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Michael Rothberg: “Understanding Mnemonic Complexity”

Michael Rothberg: “Understanding Mnemonic Complexity”

Michael Rothberg is the 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. His work has been published in such journals as American Literary History, Critical Inquiry, Cultural Critique, History and Memory, New German Critique, and PMLA, and has been translated into French, German, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. His latest book is The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators, published by Stanford University Press in their “Cultural Memory in the Present” series. He is also the author of Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009) and Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation (2000). He has co-edited The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings (2003; with Neil Levi) as well as special issues in the journals Criticism, Interventions, Occasion, and Yale French Studies. With Yasemin Yildiz, he is currently completing Inheritance Trouble: Migrant Archives of Holocaust Remembrance, which is under contract with Fordham University Press.

  1. You mentioned that your family memory had no impact on your choice of a research field. What motivated you to be involved in memory studies?

I got involved in memory studies through my involvement in Holocaust studies. I got involved in Holocaust studies because of the way it challenged my training as an undergraduate and graduate student. As an undergraduate I became quite interested in literary theory, which at the time primarily meant structuralism and poststructuralism. As a graduate student, I studied briefly with Fredric Jameson and became very interested in Marxist theory. When I started to read about the Holocaust, I quickly realized that it put into question many of my theoretical assumptions. To put it crudely: the Holocaust challenged a poststructuralist notion that everything is language or discourse; and it challenged the Marxist primacy of economic determination. Those are great simplifications—and both poststructuralism and Marxism remain essential to how I think about the world—but they begin to explain why this history (to which I did not have a close personal relationship) became so important to me.

In my first book, Traumatic Realism (2000), the keywords were trauma and representation, but as I continued to work in Holocaust studies I became more and more interested in the impact of the Holocaust on the postwar world. The category of memory—especially “collective,” or “public,” or “cultural” memory—offered itself as a way of talking about that impact. From the start, I approached Holocaust memory critically: on the one hand, I believe strongly in the need to preserve memory of traumatic histories as part of a process of coming to terms with the past; on the other hand,

I was disturbed by the sacralized status that the Holocaust had attained in the post-Cold War period, especially in the US, Europe, and Israel. Trying to work through that tension led to my second book and my long-term involvement with memory studies.

  1. You are the author of ‘multidirectional memory’ (2009) concept, which is very popular in memory studies. I have found that term in the titles of about twenty publications, regarding memory in different countries and different times. It means that your theory has a large heuristic potential. Can you provide a succinct description of it for our readers?

The concept of multidirectional memory was my response to the tension I just described: the one between recognizing the specificity of different traumatic histories and the need to avoid turning that specificity into a sacralized uniqueness. At the turn of the twenty-first century, this tension played out in what many people called a “competition of victims” and in what I called “competitive memory.” While such competitions and conflicts over the past are real—and, at the time, seemed to take place especially among different minority groups—I became convinced that the dominant public and scholarly way of thinking about that phenomenon was mistaken. I described that way of thinking as “zero-sum logic.” That is the idea that memories crowd each other out of the public sphere. Too much Holocaust memory, the story goes, blocks remembrance of other traumas, such as slavery or colonialism. Inversely, too much attention to slavery would threaten the public memory of the Holocaust. I don’t think it works this way. By looking at a particular (though significant) case—the relation of Holocaust memory to memories of colonialism and slavery and to ongoing processes of decolonization—I came to a different conclusion: that collective memories build on each other through a dialogic process of borrowing, echoing, and appropriation. I called this dynamic, non-zero-sum logic “multidirectional memory.”

Although I was looking at a particular case, I believe I uncovered a structural logic that describes memory in a more general way. My point is not that therefore all memories are equal and that there are not hierarchies of recognition for different events—there most definitely are. But I don’t think we will understand those kinds of hierarchies—or have resources to contest them—if we remain locked in a notion of the public sphere as a scare resource and of power as purely repressive.

Although naturally many people have contested some of my findings, I have also been gratified by the extent to which the concept has seemed to help people around the world to think through the memory traditions that are important to them. Even if Holocaust memory represents something of a special case because of the extent of its global circulation, all locations feature multiple layers of memory and dynamic flows of remembrance. I think that the concept of multidirectional memory can help us understand that kind of mnemonic complexity across contexts.

