But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right. As I see it, the connection to the past that I define as postmemory is mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation. It is to be shaped, however indirectly, by traumatic fragments of events that still defy narrative reconstruction and exceed comprehension. These events happened in the past, but their effects continue into the present. Are there personal stakes for you?

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Postmemory as Trauma? In literary criticism the concept has been mobilized as an authoritative endorsement of the social and psychological benefits of historical fiction. This article proposes that postmemory is divested of the trappings of trauma theory as a countermeasure against exaggerated claims for the value of historical fiction.

In the context of contemporary fiction on the Spanish Civil War, the article illustrates the merits of this revised understanding of postmemory, which opens up a critical space for scholars to hold historical novelists to account. Scholars of artistic works concerning the bloody episodes of twentieth-century history occasionally draw on postmemory simply as an adjunct among the panoply of theories wielded in defense of their object of study.

If the trauma inflicted by the Holocaust, the Second World War, and the Spanish Civil War is still felt today, three-quarters of a century on, then works of art that concern themselves with these historical moments can be justified as socially and psychologically beneficial.

This article critiques the ways in which the concept of postmemory has been used to defend the psychological and social significance of historical fiction. In the s trauma theory gained traction in Holocaust studies as a means of legitimizing the testimony of survivors. Trauma theory urged a disregard for the criteria of reliability and accuracy, treating testimony not as a typical historical source but as an alternative, tortured system of knowledge about the past.

Postmemory expands the authority of the witness to encompass those with no direct experience of the historical atrocities they narrate. This article questions the rationale for this transference of testimonial authority from ancestors to their descendants. The phenomenon of postmemory as Hirsch describes it is to a certain extent incompatible with the concept of trauma. We will see that postmemory as an artistic process must be understood in terms of activism and not as the result of a psychological wound whose aftereffects are still felt by later generations.

The third part of the article outlines the consequences of the flawed equivalence of postmemory and trauma for literary criticism. Using works of contemporary literature on the Spanish Civil War as examples, this final section illustrates how the interpretation of postmemory as a kind of trauma leads to fallacious assumptions regarding the impact of historical novels.

Conflating postmemory with trauma can induce critics to approach the genre of historical fiction with a certain reverence. A revised understanding of postmemory as activism can help us to analyze literary uses of the past in a more critical vein. Instead of lavishing our approval indiscriminately on historical novels as though they were an unquestionable boon for society, we can begin to gauge the effects of these fictions against the intention of their authors and likewise distinguish between more and less productive attitudes toward the past.

Mathieu Ducournau, jeune femme, x cm, She uses the concept of postmemory to illustrate how the trauma of distant historical events lingers on in new generations who have no direct experience of those events. Manuel and Nadia are hounded by the wartime experiences of their parents.

Manuel spends his life fleeing from the same ghosts that torment his parents. But to interpret El jinete polaco as a portrayal of how the trauma of the civil war is transmitted to subsequent generations of the same family imposes some conceptual problems 6.

To begin with, it is difficult to envisage how Manuel and Nadia might have inherited a trauma. It is clear that this scholar has in mind a rather more generalized idea of trauma as something that affects not just Manuel and Nadia but rather the entirety of the society they inhabit: The effort presented in this novel [El jinete polaco] by the two protagonists can be seen as emblematic of the long journey that post-Franco Spanish society has undertaken.

Here, two fictional characters are held as representative of a society. She does not explain exactly how these historical novels can help to alleviate the presumed trauma of their readers. When postmemory is mobilized in support of a hypothetical social trauma that is passed down through the generations, the concept is in danger of resembling a overly simplistic formula for understanding literature and its relationship with the past: events long ago have left us traumatized, our parents and us in their wake, but if we read these novels we can be healed and settle our debt with the past.

In the second part of this article we will see that Hirsch advocates postmemory precisely as a form of resistance against the self-satisfied presumption that the past can ever be laid to rest. Postmemory does not aspire to neat and gratifying conclusions but rather aims to leave audiences with the unease of discovering that history — above all the history of events of extreme violence and suffering — leaves loose ends and gaps that no account is able to tie neatly together and fill.

Hirsch pays close attention to the impact of artistic works on spectators and readers. More than the idea that these works communicate historical facts, Hirsch is interested in the ways in which they do so.

