7 No. 1
science and art of memory
of emotional events, especially aversive ones, tend to attach themselves
to anything around them.
Ressler Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Center for Behavioral
in a weird way is about the future. . . . It's the sense that it's
probably going to happen again.
Bammer, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts
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
for Bird Brains
An unconventioal frontier
for understanding social behavior
Donna Maney, Assistant Professor of Psychology
Politics of Advice
Biased scientific information
in government agencies
Mike Kuhar, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Neuropharmacology
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
Exchange: What are the “difficult pasts”
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.