Monday, November 30, 2009

In the Shadow of No Towers

Art Spiegelman

Although it didn’t happen entirely by design, there was a thread that ran through the last few posts on this blog. It had to do with a commitment to memory and truth, truth in memory - as exemplified by the writings of Primo Levi - versus some of its opposites, in the form of defective histories, literary plagiarism, conspiracy theories. And it all culminated last week in a discussion of 9/11 Truther Richard Gage’s presentation at Te Papa, which had an interesting by-product: my first ever bag of hate mail.

I’ve struggled to process that. I don’t want to tar all of Gage’s supporters with that particular brush - indeed, the handful who showed up in the comments kept it perfectly civil, and I thank them for it - but what the few emails I received seemed to have in common, aside from the hate part, was a sense of ownership of History (with a capital aitch to go along with the tee in Truth): who was I to question the motives of the Truthers, or even dare to mention 9/11, non-American, non-affected person that I am?

And it’s not an entirely unreasonable point. There are victims’ families who belong to the Truther movement: isn’t their desire to pursue an alternative interpretation of the events enough to legitimise it, and defuse all (my) objections, including those based on logic and reason? But then if one were to concede that point, History would immediately dissolve into several histories, and Truth would break down into many truths, because naturally there are victims’ families who side with the official explanation of what happened on 9/11, as well as others pursuing different investigations into the responsibilities of government. Truthers would have difficulties with this, for their notion of history is predicated not on complexity and plurality, but on exclusion: of logic, of evidence to the contrary, of the right of certain others to speak.

Beyond that, the idea that you can claim ownership of your own history and your own truth remains very contentious. After all, the Holocaust either did or did not happen, 9/11 either was an inside job or it wasn’t, we either put a man on the moon or we didn’t. Observe however how it all changes if we substitute the word memory for the word history: you can so own your memory. And bearing testimony, what Carl referred to in the comments to last week’s post as the heroism of witness, is precisely the role that the Truthers seek to fulfil. To testify - the religious overtones are not casual - signals that you possess the truth within yourself and your desire to convince others of it. Then comes the verdict, which again is of a binary nature: either X committed crime Y or they didn’t.

And so it happens that the word memory has colonised the debate concerning history and the social. Notions like postmemory (Marianne Hirsch), prosthetic memory (Alison Landsberg) or the ethics of memory (Avishai Margalit) seek to account for how personal memory is transmitted within a society, constituting its own political subjects, and they paint a predominantly positive picture: they say that yes, we can meaningfully access the experience of others, and use that secondary memory (with its attendant empathy) to forge a better sense of justice. Take the television series Roots (1977), for example, says Landsberg: did it not reconnect present-day America with a past that could not otherwise be accessed except through documents frozen in the historical archive? And isn’t there profound value in this? I suppose so. But she doesn’t make the counter-example. How about DW Griffith’s enormously successful The Birth of a Nation (1915)? Did it not glorify the KKK, which used it for several decades as a recruiting tool, and did it not lead in the years following its release to a boom in the Klan’s membership?

So the more fundamental problem remains of how to discriminate between authentic and inauthentic memory, therefore - due to the semantic slippage that I described - between true and false history. Here postmodernity leaves us in a lurch of our own making, forced to deal with complexity and plurality, to abhor simplification, universalisations and those dastardly metanarratives that just refuse to die, all the while steering clear of the pitfalls of Denial or Truthering.

And how do we do that?

I don’t think the answer lies in rejecting postmodernity, or in going all in and choosing your illusions. It seems to me that you could usefully deconstruct each and every human attempt to make history, showing how it is a product of its linguistic and disciplinary framework, of the epoch and the society in which it took place, and at the same time look at the state of our knowledge of a certain historical event and conclude (if it is indeed the case) that as of this day we know enough. Enough to say that the Holocaust and the Killing Fields happened, or that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, or that the Twin Towers fell because they were hit by fucking planes. We shall never cease to want to know more about these events, to seek to understand them better, and indeed I think one could make a case that the historical record too needs to be curated, maintained, so that the documents and the testimonies can continue to speak to us and inform our relationship with the past.

The work of memory is central to this, and direct witness accounts such as Levi’s will always be a key to understanding the Holocaust in a broader and deeper sense than its mechanics and its accounting alone. But so too will the Truthers record speak to us, as it already does, of our struggle to make sense of the present as it unfolded, and of the full extent of our shortcomings. Hopefully the historian/curator of the future will turn and say yes, but look, they also came up with this:

Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a second-generation Holocaust memoir, hence a classic work of postmemory according to Hirsch’s definition; not so In the Shadow of No Towers, where the trauma is entirely his own. And if the earlier work had already been a stroke of formal genius, beginning with the choice of representing the Jews as mice, the Poles as pigs and the Germans as cats, In the Shadow goes farther, employing a wide range of different styles and pulling the characters from the early history of the genre that were already an overt influence of Maus into the comic itself. Indeed the book version of the series of ten large-scale pages published between 2002 and 2003 in Die Zeit includes reproductions of those original sources - ranging from Lyonel Feininger's Kin-derKids (1906) to George McManus’ Bringing Up Father (1921) - and an essay by Spiegelman on the influence that they had on his work.

