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After Monumentality: Narrative as a Technology of Memory in William Gass's The Tunnel Jeffrey Pence Recent Memory: Narrative Against Technology There is a strong sense in contemporary culture that previous models of public history are no longer adequate. Grand public monuments and sweeping textual narratives fail to account for the contradictory experiences of participants in historical events, or the complex legacies inherited by later generations. In particular, the epic national narrative which underwrote earlier representations of public history seems exhausted and unable to convincingly integrate subjective and collective perspectives. Hence, where the Great War could best be commemorated through the incorporative , even generic, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Vietnam War requires a monument to individual experience, a Veterans Memorial, as each KIA becomes a unique name. The first sort of memorial explains and justifies historical traumas in light of an overarching purpose for those involved . The second monument eschews total, if not all, explanation altogether in favor of forging new social bonds around individual remembrance and public mourning. This transition from large-scale historical explanation to intimate remembrance has three dimensions important for the following essay. JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 30.1 (Winter 2000): 96-126. Copyright © 2000 by JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. After Monumentality 97 First, contemporary monuments forward one form of narrative experience over another. In place of the epic of the nation, they celebrate what Lyotard describes as the paradigmatic form of postmodernism, the petit récit, or small narrative. This self-legitimating form depends on the pragmatics of story transmission whereby each member of a community can stand in for the various roles of teller, tellee and told. Perhaps the best, because least imaginary, example of this new emphasis would be the AIDS Quilt, an amalgamation of individual biographies which can be recombined and experienced in limitless ways, largely by viewers who share a sense of community with those whose lives are commemorated in the panels . Immediacy and emotional identification place this sort of narrative memory squarely in the present: against all expectations, a collectivity that takes narrative as its key form of competence has no need to remember its past. . . . The narratives' reference may seem to belong to the past, but in reality it is always contemporaneous with the act of recitation. (Lyotard 22) With this turn to narrative writ small, a particular version of the past is thus foregrounded. This second feature of contemporary monuments is a valorization of memory over abstracted public history. Without an official story capable of appealing across a spectrum of perspectives, memory as an affective, even aesthetic, experience seems to offer otherwise scattered individuals a point of collective identification. Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the paradigmatic case. Here, coming to terms with the war means coming to terms with the persistence and pain of individual memory. This is not strictly achieved in the monument's construction, but is completed by the cathartic participation of visitors in public rituals of mourning. More distantly, the multiple perspectives of participants, and the signature points of view of experts, that we find in the documentary work of Ken Burns has refashioned much of American history along similar lines of affective identification for public television audiences. This emphasis on the humane and communal aspects of experience raises the value of narrative memory in contrast to the systems of meaning seen to produce historical trauma. 98 JNT A view of recent history as marred by technological dysfunction is the third shared feature of contemporary monuments. What Adorno says of art after Auschwitz would seem doubly relevant to the subsequent fate of public memorials and monuments. What grand story could public history tell other than of the progress of mechanized slaughter, neo-colonialism or biospheric degradation? Contemporary monuments implicitly and explicitly contrast their own organizing features with those of a technical rationality linked to myths of progress and nationalism. Comparatively, the intimate narratives of memory seem a more plausible and appealing basis for addressing the personal and collective past. Yet in this alternative we run the risk of becoming too comfortable with a past cut to fit contemporary desires. Does something of the past's otherness, and the mediations of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9248
Print ISSN
1549-0815
Pages
pp. 96-126
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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