call up a “memory.” Anything you like. With the eyes closed, examine this “memory” for seven minutes in the phenomenological mode. Which is to say, attend on it with the sensitive precision of a truly human empiricism (not an empiricism that posits, or permits itself to be contaminated by, any transcendent and/or “objectifying” cant). Attend on it in the hopes of ascertaining how it “presents” or “offers” or “indicates” or “discloses” or “contains” the… well, the memory. A medieval scholastic might have said something like “regard the memory with the ‘mind’s eye.’” What is “there” before the faculty that does the attending?

This was totally optional. Anyone who did not want to do it was free to take the break early. And free to do so once we put our heads down. No shame.

Everyone stayed.

We took notes after.

And then took our break.

And after? We talked about it a bit, but we basically ran out of time.


Documentation, anyone? Optional (and anonymity totally fine).


1)  As fortune would have it, I drove past a fresh (and seemingly fatal) car accident on I-95 en route to our session on “Trauma and Oblivion.” A small car had been torn open, and the driver, a woman of middle age, lay unconscious and bloodied in the rain, unattended, still hung in her seatbelt.  It was very horrible. I chose to work with this “memory image.” There is much to say about the content of the image, on which I have continued to work now for several days.  But I will restrict myself to what I felt I learned about the process of examining the memory as a memory in class. I will restrict myself to two thoughts:

A.  I was struck by the difficulty of escaping from two relations to the memory image:  first, a “forensic” orientation (“were the headlights on?” “what color was her hair?”) — which is the proof-matrix of the “witness” in a juridical setting; and, second, a “psychoanalytic” orientation (“why did you recall the broken axle of the car? what is disclosed by your mind’s having preserved that?”).  Neither of these modes were what I was seeking in the exercise.  But they were nearly impossible to avoid.

B. When I did briefly get clear of those discourses, I found myself becoming aware of two things: first, I had been driving forward as I looked at her, but have no idea what was in front of me (strange to think about, in the context of driving); and, second, I have no idea what was “behind” me (behind my head) as I, driving forward and looking left, regarded her.


2)  I could not make any image come to me.  I wondered whether I have any “images” at all in my memory.  After five minutes of looking for an image in my mind with my eyes closed, I was no longer perfectly certain I knew what an “image” was.


3)  So much “space” between the visible elements of the picture I see in my head.  I am not aware of these missing zones until I really start looking at the memory.


4) I could not extricate the specific memory from thinking about memory itself. The phrase ‘memory palace’ thrummed in the blackout of closed eyes and I felt as though approaching the memory was negotiating a series of rooms. I don’t think I wanted to think about it that way; it would be nice to forget ‘memory palace’ altogether.


5) I had difficulty evoking any particular memory when asked to do so. Rather than to focus on one particular thing, my mind kept skipping around, jumping from one image to the next, going from vague recollections of olfactory or visual experiences of my childhood to more recent, and more vivid, impressions of my recent past, which were nevertheless just as ephemeral and just as hard to capture. After a couple of minutes I gave up, and started thinking about the difficulties I had experienced during this exercise. My problem seems to have been the lack of an “anchor”, of a stable image or sensory experience which I could use as a fundament for a sustained reconstruction of memory. Thinking about DGB’s experience during this exercise, it might be that memory relies upon immediacy- a sense of urgency in the present- in order to be made fruitful. Without any such pressing urgency, my attempts at recollection were futile.


6)  I chose to investigate a (happy) memory which has resisted narrativization more than most in my life, one which I have been unable to contain neatly in a narrative frame. And yet despite or because of its resistant quality, this memory has retained a freshness in my mind, and a physicality, which some otherwise similar memories have lost. During our exercise I found it surprisingly easy to re-embody the self that had lived this memory: to smell, to feel, to taste.

I’ve become increasingly curious during the course of this class about the active role narrativization/emplotment plays in memory and in history.  On the one hand, turning a memory into a story and emplotting it in a larger explanatory framework, placing it within a context, often preserves a memory that would otherwise be lost.  As a verbal and non-visual thinker, most of the most secure memories I have of childhood are ones whose story I’ve told and retold, solidifying it in my mind.  And yet it was palpable to me during our exercise how much I have lost in retelling.

