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When Memories Precede Our Birth

When, in December 2014, the French writer Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, he was presented with a quote from one of his own books, the still untranslated into English Livret de famille from 1977, which elusively summarizes a lifelong obsession of his:

I was only twenty years old, but my memory preceded my birth. I was convinced, for instance, of having lived in Paris during the Occupation, for I could recall certain characters from that period, along with minor disquieting details not mentioned in any history book. Yet I tried to battle the weight that dragged me backwards and dreamed of freeing myself of a poisoned memory. I would have given anything to become amnesiac.1

Born in 1945 in Paris, Modiano had no firsthand experience of the war years, nor had he lost any relatives to the events of the era. His mother, a Flemish actress, had translated subtitles for the Nazi-established film company Continental Films, while his father, a shadowy character of Greek-Jewish origin, had managed to escape deportation and subsisted during the war period by trading on the black market. The dysfunctional couple soon ditched their son, who grew up in a grim, second-tier boarding [End Page 1] school. Although Modiano attempted to circumvent his own origins—for a long time, he claimed to have been born in 1947, as if those two years could protect him from the all-too-symbolic moment of caesura his own actual birth year represented—the “obscure night” preceding his existence kept haunting him. The years of the Occupation seemed more real than the present, he asserted; they were the time when “chance meetings happened between people whose paths never would have crossed during peace time,” ultimately also producing the fortuitous encounter between his parents, like “lost butterflies” thrown together in a storm.2

The case of Patrick Modiano is by no means an exception in the twentieth century. Quite the contrary. Experiences of violence, loss, and trauma, which seem to be the distinctive blueprint of an extreme century, were not restricted to particular victims but extend far beyond, in space as well as time, sometimes weighing heavily on later generations. “To grow up with overwhelming inherited memories, to be dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness,” Marianne Hirsch observes, “is to risk having one’s own life stories displaced, even evacuated, by our ancestors. It is to be shaped, however indirectly, by traumatic fragments of events that still defy narrative reconstruction and exceed comprehension. These events happened in the past, but their effects continue in the present.”3

Postmemory: Familial, Affiliative, Connective

To conceptualize this often described but as such nameless phenomenon whereby someone is strongly marked by distressing events that preceded that person’s own birth and inhabits them as if they were private recollections, Marianne Hirsch has coined the notion of “postmemory,” which has had a large scholarly echo since its inception in the early 1990s. In a Freudian view, a traumatic memory is a memory of events that, because of their harrowing, overwhelming nature, cannot fit into an individual’s functioning sequential memory; the memory of the trauma “acts like a foreign body which long after its entry must continue to be regarded as an agent that is still at work.”4 Against the backdrop of this view of trauma with respect to the individual psyche, the development of a notion like “postmemory” can be seen as symptomatic of a general movement within memory studies that tends to grant memory an inter-individual, social dimension. Since mourning has been denied to the survivors, these traumatic [End Page 2] memories that have not been worked through are handed down to the subsequent generation, thus turning postmemory into the result of an entire generational remove (recall the Mitscherliches’ famous thesis about the “inability to mourn”).5

While postmemory initially referred to the common experience of the “second generation” of Holocaust survivors—the notion was firstly developed by Marianne Hirsch in an analysis of the graphic memoir Maus, which was Art Spiegelman’s attempt to come to terms with the personal story of his own father, a Polish Jew and Auschwitz survivor6—its scope has since expanded to encompass both generations after and cases apart from the Holocaust. Initially the term “postmemory” was to cover the kind of recollections directly handed down within one’s family. Hirsch later referred to this type of postmemory as familial postmemory, that is, the kind of mnemonic web that connects those whom Ricoeur called “close relations,” situating the memories in an interstitial space between individual and collective memory.7