Postmemory is not inherent in artistic works. It is not simply a traumatic event that is disseminated through the medium of art; it encapsulates an ideal of ethical commitment to the past.

His promising academic career in Spain was ruined but he came out of the calamity alive. The repetition compulsion diagnosed by psychoanalysis is a product of the unconscious. El siglo is a study of the amoral upbringing that might induce a man to become an informer They obey an ethical imperative of a distinctive nature.

The concept of inherited trauma, instead of shedding light on the hidden motives underlying the decision to write about the past, can lead to mistaken conclusions that contradict other, more compelling textual evidence regarding authorial intention. However, in her more recent work on postmemory published in , Hirsch is careful not to lend too much credence to the idea that trauma can travel from one generation to the next It is to be shaped, however indirectly, by traumatic fragments of events that still defy narrative reconstruction and exceed comprehension Yet even as Hirsch insists on the proximity of this onerous past, she underscores the distance that separates the new generation from it.

She uses scare quotes with the word remember and italics for seem. Her definition does not lose sight of the fact that postmemory describes a connection with the past that is indirect, mediated by the imagination and desire, no matter how oppressive and close it may feel.

Far from being a synonym for inherited trauma, which is how the term is often used in literary studies, postmemory describes a yearning to reconnect with the past. Unlike trauma, the process Hirsch depicts is not a drive to avoid or an incapacity to face a debilitating experience but rather the urge to embrace it.

Her theorization of the concept includes the supposition that postmemory manifests itself in a series of psychological and even physical symptoms exhibited by the children of survivors of catastrophic experiences. Although she recognizes the problems this hypothetical symptomatology entails, for example the risk that children usurp the victimhood of their parents, Hirsch presupposes the existence of a social group that in some way shares the painful experiences of their parents The title of her study alludes to this social entity: a new generation that relates to the disturbing past of their forerunners as intensely as if this past were their own.

According to this second meaning, postmemory characterizes how the past is communicated to the descendants of survivors and to the rest of society.

It is this second sense conveyed by the term that provides a more coherent basis for a less reverential and more effective critical practice that can be applied to the literary representation of the past. In an account of the personal motivations for her work in memory studies Hirsch grants a privileged status to her zeal as an activist more than to any trauma that she might have suffered as the daughter of Jews who survived persecution in Romania during the Second World War and escaped deportation.

It promised to propose forms of justice outside of the hegemonic structures of the strictly juridical Hirsch is motivated predominantly by ethical concerns. She aspires to defend the interests of the weak and oppressed. She conceives of her intellectual work as a form of social activism and upholds her commitment to righting injustices. There is a curious alchemy at work here whereby postmemory, through the creative works in which it is channeled, is able to transform a painful and destructive past into something socially beneficial.

Seen in this light, postmemory seems to have little in common with the notion of inherited trauma. Mathieu Ducournau, Oiseau 3, x cm, These structures are generally aesthetic: they are imaginative written or visual works.

Sometimes they are institutional, for example a museum, or technological, like a website Hirsch envisages these structures as means of repairing the links with a past that have been broken by discontinuities in the passage of individual to collective memory. At its core, postmemory constitutes a defense of the relevance and social impact of certain artistic activities. Postmemory stretches the temporal boundaries of historical events, investing them with a contemporary relevance that moves beyond the transcendence they had for the historical actors who were originally implicated.

That is, postmemory, according to Hirsch, allows those who were not present during the Holocaust to know what it is like to be the child of someone who was.

By generating this experiential knowledge through works of art, postmemory enables the memory of the experience to live on: Postmemorial work [ In these ways, less directly affected participants can become engaged in the generation of postmemory that can persist even after all participants and even their familial descendants are gone Postmemory is the process by which the experience of traumatized individuals can be communicated to a wider audience.

The aesthetic structures on which this process depends do not aspire to transmit the original trauma, which would be difficult to conceive in any literal sense, but simply to disseminate historical awareness among spectators and readers.

This interpretation of postmemory as a medium for generating a heightened consciousness of the past not only helps to avoid the fallacy of insisting that the trauma of our ancestors is able to interpellate us in the present, but also serves to open a space for critical reflection on how historical knowledge is transmitted to subsequent generations.

