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.