But the effect of postmemory is not limited to actors with direct ties of kinship. Beyond the vertical, intergenerational relationship, there are also horizontal, intragenerational processes of transmission and identification, which Hirsch proposed calling phenomena of affiliative postmemory: “Affiliative postmemory would thus be the result of contemporaneity and generational connection with the literal second generation combined with structures of mediation that would be broadly appropriable, available, and indeed, compelling enough to encompass a larger collective in an organic web of transmission.”8 Thus the prefix “post-” in postmemory not only hints at an intrinsic belatedness in remembering—a belatedness that displaces the recollection of one, two, or more generations—it also gestures at an inherent vicariousness: the memories in question are substitutional, as they stand in for missing firsthand witnessing. Yet all the more, they seem to propel a sometimes frantic search for an aura of indexicality, which is the irreducible paradox of all phenomena of remediation. At any rate, Hirsch considers that by enlarging the scope of postmemory to “affiliative memory,” one makes space for a potentially wider array of “retrospective witnessing by adoption.”9 Such an enlargement also means moving beyond certain brands of identity politics: some traumatic events in the twentieth century may have affected us in a peculiar way, although [End Page 3] we have no personal connection to them. (Marianne Hirsch explicitly calls for including all cases of mass violence, including contexts such as American slavery, the Vietnam War, the Dirty War in Chile and Argentina, South African apartheid,; Soviet, Eastern European, and Chinese communist terror, the Armenian and Cambodian genocides, the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, the Indian partition, and others.)10

In many such cases, the affect is provoked not so much by orally handed-down personal narratives as by technically mediated representations. Beyond familial and affiliative postmemory, Hirsch suggests, one should also acknowledge the increasing importance of connective postmemory, that is, the possibility of “multidirectional histories” that question the overly rigid opposition between a causal “then” and a belated “now.”11 In her latest book, The Generation of Postmemory, Hirsch particularly opens up to recent perspectives from media studies that stress that memory is more than a recollection; rather than recollective, it is reconnective. As Andreas Huyssen points out, “We cannot discuss personal, generational, or public memory separately from the enormous influence of the new media as carriers of all forms of memory.”12

Various newer texts by Hirsch focus on the question of what it means to become the addressee of a testimony through digital media. Indeed, the “archive fever” is ambivalent: media feed this “fever” with the desire to include video or audio testimonies in museums and the like and with the establishment of vast virtual memory archives on the Internet, through both public and private initiatives. At the same time the possibility of archiving also threatens what has been known since Plato as “living memory.” Much remains to be done here, as Hirsch stresses, and it is up to debate whether this new type of virtual archive “might constitute a platform for activist and interventionist cultural and political engagement, a form of repair and redress, inspired by feminism and other movements for social change.”13 To be sure, the new capacities of technology allow overlooked or unheard testimonies to emerge in a novel way, leading to a reshaping of memories in the public space.

Figurations of Postmemory

The special issue “Figuration of Postmemory” can be seen in three different contexts. First of all, there are the circumstances of its inception. [End Page 4] The special issue goes back to the conference “Creation and Postmemory,” which took place in April 10–12, 2013, at the Maison Française on the Columbia University campus. Organized by Soko Phay and Pierre Bayard (professors in art history and French literature, respectively, at the University Paris VIII–Saint Denis), the conference was paralleled by an exhibition, The Memory Workshop, spread across two different locations (the Maison Française and the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies), in connection with the Season of Cambodia Festival in New York. The editors of the Journal of Literature and Trauma Studies, David Miller and Lucia Aiello, have kindly agreed to turn a selection of a number of papers presented at that occasion into a special double issue of the journal. Their warm interest and ongoing support are greatly appreciated.

The second, less factual context for the special issue is its conceptual focus: the notion of “postmemory.” As previously mentioned, the concept of postmemory has received quite some attention over the past few years in the field of literary and memory studies and beyond. Like the conference before it, this special issue seeks to assess the concept’s diagnostic relevance for dealing with the question of the aftermath of extreme violence. Taking as its starting point the genocidal experience of the Holocaust, the special issue asks what it would mean to apply the notion of “postmemory” to other cases of traumatic memory in the twentieth century: in particular, the genocides perpetrated in Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Although wide-ranging in temporal distance from the present, all of these cases raise the question of how memories of such traumatic events remain active even among those who have not personally witnessed them, as well as the question of how to address these sorts of indirect memories.

