Critique Essay About Memory

Oldenburg began conjuring, through his memory and body, associative objects that recalled for him particular cities: a colossal ironing board for Manhattan’s shape and historic laundresses, colossal knees for London’s dampness, cramped cabs, and mini-skirts. The artist’s first surrealist “monuments” reflected personal memories and psychic dramas. Then, in the mid-’60s, his project took a decisive turn. Oldenburg began imagining counter-monuments dedicated to historical figures—like an upside-down buried mold of JFK—as well as a series of “obstacle monuments” whose theme was the decade’s urban violence. On the site of Buckingham Fountain in Chicago’s Grant Park, for example, Oldenburg pictured a giant windshield wiper, evocative to him of the tapering form of the nearby Hancock Tower and the curving loop roads of Daniel Burnham’s unrealized Plan of Chicago. In the pools below the giant wiper, Oldenburg imagined children playing: “However, from time to time the blade of the Giant Wiper descends into the water. If one doesn’t want to get hit, one must watch it and get out in time… . On certain days, communities throughout the city may decide on a different pace. A button in the Art Institute will adjust it all… . The Wiper is as cruel as death because it comes down into the water where the kids are playing… . the Wiper can ‘kill’ kids if they don’t learn how to get out of the way.”9

Oldenburg’s wiper captures the memory project perfectly, but blends it with old-fashioned exhortation. A previous monument—Buckingham Fountain—is overturned. Personal memory and site generate form. A quotidian object assumes monumental import. Ordinary people control its action. Existential trauma finds a focus. Irony creates distance, as in Foucault. But more traditionally, the monument also tries to teach explicit lessons about how to conduct oneself in public. In effect, Oldenburg’s 1960s proposals for monuments infuse personal memory with hortatory significance, and in so doing begin to counter Modernism’s amnesia, its obliviousness to traditional monumentality and history.

Also in the mid-’60s, Robert Venturi similarly proposed evoking memory and manipulating scale to create meaningful public space. In 1966 Venturi entered a competition for the redesign of Copley Square in Boston. In the broad plaza between Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library, Venturi proposed a grid of walkways and step-mounds, deliberately recollecting the surrounding gridiron of the Back Bay. Inset into one block would be a small-scale replica of Trinity Church. “The miniature imitation is a means for explaining to a person the whole which he is in but cannot see all of. To reassure the individual by making the whole comprehensible in this way within a part is to contribute a sense of unity to a complex urban whole.”10 Thus Venturi puts ordinary experience and local memory in the service of civic therapy. Memory’s playfulness and dreamlike mechanisms persist. But Modernism’s solipsistic abstractions subside. Legibility reappears, as does explicit urban orientation and exemplary lesson-giving.

Venturi’s unrealized Copley Square project occupies a singularly important although unacknowledged position within the architect’s subsequent work as well as within American urbanism generally. It is the progenitor of the architect’s Western Plaza in Washington (1977) and Welcome Park in Philadelphia (1982), and also the antecedent, I would suggest, of all other urban spaces that feature pavement maps and other literal representations of place.

Together, Oldenburg and Venturi’s mid-1960s projects activated a “postmodernist” convergence of memory and history, and are part, perhaps, of a secret history of American monumentality. In 1969, at the invitation of Yale architecture students, Oldenburg realized in built form his first monument: a colossal, inflatable, tractor-mounted red lipstick, which reiterated an earlier proposal for London and was here placed in front of a university war memorial to protest (through satire) the Vietnam conflict. Venturi, too, had a Yale connection beginning in the 1960s, through the architecture school and the architectural historian Vincent Scully. In 1980, again at Yale (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not), an architecture undergraduate named Maya Lin writ large the next chapter in American monumentality.

Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is too famous to require elucidation here.11 Suffice it to say that its extraordinary success has depended in large measure on its combination of Modernist memory, traditional history, and one key innovation. In terms of memory’s maxims, the Vietnam Memorial foregrounds and recalls ordinary naming, without rank or hierarchy. It avoids didacticism in favor of subjective emotion and immediacy. Mirrored surfaces, tactile inscriptions, and spontaneous acts of name-rubbing and memento-leaving create a place of profound personal transaction and trauma therapy. In form, the memorial seems a kind of Modernist “counter-monument”—abstract, horizontal, and black—which is of course what upset its early critics, now silenced, like Ross Perot and Tom Wolfe.

