Postmodernism and European Memory

By Thompson, Ewa M. | Modern Age, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Postmodernism and European Memory


Thompson, Ewa M., Modern Age


Events do not happen; events are produced. An occurrence becomes an event only when certain groups in society pay attention to it, consider it important, speak and write about it, react to it, and remember it. Thus events are socially constructed. This does not mean, however, that they are pure constructs. At their starting point, they have acts and occurrences that are very real indeed. (1)

This postmodern statement was made by the German Historical Institute's Research Fellow, Carola Dietze, in November 2006 at a conference/workshop partly dedicated to European memory and sponsored by the Institute in Washington, DC. It was not incongruent with the views of other participants on historical subjects and memory. The key participants included Aleida Assmann, Professor of English at the University of Konstanz and acclaimed author of numerous books on memory, and Peter Novick, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Chicago and author of The Holocaust in American Life. (2) I submit that this statement represents a widely accepted postmodern view of the study of history in Germany and the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It promotes the view that might makes right and suggests that certain communities and groups of people produce only "occurrences" not worth remembering, occurrences that may be mentioned wholesale but then quickly dismissed. Not only did this conference fail to move the European discussion on memory forward, it made accord among the EU nations more difficult by adopting and proclaiming the faulty postmodern ways of approaching history.

At first glance, Dietze's thesis may seem defensible. History consists of events and not of occurrences; it consists of things deemed important and selected for their importance. However, a foundational assumption of this kind is a different matter. First, on the ontological level, it is predicated on an a priori certainty that select human beings are the sole creators of history--that facts do not matter unless given importance by the intellectually powerful individuals who decide which facts are important and which are not. This view is not uncommon among Western historians today. In contrast, most earlier historians, even when they wrote from a secular point of view and declared themselves historicists, carried in their methodology tracts of the belief that there exists some kind of ordering grid, whether epistemological or value-oriented, that transcends individual historians and their time. They might have done so unconsciously, as they were influenced by the customs and habits of Western tradition, or they might have done so consciously. The entire corpus of Holocaust studies is predicated on the quasi-transcendent idea that certain things are unacceptable, regardless of whether they have undergone "social construction." Without an appeal to moral indignation, Holocaust studies would Jose their resonance. Similarly, without the grounding in traditional moral valuation and/or in customary ways of assessing historical facts, historical books would become obsolete as soon as new contingencies appeared.

Second, Dietze's statement cancels out the assumption, long taken for granted, that historical narratives are always incomplete and tentative. "Incompleteness" ceases to be a meaningful term, as there are no yardsticks measuring "correctness" or "incorrectness" of a "socially constructed event." Indeed, the word "correctness" appears absurd in this context. Select human beings are accepted as legitimate creators of the narrative of history because they succeeded in constructing an event by speaking of it often and authoritatively. Their efforts and abilities ultimately determine what the rest of us remember--and we are supposed to find nothing wrong with such a state of affairs.

The difference between the postmodern view and the "traditional" view may appear slight, but it is critical. Dietze's postulate, while ostensibly acceptable, is destructive of Western culture, which is predicated on the possibility of disputation about the relative importance of events regardless of how much attention or publicity they have so far received from historians or the public. …

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