The third context for the special issue is the other term present in its title: figurations. Indeed, from the outset the notion of postmemory has not only centered on the various forms and figures in which memory is conveyed. When the linearity of transmission grows uncertain, the question of the appropriate means for reconnecting with the past assumes even greater importance. Often all that is left are material remainders, snippets and scraps from a lost world, miraculously saved personal items, or a mere photograph. While Marianne Hirsch has always stressed that postmemory is not only about the verbal, but also about visual remainders in the aftermath [End Page 5] of a catastrophe, this special issue would particularly like to epitomize the figurative dimension implicit in postmemory.

Through its emphasis on the figurative dimension, this journal issue seeks to approach postmemory from both sides, coercive and creative. Taking over another person’s memories is often involuntary and is frequently accompanied by a feeling of unbearable weight, as the Modiano case exemplifies. Besides, the forms in which the memories are transmitted can be very stereotyped and even obsessive (in this sense, the figurative dimension of postmemory dovetails with the figura studied by Erich Auerbach in his landmark essay of the same title).14 The visual unconscious of the past is already colonized by many typecast figures, as the writer W. G. Sebald repeatedly underscores.

In Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, quoting his boarding school history teacher, the fictitious protagonist of the book states, “Our concern with history … is a concern with preformed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.”15 Elaborating on Sebald’s Austerlitz, Hirsch has pointed to the perils that lie in these preformatted, imposed figurations, the imposition of what the great theorizer of visual memory Aby Warburg terms the storehouse of “pre-established expressive forms” (Formenwelt vorgeprägter Ausdruckswerte).16

On the other hand, it must also be said that visual artifacts from the past can equally serve as anchors for a process of resilience in the wake of an otherwise repressed and negated past. As conspicuously demonstrated by the exhibition that paralleled the conference, where Cambodian artists of three generations displayed artwork connected to memories of the Khmer Rouge era, imagination and creation play a major part in this process, for in some cases it is only through survivors’ art that subsequent generations can access a traumatic event largely removed from today’s official public discourse. This fact holds particularly true for the Cambodian situation. The first artist exhibited, Vann Nath (1946–2011), survived the S21 extermination camp thanks to his skills as a painter and later became one of the most authoritative voices in Cambodia against collective amnesia. Inspired by his work, another of the artists in the show, the French Cambodian painter Séra (b. 1961), coestablished with Soko Phay the plurennial series of ateliers de la mémoire (memory workshops) at the Bophana Centre in Phnom [End Page 6] Penh. The series introduced a young generation of artists to both visual resources and artistic skills that allowed them to appropriate an otherwise largely removed past. By accepting the deficits in transmission and the cracks in the testimonies, a different relationship to historical facts becomes possible. As it happens, the lacunas in memory not only symbolize failure, they appeal for an active remodeling of what is no longer. Though an active re(con)figuring, a supposedly unimaginable history begins to take shape. This represents the first step toward another relationship to the ghosts and a rehearsal of the past that is not merely compulsive.

The Articles

This special issue on “Figurations of Postmemory” comprises eight articles.

The opening article consists of the keynote address given by Marianne Hirsch (Columbia University) and Leo Spitzer (Dartmouth College) at the conference. Titled “Small Acts of Repair: The Unclaimed Legacy of the Romanian Holocaust,” it touches upon the question of what it means to survive or to inherit traumatic events that have failed to be worked through over a longue durée of many decades. Hirsch and Spitzer’s text focuses on one unknown child writer’s poetic testimony and its reception in the context of other artists who were deported to Transnistria, an area annexed by Romania during the Second World War that became a “forgotten cemetery” for hundreds of thousands of Jews, Roma, and political prisoners. Yet, just as Transnistria’s history fails to fit common conceptions of Holocaust persecution and murder, much of the vibrant intellectual and artistic activity that took place in its ghettos and camps also largely fails to fit the paradigms of Holocaust art or literature. Transnistria’s wartime artists, both visual and literary, remain little known. Hirsch and Spitzer’s research into their work aims to illuminate this obscure chapter of Holocaust history while also asking larger questions about the possibilities for repair and redress in the aftermath and the needs of those of the postmemorial generation who inherit these painful histories.

