Awkward memories and the role of silence: a commentary on Frank Van Vree's concept of 'absent memories'.

Author:Assmann, Aleida

It is usually taken for granted that memory studies is a branch of research that focuses on the why and how and when of remembering. However, further insights reveal that remembering must be complemented by forgetting. It is now generally agreed that our knowledge of remembering stays incomplete if we are not able to study the dynamics of remembering against forgetting, of remembering intertwined with forgetting and, indeed, sometimes as well, of remembering as a form of forgetting. With the introduction of his notion of "absent memories" Frank Van Vree has shown, however, that this is not enough. Forgetting is an umbrella term that is in need of further differentiation. Van Vree offers us another vantage point, which makes it possible to address topics that had so far been largely overlooked in memory studies. The author attributes this blind spot to the dominance of two sweeping theories that blocked the access to these phenomena. On the one hand, the theory focusing on political hegemony of memory suggests that the memory of a society can be brought under the will and control of power by forms of state censorship; the trauma theory of memory, on the other hand, contends that memory breaks down altogether or is radically deformed under the pressure of devastating events. The term "absent memory" points to something else: to the presence of memories that are unspeakable, to the ban on communication of what is available as shared knowledge, to a stifling silence that is reinforced and perpetuated by strong social taboos.

Van Vree thus takes us from politics of memory and the dynamics of individual memory into the complex and largely implicit realm of the social as the important third dimension within which the dynamics of memory evolve and are played out. Silence is indeed an important additional concept for memory studies, situated in the vague space between remembering and forgetting, forms of knowing and not knowing. The Israeli psychotherapist Dan Bar-On made an important contribution to this topic in the 1990s when he spoke about Holocaust testimonies being confronted with "a double wall of silence." (1) The first wall of silence refers to the self-imposed restriction of the victim who for various reasons does not choose to speak about his or her experiences. The second wall of silence refers to the attitude of a society that does not want to listen. Before a wider communication about shocking, painful and embarrassing experiences...

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