I often think about an exchange that Laura Ingalls Wilder had with her daughter/editor/collaborator Rose Wilder Lane, in which Rose explained why some things that were included in Laura’s recent draft, including fear of rape and an apparently extreme reaction to an attempted and unwanted kiss, as well as more innocuous details, couldn’t be left in the book, despite being true.


(The whole thing is very much worth reading.  See also the New Yorker.)

There’s obvious poliitical content to Rose’s judgment of what was and was not a plausible story to tell about fear and sexual assault, but underneath that, there’s a real truth.  What can work in a story, even the kind of “non-fictional” story that almost invisibly underpins a work of academic history, is not identical, or even necessarily closely related to, what can happen in life.

7. I posted my dream exercise (anachronically, since it pertains to Ankersmit) in week 12! -JPO

8. When I close my eyes to remember, I don’t see, instead I hear: usually my own voice. My words narrate the past. Perhaps because of this, I used our time in class to ruminate over a sonic memory: the last time I talked on the phone with my mother. Until last Friday we had been fighting. Or at least not talking. Then I called her and we reconciled. The emotional redolence of this conversation failed, however, to burn an image into my mind’s eye. Nevertheless, I know that as we talked I was lying in bed, looking at my ceiling. I am now typing, sitting on the same bed. Soon, I will use my phone to catch an image of the ceiling. Presumably, the same image that my mind failed to capture. – BLimg_6778


In June of 2015, I prepared to leave my long-term residence in Hong Kong for graduate school. In the midst of packing and the usual farewell to friends, however, I felt a sudden urge to document my surroundings. That the environment I had come to know during the past two years of work––the city streets, buildings, landscape––would all disappear in a matter of days threw me into a kind of panic. I struggled with how I could record the city and, more importantly, archive my own intimate relationship with these once-foreign settings.

After an extended period of deliberation, I set out to photograph a series of spaces within Hong Kong that I felt were personally significant. For me, this significance was not a matter of environmental beauty or daily proximity, but rather that each space had been the setting for some kind of personally transformative event during my stay within the city. At the time, I didn’t fully understand why this empirical record seemed so urgent, particularly when many of these locales were surprisingly banal––the upper deck of a passenger ferry, a nondescript park bench, or the interior of an office kitchen, for example. Yet, upon completing the project, there was undeniably an emotional charge within the photographs. Each depicts a largely unremarkable space without occupants, and only gestures at the highly specific (and now phantom) events which transpired within the chosen environment.

In reading Ricoeur this week, I was struck by the author’s notion of trace, a term which can be segmented into three principal types. As Ricoeur writes, “as early as the commentary on the texts of Plato and Aristotle that I invoked the metaphor of the wax imprint, I proposed distinguishing three sorts of traces: the written trace, which has become the documentary trace on the plane of the historiographical operation; the physical trace, which can be termed impression rather than imprint, impression in the sense of an affection left in us by a marking––or as we say striking––event; finally, the cerebral, cortical trace which the neurosciences deal with” (415).

Where both the written trace and cerebral trace arguably have much to do with a somewhat empirical, and non-experiential record of history and events, the physical trace “is entirely different. It is much more deeply concealed. One speaks of it only retrospectively on the basis of precise experiences which have as their model the recognition of images of the past. These experiences make us think, after the fact, that many memories, perhaps among the precious, childhood memories, have not been definitively erased but simply rendered inaccessible, unavailable, which makes us stay that one forgets less than one thinks or fears” (416).

In looking back at this photographic documentation, and having wrestled with Ricoeur for the better part of two weeks, it seems clear that I, in photographing a highly specific sequence of spaces in Hong Kong, was attempting to preserve discrete keys to Ricoeur’s idea of the physical trace. The photographs, in other words, were not important insofar as they serve as objective records. Rather, the photographs serve as points of entry––with their precise framing, lighting, and composition––to my own intangible experiences within each setting; the unflinching detail contained within each photograph only aims to heighten the efficacy and potency of this access.

As Ricoeur succinctly writes, “the key experience, we have just said, is that of recognition. I speak of it as a minor miracle. It is indeed in the moment of recognition that the present image is held to be faithful to the initial affection, to the shock of the event. Where the neurosciences speak simply of reactivating traces, the phenomenologist, being instructed by lived experience, will speak of a persistence of the original impression” (416). In this way, the photographs would allow me to relive highly specific events within each space, ensuring a reproducible and infallible access to these delicate and prized memories, without the risk of these remembrances falling into oblivion.