The subsequent articles are organized mostly chronologically. In his article “Afterimages: Belated Witnessing in the Photographs of the Armenian Catastrophe,” Emmanuel Alloa (University St. Gallen) presents elements of his research on the photographic archives of Armin Wegner, [End Page 7] which he places under the general trope of “afterimages.” In physiological optics, the notion of “afterimage” refers to images that continue to appear in one’s vision even after the exposure to the original event has ceased. But can we think of an afterimage of something that was never seen in the first place? In that case, afterimages fill in for a lacuna in vision, acting as a prosthesis for a missing experience. The article focuses on the role of photographic images in remembrance of the Armenian genocide, which is said to be “unrepresentable.” It shows how the few pictures taken by witnesses to the deportations had afterlives of their own, being reframed and given specific interpretations. Wegner, specifically, was a German volunteer serving as a sanitary officer in the Turkish army who, during his field-work in 1915–16 in Anatolia and on the Euphrates in Syria, documented the final stages of deportation, taking pictures of the camps at the desert’s fringes. His photos, which are among the most important visual testimonies of the extermination, only later made Wegner aware of what he had been witnessing, turning him into a witness après coup and a defender of the Armenian cause.

In her article Frédérique Leichter-Flack (Paris Ouest University) applies the notion of postmemory to the French context of Holocaust remembrance. “Second Generation, Third Generation, and State Political Postmemory: The Holocaust and Its Literary Effects in Contemporary France” raises several issues related to the interaction between literature, Holocaust postmemory, and politics. Leichter-Flack does so by reviewing a range of literary works, films, and intellectual debates centered on what came to be referred to as the Shoah in contemporary France. Over the last twenty years, she claims, parallel to a deepening debate about France’s participation in the Holocaust and a renewal of the state politics of memory, a “third generation” of Holocaust survivors has emerged with its own voice, distinct from the “second generation” explored by the psychoanalysts. Significantly, this evolving landscape has led to the emergence of a vast array of fiction and nonfiction, including works like Ivan Jablonka’s Histoire des grands-parents que je n’ai pas eus (History of the grandparents I never had) or Virginie Linhart’s La vie après (Life after). These and other cultural productions, Frédérique Leichter-Flack asserts, share some kind of generic hybridization at the crossroads of literature and historiography, testimony and fiction, novel and documentary, comedy and cartoons. [End Page 8]

The next contribution, titled “Polytraumatic Memory in the USSR: Where Does the Holocaust Fit?,” by Annie Epelboin (Paris VIII University), shifts the perspective to the territories of the former Soviet Union and asks what space there can be for Holocaust remembrance within the complex post-USSR memoryscapes. Considering that half the victims of the Shoah in Europe were Soviet citizens, one wonders how thoroughly the history of their destruction across the Nazi-occupied territories has remained ignored and indistinct in the collective memory of Russians and other inhabitants of the former USSR. Since the victims of the Nazis are considered broadly to have been “Soviet civilians,” the specificity of the genocide is not analyzed or even conceptualized as such. Nevertheless, the non-Jewish population of the occupied territories witnessed the reality of the genocide: massacres were taking place under their very eyes or in close range. If most of them remain silent, as in the past, it is foremost in the name of the multiplicity of traumas they have been subjected to: repression, arrests during the Stalinist terror, collectivization. The accumulation of massacres and mass violence has lumped up so tightly that anesthesia and amnesia are deemed preferable to a precise inquiry into the facts and their causes. Annie Epelboin asks whether such an attitude should be seen as an unacceptable conflation or whether taking different memoryscapes into account compels a novel, more complex view of history.

