Thinking translationally/ transnationally about memory

The German historian of the everyday Alf Lüdtke has been involved in a collaboration with colleagues in RICH at Hanyang University in Seoul for the past five years, and the conclusion of this partnership was marked by an international conference on ‘Politics of Memory, Practices of Remembrance’ held in April 2013. This event gave me a chance to present some of my ongoing work on the memorialization of slavery (relating in particular to the Mémorial de l’Abolition in Nantes), but more importantly provided an opportunity to reflect on the transnational nature of memory, memory being a phenomenon that in its official form of commemoration or memorialization is more often than not reduced and confined to the national.

The programme was extremely rich, and included Carol Gluck (on ‘memory from the middle’ and on putting the ‘world’ back into memories of World Wars), Michael Schoenhals (on surveillance of the everyday in Mao’s China), Jens-Christian Wagner (on the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial), and Edhem Eldem and Halil Berktay (on the Chios Massacre and the Armenian genocide respectively). It was also enlightening to hear papers by Eunsil Kim and Seong-nae Kim on the 1948 Cheju (April Third) Massacre in Korea, an event recently lifted from international obscurity by the release (and widespread recognition) of O Muel’s film Jiseul.

What emerged from the event was a sense of memories as the multi-layered afterlives of events and phenomena—afterlives that continue to evolve after those directly involved in and with those events and phenomena have died, and after legal and monumental procedures have sought to confine or control them. As such, memory is a translational process, often literally reliant on linguistic and textual transmission, but also involving more figurative forms of cross-cultural and intergenerational ‘travelling’. A holistic view of memory work—across the various terrains (vernacular, official, individual/personal and that of meta-memory) outlined by Carol Gluck—demands attention to multiple media, to multiple directions, and to multiple forms of presence (material, oral, spectral and subliminal). At the same time, whether generated by world-historical events or, from a more localized context, granted various forms of diasporic resonance, understandings of memory benefit increasingly from awareness of its transnational dimensions—or, at the very least, of its refusal to adhere to the neatness of national frames. Such an understanding not only relativizes national emphases in memory studies (an approach that is to be welcomed as much in studies of the commemoration of slavery and abolition as it is in exploration of remembrance of the First World War); but it also underlines the different, competing memorial traditions generated by events in the past, the relationship between which often appears antagonistic but which, through memory sharing, may instead begin to exist in contrapuntal configurations.


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