Interestingly, Spiegelman reveals - both in the introduction and in one of the instalments of the series - that for a time he too had been obsessed with various theories pointing to the attacks having been an inside job. And I say interestingly, because In the Shadow is also an implicit refutation of the Truther movement, and it starts with form: a chaotic jumble of anachronistic and idiosyncratic styles competing to tell their own version of the story, a single Truth - if only concerning the author’s state of mind - each bursting into the frame of the other, failing to stabilise into a coherent picture. There is no clarity, no finality, and not just because the end of the story had yet to be written. The last page in the series fades nearly to black, accompanied by the reflection that the image seared in Spiegelman’s mind of ‘the looming North Tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized’ (which he had observed first-hand on the day) is getting ‘smaller every day’, and with a sardonic farewell: ‘Happy Anniversary’. There is no consolation prize of owning your own Truth.

By the time Spiegelman concluded his series, 9/11 had been successfully warped into an engine of political consensus and colonial expansion - the War in Iraq was not yet one year old. No doubt In the Shadow's bleakness was accentuated by its being deprived of a voice at home, having to reside in exile on the newspapers and magazines of old Europe - Spiegelman was effectively at this time a Pulitzer Prize-winning political dissident - but the invective has deeper meaning. It leverages the author’s personal experience and trauma to question how American society allowed itself to be manipulated and deprived of agency, and poses again the imperative of Maus, but also of Levi: you must be true to memory.

Art Spiegelman. In The Shadow of No Towers. London: Viking, 2004.


Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

"To testify - the religious overtones are not casual - signals that you possess the truth within yourself and your desire to convince others of it. "

I don't know whether I failed to notice it last time or whether Gage only brought it up at the Auckland event, but there was a lot of "You have to be brave to come to these events" and "It takes courage to stand up and tell others what you believe about 9/11."

bob roberts said...

There seems to be a lot of over-writing in this post to reach a fairly banal conclusion: you must tell the truth; you must not not tell the truth.

As far as hate mail goes, while I wouldn't wish it on anybody, is it possible that describing Gage's movement as motivated by "a logic of hatred", and comparing them to Holocaust deniers, might have had something to do with it? You never did explain who or what they hate -- if indeed it is a logic of hatred -- or why it is comparable to Holocaust denial. It seemed like easy rhetoric.

As for the pseudo-religious overtones that HORansome refers to -- we have the truth and you need to hear it, it takes courage, etc -- this is hardly unusual for any revolutionary or dissident group, which is where Gage seems to locate himself.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I don't know whether I failed to notice it last time or whether Gage only brought it up at the Auckland event, but there was a lot of "You have to be brave to come to these events" and "It takes courage to stand up and tell others what you believe about 9/11."

I don't know that there was a lot of it, but he did make that point. Bursill in his introduction was even more explicit as I recall.

Giovanni Tiso said...

By the way, Matthew has been to the Auckland talk as well and has offered his thoughts on both events. Good stuff.

GZ said...

Giovanni, you give me even more to respond to. I finish this thesis in a few days, I'll give it a go then. PS, I cite your comments on the iconicity of the visual image.

I don't know if you've read History and memory after Auschwitz by Dominick LaCapra, but he discusses Maus and traumatic representation at length. His Writing History, Writing Trauma is a very good consideration of the subject more generally.

Ben Wilson said...

Nice thoughts Gio. I'd like to flatter myself and say I've been having a lot of similar thoughts myself recently.

Bob Roberts seems to think it can be put more simply, and perhaps it can. But perhaps some people can't hear it that way. Words like Truth and History seem to become harder and harder to pin down, the more you try. It seems easier to pin down actual truths and history than the methodology by which we could come to know them. This does seem circular to me, but maybe it's just anti-philosophical.

Don't take the hate mail too hard. It's the price of having an opinion, even one as guarded as yours. Indeed, having a guarded opinion is a source of hatred for some so you can't win, if you want to write stuff on the net.

Giovanni Tiso said...

It seems easier to pin down actual truths and history than the methodology by which we could come to know them.

I think if you read Spiegelman and Levi you cannot but be struck by the depth and the extent of not only their involvement but also their commitment to be true to their experience. But of course while it is easy to establish that people like Gage or Sieburg are being utterly dishonest, as you say it's harder to establish the opposite. On what basis do you extend the trust and take on memories that are authentic, as Hirsch and Landsberg and Margalit all think we should? It's obviously a fundamental problem in so many respects.

Here Spiegelman, who unlike Levi is utterly steeped in issues of the ethics of memory and representation in postmodernity - he tells us he read much Philip Dick in the months following the attacks! - helps us by weaving the problem into his works, both formally and thematically. It is a tremendously valuable contribution, precisely because it gets past the circularity that Bob laments.

