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Memory’s “Transnational Turn”

Over the past two decades, geographers have increasingly theorized the intimate relationship between memory, space, and place (see Johnson 2005; Till 2005; Hoskins 2007; Hoelscher 2008; Legg 2007; Azaryahu and Foote 2008; Dwyer and Aiderman 2008; Rose-Redwood, Aiderman, and Azaryahu 2008; Stangl 2008; Azaryahu 2012; and Inwood, Aiderman, and Barron 2016). As outlined in Chapter 1, the presence of multiple temporal and spatial realms is a consistent theme within much of this literature. Despite geography’s in-depth contribution to theorizing the spatial and temporal traces of past memories in re-producing present-day memory cultures and their commemorative topographies, scholarship within the field has overwhelmingly relied on the national scale to ground its conceptualizations of cultural memory.7 A significant body of literature at the intersection of memory studies and Holocaust studies is shifting the scale of memory from the nation-state to the diaspora, the national to the transnational (see Bennett and Kennedy 2003; Hebei 2009; Assmann 2010; Assmann and Conrad 2010; Gutman, Brown, and Sodaro 2010; Creet and Kitzmann 2011; Crownshaw 2011; Hirsch and Miller 2011; Phillips and Reyes 2011; Bond, Craps, and Vermeulen 2017). In their groundbreaking study of cosmopolitan memory, authors Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider (2006) conceptualize the formulation of collective memories in relation to

Trauma after 9111 97 global flows of people, information, and ideas, across space. “Memories,” according to Levy and Sznaider,

are shaped by national imperatives .... While this [resulting] focus on national sites [read: places of memory] and commemoration is important, it remains confined to territorial conceptions of memory. It does not sufficiently take into account how global topoi are inscribed into local and national discourse. (2006, 9)

Refocusing studies of memory to “glocal” processes, Levy and Sznaider challenge traditional framings of memory that confine collective and cultural memory-making to the temporal and spatial boundaries and borders of the nation-state. In other words, the authors dispel nationally bound narratives of memory that depict past events—and their corresponding memories—as tied to certain topographies and their afflicted communities.

In thinking through constructions of collective memory as transversal processes, Levy and Sznaider mobilize Holocaust memory to reframe the scales of memory—individual, collective, and national—as being in flux. In the authors’ words:

We are studying not the historical event called the Holocaust but how changing representations of this event have become a central political and cultural symbol facilitating the emergence of cosmopolitan memories. (2006, 4)

The Holocaust is now a concept that has been dislocated from space and time, resulting in its inscription into other acts of injustice and other traumatic national memories across the globe. (2006, 5)

As such. Levy and Sznaider theorize collective memory itself as a transnational cultural product and project, calling for an analysis of Holocaust memory as it emerges throughout and across Europe, Israel, and the United States from the postwar years to the present-day.

As the past is remembered in relation to contemporary happenings, Levy and Sznaider’s formulations of Holocaust memory—historical and contemporary—are characterized by ongoing struggles over national sovereignty and human rights played out in the aftermath of war. As postmodernist political geographers John Agnew, Katharyne Mitchell, and Gerard Toal (2003) similarly argue, present-day territorial conflicts are largely narrated through the circulation of past memories and their resulting subjectivities. As the geographers write,

In th[e] postmodern approach, international conflicts are understood in terms of the competing narratives or stories around popular memories that need repeated commemoration and celebration at sites of ritual or ‘places of memory,’ and groups invent or maintain identities by associating with particular places and the images such places communicate to larger audiences. (Agnew, Mitchell, and Toal 2003, 4)

In line with this, Gearoid 6 Tuathail (aka Gerard Toal) dedicates a portion of his influential Critical Geopolitics (1996) to analyzing the transnational circulation of memory discourses, particularly the deployment of Holocaust memory in relation to more contemporary instances of genocide. Importantly, 6 Tuathail’s theorizations of critical geopolitics lead him to reconstruct a genealogy of Holocaust memory during the 1990s as it has been mobilized throughout the West.

In his chapter “Between a Holocaust and a Quagmire,” 6 Tuathail focuses on the lasting moral resonance and legal impetus of Holocaust memory during the Bosnian War (1992-1995). Despite warnings of human rights atrocities, however, the international community—led by the United States—resisted categorizing the unfolding geopolitical crisis as a genocide. Here, 6 Tuathail demonstrates how the United States carefully emphasized dissimilarity between the situations of Bosnia and Nazi-Germany through the newly established rhetoric of “ethnic-cleansing.” As a signatory of the United Nation’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, the United States is both morally obligated and legally bound to act in the prevention of crimes against humanity, as are other ratifiers of the convention. Strategically downplaying the violence in Bosnia as ethnic-cleansing and not a genocide, the United States rhetorically framed American military intervention as unnecessary. This leads 6 Tuathail to conclude that the US government mobilizes, or—as in the case of Bosnia—immobilizes scripts of Holocaust memory when geopolitically useful (also see Assmann 2010, for a related argument). As historian Peter Novick similarly concludes regarding the Rwandan situation, “To acknowledge that it was a genocide would, in principle, oblige the United States, along with other signers of the UN Genocide Convention, to take action” (1999, 250). Therefore, in the case of Bosnia, the United States had to delineate Jewish genocide from Bosnian ethnic-cleansing in order to escape direct military involvement based on its own morally constructed grounds.8 As 6 Tuathail concludes, “an ‘emotional’ holocaust reading ... had to be contained” (1996, 209).9