Yet in reading Antze and Lambek’s Tense Past, in addition to Klein’s The History of Forgetting, it became obvious that there were many spaces within Hong Kong that I actively chose not to document. It is not that these undocumented spaces were all unimportant, or were not worthy of photographic record; rather, the sequence of images I collected was as much a collective fiction as documentary fact. While there was undoubtedly an urge to capture the specific, unaltered details of certain spaces, the compilation itself is fictive, imaginary, illusory; key moments––painful, undesirable, and uncertain memories, particularly events that I desired to leave behind––were inconspicuously left out of the final sequence of images, instead relegated to the “endless abyss” (413) of my own forgetting.

Paul Antze is particularly explicit regarding this editing of one’s own history. In his essay “Telling Stories, Making Selves,” Antze again references Ricoeur, but this time connecting memory to the construction of one’s identity. “Ricoeur argues that we know ourselves as distinct from others and as continuous over time only through a process he calls emplotment, a perpetual weaving and reweaving of past and present events into characters, motives, situations, actions. In effect we are characters in a story that we keep revising as our lives unfold” (6). It had never occurred to me that this compilation of photographs was a means for me to construct an identity, to somehow summarize my time in Hong Kong––but yet, upon further reflection, it is precisely that.

Ultimately bound into a book and arranged in chronological order of experience, the images now reflect moments that I consider constitutive of my own identity. Those episodes and events deemed unacceptable, however, for a myriad of reasons, were left on the cutting room floor. As Antze and Lambek write in the preface to Tense Past, “forgetting here is as much an active process as remembering; both require effort and energy. Identity of any kind requires steering a course between holding on and letting go. Identity is not composed of a fixed set of memories but lies in the dialectical, ceaseless activity of remembering and forgetting, assimilating and discarding” (xxix).

The collection of images, thus, is both a chance for preservation and for deliberate abandon. As per Klein’s relay of Kafka’s quotation, “we photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds” (16), to free recollections from the inaccuracy and corruptibility of memory. In this sense, while the final compendium serves as both personal archive and access to Ricoeur’s notion of the physical trace, it oscillates between a record of unflinching accuracy and complete fiction. It weaves together a collection of keys to discrete physical traces into a new, alternate history, a desired sequence of events specific to my experience within Hong Kong.







– TC

I wanted to provide some context for, and reflections on, the film clips below:

Clip 1: This scene is an interview from the French documentarist Claude Lanzmann’s eight-hour-long 1985 documentary Shoah (Hebrew for “catastrophe” and the Holocaust). Jan Karski, a Pole, was an underground courier for the Polish government in exile, based in London. In 1942, he was given the dangerous opportunity to write an eyewitness report of the deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to death camps such as Treblinka. He voluntarily entered, putting himself at risk as a spy. For this and other acts has been hailed as a Polish resistance hero. He later became a professor of international studies at Georgetown.

The early minutes of Lanzmann’s interview with Karski include shots of communist-era apartment blocks in contemporary Warsaw, which were built over the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. At its peak, the ghetto contained 400,000 Jews in 1.3 square miles—cramming 30% of the population of Warsaw into 2.5% of its area, and making it the largest ghetto in Europe by both size and population. Yet of this large area surrounded by high walls in the center of the city, only two small sections of the original wall remain today, in the courtyard of an unsuspecting apartment complex, which I visited last year. In the picture below, you see the wall fragment decorated with flowers as a memorial site. I particularly like that the hubristically-named communist-era Palace of Culture is visible in the background. Virtually all the other traces of the ghetto were destroyed when the last inhabitants of the ghetto staged an uprising against the Germans, who crushed the uprising with a systematic demolition of the entire ghetto through fire-bombing and shelling. The fate of the ghetto mirrors that of Warsaw as a whole: About 90% of the city was in ruins by the end of the war. When Soviet troops captured a devastated Warsaw in January, 1945, only about 174,000 people (11,500 of them Jews) were left in the city, less than 6% of the prewar population of nearly 3 million. This systematic destruction pales in historical comparison to the systematic destruction of the Jews. Yet the fact that we are left with so few tokens or footholds for memory today perhaps explains much of the marginalization of the Holocaust in Poland since the end of the war, as is seen in the adage still invoked by Poland’s right-wing government today: “3 million Poles, 3 million Jews.” This invokes a false equivalence of Nazi extermination, for the respective death rates by the end of the war were something like 10% for Poles to over 90% for Jews.


