The Present Past

Trauma in a weird way is about the future. . . . It's the sense that it's probably going to happen again.

—Angelika Bammer , Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts


Vol. 7 No. 1
September 2004

The Present Past
The science and art of memory

Memories of emotional events, especially aversive ones, tend to attach themselves to anything around them.
Kerry Ressler Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Center for Behavioral Neuroscience

Trauma in a weird way is about the future. . . . It's the sense that it's probably going to happen again.
Angelika Bammer, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Upon My Return to the Chair
Identity and academic sacred space in Middle Eastern and South Asian studies
Gordon D. Newby, Professor and Chair, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies

Neuroscience for Bird Brains
An unconventioal frontier for understanding social behavior
Donna Maney, Assistant Professor of Psychology

The Politics of Advice
Biased scientific information in government agencies
Mike Kuhar, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Neuropharmacology

Crossing Boundaries
How intellectual initiatives form and flourish
Paul Jean, Associate Director of New Research Initiatives, Emory College Office of Research, and Daniel Teodorescu, Director of Institutional Research, Office of the Provost


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Academic Exchange: What are the “difficult pasts” you investigate?

Angelika Bammer: I’m interested in memories of things that one could not study just within the context of personal or autobiographical memory. There are events that have individual resonance and collective significance. I’m writing about a Holocaust memorial, for example, in a part of Berlin called the Bavarian Quarter, which had in the pre-war years one of the highest percentages of Jewish residents. Albert Einstein—lots of famous intellectuals who were Jewish and of course German—lived there. The history of that neighborhood and what happened to its Jewish residents became the occasion in the mid-1980s for a memorial project that I find utterly fascinating and powerful.

That would be an example of the kind of memory that’s public in the sense that it’s part of the historical record of the Holocaust but in a very particular way. It involves a set of memories that individual families are working with as legacies of a time that shaped the present.

The difficult pasts aren’t comfortably settled yet into their pastness; they are pasts that are still unsettling us, causing trouble in the individual and collective psyche. We can’t really remember them in the way I am defining memory unless we have done a certain amount of work with them, particularly on our relationship to them. In my opinion, without that work, remembering per se does not actually happen. It is easy to say but hard to do, figuring out what our relationship is to something that mattered.

AE: How do you define memory?

AB: What I call “remembering” is not just invoking or fighting traumatic pasts. It involves being able to acknowledge the actual pastness of something without having detached from it, without having lost it or becoming dissociated from it. One can acknowledge that yes, this is in the past, which means it can’t be repaired. And I think part of the definition of trauma is that we continue to go back to something, revisiting it, not really understanding fully that it really is past.

Trauma in a weird way is about the future, as Derrida has argued. It’s the sense that it’s probably going happen again. Going back to traumatic events that you can’t change, you can’t prevent, you can’t repair, is a really unproductive way of remembering.

AE: How can we remember productively?

AB: That requires recognizing that something is in the past, which is already a kind of separating, creating some distance, and acknowledging what that event or experience meant and continues to mean. And it’s that meaning we retain for the present, for the future. You can deal with that in an appropriate way in the present because the difficult part that remains has to do with responsibility, with making a response, and with the possibility of in fact not repairing the past—that’s the whole point.

AE: How did you get started with this research?

AB: My initial impetus was a degree of frustration with the ongoing theories and controversies about public memorials that take place around the politics of public memory. There are intriguing debates, but I felt uneasy about too categorically and too quickly attributing people’s remembering or not remembering—or remembering something this way as opposed to that way—to their being people with ill intentions or people who don’t want to deal with this history. I thought of my parents, Germans who lived through World War II there. I thought of them as good people, as moral people, but their memories didn’t line up neatly with the kind of post-Holocaust “we remember.” When I was younger, that used to trouble me, and I wondered if they were hiding or repressing something. I was persistent enough about all of these things with them and had a good enough relationship with them that I became certain that they were not hiding something. I began to think that over time, as things emerge, what they remember is what they learned to remember, partly in response to circumstances. So my father, for example, when he remembers the war years—and he used to be apologetic about this—what he remembers is meeting this seventeen-year-old girl and falling in love and in 1943 marrying her. He remembers the love of his life.

So I became intrigued by particular memories that seem incongruous or that don’t fit the expected narrative in some ways. And all of that got me really thinking about how memory works. It drew me intellectually to thinking about how differences in opinion about what the past means can happen, not apart from people’s politics but in context of the complexity of their experiences. These things are part of the nature of how we remember, which means how we work with the past or don’t.