Excerpts from “Twilight Memories” :
As generational memory begins to fade and ever later decades of this modern century par excellence are becoming history or myth to ever more people, such looking back and remembering has to confront some difficult problems of representation in its relationship to temporality and memory. Human memory may well be an anthropological given, but closely tied as it is to the ways a culture constructs and lives its temporality, the forms of memory will take are invariably contingent and subject to change.Memory and representation, then, figure as key concerns at this fin de siecle when the twilight settles around the memories of this century and their carriers, with the memories of the holocaust survivors only being the most salient example in the public mind.
It does not require much theoretical sophistication to see that all representation–whether in language, narrative, image, or recorded sound–is based on memory. Re-presentation always comes after, even though some media will try to provide us with the delusion of pure presence. But rather than leading us to some authentic origin or giving us verifiable access to the real, memory, even and especially in its belatedness, is itself based on representation. The past is not simply there in memory, but it must be articulated to become memory. The fissure that opens up between experiencing an event and remembering it in representation is unavoidable. Rather than lamenting or ignoring it, this split should be understood as a powerful stimulant for cultural and artistic creativity. At the other end of the Proustian experience, with that famous madeline, is the memory of childhood, not childhood itself…The temporal status of any act of memory is always the present and not, as some naive epistemology might have it, the past itself, even though all memory in some ineradicable sense is dependent on some past event or experience. It is this tenuous fissure between past and present that constitutes memory, making it powerfully alive and distinct from the archive or any other mere system of storage and retrieval.
The twilight of memory, then, is not just the result of a somehow natural generational forgetting that could be counteracted through some form of a more reliable representation. Rather, it is given in the very structures of representation itself. The obsessions with memory in contemporary culture must be read in terms of this double problematic. Twilight memories are both: generational memories on the wane due to the passing of time and the continuing speed of technological modernization, and memories that reflect the twilight status of memory itself. Twilight is that moment of the day that foreshadows the night of forgetting, but that seems to slow time itself, an in-between state in which the last light of the day may still play out its ultimate marvels. It is memory’s privileged time. (2-3)
Architecture itself has become ever more interested in site-memory and in inscribing temporal dimensions in spatial structures. (4)
The work of both Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno on art in the age of mechanical reproduction and on the culture industry had been energized by issues of memory and temporality, while diverging in its respective assessments of culture in the age of modernism, fascism, and communism…While Adorno’s and Benjamin’s analyses pertain to another, now historical stage of modern culture, the issues of memory and amnesia have been exacerbated by the further development of media technologies since their time, affecting politics and culture in the most fundamental ways…The struggle for memory is ultimately also a struggle for history and against high-tech amnesia. (4-5)
In an age of emerging supranational structures, the problem of national identity is increasingly discussed in terms of cultural or collective memory rather than in terms of the assumed identity of nation and state. (5)
[O]ur obsessions with memory function as a reaction formation against the accelerating technical processes that are transforming our Lebenswelt (lifeworld) in quite distinct ways. Memory is no longer primarily a vital and energizing antidote to capitalist reification via the commodity form, a rejection of the iron cage homogeneity of an earlier culture industry and its consumer markets. It rather represents an attempt to slow down information processing, to resist the dissolution of time in the synchronicity of the archive, to recover a mode of contemplation outside the universe of simulation and fast-speed information and cable networks, to claim some anchoring space in a world of puzzling and often threatening heterogeneity, non-synchronicity, and information overload. (7)
Avant-garde and the Museum
The evolution of postmodernism since the 1960s is not understandable without an acknowledgment of how first it revitalized the impetus of the historical avant-garde and subsequently delivered that ethos up to a withering critique. The debate about the avant-garde is indeed intimately linked to the debate about the museum, and both are at the core of what we call the postmodern. It was after all the historical avant-garde–futurism, dada, surrealism, constructivism, and the avant-garde groupings in the early Soviet Union–that battled the museum most radically and relentlessly by calling (in different ways) for the elimination of the past, by practicing the semiological destruction of all traditional forms of representation…The psychologizing argument advanced by some, that the avant-garde’s hatred for the museum expressed the deep-seeded and unconscious fear of its own eventual mummification and ultimte failure, is an argument made with the benefit of hindsight, and it remains locked into the ethos of avant-gardism itself…one may well want to investigate the extent to which the musealization of the avant-garde’s project to cross the boundaries between art and life has actually helped to bring down the walls of the museum, to democratize the institution, at least in terms of accessibility…to curate these days means to mobilize collections…
My hypothesis would be that in the age of the postmodern the museum has not simply been restored to a position of traditional cultural authority…but that it is currently undergoing a process of transformation that may signal…the end of the traditional museum/modernity dialectic…The museum itself has been sucked into the maelstrom of modernization…museum shows are managed and advertised as major spectacles…It is a great irony that Walter Benjamin’s often cited demand to brush history against the grain and to wrest tradition away from conformism has been heeded at a time when the museum itself bought into the capitalist culture of spectacle. (20-22)
How do we distinguish between what I earlier called instant entertainment, with all its shallowness and surface therapeutics, and what a past vocabulary would describe as aesthetic illumination and “genuine” experience? Is it plausible to suggest that the highly individualized modernist epiphany (as celebrated by Joyce, Hofmannsthal, Rilke, and Proust) has become a publicly organized phenomenon in the postmodern culture of vanishing acts? That, here too, modernism has invaded the everyday rather than having become obsolete? If that were so, how could the postmodern museum epiphany be distinguished from its modernist predecessor, the experience of bliss in the museum hall as Proust’s remembering gaze associates it with that other symptomatic space of nineteenth-century modernity, his beloved Gare St.-Lazare? Does the postmodern museum epiphany, too, provide a sense of bliss outside time, a sense of transcendence, or does it perhaps open up a space for memory and recollection denied outside the museum’s walls? (27)
Objects of the past have always been pulled into the present via the gaze that hit them, and the irritation, the seduction, the secret they may hold is never only on the side of the object in some state of purity, as it were: it is always and intensely located on the side of the viewer and the present as well. It is the live gaze that endows the object with its aura, but this aura also depends on the object’s materiality and opaqueness. (31)
In human culture, there is no such thing as the pristine object prior to representation. After all, even the museum of old used strategies of selection and arrangement, [and] presentation…which were all nachtraglich, belated, reconstructive, at best approximating what was held to have been the real and often quite deliberately severed from its context. (32)
[These concepts, relying heavily on Benjamin and Adorno, were helpful in wrapping my head around the question of representation of the past in the contemporary media culture. I will post more material from Twilight Memories, specifically from his Paris/Childhood and Monuments and Holocaust Memory in a Media Age pieces in pt.2 to follow.]