The next article moves to the case of Cambodia. As Soko Phay (Paris VIII University) points out in “Missing Images of Genocide and Creation in Cambodia,” almost half of Cambodia’s population was born after the genocide and many in the younger generation are largely unaware of what happened during the Khmer Rouge years (1975–79). The Khmer Rouge themselves had strictly banned any representation; under the influence of the perpetrators, who take advantage of a politics of impunity, contemporary Cambodia is still largely suppressing a true confrontation with the past. Soko Phay describes the initiatives started by the filmmaker Rithy Panh, who turned the Bophana Centre in Phnom Penh into a resource about Cambodian history and culture to counter the general amnesia. Phay then explains the genesis of the “memory workshops” that she has been organizing at the center since 2008. Drawing on the collected archives and on existing materials, the works created by young Cambodians during the memory workshops testify to the emergence of a new kind [End Page 9] of image, which Soko Phay calls “archive-artworks.” Rather than replacing the lost traces and objects, these archive-artworks take the viewer as witness to events that the official narratives skip over.

In the essay by Martin Mégevand (Paris VIII University), attention shifts to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, analyzed from a “postmemory” perspective. In “Genocide Drama and Affiliative Postmemory: Staging Peter Weiss’s The Investigation after the Rwandese Genocide,” Mégevand discusses Rwandese director Dorcy Rugamba’s staging of Peter Weiss’s The Investigation and wonders why establishing a link between the Holocaust and the Rwandese genocide did not create such an important “cultural event” when the play toured in Belgium and France, in terms of success or media coverage, compared to the earlier, celebrated Rwanda 1994. Nearly invisible and yet extremely meaningful if one considers its enunciative and theatrical conditions of production, the subject is somewhat difficult to capture within the classical academic approach to theatrical events, and it deserves attention for this very reason. Indeed, Mégevand ascertains, this staging offers a fascinating case study for reflecting on the ways a post-colonial approach to a cultural and literary object can destabilize our conventional classifications. How can this very complex gesture at the threshold between ethics and aesthetics be categorized? As Martin Mégevand argues, Dorcy Rugamba’s mise-en-scène of Peter Weiss’s The Investigation is part of those paradoxical attempts to restage what the process of oblivion was on the verge of removing.

As Pierre Bayard (Paris VIII University) shows in “Collective Rape and Postmemory in Bosnia,” applying postmemory to the Bosnian War presents the same problems as in Rwanda. The events in question are relatively recent—occurring in the early nineties—and the generation after the direct victims is still young. Consequently, it is difficult to find second-generation artists whose work has been marked by the trauma inflicted on the previous generation. The film Bayard analyzes (Grbavica, made in 2005 by Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic) is not the work of a second-generation artist: the director herself, who was born in Sarajevo in 1974, lived through the war. Yet the film has a twofold link to the issue of postmemory. First, through the story it tells: tirelessly questioned by her daughter, a woman is finally forced to admit that her child’s father was not a war hero but a rapist at the prison camp where she was being held. And [End Page 10] second, through the film’s reception in Bosnia. In this sense, as Bayard demonstrates, it can be considered both an account of and a vehicle for postmemory, for Bosnia and beyond.

The last contribution returns to the theoretical and psychological starting point of the discussion about trauma and its memory—Sigmund Freud’s account of “belatedness”—and highlights its importance for a conceptualization of postmemory reread through the lens of Derrida’s deconstruction. In “Speaking in Starts: Postmemory and the Archive,” Michael G. Levine (Rutgers University) argues that Derrida’s take on the problem of memory could offer a beneficial extension—if not modification—of Hirsch’s influential notion of postmemory and could help to rethink issues of intergenerational transmission. Through a close reading of Freud, Yerushalmi, and Derrida, Levine circumscribes the performative dimension of belatedness or Nachträglichkeit: the necessity of saying something over and over again. What appears to be most challenging about the performative or gestural of belatedness, however, Levine states, is to be sought less in the content of Derrida’s argument than in the structure of his text—in the way it seems to move in place and begin over and over again. Such “stuttering” is to be viewed not as a speech impediment (as in the traditional reading of Moses’s alleged disability) but as a way of gesturing toward something that hangs precariously between speech and silence and cannot be more directly accessed or expressed.

