- Postmemory and the Imaginative Work of Those Who Come After
In our time of perpetual crisis and the proliferation of collective trauma, Marianne Hirsch's concept of postmemory seems more relevant and necessary than ever. Hirsch first coined the term in the early nineties in her article "Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory" (1992–93). A beautiful reading of Art Spiegelman's groundbreaking graphic memoir and its use of photographs, her essay would rightly become an influential work in Maus criticism and comics studies at large. In it, she sketches postmemory as the purview "of the child of the survivor whose life is dominated by memories of what preceded [their] birth" (Hirsch 1992–93, 8), specifically the Holocaust. She also underscores the connections between the memory of the survivor and the postmemory of the second generation, calling attention to both "as equally constructed, equally mediated by the processes of narration and imagination" (1992–93, 9). This naming of the experiences of the second generation as postmemory was incredibly powerful and evocative even in this earliest, still somewhat fuzzy, theorization. Thankfully, Hirsch has continued to circle back to postmemory since then in order to clarify and complicate the concept.
For example, in her 2001 article, "Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory," she elaborates on the significant role of repetition:
The postmemorial generation—in displacing and recontextualizing these well-known images in their artistic work—has been able to make repetition not an instrument of fixity or paralysis or simple retraumatization (as it often is for survivors of trauma), but a mostly helpful vehicle of working through a traumatic past.(Hirsch 2001, 9) [End Page 129]
This understanding of postmemory as potentially productive—not stuck or static, and as a condition and an approach that is haunted (a word that comes up frequently in scholarly discussions of postmemory) yet also hopeful—can be profoundly moving and motivating for those of us engaged in and with this kind of cultural work.
In Hirsch's 2012 book, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, her fullest account of postmemory to date, she further emphasizes its "imaginative investment, projection, and creation" and, in her dual commitment to aesthetics and ethics, argues for its potential as "a form of repair and redress" (Hirsch 2012, 5, 6). She also broadens the scope of postmemory to think through "affiliative structures of memory beyond the familial" (2012, 21), and beyond the generational. In the two decades since she first used the term, it has become clear that postmemory is not limited to its applications and implications for the Holocaust, the photograph, and the graphic narrative, where Hirsch began, but is a capacious and portable concept that has impacted thinking about trauma and memory across histories, cultures, forms, and fields.
In my primary fields of Asian American and ethnic studies, postmemory has been fruitfully taken up by many scholars and critics, including one of this issue's guest coeditors, Maria Rice Bellamy, in her monograph Bridges to Memory: Postmemory in Contemporary Ethnic American Women's Fiction (2016). My colleague Seo-Young Chu, in Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation, draws on Hirsch's work to theorize what she terms postmemory han and, like Hirsch, stresses "the power of the imagination" (S. Chu 2010, 191) to represent and work through the traumas inherited by second-generation Korean Americans. Both Sandra So Hee Chi Kim and Malissa Phung have written articles about the "affective force" of postmemory (Kim 2016, 654; Phung 2012, 5) and its diasporic dimensions, while analyzing very different texts. Long Bui has applied postmemory to an archive he calls "the refugee repertoire" to illuminate how "many in the postwar/postmemory generation aim to revise and complicate simplistic notions of the refugee or war subject" (Bui 2016, 112, 115). Viet Thanh Nguyen, in his book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, cites Hirsch's postmemory as part of his articulation of and call for what he terms "just memory" (2016, 268). Patricia Chu also writes of her indebtedness to Hirsch's insights about postmemory in her book Where I...