  1. Your concept suggests that memory goes beyond the frameworks of nation-state. We have a lot of concepts, which are related to the supranational frameworks of memory, which differ by their adjective of the noun ‘memory’: ‘transnational’ (‎Geoffrey M. White, 1995), ‘cosmopolitan’ (Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, 2002), ‘prosthetic’ (Alison Landsberg, 2004), ‘transcultural’ (Eloise Briere, 2004), ‘global’ (Jeffrey Stepinsky, 2005), ‘digital y’ (Joanne Garde-Hansen, Andrew Hoskins, and Anna Reading, 2009), ‘globital’ (Anna Reading, 2011) and ‘travelling’ (Astrid Erll, 2011). The multitude of those approaches are in opposition to a singular notion of ‘national memory’. Why do you think we have so many concepts to describe the new regime of memory, which is inherent to our time of transition from Industrial to Information society? It is not obvious, because the ‘national memory’ is able to grasp all of 193 UN members’ memory phenomena. Then, why do we need at least nine above mentioned concepts to describe a type of memory, which tends to be a common heritage of humankind? Why do we have a singular concept for many phenomena and many concepts for singular phenomena?

You are right that in recent years there has been a proliferation of concepts to describe memory that goes beyond the nation. There are probably a few different reasons for this. In addition to what you put forward, I’d suggest that it may be in part a symptom of the institutionalization of memory studies during this period. That is, while the study of memory by philosophers, historians, and others has a very long pedigree, the field of memory studies is a recent invention. Indeed, an international Memory Studies Association has only existed for three years and the journal Memory Studies is not much older! In that period of consolidation, it doesn’t surprise me that there would be a proliferation of theories and concepts introduced almost simultaneously. This disciplinary consolidation has also taken place in a period of transition and uncertainty characterized, on the one hand, by rapid technological development in the direction of instantaneous global communications and, on the other, by political instability in which national boundaries are both porous and increasingly securitized. Beyond the academy, this has also been a period in which there has been rapid growth of new museums and various kinds of memory tourism and in which memory has reemerged as a highly politicized topic of public concern in Europe and elsewhere. It’s not surprising to me that, given these developments, we would see a proliferation of attempts to make sense of the present.

In terms of my own work, yes, I would certainly situate my work in the broader transnational turn, but the way I think about the transnational is less as a transcendence of the nation than as a relativization of it. I like the emphasis that Chiara De Cesari and Ann Rigney (2014) put on transnational memory as a methodology that pays attention to the different scales at which memory functions: from the very local to the global by way of the national. The transnational turn does not eliminate national memory, it reframes the nation by seeing it as only one (albeit influential) scale at which memory works.

Similarly, I don’t think my concept of multidirectional memory functions only at the transnational scale: in fact, it’s a dynamic that I would argue functions at all scales, from the local to the global. In my contribution to De Cesari and Rigney’s volume, I differentiate between transnational and transcultural dynamics: while the transnational involves the crossing of national borders and scales, the transcultural involves the hybridization and layering that accompanies the crossing of cultural borders. Transcultural memory can and often does exist within a nation-state as a form of domestic multiculturalism. Transnational memory is not necessarily transcultural—just think of various forms of cultural imperialism such as the global dominance of Hollywood films. The dynamic of multidirectionality operates at both the transnational and transcultural levels and perhaps that is one of its particular contributions to thinking beyond the methodological nationalism that characterized the field of memory studies after Pierre Nora’s major contributions in the Lieux de mémoire project.

In light of recent developments, I would also insist that multidirectional memory is not always “good.” There are aspects of multidirectionality that one can find in far-right remembrance today, for instance, in the amalgam of Nazi, colonial, and other racist symbols that far-right movements draw on. In other words, the far right is a place where we see a simultaneously nationalist and transnational political mobilization and a nationalist and transnational politics of memory.

  1. The terms ‘global memory’ and ‘digital memory’ were included in the dictionary of computer science before memory studies adopted those terms. Your ‘multidirectional memory’ has a parallel ‘multidirectional associative memory’ in computing as well. Is it a coincidence or the computer science’s language could inspire the researchers in memory studies?

I have to admit that when I coined the term “multidirectional memory” I was unaware of its use in computer science. That said, I welcome the association. My work remains social, cultural, and qualitative, but it strikes me as some kind of confirmation of my ideas that a similar dynamic can be found in realms that work more quantitatively, technologically, or even biologically. I’m not especially conversant with cognitive science or neuroscientific approaches to memory, but my sense is that what I describe in the social and cultural realm as the productive, dialogic dynamics of multidirectionality resembles descriptions of the brain’s operations during acts of remembrance.