Lanzmann’s Shoah has long been praised as a mode of Holocaust representation for its unwillingness to recreate the past in the style of famously gaudy Hollywood films like Schindler’s List. Lanzmann includes only interviews, and many hours of Shoah are shot in green, grassy fields on the now-inconspicuous sites of former concentration camps and killing centers. His filmic strategy highlights the limitations of accessing the past: We cannot know how it really was, for we are left not even with ruins—which were by and large erased by the Nazis in 1945—but only with memory traces of ruins. I wrote an essay about my own visit to Auschwitz some years ago (drawing upon Kugelmass’s cynical essay in Tense Past on concentration camp tourism and rituals of performative victimhood), in which I grappled with this issue: When one visits Auschwitz today, one walks upon manicured lawns and neatly swept paths lined by flowers, not the knee-deep mud and filth described vividly by survivors. Because Auschwitz was an experience, not just a place, we cannot return to it today. To take this argument to its extreme, as Lanzmann does, the Holocaust is thus necessarily lost to oblivion. A recent controversy in which the Auschwitz Museum erected outdoor showers to cool overheated guests speaks to the power of forgetting despite the very best of intentions.


Clip 2: This scene is a clip from the 1960–61 trial of Adolf Eichmann, an SS officer and the mastermind behind the massive logistical operations entailed in the Holocaust. After Eichmann was kidnapped by Israeli police in Argentina, his trial was conducted in Israel and televised worldwide in what Hannah Arendt famously called a “show trial” and a mockery of justice, though she agreed with the verdict that Eichmann be hanged for crimes against humanity. Hundreds of survivors testified in what became one of the first mass public recognitions of the genocide of European Jewry. Yahiel De-Nur was a survivor of Auschwitz who wrote about his experience under the pseudonym Ka-Tzetnik 135633, which stood for KZ (Konzentrationslager) and the prisoner number tattooed on his arm.

Carolyn Dean’s article on erasure in Holocaust testimony speaks directly on the moments of repression, stumbling, interruption, and uncontrollable emotion in Karski’s testimony. These blockages in traumatic testimony are brought to their apotheosis when De-Nur faints while delivering part of his testimony. Dean’s argument is that these stumblings and outbursts have equal testimonial power with respect to the experience of the Holocaust as the profound spiritual and philosophical narratives we celebrate from survivors such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Dean prompts us to rethink the fact that historians have tended to discount testimony they perceive as excessively emotional and hence less valuable in favor of stoic, profound accounts, which are often geared toward satisfying our desire for heroic tales of redemption that uphold our sense of 1) human dignity in the midst of suffering and 2) the absolute innocence of victims (even if this means problematically negating their agency). For this reason historians have tended to prefer male testimonies, which bias the literature in favor of narratives of stoic resistance and insightful contemplation in lieu of traumatized responses. Yet if it is the experience of trauma we are after, both kinds of testimony have much to tell us. As Dean concludes: “When they write the history of emotional traumas, it is crucial that historians become conscious of their own affective responses to victims and recognize that pursuing one kind of truth may well lead to the neglect of the very voices they seek to recuperate” (409).

Clip 3: I included this American television episode, broadcast in May 1953, as the perfect foil to the palpably traumatic testimonies above. Hanna Kohner was by some accounts the first Holocaust survivor living in the US whose story became widely known in this country. Yet here Hanna is hardly allowed to tell her own story. To situate this show historically, the discourse then available to discussing and imagining her experience are by today’s standards grossly inadequate to representing her trauma. The conditions of speakability are such that are such victim’s voice is not yet valued or heard. Bear in mind that the very term “Holocaust,” signifying a discrete genocide apart from the rest of the suffering of WWII, was not popularly used until the 1970s; there is not yet even a name for what Hanna endured, something most viewers had likely heard of but could not yet imagine for themselves as we can today. Hanna is urged by the postwar “American Dream” spirit of the television show she finds herself on to forget her trauma and cover it up with happy smiles. Most problematically to my mind, the show entirely elides American complicity in this era and casts American forces as Hanna’s liberators. No mention is made of the restrictive quotas that limited immigration to the U.S. for Jews in Hanna’s exact position. In 1938, there were over 300,000 visa applications from persecuted European Jews for 27,000 visas, a number which was not increased. The fate of the ship St. Louis further suggests American responsibility for the fate of many thousands of Jews that could have been saved: In 1939 the U.S. refused to let this ship carrying 908 Jewish refugees dock in Florida, directing it back to the European continent, where 254 of its passengers were eventually murdered.