The circulation and appropriation of Holocaust memory during times of geopolitical turmoil is, in part, the result of the event’s unparalleled affective power to generate emotive narratives of good and evil. The Holocaust’s evocative force lies in the hard truth of humanity’s /»humanity, as well as in its courage to resist tyrannical power. As political lines are drawn and redrawn in relation to more contemporary conflicts, the rhetorical mobilization of Holocaust memory alleviates the potential for moral ambiguity, obligating us to act—to choose sides and to choose right, morally speaking (also see Dean 2010). Consequently, it is the universalization of Holocaust

Trauma after 9/11 99 memory that has largely contributed to its polarizing effect in political and social debates. As Levy and Sznaider comment:

The current suffering of others must be made comprehensible, however; it must be integrated into a cognitive structure that is connected to the ‘memory’ of other people’s suffering. (2006, 28-29)

For some, this [decontextualization/universalization] signals a trivialization of the Holocaust [and Jewish suffering]; for others, it opens the possibility of using its moral force to contend with contemporary political crises. (2006, 53)

Accordingly, representations of the Holocaust as an unprecedented display of violence aimed at a particular people are routinely challenged by the efforts of both Jewish and non-Jewish social actors to push for the term’s expansion to include other forms of cultural suffering with the goal of effecting social change (see Reich 2005).

In his groundbreaking book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009), Michael Rothberg addresses this very conundrum of the Holocaust’s universalization in the wake of the collapsing British and French Empires after World War II. Rothberg challenges a competitive model of cultural memory, instead arguing for the relational production of collective memories, traumatic ones in particular. Here, Rothberg de-centers particularist interpretations of the Holocaust as exceptional to include other histories—and their relational cultural traumas—in places such as North Africa and the Caribbean. Reconceptualizing the rise of Holocaust memory in relations to global anti-colonial resistance movements and the rise of transnational social justice movements and human rights-based discourses, the author reflects on the relationality of Holocaust memory with other cultural traumas rooted in global north/south dynamics.10 As Rothberg notes, “the Holocaust has enabled the articulation of other histories of victimization at the same time that it has been declared ‘unique’ among human-perpetrated horrors” (2009, 6). Rothberg’s theory of “multidirectionality,” much like Levy and Sznaider’s “glocalization,” redirects the formulation of Holocaust memory to its spatial and temporal convergences with other spaces and places of memory that result in their mutual changing. “Multidirectional memory,” according to Rothberg, “posits collective memory as partially disengaged from exclusive versions of cultural identity and acknowledges how remembrance both cuts across and binds together diverse spatial, temporal, and cultural sites” (2009, 11). As a result, emerging efforts to reframe memory cultures as multidirectional and transnational within academic, activist, and some heritage settings, are predicated on the Holocaust serving as a moral compass in the wake of political struggle and global restructuring.

Although I largely agree with Levy and Sznaider’s and Rothberg’s theorizations of Holocaust memory as a global icon for negotiating other memory cultures and their corresponding traumas, particularly their foundational assessment of a transnational spatial shift within studies of collective memory vis-à-vis globalization, 1 remain cautious about the authors’ theorizations of Holocaust memory as a rubric for navigating social justice in transnational contexts. My caution is due in part to their reliance on Holocaust “lessons” as unquestioned, a priori models of virtue in the post-9/11 landscape. For instance, although Levy and Sznaider’s and Rothberg’s texts were published after the events of September 11th, 2001, their examples of a universal Holocaust memory and its global epistemic reach are largely directed at past events and times. That is not to say, however, that the authors remain ignorant of the limitations of transnational memory cultures as vehicles for creating “communities of justice.” In fact, when the authors do express some reservation for the ability of memory to positively influence material and social change in both the present and future, all cite the post-9/11 war on terror context for its blatant denial of human rights and rolling-back of civil liberties in the name of (international security (see Levy and Sznaider 2006, 174-76 and 207; Rothberg 2009, 221-24 and 309-13). Accordingly, the contribution of this chapter is not a complete disavowal of the authors’ seminal works, but rather an analysis that both builds on and, at times, departs from their investigation.

Given the decontextualization of Holocaust memory in moments of international uncertainty, the ability of this traumatic memory to move and affect political sentiment across borders—material and psychic—requires careful evaluation in the war on terror context. I now turn to specific evocations of Holocaust memory after 9/11 in order to demonstrate the cultural trauma’s salience to contemporary geographic imaginations of security and insecurity in the global war on terror.

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