Trauma, Witnessing, and Memory Mediation – University of Copenhagen

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2) Trauma, Witnessing, and Memory Mediation

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920), Israel Museum Jerusalem. Walter Benjamin purchased the painting in 1921. After World War II, his friend Gershom Scholem inherited it (

Memory mediation addresses the ways in which media transmit that which must be remembered. It has often been stated that the difficulties of representation present themselves with special acuity in the case of the Holocaust (cf., e.g., Dan Stone, Saul Friedländer). Language is decisive for transmitting testimonies, but it is inadequate vis-à-vis the incomprehensible. ‘No one can describe it’ and ‘no one can understand it’ are typical statements by eyewitnesses. Trauma research confirms that unbearable events tend to be pushed to the margins of consciousness, encapsulated or dissociated. What cannot be acknowledged in the first generation of survivors haunts the second in undefined absences or enacted repetitions.

Once Holocaust memory has become a “vicarious past” (James E. Young), what meanings can it then hold for us, and how can future generations of “postmemory” (Marianne Hirsch) preserve a connection to the past even though it still defies narrative reconstruction and is beyond comprehension? Our exploration will highlight the role of images and imagination, performative modes of commemoration, and synesthetic audiovisual testimonies. The analysis of interviews with survivors recorded at the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale will be informed by the anthropology of witnessing, media sociology, existential phenomenology, psychoanalysis and psychiatry. Contentwise, the analysis will concentrate on verbal and visual manifestations of the absent within the re-presented. In order to clarify how meaning can be aligned with silences and ‘blank spaces’ in disrupted speech, bewildered looks and helpless gestures, we will investigate the interplay between what is said and shown, or semantics and pragmatics in the empirical material.