At the same time, Lin renewed many of traditional monumentality’s formal and conceptual themes. Like the Shaw and Fifty-Fourth Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial is frontal, unified, legible, and textual. It provides a place for contemplative reading. It links past to present directly, through the orientation of the walls to the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. And cautionary lessons are to be learned here about the profound losses of war.

Lin’s innovation is to arrange the names of the dead chronologically, from the vertex outward to the east and then back around from the west to the center. In effect, she creates a time line—the 20th-century schoolroom’s classic mnemotechnology—which in turn engenders an idealized historiography of the war’s trajectory, perfect in its narrative symmetry and closure. The ground dips and rises as catharsis. The time line’s circularity symbolizes the closure we desire when thinking about this particular war.

The Vietnam monument anticipated the architect’s other time-line-focused projects—the memorial to the Civil Rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama, and the monument to coeducation at Yale in New Haven. More broadly, the Vietnam Memorial inspired the monument and memory revival we continue to live through today. Like the once-scorned Vietnam veterans, many other American special-interest groups have staked legitimate claims for attention and respect through monuments and memorials. Shiny black granite walls with etched names populate the American landscape. Places of trauma and memory proliferate, from the populist spontaneity of roadside accident memorials and the Oklahoma City bombing site to the skillful oppositional politics of the Power of Place project that memorializes Los Angeles’s hidden ethnic and female histories.

Nearly all these monuments operate under the sign of memory. They repudiate traditional representation and hortatory narrative. They disdain inauthentic officialdom and pedantic inscription. They are partial to the everyday and revealed history. They favor subjective response and emotional immediacy. They deploy testimonial, witnessing, oral history, and letter writing. They employ modest and often fragmentary forms. They sponsor topophilic identities. “Places make memory cohere in complex ways,” writes Dolores Hayden, who helped to create the Power of Place project.12 They sanctify archival memory. Every object left along the walls of the Vietnam Memorial is warehoused permanently by the National Park Service. Memory reigns over history.

Meanwhile, a backlash against memory gathers steam. Historians note that memory is just as malleable, arbitrary, and forgetful as history. “Although written history can never be complete, memory must inevitably be much less so,” declares Michael Kammen.13 Memory, it is argued, gives way too easily to nostalgia’s redemptive returns and fictive wholeness. Marketers commercialize memory as commodity, further encouraging passive consumption of the past. “Memory has thus become a best-seller in consumer society,” bemoans the historian Jacques Le Goff.14

Treated as personal or collective property, memory encourages solipsistic self-indulgence and exclusionary identities. Sacralized memory admits neither debate nor revision. Memory’s compulsive repetitions produce neurasthenia. Emphasis on remembered representations of the past, and the rememberer’s consciousness, veil the actual objects of memory. Memory’s spell enervates. “The past is brought back in all its richness,” writes the landscape critic J. B. Jackson. “There is no lesson to learn, no covenant to honor; we are charmed into a state of innocence and become part of the environment. History ceases to exist.”15

Most damning of all, some charge that memory’s complacency, repetitions, and exclusions lead to the failure to progressively engage the past and present with the future. “Effective agency may have to go beyond witnessing to take up more comprehensive modes of political and social practice,” suggests the literary critic Dominick LaCapra.16 “The surfeit of memory is not a sign of historical confidence but a retreat from transformative politics,” declares the historian Maier. “It testifies to the loss of future orientation.”17

In place of the dominance of flawed memory over history, some critics and historians propose instead a relationship of mutual interdependence in which “memory is the raw material of history,” and “the discipline of history nourishes memory in turn.”18 Others suggest a more dialectical antagonism between history and memory. “It is the tension or outright conflict between history and memory that seem necessary and productive,” write Randolph Starn and Natalie Zemon Davis. “Memory and history may play shifting, alternately more or less contentious roles in setting the record straight.”19 A third approach would give history priority over memory, beginning with history’s responsibility to test critically the claims of memory. These formulas also attempt forcefully to break through memory’s solipsism and create spaces for broader engagement that might lead to progressive change. And they counter the ironic detachment characteristic of Foucault’s idea of history as “dissipation.”

