Marianne Hirsch, "The Uses and Misuses of Memory"

Marianne Hirsch

We live in an “era of memory.” So much so that we use memory to define our individual and collective identities and claim it as a cultural and political right. Why has memory come to dominate the discussion of the present’s relationship to the past to the point of virtually replacing the discourses of history?

The multiplication of local and global genocides and collective catastrophes at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have called for institutional and political structures that broaden the historical archive with forms of knowledge and with the voices of social actors neglected by traditional historians. The bodily, psychic, and affective impact of trauma and its aftermath, and the ways in which one trauma can rekindle the effects of another, have clearly exceeded the bounds of established historical archives and methodologies.

Memory is both individual and social, embodied and mediated, shared and contested. Memory is a practice and an act. It is about the past, but it is in the present, and it looks to the future. Memories are plural, potentially making space for the stories and experiences of social minorities, even when those recollections challenge hegemonic national versions of the past.

New archives are collecting oral histories and testimonies, objects, visual images and performances, records of everyday affects and behaviors. Memorials and museums are being built on the sites of historical trauma, forging a transnational aesthetic that connects divergent histories. Artists and activists intervene to preserve and activate memory.

But the rise of our culture of memory raises fundamental, yet difficult, questions about the transmission of a traumatic past. How can the truth of past crimes be revealed when perpetrators erase the traces and victims wish to forget? What constitutes justice and does it always serve the interests of reconciliation and social continuity? What do we owe the victims? How can we best carry their stories forward, without appropriating them, without unduly calling attention to ourselves, and without having our own stories displaced by them?

In our time, commemoration has become an unquestioned virtue, an obligation and, famously, a call to action: “Never again!” But the claims of group memory have also triggered parochial and chauvinistic nationalist conflicts, and restorative forms of nostalgia that have fueled some of the most brutal civil wars and acts of aggression in the recent past. How can memories of persecution lead to progressive action, resistance, and repair? This is the challenge of the “era of memory.”


Marianne Hirsch is Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia University. Her recent publications include Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (1997), The Familial Gaze (ed.1999), Time and the Literary (co-ed.2002), a special issue of Signs on Gender and Cultural Memory (co-ed. 2002), and Teaching the Representation of the Holocaust (co-ed. 2004).