These lines sent chills down my spine: “On May 7, 1945: V for Victory as the camp is liberated by General Patton and his American army, a day you and your fellow prisoners at Mauthausen will never forget! Hanna, the nightmare you lived for seven years is at an end as an American army truck rolls to stop before the prison gates….Out of the darkness of terror and despair a new life has been born, a new world for you. Hanna Kohner, this is your life.” Hardly a passing mention is made of the fact that most of Hanna’s family, including her parents, were murdered—though one can see this in Hanna’s pained expression at several moments. Nor is it mentioned that she had to have an illicit abortion in Auschwitz in order to save herself from the gas chamber, after which she had eight miscarriages before having a daughter. The narrative we are fed is nothing but a sanitized shell of what is no doubt a deeply traumatized life.

I see the ending of this show as a dystopic-capitalistic spin on the book of Job, where Job’s family is exterminated in a cruel test of faith by God, but, owing to Job’s faith, God luckily makes everything well again by giving Job a new family with twice as many children (and much more beautiful ones) as before, twice as much gold, twice as many sheep, and a blessing to boot. “The never-to-be-forgotten tragic experiences of your life, Hanna, have been tempered by the happiness you’ve found here in America,” the host says. But how many charm bracelets, jeweled lipsticks, and Hollywood parties would it take for Hanna to forget? – JC

One particular interest in reading Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting is the conception of how memory could be ideologized and embodied. In page 85 he writes:

“Memory can be ideologized through the resources of the variations offered by the work of narrative configuration. And, as the characters of the narrative are emplotted at the same time the story is told, the narrative configuration contributes to modeling the identity of the protagonists of the action as it molds the contours of the action itself. The narrative, Hannah Arendt reminds us, recounts the “who of action.” It is, more precisely, the selective function of the narrative that opens to manipulation the opportunity and the means of a clever strategy, consisting from the outset in a strategy of forgetting as much as in a strategy of remembering. We will account for this in the thematic study reserved for forgetting. However, it is on the level where ideology operates as a discourse justifying power, domination, that the resources of manipulation provided by narrative are mobilized. Domination, we have understood, is not limited to physical constraint. Even the tyrant needs a rhetorician, a sophist, to broadcast his enterprise of seduction and intimidation in the form of words. The narrative imposed in this way then becomes the privileged instrument of this twofold operation. Even the surplus value that ideology adds to the belief offered by the governed in responding to the claim of legitimacy made by the governing body presents a narrative texture: stories of founding events, of glory and humiliation, feed the discourse of flattery or of fear. It thus becomes possible to account for the express abuses of memory on the level of the effect of distortion belonging to the phenomenal level of ideology”.

With this idea in mind, I turn to Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future and how she described the remembering and forgetting of actions, events, notions and knowledge that nobody expected at the time they happened. Remember and forgetting could only be understood in some other temporalities, especially in the future, building up other histories, other bodies and other genealogies:

“…the treasure was lost not because of historical circumstances and the adversity of reality but because no tradition had foreseen its appearance or its reality, because no testament had willed it for the future. The loss, at any rate, perhaps inevitable in terms of political reality, was consummated by oblivion, by a failure of memory, which befell not only the heirs but, as it were, the actors, the witnesses, those who for a fleeting moment had held the treasure in the palms of their hands, in short, the living themselves”. (pp. 5-6).

In other words, memory is always a political action. The past and the present are not enough. In order to reconstruct memory, oblivion, and history it’s not only essential to look for the past events but their projection into the future; not only in the possible subjects that were the protagonists, but the future bodies that could narrate unexpected or unwanted stories. “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again,” Benjamin wrote. In this sense, I thought of Félix González-Torres, self-described as a  “Latino –Cuban- immigrant and person of color, queer, HIV positive, intellectual, a feminist, and an unapologetic leftist.” His work denounced anti-immigration positions and the racialized immigrant body as an infectious agent (until the mid-eighties, AIDS/HIV patients were pigeonholed as “homosexuals, hemophiliacs, Haitians and heroin addicts”). González-Torres tried to tell this history in installations like Untitled, (North), 1993, where the flickering light strings symbolized the status of queer lives in the middle of an epidemic crisis: an army of ghosts trying to recover their own history and tell a possible future. -ILM


 Félix González-Torres, Untitled(North), 1993.



