- Works in Progress:Sketches, Prolegomena, Afterthoughts
Between the publication of Maus I (1986) and Maus II (1991), Art Spiegelman changed his cover self-portrait. In Maus I, Spiegelman depicts himself as a cartoon mouse with a human body and long tail, sitting with his back to the reader at his drafting table, smoking and drawing; and in Maus II, Spiegelman has morphed into a man holding a mouse mask in his hands. Now Spiegelman's pens are beside him in a cup and the cover of Maus I hangs on the wall of his studio. In my 1992 essay, "Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory," I interpret this shift as a symptom of the increasingly self-conscious contradictions shaping the work's distinctive animal fable and the multiple mediations separating the artist from his memoir. On the surprising and also very welcome occasion of revisiting this 1992 essay in 2020, I see Spiegelman's shifting self-presentation differently. It now appears to me to be an integral aspect of the work of postmemory itself.
In her comment on my essay, included in this issue of WSQ, Caroline Kyungah Hong generously, and helpfully for me, characterizes postmemory as "capacious," "portable," and "open … to criticism and critique," as "theory that is living and changes and deepens over time" (2020, 131). Indeed, for me, this early essay on Maus was an introductory sketch, followed by refinements, renegotiations, and elaborations over the course of nearly three decades. If it was, and still is, a work in progress, however, it is due not so much to my rush to publish an unfinished argument, but to the ways in which memory and the past are, in Sonali Thakkar's terms in her response in this volume, "transformed by the present and future as they come into being" (2020, 138). The provisional quality of my early essay is no doubt also a reaction to the inspiring work on the memory of [End Page 141] painful pasts done by scholars, artists, and activists across the globe, and by the many conversations in this burgeoning field that I've been fortunate to join. In what follows, I offer just a few of the things I've rethought and am still rethinking.
First, the "post." It originally appears hyphenated, as post-memory, in 1992, which was inspired by Andrea Liss's (1991) discussion of photographs as "post-memories" in her essay "Trespassing through Shadows." But by 1997, when my revised Maus essay appeared as the first chapter of my book Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, I had dropped the hyphen. In my rationale for the term there and in several subsequent publications, I argued that the relationship between postmemory and memory does not merely consist in a temporal lag, but also indicates the oscillation between proximity and distance, continuity and rupture. One of my colleagues has suggested that the many current "posts"—postmodernism, postsecularism, posttraumatic, and more—could be seen as "post-it" notes and afterthoughts. What happens if the post-it falls off? Is the initial concept still the same? What remains of memory after it is incorporated into postmemory? How do I remember once I realize that my own memories are not only transmissible and available to others who were not there, but possibly determinative in their lives as well? I now wonder if it was this anxiety that made me drop the hyphen, creating a hybrid term that better signaled the belatedness, supplementarity, and citationality of postmemory? Or would the hyphen have pointed to these contradictions more effectively? In any case, both versions exist, and both are regularly cited and used in relation to different painful histories.
Second, the Holocaust. Beginning with Maus in the early 1990s, and approaching it through my own family history, I have located my inquiry squarely in relation to the generations of Holocaust memory—the anxiety about the aging and death of survivors, the heavy responsibility facing their descendants to tell their stories accurately and affectively, without appropriating them. Maus illustrates the precarious gatekeeper position of the "generation after," while finding ways to give shape to this history precisely by way of an unknowing desire to know...