Michael Roth, for example, calls for a new model of “pious” engagement with the past, an engagement transcending irony; he specifically encourages a “posture of receptivity” and “the placing of oneself in relation to the past in its otherness and potential connection to oneself.”20 Emphasizing the need for “a social structure in which people can address each other across the boundaries of difference,” the sociologist Richard Sennett writes of “the liberal hope for collective memory,” in which “many contending narratives are necessary to establish painful social facts. It is only the noise of contention which wrests collective memory from that shared, dream-like state we call myth-making.”21 LaCapra draws from psychoanalysis the idea of “working through the past,” which would “involve a modified mode of repetition offering a measure of critical purchase on problems and responsible control in action that would permit desirable change.” “Working through” would require “the generation of a transformed network of relations that counteract victimization and allow for different subject-positions and modes of agency.”22

These important new ways of thinking about history and memory attempt to correct memory’s repetitive fixations, its emphasis upon victimization and domination, and its passivity and self-contentedness. In place of compulsive aural memory and ironic discursive detachment—both of which disengage the past from the present and future—these new models propose engaged, critically tested, and debatable connections between past, present, and future. What they possess in common is the application of historical criticism, coherence, debate, empathic imagination, and exhortation to the task of making personal and collective memory productive for the future. In effect, these new models call for “working through” the memory and irony obsessions of our contemporary culture with the aid of history’s tools and aims.

Have these new formulations and the backlash against memory registered in monument building? Architects like Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind play ironic memory games in their museums and monuments, producing interesting forms that possess little coherence and hence discourage debate and paralyze action. Many other contemporary monuments encourage witnessing and archival memory as their primary modes of commemoration. Both the recent Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Korean War Memorials in Washington authenticate their subjects with quotations, reproductions of famous images, and even photographs. Similarly, other monuments use inscribed testimony and letters to evoke personal, everyday memory and to tug at our heartstrings. What is missing is any historical framework or sense of the future.

Admittedly, monument making should not be expected to accomplish the same things as historical discourse. We cannot realistically expect, for instance, that a monument will spur debate about its subject within itself. Nor should we anticipate that monument makers will get out ahead of the public (which commissions monuments, after all) and its still strong interest in memory.

What we might expect from monument making is an attempt to begin the working through of memory’s problems. The historians’ critique alerts us to memory’s flaws and limitations, particularly its solipsism and disengagement from agency. New postures of receptivity and explicit inspirational intention might help create the kinds of “civil spaces” invoked by John Gillis, in which “individuals come together to discuss, debate, and negotiate the past and, through this process, define the future.”23

One example of a monument that wrestles productively with the relationship between history and memory is the New England Holocaust Memorial by Stanley Saitowitz (1993). Six tall glass towers built in six stages and engraved with 6 million individual numbers enclose visitors who read survivors’ etched testimonials. These are Modernist memory towers: sacralizing survivors’ memory, abstractly evoking death camp confinement and crematoria smokestacks, and acting as memorable mnemonic devices to help us recall the six million Jewish dead. In between each tower a black stone walkway documents in simple declarative prose some history of the Holocaust: its classes of victims, its Gentile and Jewish resisters. In effect, the memorial mixes and alternates memory and history. It combines prefatory injunctions to “Remember” with an introductory narrative time line. It tries to make the survivors’ memories part of history and the Holocaust’s history part of our personal memory.

As an eloquent and accomplished Mexican-American with impressive academic credentials, Rodriguez serves as a model and example of the triumph of the underprivileged individual. His success was achieved through individual and family effort, by overcoming his own past, rather than through outside intervention or institutional and governmental supports. Many white readers, especially critics of bilingual education and affirmative action, have embraced him as their spokesperson and point to his rejection of these programs as proof of their worthlessness.

Rodriguez is, in fact, a vehement critic. He considers bilingual education programs—which were unavailable to his generation—ineffective and even detrimental. He explains his rapid progress in school, to a large degree, by the willingness of his family to abandon domestic intimacy—the use of Spanish, the language of home—and adopt English, the public language. His parents, Rodriguez relates, agreed to speak English at home, however artificial the language and halting their command of it, when the nuns, their children’s schoolteachers, persuaded them that it was in their best academic interest. He ceased being Ricardo and became Richard.