It is as though the simple act of recreating a historical episode were enough to garner praise for a novelist. But not all recreations of the past are valuable. Literature can serve undisclosed interests, alleviate a sense of responsibility and guilt, promote self-satisfaction and complacency. There is a risk that postmemory could absolve literary critics of their duty to question how and why artists use the past.

If postmemory is understood as an enduring social trauma and writing as an alleviating and expiatory act in service of the community, then works of art are imbued with an unquestionable social value.

Instead of the subject of analysis, such artworks are liable to become the object of idolatry. However, if we focus on the secondary interpretation of postmemory as the set of aesthetic structures that serve as intermediaries between the past and contemporary readers, the possibility of critiquing the ways in which historical knowledge is propagated is suddenly made available.

If our access to the past depends on imaginative works, the creators of these works have a social responsibility that must be overseen by those who study them. If art is no longer simply an act of catharsis for those who consider themselves affected by atrocities perpetrated long ago but is rather charged with the generation of historical consciousness, the duty of cultural scholars must be to question the function of this access to the past, to evaluate how it is achieved, and to determine its impact on readers.

Whereas the equation of postmemory with trauma steers us in the direction of simply assuming the social relevance of works of art concerning the past, an interpretation of postmemory as the generation of historical consciousness compels us to consider social relevance as a quality that must be argued for based on the analysis of the aesthetic and ethical properties of individual works.

In her analysis of visual art on the Holocaust, Hirsch denounces the tendency to infantilize and feminize victims and warns of the concomitant danger of depicting perpetrators with hypermasculine and depersonalized features She illustrates how these visual tropes of infantilization and depersonalization influence contemporary audiences when they view images of Holocaust atrocities taken by the perpetrators themselves.

She gives the example of the photograph of a boy in the Warsaw ghetto, an image that has gained an iconic status in Holocaust studies and that originated in the Stroop report, which was drawn up by the Nazi authorities to document the destruction of the ghetto. Hirsch observes how the editing and cropping of such images can have attenuating effects. Some reproductions of the photograph are centered solely on the boy and isolate him from his surroundings, hiding the Nazi soldiers that can be seen in the original image.

By focusing on the boy these cropped images divorce the victim from his historical context. He is transformed into a symbol, an abstract representation of victimhood. The specificity of the historical moment is eclipsed by the universal; the Jewish boy becomes an innocent everyman in the face of nameless evil. The technique of cropping is not unique to the reproduction of visual images. Some of the most celebrated historical novels of the last couple of decades in Spain use similar methods in their portrayal of the victims of the civil war.

We can see these methods at work in some of the novels of the so-called historical memory boom. Novels associated with this movement are advertised as recovering the memory of Republican victims of the war. In such cases readers are not encouraged to approach history with an inquisitive frame of mind; there is little concern with expanding their knowledge or stimulating their interest in unknown events. The past simply constitutes a showcase of cruelty, a distant world with little apparent connection to our own.

Any ambiguity is lost: we rarely find complex characters struggling to make sense of a chaotic world turned upside down and forced to decide their path at a crossroad of clashing ideologies and incompatible world views.

Instead there are just the goodies versus the baddies, the former imploring our sympathy and the latter our revulsion. In this prizewinning novel that reached an even wider popular audience through its film adaptation, the civil war is reduced to a backdrop against which a series of tearjerking tragedies unfold. The political, social, and economic factors at stake in the conflict are drowned out in a collection of heartrending fictional vignettes.

In Los girasoles ciegos the war is fought off-stage; readers witness its devastating effects on a number of innocent individuals.


Marianne Hirsch

The Generation of Postmemory argues we can: that memories of traumatic events live on to mark the lives of those who were not there to experience them. In these new and revised critical readings of the literary and visual legacies of the Holocaust and other, related sites of memory, Marianne Hirsch builds on her influential concept of postmemory. Grappling with the ethics of empathy and identification, these artists attempt to forge a creative postmemorial aesthetic that reanimates the past without appropriating it. In her analyses of their fractured texts, Hirsch locates the roots of the familial and affiliative practices of postmemory in feminism and other movements for social change. Using feminist critical strategies to connect past and present, words and images, and memory and gender, she brings the entangled strands of disparate traumatic histories into more intimate contact.


The Generation of Postmemory



An Interview with Marianne Hirsch




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