@George YAY for thesis-finishing! (And Tiso-citing, I'm an incurable egotist.) I read those LaCapra books, History in Transit is also quite good.

CarlD said...

Thanks for the link, Giova'! Your blog is a feast, I look forward to more.

"You must be true to memory." Really? Why? I'm sure you've addressed this but I'm new here. In my classes I assign a journal for which I ask the students to imagine that they're writing for a historian of the distant future whose experience of education was taking knowledge pills. What would she need to know to understand our more cumbersome process?

Most of the students like the idea of knowledge pills for its ease. Some perceive the Orwellian dangers of having knowledge selected and dispensed by powers that be. But we also talk about a possible therapeutic history in which we save ourselves being retraumatized by the past by not obsessively teaching its horrors. The present is trauma enough. Why visit the sins of the fathers on children who have their own histories to suffer?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Hah! This makes two weeks in a row where you pre-empt what I'm going to talk about in the following post. Very nice.

I made a case for the imperative to remember in the last four-five posts based on the intersection between personal memory and history in an admittedly limit set of cases, and I think it would be a bold man who would question it if the choice is between Levi-Spiegelman vs. Sieburg-Gage. Still, while the Holocaust and conspiracy theories may be extremes, I think the question is valid: can you (an should you) build an ethics on false or manufactured memories, or the wilfull forgetting of the crimes of history? I've explored this in the past in relation to my country and Fascism, and it might relate to your reflections on therapeutic history. When you write (provocatively?) that 'what counts as ‘good’ history is history that helps people feel better in the present', that would seem to validate our doctrine of unbecoming to a tee, and I would strongly argue that this logic has had a devastating effect on Italian society and politics. We wanted to feel better about ourselves and look forward rather than back, so we turned into the enemy the Socialism we had never had rather than the Fascism that we had invented and exported. It hasn't worked out well for us.

But this move of conflating memory with history is problematic also and precisely because it invites very improper comparisons with the situation of the individual: why would a person want to endlessly relive the traumas of the past? In the afterword to If This Is a Man, Levi himself explicitly stops short of making it the absolute duty of the Holocaust survivor. So why shouldn't that apply to society as a whole? Should we all be Deniers or, like Sieburg, omitters? A similar question is invited by Landsberg when she talks about mediated memories that become prosthetic and ground our ethics: it's all very well to make the individual case - in Total Recall, for instance, the hero is the hero because the false memories he has had implanted make him forget that he really is a villain - but do we really think we can broaden that to the collective and conclude that there is a social and political good to be gained by aligning ourselves to false histories, pseudo-histories? I think such a move would be problematic to say the least.

Unknown said...

I must say I am a little confused by the 'knowledege pills and therapeutic history'.
"Good history is history that helps people feel better in the present" (Carl). Would this be the 911 Commission Report that makes people feel better about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
"Holocaust denial is an obvious instance of therapeutic history"(Carl). This would make those that question the official story of what happened on September 11th 2001 decidely anti therapeutic history.

CarlD said...

@Rachel yeah, one guy's therapy is another guy's erasure. I wasn't meaning to come to a clean conclusion, just to point at some difficulties.

Giovanni, I might have missed a prior link but I'm wondering if you came across Laura Frost's review of 9/11 fiction in the current bookforum. Here's the first paragraph:

"I didn't see the bodies falling. At least I think I didn't. In that moment of panic, when death seemed entirely possible, there in my living room, two blocks from the World Trade Center, too close to figure out what was happening beyond the swirling paper and the glass shards, debating whether to run or to stay inside, I might have seen more—or less—than I remember. Many weeks later, near where the National Guard barricade had been at the end of the street, I'm pretty sure I saw vendors selling photographs of body parts. How can you trust your memory—or your sight—when you half-expect every plane to smash into a building, when every blue sky is menacing, when you pass the same poster of an explosion every day and finally realize it's a painting of chrysanthemums?"

The whole thing is here. I had to register, but it was free. Cheers!

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Carl, very interesting. I have to agree with the reviewer that including In the Shadow stretches the definition of "novel" somewhat!

Unknown said...

Rather he approaches 911 as a disturbance of language;it was as he writes," ultimately a semiotic event, involving the total breakdown of all meaning making systems"
Great Quote!!
As for repudiation of pleasure..No thank you!
Maybe you could try some non fiction like Kristen Breitweiser "Wake up call"
or "911 and the American Empire: Intellectuals speak out".

Megan Clayton said...

You did not die at Brighton,
nor your young son at Picton,
nor your husband at Sydenham,
nor his children, in time.

The trace of you's not seen on me
so we might say, you never lived
by definition: here we are,
another place where you are not.

I could take my lies to Linwood
where monumental masonry
for now, at least, says otherwise
in trickster's thin air.