Rosalind Krauss, “Richard Serra, a Translation” and “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”

Excerpts from two chapters of Rosalind Krauss’ The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. I included a lot of the piece, because frankly, it all seems important for me to understand the concepts she is laying out:


Richard Serra, a translation

For Serra the abstract subject only yields itself up within a kind of experiential ground through which space and time are felt to be functions of one another.  For it is within the very moment of a shift in vision that what is seen is experienced as not bounded by the condition of being fixed, as is an image.  In this insistence on an abstraction that unifies space and time into a continuum, so that the bridge of Serra’s film is imaginable as a medium only because, like the gears of the camera itself, it is turning, one continues to feel a phenomenological preoccupation: “This quasi-synthesis is elucidated if we understand it as temporal.  When I say that I see an object at a distance, I mean that I already hold it, or that I still hold it, it is in the future or in the past as well as being in space….But co-existence, which in fact defines space, is not alien to time, but is the fact of two phenomena belonging to the same temporal wave.” (Merleau-Ponty)  And once again Merleau-Ponty links the space of this continuum to something pre-objective and abstract: “There is, therefore, another subject beneath me, for whom a world exists before I am here, and who marks out my place in it.  This captive or natural spirit is my body, not that momentary body which is the instrument of my personal choices and which fastens upon this or that world, but the system of anonymous ‘functions’ which draw every particular focus into a general project.” (ibid)

If the Phenomenology of Perception furnishes one kind of critical gloss on this aesthetic premonition, other texts provide other types of access.  One of these is the famous passage from A la recherche du temps perdu, where Proust links his desire to write with a need to penetrate the surfaces of things to find the ground of the pleasure he derives from them, and he produces as the first example of his “writing” the fragment in which the bell towers of Martinville appear to him from within a particular confluence of space and time:

“….we had left Martinville some little time, and the village, after accompanying us for a few seconds, had already disappeared, when lingering alone on the horizon to watch our flight, its steeples and that of Vieuxvicq waved once again, in token of farewell, their sunbathed pinnacles.  Sometimes one would withdraw, so that the other two might watch us for a moment still; then the road changed direction, they veered in the light like three golden pivots, and vanished from my gaze.  But, a little later, when we were already close to Combray, the sun having set meanwhile, I caught sight of them for the last time, far away, and seeming no more now than three flowers painted upon the sky above and low line of fields.” (Proust, Swann’s Way”)

For the young Proust it is the changing relationship that makes perceptible the link between his winding road and the choreography of the appearances and disappearances of the three towers.  This change occurs in time and it is that which lies behind the aesthetic object, as its subject. (273-274)

Sculpture in the Expanded Field

[S]culpture and painting have been kneaded and stretched and twisted in an extraordinary demonstration of elasticity, a display of the way a cultural term can be extended to include just about anything.  And though this pulling and stretching of a term such as sculpture is overtly performed in the name of vanguard aesthetics–the ideology of the new–its covert message is that of historicism.  The new is made comfortable by being made familiar, since it is seen as having gradually evolved from the forms of the past.  Historicism works on the new and different to diminish newness and mitigate difference.  It makes a place for change in our experience by evoking the model of evolution, so that the man who now is can be accepted as being different from the child he once was, by simultaneously being seen–through the unseeable action of the telos–as the same.  And we are comforted by this perception of sameness, this strategy for reducing anything foreign in either time or space, to what we already know and are. (emphasis added) (277)

[W]e know very well what sculpture is.  And one of the things we know is that it is a historically bounded category and not a universal one.  As is true of any other convention, sculpture has its own internal logic, its own set of rules, which, though they can be applied to a variety of situations, are not themselves open to very much change.  The logic of sculpture, it would seem, is inseparable from the logic of the monument. By virtue of this logic a sculpture is a commemorative representation. (emp. added)  It sits in a particular place and speaks in a symbolical tongue about the meaning or use of that place…Because they thus function in relation to the logic of representation and marking, sculptures are normally figurative and vertical, their pedestals an important part of the structure since they mediate between actual site and representational sign…

But the convention is not immutable and there came a time when the logic began to fail.  Late in the nineteenth century we witnessed the fading of the logic of the monument…[T]wo cases come to mind, both bearing the marks of their own transitional status.  Rodin’s Gates of Hell and his statue of Balzac were both conceived as monuments.  the first were commissioned in 1880 as the doors to a projected museum of decorative arts; the second was commissioned in 1891 as a memorial to literary genius to be set up at a specific site in Paris.  The failure of these two works as monuments is signaled not only by the fact that multiple versions can be found in a variety of museums in various countries, while no version exists on the original sites–both commissions having eventually collapsed.  Their failure is also encoded onto the very surfaces of these works: the doors having been gouged away and anti-structurally encrusted to the point where they bear their inoperative condition on their face; the Balzac executed with such degree of subjectivity that not even Rodin believed (as letters by him attest) that the work would ever be accepted.


