The Moment of Silence as Commemoration


It seems to me that the moment of silence mentioned in Winter’s piece, (commemorating November 11th, 1918) is an effective way to turn public commemoration into one of subjective contemplation.  This creates the site of memory within the individual; a personal act; public memory into family history.  This would be an effective form of remembrance for contemplation of events that have no meaning, such as the Holocaust or Hiroshima.  Barthes mentions the use of silence in contemplation of a photograph or image as necessary for the work of art (or the history) to “speak in silence.”  Why was this tool not used after WWII for commemoration, other than within specifically Jewish communities?  Is the non-existence of such moments on a grand scale (telephone usage curbed, traffic shutting down, two-minutes of silence observed by an entire nation) the result of modernity’s reprogramming of cultural contemplation of the image through mechanical/technological means?  Why do the Austrians not observe a moment of silence for Kristallnacht or the Anschluss?  The moment of silence opens up a personal reflection that is not easy to control through political agenda.  Is it that the theme supported by those in power is one of victimization of the Austrian populace by the German annexation?  It seems that if this is the overwhelming thought among citizens, personal contemplation would lend itself to this form of subjective remembrance.  All are seen as victims in this light, Austrian Nazis and Holocaust victims alike.  The fear that the victimization theory of the Anschluss rings false may play into the lack of this ritual commemoration in Austrian society.  You don’t commemorate what you want to ignore.  Under this form of contemplation, the essence of human suffering is brought to the forefront.  Austrians did this to other Austrians; Americans did this to the Japanese civilians residing in Hiroshima, soldiers on both sides died horrible deaths in the trenches of the Great War; these things have no other meaning than to prove that humans are capable of monstrosity.

As each generation dies off, sites of memory located within the individual “fade away” and historical events are left open to more abstract forms of mneumonic representation.  This may be why I find Barthes’ discussion of the photographic image as representation of the dead in the present, (or what Benjamin termed Jetztzeit,) so eerily poignant.  The photograph as a site of memory, or the physical structure for that matter, becomes a necessary point of reflection and more viable as a permanent reminder of how history lives in the contemporary populace.  Winter touches on the usefulness of the building as a tool of commemoration, of course once again, the people have to want to contemplate the image or structure in the first place.  The function of the building is transformed from its tactile purpose, (I pass by this giant meaningless Flakturm on the way to the Kino every weekend, etc.) to its optical purpose, punching through to the optic unconscious for contemplation on what the Anschluss is and what it says on a personal level about the Austrian mentality in a moment Benjamin would describe as the messianic.  (I could be misinterpreting Benjamin here, my take on his “Work of Art and Mechanical Reproduction” will soon follow.)  So the debate over how to correctly use a physical structure as effective commemoration without politicizing a point already under dispute is complicated and without end.  How does one provide Barthes’ “punctum,” or how does one make a structure “speak in silence?”  Winter mentions ambiguity as a tactic with post-modern representation of Holocaust memorial.  But how does one create a memorial that inspires unconscious contemplation through ambiguity in a society where the result of this contemplation in the individual may invoke such a varied response, especially when this form of contemplation of such horrors may be undesired?


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