The Uses of the Past   /   Summer 2007   /    Interview

Interview with James E. Young

“Memorials seem to remember just about everything except their own coming into being.”

Jennifer L. Geddes and James E. Young

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany. Via Wikimedia Commons.

You have written that “the initial impulse to memorialize events like the Holocaust may actually spring from an opposite and equal desire to forget them.”11xJames E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) 5. What does that suggest for how we should remember these events?


When I wrote this, I was thinking specifically of the deep skepticism a post–World War II generation of artists and architects shared about Holocaust memorialization in Germany. During the heated and fascinating debates over what has become the national Memorial to Europe’s Murdered Jews (dedicated in 2005 in Berlin), many young German artists in particular feared that by concretizing and fixing Holocaust memory in a single site in Berlin, such a memorial might somehow draw a bottom-line beneath the Holocaust, serving as a kind of capstone that would in effect bury the Holocaust and thereby foreclose further Holocaust memory-work by future generations.


What do you mean by “memory-work”?


I use the term “memory-work” to emphasize the process of memory over a single, static result. “Memory-work” also connotes a kind of “working-through,” which includes a sense of our changing relationship to particular memories. Memory of the past might thus be regarded as a constantly negotiated, animated dialogue between ourselves and the past. I also hope this term suggests that the search for memory is also always a search for meaning in such memory.


Often psychological terms used to describe individuals are applied to collective entities like states or societies, such as the suggestion that a society has repressed a certain memory. What do you think of this practice—of the reasons for it and the possible problems associated with it?


While I share many of the assumptions and premises of psychoanalytic thought on memory in individuals, I do balk at applying these terms too loosely to collective entities, like nations and religious groups. I know some of this gets back to that early divide between personal memory and the social constructions of memory and its meanings, but I do believe that individuals cannot share another’s memory of particular events any more than we can share each other’s cortex. However, we do often share common spaces of memory and the common meanings they assign to otherwise highly individual memories of the same events. But do entire societies “repress” memories too painful to bear, as either victim or perpetrator? I don’t think so.

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