  1. In your essay ‘From Gaza to Warsaw: Mapping Multidirectional Memory’ you present the next map of ‘multidirectional memory’: ‘I arrive at a four-part distinction in which multidirectional memories are located at the intersection of an axis of comparison (defined by a continuum stretching from equation to differentiation) and an axis of political affect (defined by a continuum stretching from solidarity to competition — two complex, composite affects)’. Using memory discourses around the Israel-Palestinian conflict, you ‘filled’ two quadrants of that map: 1) equation and competition (cases of Robinson, Finkelstein, Israeli far-right settlers from Gaza strip and the Palestinian museum of ‘Holocaust’ in the town of Ni’lin in the West Bank) and 2) equation and solidarity (case of Schechner). Can you please provide examples of discourses regarding that conflict that correspond to two other quadrants of your map: 3) differentiation and solidarity and 4) differentiation and competition or in Israel-Palestinian case those quadrants are empty?

The map of multidirectional memory I develop in the essay “From Gaza to Warsaw” was a response to questions I was receiving about how to distinguish different forms of multidirectional memory. Although the emphasis in my book was especially on “positive” examples of multidirectionality—the way that invocations of traumatic memories can create solidarity across seemingly separate or even opposed groups—I was never naïve about the fact that multidirectionality could also work in more nefarious ways. My example above of the “multidirectional memory” of the far right is one version of that. The map was meant to allow us to distinguish—in a fairly schematic way—different acts of multidirectional memory according to the manner in which they make comparisons and according to the affects attached to those comparisons.

I chose the example of invocations of Holocaust memory in the Israeli-Palestinian case precisely because it is—for me, at least—one of the most difficult political situations to address and one in which memory plays an unavoidable role. I don’t believe that memories will be distributed uniformly across the map in all cases—and perhaps that issue of different forms of distribution would be an interesting future project for someone. Still, I think it is possible to fill in those other quadrants that you mention. First, I’ll say that while I think Schechner’s own account of his artwork places it squarely in the solidarity via equation quadrant, I see the work itself functioning somewhat more complexly and moving closer to the differentiated solidarity quadrant (the one, I have to admit, that I find the most politically productive). But perhaps a better example of differentiated solidarity in this context would be the writings of the great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. Although a fierce advocate of Palestinian self-determination, Said never failed to recognize the complex situation that led to Palestinian dispossession. That is to say, he recognized the particular trauma of the Holocaust and put it alongside the Nakba without collapsing the two into each other. The solidarity one finds in his writings is not with Israelis qua Israelis—how could it be under conditions of occupation?—but he does, I believe, express solidarity with Jews qua victims of the Holocaust.

In terms of the competition/differentiation quadrant—I’d say this is one of the most frequent, at least looking from the Israeli side. The whole discourse of the Holocaust’s uniqueness is frequently instrumentalized in justification of Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The extremity of the Holocaust, in this kind of discourse, serves to excuse almost anything Israel does as self-defense and as prevention of a so-called “Second Holocaust.” I suppose there are versions of this coming from pro-Palestinian sources, but I think those are much less frequent: precisely because the Holocaust is recognized globally as a traumatic history, competitive articulations are more likely to push toward equation. Only denialist discourses (which of course do exist) might be classified as perverse forms of competitive “differentiation.”

  1. Recently the U.S. Representative and a member of Democratic Party Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared the detention camps for illegal migrants on the southern American border with the Nazi concentration camps and indirectly alluded to the Holocaust ( Shortly after that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum released a ‘Statement Regarding the Museum’s Position on Holocaust Analogies’, which ‘unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary’ ( You are one of 580 academics who signed a letter that objects to that statement and suggests to the museum administration that it ‘reverse its position on careful historical analysis and comparison.’ ( It is an exemplary case of multidirectional memory. Can you please ‘map’ the discourses of that memory conflict’s participants? Did you have any response from the Holocaust Memorial Museum? Rhetoric often reflects political positions. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez obviously instrumentalized memory in political discussion between Democrats and Republicans. We can suspect that the statement of Museum was not free from any political motivation as well. It is plausible that it was for example an expressing of support of Trump as gratitude of pro-Israel lobby for relocating the American embassy to Jerusalem. What is your view of the above mentioned perspective regarding the letter, which you signed? Does it express pure academic interests or there are any political motivations?

I have a lot to say about this issue, but my primary point would be this: if you want to prevent use of the phrase “concentration camps” because it allegedly refers to the Holocaust, then you have misrepresented the history of both the Holocaust and concentration camps. The genocidal killing that we today call the Holocaust did not take place primarily in concentration camps, but rather in extermination camps along with the forests of eastern Europe. The first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, opened in March 1933, eight years before the Holocaust could be said to begin. The first prisoners of Nazi camps were political opponents and those considered “asocial”—they were not created specifically for Jews and, despite their brutality, were not specifically created for mass murder. The Holocaust began with the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, including the deployment of the Einsatzgruppen who were involved in mass shootings of Jews, and with the subsequent opening of extermination facilities such as Chelmno where gas was used. Concentration camps also have a history that predates Nazi Germany. Generally speaking, the first concentration camps are thought to have been operated by the Spanish in Cuba in 1896 and the British in South Africa during the Boer War a few years later.

