Academic journal article German Quarterly

The sound of memory

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The sound of memory

Article excerpt

Not my language

but a voice

chanting in patterns

survives on earth

not history's bones

but vocal tones.

Allen Ginsberg

"Elegies for Neal Cassady"

The critical vocabulary that has emerged and evolved to describe and analyze the spaces of Jewish absence and memory in Germany has been, for the most part, visual. In this essay, I shift the emphasis from the visual to the aural, to the "echo" of the Shoah in poetic texts and the echo of the elegiac that constitutes representation of the Shoah. I maintain that the circulation and proliferation of visual images-the "imprint of the Shoah" as Liss and Hirsch define postmemory-contain as well the echo of the sound of memory. By thus shifting the focus from the visual to the aural and by exploring several key iconic sounds that generate German and Jewish memory, I hope to add a new layer to the exploration ofthe sites of Jewish and German memory.

The primacy of the visual draws on concepts of authenticity, illusion, and spectatorship that stretch back to Aristotle and Plato and inform contemporary critical discussion about documentary, archival, and video testimonies.1 While critical work by Hirsch, Zelizer, and others has provided invaluable reflection on the elusiveness of the visuality of memory, there has been relatively little attention paid to what I will be calling the sound of memory. The sound of memory can be a tangible "recording" of how an event is remembered acoustically, while the memory of sound presupposes a melancholic relationship to the sound that once was and is now lost. The sound of memory is more elusive and perhaps more fragile and transient than the visual sites of memory; significantly, of the five senses, sound is the only one that requires a medium for its transmission (Taylor 34). In the medium of film, as Michel Chion has observed, "if sounds are easily projected by the spectator onto the film image, it is because the image is circumscribed by a frame that can be located in space, whereas sound lacks a frame" (Chion 204). This lack of a frame for the aural, in contrast to the visual, demands that an inquiry into the relationship between sound and memory will be, perhaps, more speculative and openended than one that examines the visual sphere.

The following questions thus serve as speculative points of departure for an inquiry into the relationship between memory and sound: Can we speak of iconic sounds as we do of iconic images? Can an exploration of sound help demarcate the lines that shape and define German and Jewish memory? Can we speak of a site of memory as the sound of memory? If the visual sites of memory-memorials, photographs, installations-in Germany today suggest the enormous difficulties inherent in the project of remembrance, as James Young and others have demonstrated, into what terrain does an exploration of the sound of memory lead us? Finally, how can a turn to the aural help us rethink the trope of the unspeakability of the Holocaust?

To begin answering these questions, I propose that the visual imprint of memory and the acoustic echo of prior sounds create sites of memory in Germany that can be reached through what Umberto Eco has described as a "travel in hyperreality," where in order to attain "the real thing," one must fabricate "the absolute fake" (8). The hyperreal blurs the distinction between presence and absence, between photographic image and death, between sound and silence, crafting sites of authenticity that are no longer historical, but instead visual, where, as Eco suggests, "everything looks real, and therefore it is real; in any case the fact that it seems real is real, and the thing is real even if, like Alice in Wonderland, it never existed" (16). Yet contained within the hyperreal and the circulation of memory as postmemory are sound and the aural, not just the visual. Eco, of course, is speaking here of American culture's need to recreate "history" in the form of wax museums and reconstructed historical sites, but his point is also well taken for the shape and form of Jewish commemoration in Germany in the past decade. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.