With these two sculptural projects, I would say, one crosses the threshold of the logic of the monument, entering the space of what could be called its negative condition–a kind of sitelessness, or homelessness, an absolute loss of place.  Which is to say one enters modernism, since it is the modernist period of sculptural production that operates in relation to this loss of site, producing the monument as abstraction, the monument as pure marker or base, functionally placeless and largely self-referential…It is these two characteristics of modernist sculpture that declare its status, and therefore its meaning and function, as essentially nomadic…

In being the negative condition of the monument, modernist sculpture had a kind of idealist space to explore, a domain cut off fro the project of the temporal and spatial representation…it began by about 1950 to be exhausted.  It began, that is, to be experienced more and more as pure negativity.  At this point modernist sculpture appeared as a kind of black hole in the space of consciousness, something whose positive content was increasingly difficult to define, something that was possible to locate only in terms of what it was not…

Sculpture, it could be said, had ceased being a positivity, and was now the category that resulted from the addition of the not-landscape to the not-architecture…Now, if sculpture itself had become a kind of ontological absence, the combination of exclusions, the sum of the neither/nor, that does not mean that the terms themselves from which it was built–the not-landscape and the not-architecture–did not have a certain interest.  This is because these terms express a strict opposition between the built and the not-built, the cultural and the natural, between which the production of sculptural art appeared to be suspended.  And what began to happen in the career of one sculptor after another, beginning at the end of the 1960s, is that attention began to focus on the outer limits of those terms of exclusion.  For, if those terms are the expression of a logical opposition stated as a pair of negatives, they can be transformed by a simple inversion into the same polar opposites but expressed positively.  That is, the not-architecture is, according to the logic of a certain kind of expansion, just another way of expressing the term landscape, and the not-landscape is, simply, architecture…By means of this logical expansion a set of binaries is transformed into a quaternary field which both mirrors the original opposition and at the same time opens it.  It becomes a logically expanded field which looks like this:


[E]ven though sculpture may be reduced to what is in the Klein group the neuter term of the not-landscape plus the not-architecture, there is no reason not to imagine an opposite term–one that would be both landscape and architecture–which within this schema is called the complex.  But to think the complex is to admit into the realm of art two terms that had formerly been prohibited from it: landscape and architecture–terms that could function to define the sculptural (as they began to do in modernism) only in their negative or neuter condition…Labyrinths and mazes are both landscape and architecture; Japanese gardens are both land-landscape and architecture; the ritual playing fields and processionals of ancient civilizations were all in this sense the unquestioned occupants of the complex….They were a part of a universal or cultural space in which sculpture was simply another part–not somehow, as our historicist minds would have it, the same.  Their purpose and pleasure is exactly that they are opposite and different…

By 1970, with the Partially Buried Woodshed at Kent State University, in Ohio, Robert Smithson had begun to occupy the complex construction

Similarly, the possible combination of landscape and not-landscape began to be explored…The term marked sites is used to identify work like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970)…as it also describes some of the work in the seventies by Serra, Morris, Carl Andre, Dennis Oppenheim, Nancy Holt…But in addition to actual physical manipulations of sites, this term also refers to other forms of marking…


The first artists to explore the possibilities of architecture plus not-architecture were Robert Irwin, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Christo.  In every case of these axiomatic structures, there is some kind of intervention into the real space of architecture, sometimes through partial reconstruction, sometimes through drawing, or as in the recent works or Morris, through the use of mirrors…a process of mapping the axiomatic features of the architectural experience–the abstract conditions of openness and closure–onto the reality of a given space…

[I]t is obvious that the logic of the space of postmodernist practice is no longer organized around the definition of a given medium on the grounds of material, or, for that matter, the perception of material.  It is organized instead through the universe of terms that are felt to be in opposition within a cultural situation…I have been insisting that the expanded field of postmodernism occurs at a specific moment in the recent history of art.  It is a historical event with a determinant structure. (279-290)

BBC History’s “Austria and Nazism: Owning Up to the Past”

BBC History’s “Austria and Nazism: Owning Up to the Past” by Robert Knight

A basic summary of the Austrian people’s willingness, or lack thereof, to contemplate their nation’s collaboration with the Third Reich. Victimization or contrition?
The same debate is covered well from a political historicist view by David Art in his book, “The Politics of the Nazi Past in Germany and Austria” (excerpts to follow)

Andreas Huyssen “Twilight Memories” pt.1



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.]