I was surprised that a politician such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seemed to have a better understanding of this history than the US Holocaust Memorial Museum or the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Of course, Ocasio-Cortez was using this term for political reasons—to attract attention to the cruel and inhuman conditions in the camps that the US government has set up for asylum seekers and refugees along the US/Mexican border. But I would not say she was making a comparison. I would say, rather, that she was making a classification: she was classifying the American camps as concentration camps and thus placing them in the longer history that I evoked above. You can naturally argue about whether that is a legitimate way to classify these facilities. A definition that has been circulating throughout these recent discussions is one from the journalist Andrea Pitzer, who defines concentration camps as places for “mass detention of civilians without trial.” Given that reasonable definition, I do not think Ocasio-Cortez’s classification was off the mark. I don’t really understand why the USHMM responded the way they did, but I have heard speculations that suggest that the museum’s advisory council is supportive of Trump. They did eventually respond to the scholars’ letter, but not in a way that really addressed our concerns or treated the letter drafters and signatories with the respect they deserve (given that many of the most important Holocaust scholars in the world were signatories of the letter).

If we were going to map this controversy using my schema, I think we could probably say the following. Ocasio-Cortez was creating solidarity through equation, but not equation of the Holocaust and the treatment of contemporary refugees: equation of different groups that have been subject to concentrationary regimes. The USHMM’s rejection of all possible analogies fits clearly into the competitive differentiation quadrant: it separates out the Holocaust from all other histories and in doing so, I would argue, does symbolic harm to victims of other forms of oppression. The letter I signed is closer to the differentiated solidarity quadrant. I can’t speak for everybody who signed the letter, but I don’t think anybody believes that what is happening today to refugees is exactly the same as what happened in the Holocaust (so, we have a differentiated perspective); but I do think we are all committed to solidarity between different experiences of victimization at the hands of powerful states. Finally, I think that many of us are concerned that the direction in which our country (and many others…) is going is dangerous and that it is useful to think about historical precedents even if we know that history does not repeat itself in identical form.

  1. What are your academic plans?

After finishing Multidirectional Memory, I started work on two book projects (in addition to working on various editorial projects). One of those books has just appeared: The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (2019). While Multidirectional Memory primarily considered how different experiences of victimization could be shared across national and cultural boundaries, I became interested in thinking about other relevant subject positions in relation to violence. That led me to the notion of the “implicated subject”—the subject who enables, inherit, benefits from, and helps perpetuate violence and inequality without being a perpetrator in any moral or legal sense. I realized that violence and inequality are largely produced and perpetuated by people whom we could never describe as “perpetrators” and yet who are integral to the processes that produce domination and victimization. I am interested both in how what I call implication works historically (diachronically) and in the present (synchronically). In developing this framework, I draw on a number of different case studies, including not only the Holocaust and Israel/Palestine, but also the aftermath of transatlantic slavery, post-apartheid South Africa, the Vietnam War, and even the struggle over Kurdistan. I see the book in part as a contribution to memory studies, but the key terms here are historical and political responsibility.

My other ongoing project is a co-authored book with Yasemin Yildiz, who is a German Studies scholar working on issues of migration. The book concerns how immigrants from Turkey and their descendants negotiate with Germany’s powerful culture of Holocaust memory. The book grows out of an essay we published several years ago called “Memory Citizenship” in which we both looked at the way dominant discourses police immigrants’ responses to the Holocaust and the way that many immigrants have responded creatively to that traumatic history despite the strictures placed on them. We’re especially interested in cultural responses in fields such as literature, art, performance, and music as well as innovative forms of memory activism. We started this project long before the recent “refugee crisis,” but I think it’s safe to say that the question of how immigrants negotiate memory and citizenship is quite charged in both Germany and in many other parts of the world.

The link between memory and various forms of collective belonging has been at the core of memory studies at least since Maurice Halbwachs coined the term “collective memory.” Yet, the link between memory and citizenship remains underexplored. Focusing on memory citizenship highlights the material effects of discourses of belonging: the rights and duties of the citizen—and the noncitizen—that accompany the “imagined community” of the nation. We’re also interested in exploring how this notion of memory citizenship plays out in transnational spaces such as Europe and immigrant diasporas.

Thank you very much for the interview!

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