- AfterimagesBelated Witnessing in the Photographs of the Armenian Catastrophe
Prosthetic Memory and Secondary Witnessing
In The Generation of Postmemory, Marianne Hirsch defines postmemory as the way in which some events preceding a subject’s own birth or consciousness may eventually come to affect the person’s life profoundly and—through the mediation of narrations, documents, or images from childhood—come to eventually constitute a memory of his or her own. Although the subject has never personally experienced these events, they profoundly shape his or her affective life. Postmemory’s connection “is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation”; sometimes these mediated images influence a personality even more than any seemingly immediate personal experience.1
The notion of postmemory can itself be considered the symptom of a shift that has taken place within memory studies and especially within studies on the memory of the twentieth century’s catastrophic events. If we take the memory of the Holocaust, one could argue that we find ourselves in a period of which Jan and Aleida Assmann have spoken in terms of a “floating gap”: on the one hand, the events remembered can still be situated within one’s own family history; on the other hand, they are already part of a written institution called history.2 While the religious wars of the early modern era are known to us mainly through history books, many catastrophic events of the twentieth century still seem to be part of [End Page 43] our own story, although we might never have witnessed them firsthand nor even have been told about them directly by anyone involved.
In my reading, the notion of postmemory hence epitomizes a double shift: first the shift to prosthetic memories and second the emergence of what could be called “secondary witnessing.” Let us begin with the shift to prosthetic memories. Following the work of the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, scholarship on cultural memory has always stressed that memories are not just composed of events a subject has personally experienced; they are permanently interwoven with intersubjective memories that have been handed down by a community. What Marianne Hirsch’s notion of postmemory highlights is the fact that, beyond the mere interweaving of personal and collective remembrances, the particular conditions of late modernity—in all their technological and historical specificity—have led to a rise of mediated or “prosthetic” memories that have sometimes, because of their intensity, taken the place of firsthand experience.3 This problem is not limited to what is commonly referred to as the “generation after,” that is, “the children of victims, survivors, witnesses and perpetrators,” but extends to all later generations and even to those without the slightest family connection to what happened.4
In the wake of traumatic events that have deeply disturbed if not completely interrupted the process of verbal intergenerational transmission, it is often inanimate artifacts—objects or images—that fill the gap and stand in where words are missing. Not only do these artifacts substitute for those who are no longer present, they also assure those who passed a kind of survival: a spectral one, resulting from their being mediated. At the Yale Holocaust Archives, to name just one collection, tens of thousands of personal histories survive on videotape and those voices and bodies will continue to speak even when the individuals who have given those testimonies are long dead. The cofounder of the Yale archives, Geoffrey Hartman, refers to those who listened to the testimonies and helped the survivors give birth to them as “witnesses by adoption,” for they become witnesses to the witness.5 But what about someone watching those videotapes without having ever met the person in question? What kind of witnessing can be invoked here? This leads to the second shift, which could be termed the shift to “secondary witnessing.”
The shift to secondary witnessing gestures at more than a mere temporal [End Page 44] shift; similarly, Marianne Hirsch has stressed that the “‘post’ in ‘postmemory’ signals more than a temporal delay and more than a location in an aftermath.”6 Secondary witnessing is by no means restricted to the so-called second generation, that...