Emmanuel Alloa

Emmanuel Alloa is assistant professor in the Philosophy Department of the Universität St. Gallen and senior research fellow at the Swiss nccr « eikones » for iconic criticism. He holds a binational PhD in philosophy (University Paris I-Panthéon/Freie Universität Berlin) and has been lecturing on aesthetics in the Department of Fine Arts of Paris 8 since 2005. At the Jeu de Paume in Paris he has been directing a year-long seminar, Witnessing Images, and he is currently working on a book about memory and visuality.

Pierre Bayard

Pierre Bayard is professor of French literature at Paris 8 University and a psychoanalyst. He is the author of numerous books on literature—including Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? (New Press, 2000), How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read? (Bloomsbury, 2007) and Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong (Bloomsbury, 2010)—translated in over thirty languages, and is the editor of several contributed volumes on mass murders. His most recently published work is Aurais-je été résistant ou bourreau? (Minuit, 2013).

Soko Phay

Soko Phay is associate professor in art history and theory at Paris 8 University. She has written several papers and edited multiauthored volumes on the mirror in contemporary art and mass crimes. She has also curated several exhibitions, including Beyond Narcissus (United States, 2005) and The Memory Workshops (Cambodia, 2009–10, and France, 2010–11). Her most recently published works are Cambodia: The Memory Workshop (ed.) (Sonleuk Thmey Publishing, 2010) and Cambodge, le génocide effacé (ed.), with Pierre Bayard (Ed. Nouvelles Cécile Defaut, 2013).


1. Patrick Modiano, Livret de famille (Paris: Gallimard, 1977), 116–17 (our translation):

Je n’avais que vingt ans, mais ma mémoire précédait ma naissance. J’étais sûr, par exemple, d’avoir vécu dans le Paris de l’Occupation puisque je me souvenais de certains personnages de cette époque et de détails infimes et troublants, de ceux qu’aucun livre d’histoire ne mentionne. Pourtant, j’essayais de lutter contre la pesanteur qui me tirait en arrière, et rêvais de me délivrer d’une mémoire empoisonnée. J’aurais donné tout au monde pour devenir amnésique.

2. Patrick Modiano, Nobel Prize Reception Lecture, Stockholm, December 7, 2014 (our translation). “Des rencontres hasardeuses se faisaient entre des personnes qui ne se seraient jamais croisées en temps de paix.” [End Page 11]

3. Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and the Visual Culture after the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 5.

4. Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer, Studies on Hysteria (1893–1895), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), 2:6.

5. Alexander Mitscherlich and Margarete Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, preface by Robert Jay Lifton, trans. B. R. Placzek (New York: Grove Press, 1975).

6. Marianne Hirsch, “Family Pictures: Maus, Morning and Post-Memory,” Discourse 15 (1992–93): 3–29.

7. Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History and Forgetting, trans. K. Blamey and D. Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 131–33.

8. Marianne Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory,” Poetics Today 29.1 (Spring 2008): 104–28 (115).

9. Marianne Hirsch, “Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory,” in Visual Culture and the Holocaust, ed. Barbie Zelizer (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 215–45 (221).

10. Hirsch, Generation of Postmemory, 19.

11. Hirsch, Generation of Postmemory, 22.

12. Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 2003), 18.

13. Hirsch, Generation of Postmemory, 6.

14. Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature: Six Essays, trans. Ralph Manheim (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

15. W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. A. Bell (New York: Random House, 2001), 72.

16. Hirsch, Generation of Postmemory, 42; Aby Warburg, “Einleitung” (1929), in Mnemosyne-Atlas, ed. M. Warnke (Berlin: Akademie, 2000), 3–6 (published in English as “The Absorption of the Expressive Values of the Past,” trans. Matthew Rampley, Art in Translation 1.2 (July 2009): 273–83). [End Page 12]

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