JAMES E. YOUNG
At Memory's Edge. After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 256 pp.; 47 color ills., 56 b/w. $35.00
The study of memory is one of the most fashionable branches of scholarly inquiry in a wide variety of disciplines. The problem remains, though, that the avalanche of work in this field moves at a speed much greater than the advances registered in the conceptual framework needed to control the subject. Consequently, we have a dazzling array of inquiries into memory, postmemory, countermemory, traumatic memory, collective memory, collected memory, national memory, testimonial memory, witnessing, repressed memory, distorted memory, underground memory, deep memory, cultural memory, and so on. No pair of these terms can be equated; indeed, there is no consensus at all on even the rudimentary elements out of which some kind of conceptual ordering of memory studies could be built.
Part of the problem is that those working in history, literature, and art history have little patience for or much familiarity with the literature arising out of research in cognitive psychology and allied disciplines. Some scholars working in the humanities offer the objection that the study of cognitive psychology takes the individual mind as the unit of analysis, and though it is important to know how an individual's memories are encoded and retrieved, our social and cultural lives are never lived in isolation, one person at a time. Facets of social psychology raise further problems. The experiments reported by some psychologists are bound to be limited to particular cultures and social milieus, and the findings of these "objective" studies of configurations of memory suffer from all the defects of positivism. Consider but one example. A recent survey shows that memories of past events are frequently affected by our current situation; in other words, we are bound to paint our individual past as more difficult than it was, since this difficulty puts our current situation in a more favorable light. Perhaps this is true, but can anyone really argue that it is true everywhere? What of the notion of a "golden age"? The same objection has been made to both scientific and cultural configurations of trauma: Is it the case that those undergoing life-threatening violence for an extended period are subject to biochemical or other physical changes in their brains? The state of knowledge of neuroscience makes it unsafe to say yes, and the same can be said for research into the recovery of populations clearly injured by military action. Cultural differences matter to such an extent that we must remain skeptical of the claims of scientists about "memory" as a universal and "trauma" as a physical state shared by victims from Guatemala to the Gulag archipelago.
But this argument can be viewed from a different angle. There is an equal and opposite danger to simply rejecting scientific definitions of memory: it is to treat uncritically any and all uses of the term memory as an umbrella term for thinking about the past. We surely can do better than that. Skepticism about science must not lead to apartheid in this area of scholarly work. The best path forward appears to be a kind of tolerant pluralism, in which "memory work" of many kinds goes on with the messiness of an illdefined but exciting field. To say, "Let a thousand flowers bloom" appears to be both inevitable and judicious, for no discipline can assert proudly that it has found the key to the meaning of "memory."
Among those who have done much to cultivate this broad field is James E. Young, a scholar of Holocaust memorials. A professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he has been a sensitive and powerful guide to the burgeoning subject of Holocaust commemoration. He is the author of Writing and Reuniting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation (1988) and The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (1993) and editor of the influential collection of essays The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History (1994). …