So let our three-masted ship sail! (Ricoeur, xvii)

This may be too utilitarian an approach to something like Ricoeur, but since it was my first time reading it, and I had been warned that it would be a difficult book, I approached it like I would a manual. DGB often asks us to “roll up our sleeves” – I like this metaphor because (NLRB rulings and the politics of graduate student labour aside) history-doing is work. That is to say, considering knowledge production in the historical mode, and sitting down to do it is creative and difficult work, in a mundane sense in terms of time and energy spent, but in another, older sense as well. The figure of “the historian” is invoked repeatedly in the books we have read, and most strikingly for me, in Memory, History, Forgetting. We can, and do, historicize this figure, and place them in conversation with others in a genealogy of thought, whereby linear time and the progressive accumulation of knowledge allows us a kinship and shared purpose with those who have spent time in our guild (allow me, for a moment, the romance of a guild of historians stretching backwards and forwards through time, despite what we know about the professionalization of the field and the corporate university in our neoliberal present).


This illustration from a fourteenth-century manuscript shows Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna.  
Artist: Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK, Berlin/Staatliche Museen 
Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 1233

And so “the historian” does their work, and Ricoeur, in Part II, delves into the epistemology of history-doing, in three phases: the documentary phase, the explanatory phase, and the phase of representation or inscription. It is with the last phase that I would like to spend some time, as my preoccupation in our seminar has been this very problem: history, if we can limit it for a moment, as circumscribed (!) it as something enacted by the task and medium of writing. Ricoeur helps us with this.

“Writing, in effect, is the threshold of language that historical knowing has already crossed, in distancing itself from memory to undertake the threefold adventure of archival research, explanation, and representation” (Ricoeur, 138).


[add to dictionary – neologism accommodated – threshold of language breached]

Writing takes up space. Writing by people in power takes up even more. It can drown out the din of the past, and allow us to listen, placated, to a strain of music that rises above the cacophony. In Multidirectional Memory (thank you, JC!) Michael Rothberg argues that for a particular context, today’s multicultural society, competitive memory as a contest between remembrance of the Holocaust and of colonial/racial violence is fundamentally flawed. He argues that collective memory need not be competitive, part of a “zero-sum struggle over scarce resources” but could be multidirectional, “subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; as productive…” (3).

Here, he is talking of public commemorations, commentators, and citizens – people who experience “collective memory” but who may not necessarily write about it.

I attended a talk yesterday about the aftermath of the First World War, in which the author of a book on the losing states made arguments for the significance of his contribution and the centrality of his argument in comparative terms. More people died in the civil wars and unrest that followed Armistice Day in central and eastern Europe than the war dead of Britain, France, and the United States, he said. More Finns died as a proportion of their population in the Finnish Civil War in three short months than in the trenches. There was no escalation in quantitative or qualitative terms of violence in the colonial sphere after the Armistice, whereas in the losing states of the First World War, there was. I am not faulting the author for putting it in these terms, but I am just curious about the claim to significance made this way. Collective/competitive memory indeed.

(Aside: if you would like to see a draft of a truly bizarre paper I wrote during my undergrad for a politics course that required quantitative methods, I have linked it here: national-identity. See the methods section and appendix for the graphs of values I assigned representations of national identity in newspapers covering WWI commemorations. I got an A-minus.)

The peculiarity of a subject of study, and the strength of one’s prose, and the provocative thrust of one’s argument – these are the markers of success as a professional historian. But what of the eikon then? What of the “present image of an absent thing?” (Ricoeur, 139).

I did not expect Ricoeur to be so straightforward as this in answering questions I have had all semester:

“The assertive vehemence of the historian’s representation as standing for the past is authorized by nothing other than the positivity of the “having been” intended across the negativity of the “being no longer” (280).

What a tidy solution!

And yet:

“Here, we have to admit, the epistemology of historiographical operation reaches its internal limit in running against the borders of an ontology of historical being” (280).

More work lies ahead.




I’ll deal briefly with the secondary reading for this week, as we have plenty on Ricoeur above, and then turn to how I think the presentation of trauma could be altered in documentary, especially to serve the agenda of this class.

