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  • Speaking in StartsPostmemory and the Archive
  • Michael G. Levine (bio)

For Judith K.


In her influential 2008 essay “The Generation of Postmemory,” Marianne Hirsch defines postmemory as “the relationship that the generation after those who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experiences of those who came before, experiences that they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up.” Hirsch continues,

But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right. Postmemory’s connection to the past is thus not actually mediated by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation. To grow up with such overwhelming inherited memories, to be dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness is to risk having one’s own stories and experiences displaced, even evacuated, by those of a previous generation. It is to be shaped, however indirectly, by traumatic events that still defy narrative reconstruction and exceed comprehension. These events happened in the past, but their effects continue into the present. This is, I believe, the experience of postmemory and the process of its generation.1

Hirsch deals with this “experience” at greater length and in richer detail in the impressive body of work she has produced over the last two decades. In the present context I wish to highlight only those aspects that will help [End Page 125] us distinguish it from Derrida’s work on trauma and the questions of inter-generational transmission that are the central concern of this article. The first issue I wish to highlight is the status of memory itself. For Hirsch, postmemory does not involve conscious recall or direct access to one’s own memories of a traumatic past. For that past is another’s, usually a parent’s, which is why the family is a privileged locus of transmission and the generational link of greatest interest to her is that between a first generation that actually lived through traumatic events and a second generation that has to live with “such overwhelming inherited memories.”

What does such inheritance entail? As Hirsch suggests, inherited memories are not merely passed on as experiences to which their first-generation narrators have full access and whose telling is completely under their control. Instead they are “overwhelming” precisely to the extent that, in Art Spiegelman’s words, they “spill over” from one generation to the next. This “spillage” is associated with narrative and cognitive excess, with the unconscious dimension of narrative and intergenerational transmission. For what is an unconscious legacy? What are the means of its transmission? Do such legacies somehow become part of our biological makeup, as the nineteenth-century French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck believed? Freud was much criticized for his allegedly Lamarckian schemas in his thinking about the intergenerational transmission of trauma; Yosef Yerushalmi was among the most severe and dismissive of these critics. If Derrida is more willing to entertain these seemingly obsolete notions about “a biological doctrine of acquired characters,” it is only on the condition that they be considered in the broader context of the relationships in which they are enmeshed in Freud’s thought—namely, “the memory of the experience of previous generations, the time of the formation of languages and of a symbolicity that transcends given languages [langues déterminées] and discursivity as such.”2

In this context I would note simply the terms to which Spiegelman has recourse when describing the inheritance of overwhelming memories. Underscoring the element of excess and overflow, he speaks not only of the pain that “spills over” from one generation to the next but also of the way his “father bleeds history.” What is perhaps most striking about these phrases is that they are irreducibly equivocal figures of speech. It is as though there were for him no straightforward way of speaking about [End Page 126] the relationship between historical trauma and bodily wounds, the fluid relationship between generations, and the way his father’s story seems to be transfused with historical energies it cannot metabolize. Not to be contained as an object of narration, his father’s story bleeds...


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pp. 125-152
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