Memory Effects: The Holocaust and The Art of Secondary Witnessing

As he accepted the Academy Award for Best Director for the 1993 film about the Holocaust, Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg said again and again, “This is so that we will never forget — This is so that we will never forget,” as he held the Oscar high above his head. Remembering the Holocaust and representing it in art and culture are the subjects of Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing by Wayne State University art historian Dora Apel.

The book surveys a dozen contemporary artists who use the Holocaust in their work. These artists do not express the horror of the historical event nor do they try to re-create what it may have been like to be there. They instead examine the legacy of the Holocaust in modern-day culture, or what Apel terms its “memory effects.” For her, these artists are significant not because they provide an understanding of the Holocaust that is cohesive and concrete, but because they continually challenge our assumptions about it.

The artists Apel considers take part in what she terms “secondary witnessing” of the Holocaust. Because they’ve come of age after World War II, their perspective is necessarily from afar. They further reveal the shift from “sacralized” to “desacralized” Holocaust conceptions. The former, typically associated with the generation of Holocaust survivors, conceives of it as the age-old legacy of religious persecution; the latter sees it as the very modern combination of racism and nationalism, what Michel Foucault terms “biopolitics.”

For those unfamiliar with the field of Holocaust studies, Apel gives ample background, both of events leading up to the genocide and of its treatment in the United States and elsewhere since 1945. This provides the framework for discussing the artists’ work in the contemporary environment. It also releases Apel from the limitations of “straight” art history — the blindered tracking of stylistic evolution — enabling her to reflect on broader historical circumstances.

One of Apel’s main contentions is that with time all memory, including of the Holocaust, takes on a life of its own. The term “memory effects” thus has several connotations: memory’s immediate repercussions (on the survivors, for example); memory’s influence on seemingly unrelated thoughts and actions; memory’s embodiment in material things from the past that continue to exist in the present; memory’s authority (sometimes oppressive) over time. The artists Apel discusses in differing ways contest conventional Holocaust memorialization. Some, like Shimon Attie, probe the so-called objective form of the documentary image. Others, such as Jeffrey Wolin, challenge the subjective form of the first-person testimonial. Yet others, like Susan Silas, investigate the physical residue of the Holocaust left in the natural world.

The method shared by these artists is “traumatic realism,” a kind of artistic cognitive dissonance in which the “ordinary and extraordinary aspects of genocide intersect and coexist.” This can often result in work that is unresolved. But what the art of secondary witnessing lacks in terms of traditional aesthetic criteria such as organic unity, it gains in self-awareness and moral power. Apel further maintains that this art (for example, the images of pre-war Jewish people and places projected onto contemporary German buildings by Attie) does not preserve History with a capital “H.” Instead, it reveals the inadequacy of all representation taken out of context.

This aesthetic can be seen as essential to the desacralized conception of modern genocide (although Apel doesn’t look at it from this perspective). Giorgio Agamben, in his 1998 book Homo Sacer, parses out its icy logic as a purely formal judgment upon biopolitical notions of blood and soil, i.e. race and nation. He clarifies the distinction between sovereign power (the rule of law) and “bare life” (biological existence outside of state protection or religious sanctity, life that can be “killed but not sacrificed”).

As Apel does note, non-Jewish Germans were the only prisoners exempt from tattooing, and all Jews, regardless of nationality, were officially stripped of citizenship before being murdered. (Hannah Arendt calls the fastidiousness of this bureaucratic pathology “the banality of evil.”) Yet while the Holocaust is one of history’s blackest moments, it’s unfortunately not unique. The biopolitical perspective links the Holocaust to modern genocides in Albania, Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere.

Apel concludes with a discussion of Marina Vainshtein, a lesbian punker whose body is almost entirely covered with tattoos of Holocaust imagery. In repudiation of “bare life,” Vainshtein inhabits a physical body literally inscribed with social meaning. By their permanent and visible assertion of her identity, with all of its difficult associations, Vainshtein’s tattoos disavow the Jewish halacha (the religious prohibition against marking the body) to stand as a kind of desacralized mitzvah (good deed).

Memory Effects reveals the impossibility of setting history to rest, but it also demonstrates the need for memorializing, which secondary witnessing epitomizes. Indeed, it’s the function of the memorial to separate the thoughts of the living from the decaying bodies of the dead.

Apel states near the end of this remarkable book, “What we cannot remember, we must imagine through representation.” And as Memory Effects shows, the art of secondary witnessing does not repudiate the past; it heralds the future.

E-mail Vincent Carducci at [email protected].