Aleida Assmann’s “Canon and Archive”


I uploaded “Cultural Memory Studies” in PDF format to the media section of this page if you want to read any of the essays it includes, including this one.

Excerpts from Aleida Assmann’s “Canon and Archive” I find informative:

Through culture, humans create a temporal framework that transcends the individual life span relating pst, present, and future. Cultures create a contract between the living, the dead, and the not yet living. In recalling, iterating, reading, commenting, criticizing, discussing what was deposited in the remote or recent past, humans participate in extended horizons of meaning-production.They do not have to start anew in every generation because they are standing on the shoulders of giants whose knowledge they can use and reinterpret…When thinking about memory, we must start with forgetting…Memory capacity is limited by neural and cultural constraints such as focus and bias. It is also limited by psychological pressures, with the effect that painful or incongruent memories are hidden, displaced, overwritten, and possibly effaced. On the level of cultural memory, there is a similar dynamic at work. (97)

When looking more closely at these cultural practices, we can distinguish between two forms of forgetting, a more active and a more passive one. Active forgetting is implied in intentional acts such as trashing and destroying…The passive form of cultural forgetting is related to non-intentional acts such as losing, hiding, dispersing, neglecting, abandoning, or leaving something behind. In these cases the objects are not materially destroyed; they fall out of the frames of attention, valuation, and use. (97-98)

As forgetting, remembring also has an active and a passive side. The institutions of active memory preserve the past as present while the institutions of passive memory preserve the past as past. The tension between the pastness of the past and its presence is an important key to understanding the dynamics of cultural memory…The museum presents its prestigious objects to the viewers in representative shows which are arranged to catch attention and make a lasting impression. The same museum also houses storerooms stuffed with other paintings and objects in peripheral spaces such as cellars or attics which are not publicly presented…I will refer to the actively circulated memory that keeps the past present as the canon and the passively stored memory that preserves the past past as the archive. (98)

Jakob Burckhrdt…divided the remains of former historical periods into two categories: “messages” and “traces.” By messages he meant texts and monuments that were addressed to posterity, whereas “traces” carry no similar address. Burckhardt mistrusted the messages, which are usually written and effectively staged by the carriers of power and state institutions; he considered them tendentious and therefore misleading. The unintentional traces, on the other hand, he cherished as unmediated testimonies of a former era that can tell a counter-history to the one propagated by the rulers…Cultural memory contains a number of cultural messages that are addressed to posterity and intended for continuous repetition and re-use. To this active memory belong, among other things, works of art, which are destined to be repeatedly reread, appreciated, staged, performed, and commented…At the other end of the spectrum, there is the storehouse for cultural relicts. These are not unmediated; they have only lost their immediate addressees; they are de-contextualized and disconnected from their former frames which had authorized them or determined their meaning. As part of the archive, they are open to new contexts and lend themselves to new interpretations. (98-99)

Whatever has made it into the active cultural memory has passed rigorous processes of selection, which secure for certain artifacts a lasting place in the cultural working memory of a society. This process is called canonization. The word means”sanctification”; to endow texts, persons, artifacts, and monuments with a sanctified status is to set them off from the rest as charged with the highest meaning and value. Selection presupposes decisions and power struggles; ascription of value endows these objects with an aura and a sacrosanct status; duration in cultural memory is the central aim of the procedure. A canon is not a hit-list; it is instead independent of historical change and immune to the ups and downs of social taste. The canon is not built up anew by every generation; on the contrary, it outlives the generations who have to encounter and reinterpret it anew according to their time. Thisi constant interaction with the small selection of artifacts keeps them in active circulation and maintains for this small segment of the past a continuous presence. There are three core areas of active cultural memory: religion, art, and history. (100)

Nation-states produce narrative versions of their past which are taught, embraced, and referred to as their collective autobiography…National history is also presented in the public arena in the form of monuments and commemoration dates. To participate in a national memory is to know the key events of the nation’s history, to embrace its symbols, and connect to its festive dates.
Cultural memory, then, is based on two separate functions: the presentation of a narrow selection of sacred texts, artistic masterpieces, or historic key events in a timeless framework; and the storing of documents and artifacts of the past that do not at all meet these standards but are nevertheless deemed interesting or important enough to not let them vanish on the highway to total oblivion.
The tension that exists between these two poles can be further illustrated by two different approaches to literary criticism…One adopts the strategy of the canon, investing the text with existential meaning and framing it with an aura; the other adopts the strategy of the archive, aiming at destroying the aura (Greenblatt and Gallagher 12). (100-102)