As Jon has told us, Rothberg and Dean adopt distinct approaches to collective memory, respectively dealing with Holocaust trauma and how it’s registered with eyes on postcolonial conflict and public expectations tied in with gender. Also, whereas Rothberg mainly takes aim at the notion of finite public space, where sectional memories jostle for ‘preeminence’, Dean looks at the nuts and bolts of extracting oral testimony. What reading these together illuminated for me, however, was how to manage ‘memory’ in the space between these two conceptual scales. Between individual testimonies, and the archives they together form.

One such in-between is the constituent role that interview has in testimony. Here I’d like to make a leap into broadcast interviews. Those conducting them often wish to background themselves in the end product, staying behind the camera and cutting beyond their own interjections. This is often done with the best, audience-focused intentions – ‘I’m not interesting to the viewer’; ‘Putting me in this isn’t credible’ – but this is a norm in documentary film that fundamentally obscures trauma and recall as purely introspective phenomena, rather than processes that are specifically social. So in-place of what we might see passing between interviewer and interviewee, contained together in the same shot, a bland hermeneutic of personal drama can Polyfilla ‘what’s going on’ where a close-up is concerned. This is instead of presenting the interview along with the subject.

In Shoah we are invited to see Jan Karski’s testimony in dramatic terms. He reattempts a description of the ghetto, after he is unable to follow himself into the story first time round. Before walking out down the corridor, we are to understand he’s incapacitated by self-reflection, unable to talk anymore. We are invited to consider the past taking a physical hold of him. We are shown the ramp to his second round with this personal demon, as he walks down the corridor back towards the chair. In this, the interviewer is seen benignly sipping coffee. The camera crew is deleted.

By turns we think of ourselves rather than the crew as a subject’s audience, with, at-best, the interviewer shown as our embodiment at the scene, sometimes asking things we want to know but otherwise, like us, just sat listening. The close-up provides an illusory sense that this is a performance of sorts by Karski, rather than a reaction to a question that is also battling against the alien structures of a film set. The abysmal gaze of cameras. The unnatural, leveling flush of lights. As a result, interviews with survivors and perpetrators are seductive because we are shown something like the past animating people in the present, as subjects variously cringe around recollections of a traumatic event. This is seldom a trauma in which the documentary is shown to participate, and usually a drama where the past is conjured up, but its true conjurors – the documentary team – are hidden from view.

In a class considering history by other forms, I think we should take Karski’s interview as typical of how trauma and memory is presented in filmed interviews. To turn for the second time to Steve McQueen: I wonder if the kind of shot we see in Hunger between Bobby Sands and the Priest might put these things in light of a present moment, rather than a mythology of the past revisiting someone, as it were, ‘unconjured’. The purpose of this aesthetic would not be to expose some iniquity in the interview, so much as the fact of the interview itself. I’ve always felt that we are often shown a subject speaking to us, and left to imagine what the ‘interview’ was like. If we are to imagine what an ‘alternative’ history of trauma or memory would look like, I would suggest this is one way in which we could examine their social dimensions, having imagined them previously as interior, visible only through the translucence of someone’s behaviour. In this fallacy, traditional forms like Lanzmann’s participate by showing us only the solitary, haunted individual. – JTD



Readings for the Tenth Class:

Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting 

[This is a very demanding book — Jon, Disha, and Ivan propose focusing on: Part III, ch. 3, on forgetting and oblivion (pp. 412–456); Part II, on history, the archive, mentalities/experience, representation (pp. 133–280); and Part I, ch. 2 and 3, on personal and collective memory (pp. 56–132).  But it should be underscored that if you have no exposure to Husserl and the phenomenological tradition, this is going to be really hard.  Here is what I would say: we are not philosophers; work with the book, and come in with some sense of what is going on — we need to be ready to work with it together.  The real test isn’t “mastery” — it is the ability to do something good. -DGB]

Antze and Lambek, eds., Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory


Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory

Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (ch. 1 here)

Carolyn Dean, “Erasures and Emotions in Writing Holocaust Trauma,” in Science and Emotions after 1945: A Transatlantic Perspective, ed. Biess and Gross.

Film clips:

Jan Karski in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) (10 mins)

Yehiel De-Nur at the Eichmann Trial (1961) (10 mins)

“This Is Your Life, Hanna Kohner” (1953) (25 mins)