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  • From Gaza to Warsaw: Mapping Multidirectional Memory
  • Michael Rothberg (bio)

Beyond Competitive Memory

What happens when different histories of extreme violence confront each other in the public sphere? Does the remembrance of one event erase others from view? When memories of colonialism, occupation, slavery, and the Holocaust bump up against one another in contemporary multicultural societies, must a competition of victims ensue? Such questions of remembrance, justice, and comparison lie at the heart of any attempt to think through the topic of this special issue: transcultural negotiations of Holocaust memory. These questions have also oriented my attempt to construct a theory of multidirectional memory that focuses on exemplary sites of tension involving remembrance of the Nazi genocide of European Jews in order to offer an alternative framework for thinking about and confronting the recent and ongoing “memory wars.”1

In Multidirectional Memory (2009), I make three moves toward a new account of transcultural remembrance. First, I argue against a logic of competitive memory based on the zero-sum game, which has dominated many popular and scholarly approaches to public remembrance. According to this understanding, memories crowd each other out of the public sphere—for example, too much emphasis on the Holocaust is said to marginalize other traumas, or, inversely, adoption of Holocaust rhetoric to speak of those other traumas is said to relativize or even deny the Holocaust’s uniqueness. To be sure, political, economic, and cultural forms of power contour the circulation of memories in the public sphere, but a pre-Foucauldian understanding of power as repressive cannot capture memory’s relative autonomy from such forces. In contrast, I suggest, memory works productively: the result of memory conflict is not less memory, but more—even of subordinated memory traditions. For instance, I would argue that the result of the rise to prominence of Holocaust memory is not [End Page 523] less public attention to the slave trade, but greater attention to it (even if that attention remains insufficient in many ways).

In illustrating this non-zero-sum logic, I make a second move already implied by my example: I argue that collective memories of seemingly distinct histories—such as those of slavery, the Holocaust, and colonialism—are not so easily separable from one another. I have discovered not only that memory of the Holocaust has served as a vehicle through which other histories of suffering have been articulated, but also something even more surprising: the emergence of Holocaust memory itself was from the start inflected by histories that at first glance might seem to have little to do with it. There is an archive of multidirectional memory that stretches from early articulations by Aimé Césaire, Hannah Arendt, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others to more contemporary figures such as Caryl Phillips, Leïla Sebbar, and Michael Haneke.

Finally, besides targeting the problem of zero-sum thinking and bringing together histories that are usually kept separate, my research questions another cornerstone of the memory wars; namely, the taken-for-granted link between collective memory and group identity—the direct line that seems to bind, for example, Jewish memory and Jewish identity and to differentiate them clearly from African American memory and African American identity. As my book reveals, however, memory of the Holocaust is not simply a form of Jewish memory, just as memory of slavery or colonialism is not limited to the victims or descendants of slavery and colonialism.2 By making visible an intellectual and artistic countertradition that refuses the dominant zero-sum game, links memories of Nazi genocide, colonialism, and slavery, and reaches out beyond the common sense of identity politics, I demonstrate how the public articulation of collective memory by marginalized and oppositional social groups provides resources for other groups to articulate their own claims for recognition and justice.

In this essay, I want to push this account further by engaging with some of the more difficult and even troubling cases of multidirectionality. If, as I argue, public memory is structurally multidirectional—that is, always marked by transcultural borrowing, exchange, and adaptation—that does not mean that the politics of multidirectional memory comes with any guarantees. Indeed, given the ubiquity of Nazi and Holocaust...