The institutions of passive cultural memory are situated halfway between the canon and forgetting…The archive is the basis of what can be said in the future about the present when it will have become the past…Time, however, quickly outdates these archives. Once they are outdated, they lose their political function and relevance, transforming them into a heap of (possibly compromising) rubbish…The historical archive is a receptacle for documents that have fallen out of their framing institutions and can be reframed and interpreted in a new context…It is the task of…the academic researcher or the artist to examine the contents of the archive and to reclaim the information by framing it within a new context. (102-103)

Memory, including cultural memory, is always permeated and shot through with forgetting…The canon stands for the active working memory of a society that defines and supports the cultural identity of a group…The historical archive helps us to position ourselves in time; it affords us the possibility of comparison and reflection for a retrospective historical consciousness. (105-106)

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?

Jay Winter “Sites of Memory and the Shadow of War”

Essay from “Cultural Memory Studies”

Informative passages:

Sites of memory are places where groups of people engage in public activity through which they express “a collective shared knowledge […] of the past, on which a group’s sense of unity and individuality is based” (Assman 15). The group that goes to such sites inherits earlier meanings attached to the event, as well as adding new meanings.Their activity is crucial to the presentation and preservation of commemorative sites. When such groups disperse or disappear, sites of memory lose their initial force, and may fade away entirely. (61)

Moments of national humiliation are rarely commemorated or marked in material form, though here too there are exceptions of a hortatory kind. “Never again” is the hallmark of public commemoration on the Israeli Day of Remembrance for victims of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The shell of public buildings in Hiroshima remind everyone of the moment the city was incinerated in the first atomic attack. Where moral doubts persist about a war or public policy, commemorative sites are either hard to fix or places of contestation. That is why there is no date or place for those who want to commemorate the end of the Algerian War in France, or the end of the Vietnam War in the United States. There was no moral consensus about what was being remembered in public, and when and where were the appropriate time and place to remember it (Prost).
When the Japanese Prime Minister visits a shrine to war dead, he is honoring war criminals as well as ordinary soldiers. The same was true when President Ronald Reagan visited the German cemetery at Bitburg, where lie the remains of SS men alongside the graves of those not implicated in war crimes. And yet both places were sites of memory; contested memory; embittered memory, but memory nonetheless.
The critical point about sites of memory is that they are there as points of reference not only for those who survived traumatic events, but also for those born long after them. The word “memory” becomes a metaphor for the fashioning of narratives about the past when those with direct experience of events die off. Sites of memory inevitably become sites of second-order memory, that is, they are places where people remember the memories of others, those who survived the events marked there. (62)

1. Commemoration and Political Power

[T]he usefulness to political elites of public events…establishing the legitimacy of their rule…Bastille Day in Paris or Independence Day in Philadelphia or elsewhere in the United States. But other events are closely tied to the establishment of a new regime and the overthrow of an older one.
This top-down approach proclaims the significance of sites of memory as a materialization of national, imperial, or political identity.
[T]here is always a chorus of voices in commemorations; some are louder than others, but they never sound alone…Very occasionally, these dissonant voices come together, and a national moment of remembrance emerges…One example…the two-minute silence observed in Britain between 1919 and 1938 at 11:00 am on November 11. Telephonists pulled the plugs on all conversations. traffic stopped. The normal flow of life was arrested…in the two decades between the wars, it was a moment of national reflection, located everywhere. Mass Observation, a pioneering social survey organization, asked hundreds of ordinary people in Britain what they thought about during the silence. The answer was that they thought not of the nation or of victory or of armies, but of the men who weren’t there. This silence was a meditation about absence. As such it moved away from political orchestration into the realm of family history.
In addition, some buildings can be converted into sites of memory unofficially. A cinema where workers organized a strike, a home where women created a midwifery or child care center, a school where people made homeless by a natural disaster found shelter can all be turned into sites of memory by those who lived important moments there (Hayden). (62-65)

