Critical Memory Studies: New Approaches

By | June 28, 2023

Guest post by Brett Ashley Kaplan

Julie Mehretu
Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson, 2016
Ink and acrylic on canvas
84 x 96 in. (213.4 x 243.8 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Copyright: Julie Mehretu
Photo credit: Cathy Carver

Julie Mehretu’s multilayered, palimpsestic paintings insert memories of violence into politicized landscapes. There’s a work of unpacking that goes into experiencing these canvases as they swirl in and out of grids, colors competing with graffiti-esque spray paint, images conjured that fail to concretize. When confronted with her stunning canvases unexpected, buried histories, underground maps, legends to infinite pasts begin to bubble to the surface, percolating, and insisting on remembrance. Mehretu’s 2021 mid-career retrospective at The Whitney in New York included Conjured Parts (eye), Ferguson (2016) which appears as the cover of this memory volume. Conjured Parts’ first layer consisted of a photograph of police bedecked in riot gear after Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. That history steadfastly remains at the core of the image and viewers are invited to remember Brown and countless others as their memories escalate through the layers of the painting. I chose this powerful image for the cover of this multilayered collection because it offers a stunning visual memorial, and its complexity encapsulates the palimpsest of memory work that this book epitomizes.

This volume brings together a diverse, multidisciplinary, group of thinkers, writers, artists, activists, and others to consider together how and why memory matters.

This anthology opens up memory studies to the larger global network. While no volume, no matter how comprehensive, can cover every aspect of a field as expansive as memory studies, and no volume, no matter how thick, can represent every part of the world, or every kind of writer, I am delighted that the contributors whose work you’ll read in this volume hail from, India, Belgium, Australia, England, the United States, France, Israel-Palestine, Canada, Russia, and other locations. Memory studies, as a discipline, emerged in Europe but now has spread to so many other parts of the world and is a truly global network of engaged thinkers, creative writers, artists, dancers, and others.

In addition to national and identificatory diversity, this volume also boasts contributions from senior scholars, newly minted professors, independent writers, activists, novelists, short story writers, poets, and beyond. In bringing these voices together my attempt has been to offer the broadest possible interpretation of memory studies and to include subjects and writers who may not have previously been considered within the traditional bailiwick of the field.

The subject invites such a wide brush because memory touches nearly every aspect of our lives. How we represent on both individual and collective levels relies upon memory; how we narrate ourselves, and imagine our futures, depends upon memory; and how we interpret the news varies radically depending on which axes of memory we access.

One artist who participated in an online discussion of Covid memorialization, Karla Funderburk, of Matter Studio Gallery in LA, described how she began making origami cranes to memorialize the losses she saw all around her from the pandemic. Soon, people sent her boxes of cranes from all over the world, each one representing someone being mourned. The cranes flew in the gallery, their small paper frames marking a precarious spot of memory that formed communal space to visualize the enormity of global trauma.

Art, as these cranes demonstrate, and fiction in all its myriad forms offers both space to see the messy complexities of memory and inspiration for scholars trying to grapple with the intricacies of its workings. Elif Shafak, at a Writers for Democratic Action (a group that gathers writers together to work toward expanding democracy in the United States) event, claimed that “The novel is one of our last remaining pluralistic, dem

ocratic spaces.” The novel itself has the capacity to offer multiple perspectives, multiple and sometimes competing versions of the same events; novels and short stories give us windows into how memory moves and matters. You’ll find fiction alongside theory in Critical Memory Studies.

As I write, millions of people around the globe have perished from the Covid-19 pandemic; when you read this, grievously, that number will have continued to swell. When, in the grip of the terrifying pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests blossomed around the world as we said: enough with white supremacist murder of innocent Black civilians, it felt like a turning point but there is still no memorial to the victims of police brutality. As I write, Russia is in the process of invading Ukraine and the memorial at Babi Yar has been bombed and damaged. As I write, we remember a a furious mob invading the US Capitol and attempting to halt democracy on January 6, 2021; they failed to do that, but they killed, injured, and damaged physically and psychically the victims and democracy as it used to be known in the United States.

How can—how will these and other traumatic events be remembered and memorialized? There is so much at stake in how memories of these histories unfold, so much to mourn and hold in memory.

Memory studies examines how memorialization can happen, what shapes it takes, and what it means. Memory studies grapples with how memory collides with history, with repressive structures meant to keep it down, with revisionism. Memory studies mines literature, art, music, and many other forms to find out how memory matters. Memory studies conversations, conferences, journals, organizations, programs, workshops, summer schools, networks, and ideas have been expanding at tornado speeds for many years and in multiple sites across the globe.

Unfortunately, there has never been a greater need for our work.

Brett Ashley Kaplan, editor of Critical Memory Studies, directs the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies and is a Professor in the Program in Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA. Her novel, Rare Stuff, was published in 2022 and she is the author of Unwanted Beauty, Landscapes of Holocaust Postmemory, and Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth.

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