3. Aesthetic Redemption

The life history of sites of memory is described by more than political gestures and material tasks. Frequently a site is also an art form, the art of creating, arranging, and interpreting signifying practices.
By the latter decades of the twentieth century, artistic opinion and aesthetic tastes had changed sufficiently to make abstraction the key language of commemorative expression. Statues and installations thereby escaped from specific national notation and moved away from the earlier emphasis upon the human figure…In many instances in Western Europe, but by no means all, forms which suggested absence or nothingness replaced classical, religious, or romantic notions in commemorative art.
This shift was noticeable in Holocaust remembrance. Holocaust sites of memory–concentration and extermination camps, in particular, but also places where Jews had lived before the Shoah–could not be treated in the same way as sites commemorating the dead of the two world wars. The first difficulty was the need to avoid Christian notation to represent a Jewish catastrophe. The second was the allergy of observant Jews to representational art, either forbidden or resisted within Orthodox Jewish tradition. The third was the absence of any sense of uplift, of meaning, of purpose in the deaths of the victims. Those who died in the Holocaust may have affirmed their faith thereby, but what is the meaning in the murder of one million children? To a degree, their deaths meant nothing, and therefore the Holocaust meant nothing.
Representing nothing became a challenge met in particular ways. Some artists provided installation art which literally vanished through the presence of visitors. Others projected photographs of the vanished world onto the facades of still erect buildings, occupied by non-Jews. Others adopted post-modern forms to suggest disorientation, void, emptiness. Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish annex to the Berlin Historical Museum is one such site. It has been likened to a Jewish star taken apart, or a lightning bolt in stone and glass. Whatever metaphor one chooses, it is a disturbing, tilted, non-linear representation of the unrepresentable.
Since the 1970s, commemoration of the Second World War has become braided together with commemoration of the Holocaust…Great War commemorative forms had sought out some meaning, some significance in the enormous loss of life attending that conflict. There was an implicit warning in many of these monuments. “Never again” was their ultimate meaning. But “never” had lasted a bare twenty years.Thus after the Second World War, the search for meaning became infinitely more complex…
[T]he extreme character of the Second World War challenged the capacity of art–any art–to express a sense of loss when it is linked to genocidal murder or thermonuclear destruction…What kind of site is appropriate where the majority of people see no meaning at all in the events being marked in time and in space? Ignoring Auschwitz or Hiroshima is impossible, but locating them within earlier commemorative structures or gestures is either problematic or absurd or both. (67-70)

4. Ritual

There are at least three stages in the history of rituals surrounding public commemoration…[T]he construction of a commemorative form…the grounding of ritual action in the calendar, and the routinization of such activities…[and] their transformation or their disappearance as active sites of memory.
There are occasions when the household itself becomes a site of memory…This framework of family transmission of narratives about the past is an essential part of public commemoration. It also helps us understand why some commemorative forms are changed or simply fade away. When the link between family life and public commemoration is broken, a powerful prop of remembrance is removed. Then, in a short time, remembrance atrophies and fades away. Public reinforcements may help keep alive the ritual and practice of commemoration. But the event becomes hollow when removed from the myriad small-scale social units that breathed life into it in the first place.
At that moment commemorative sites and practices can be revived and re-appropriated. The same sites used for one purpose can be used for another. But most of the time, sites of memory live through their life cycle, and life the rest of us, inevitably fade away.

This natural process of dissolution closes the circle on sites of memory in the public commemoration which occurs around them and rightly so since they arise out of the needs of groups of people to link their lives with salient events in the past. When that need vanishes so does the glue that holds together the social practice of commemoration. Then collective memories fade away, and sites of memory decompose. Or, simply, fade into the landscape. Let me offer two instances of this phenomenon. For decades, the national war memorial in Dublin, designed by Sir. Edwin Lutyenes, was completely overgrown with grass. No one could tell what it was, and this was no accident. That one hundred thousand Irishmen died for Britain’s king and country was not an easy matter to interpolate in Irish history after 1918. But with the waning of sectarian violence in the latter decades of the twentieth century, the grass was cut, and the monument reappeared as if out of thin air. Sites of memory vanish, to be sure, but they can be conjured up again when people decide once again to mark the moment they commemorate. At other times, resurrection is more difficult. For years, I asked my students at Cambridge, what did they see at the first intersection into town from the railway station. Most answered, nothing at all. What they did not see was the town war memorial of victorious soldiers striding back home right at the first traffic light into town. They did not see it because it had no meaning to them. It was simply white noise in stone. For them to see it, someone had to point it out, and others had to organize acts of remembrance around it. Without such an effort, sites of memory vanish into thin air and stay there. We have reached therefore a quixotic conclusion. Public commemoration is both irresistible and unsustainable. Constructing sites of memory is a universal social act, and yet these very sites are as transitory as the groups of people who create and sustain them. Time and again, people have come together at particular places, in front of particular sites of memory, to seek meaning in vast events in the past and try to relate them to their own smaller networks of social life. These associations are bound to dissolve, to be replaced by other forms with other needs and other histories. At that point, the characteristic trajectory of sites of memory, bounded by their creation, institutionalization, and decomposition, comes to an end. (70-73)