As his parents stopped speaking Spanish, Rodriguez perceived a loss of intimacy. At the time, he associated intimacy directly with the language itself and believed that family closeness and warmth were possible only in Spanish. While he was never able to overcome this youthful sense of sadness and loss, as he matured he began to believe that the outcome made the sacrifice worthwhile. In the next few years, he found ample compensation when he experienced academic success and a growing self-assurance in his public persona. He started to read voraciously in English and to rejoice in the sense of mastery, first of words and then of authors and ideas, in the new language. He became disinterested in Spanish and was reticent to speak his native language, even when visitors and relatives who came to his home urged him to do so.

Some years later, upon further reflection, Rodriguez believes that the loss of intimacy experienced in childhood was not caused by the adoption of a new language but was a result of the process of education itself. Education, as he sees it, aims at transforming children as individuals. Bilingual educators, by refusing to acknowledge this fact, contribute to delaying unnecessarily the main function of education. In the case of ethnic groups, bilingual education serves to postpone, if not to interfere with, the process of linguistic assimilation that contributes to an individual’s adoption of an identity separate from his family’s. It also delays the experience of self-confidence in public society that is essential for success.

Advocates of bilingual education would argue that the sense of loss experienced by Rodriguez in his passage from Spanish / Mexican culture to English /American culture could have been eased, if not altogether avoided, through a more gradual acculturation in which the language of home, the language and culture of intimacy, need never be relinquished. A native language can coexist, even thrive, with the public language. They are not mutually exclusive. Academic skills learned in one are easily transferred into the other. To succeed in English-speaking American culture (gringo culture to Rodriguez’s parents), it is not necessary to suppress expression in the language of one’s ethnic origin. The loss of intimacy at home is not unlike the one Rodriguez experienced when the Catholic liturgy changed from Latin to the vernacular, a change that affected him deeply and about which he writes in some of the most moving passages of the book.

Affirmative action is another of Rodriguez’s targets, although he openly admits to having been the beneficiary of the program on a number of occasions. As a graduate student in the 1970’s, he won several prestigious awards and fellowships, and although he amply met the criteria for such awards, he felt singled out because of his Chicano roots. When during his last year of graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley, he was offered coveted teaching appointments at several colleges while equally qualified white fellow students had no such offers, he decided to turn them down. This autobiographical juncture affords Rodriguez the opportunity to delve into what he considers the irony of his predicament. On the one hand, he knows that he has devoted his life to becoming a member of English-speaking public society, for which he suffered the losses already discussed. Yet, after achieving his goal and distinguishing himself in public society, he is rewarded for being a member of an ethnic minority, the exact thing from which he made it his life’s work to escape. He believes that he does not need such rewards; he has already achieved. Affirmative action’s largesse should go to the truly underprivileged, to those who cannot read and write and are destined to a life of poverty and need.

The scenario that Rodriguez criticizes may have been prevalent during the early years of affirmative action and may have had the results he notes in certain areas of higher education. Rodriguez belongs, to some extent, to the first generation of Ph.D. candidates whose minority status and ethnicity, as later with gender, served as impetus, rather than obstacle, for the granting of academic appointments. Defenders of affirmative action argue that minority groups have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education and other areas of employment and that its programs have sought to correct the situation. The number of minorities pursuing careers in higher education has increased dramatically since the early 1970’s, in large part because of affirmative action. Those who followed Rodriguez in undergraduate and graduate schools under the auspices of affirmative action have been able to use the program to achieve a level of training and education that Rodriguez achieved on his own. Thanks to the program, they need not feel, as he did, alienated and alone. The fact that affirmative action was implemented at the end of Rodriguez’s education, making him the bemused recipient of its rewards, is simply an accident of history.

The polemical content of Hunger of Memory should not obscure the moving human story it relates. In fact, this is the most compelling feature of the work. The reader is easily captivated by Rodriguez’s skillful recounting of deeply felt experiences. He is both tender and incisive, public and private. He is able to re-create, in a language that is simple, intimate, and rich, the awkward moments and the sense of excitement distilled from the memories of his youth. In compelling prose, he evokes the mystery of the Roman Catholic Mass. In a tone of contrition he apologizes for his own success, guilty for having left behind countless Mexican-Americans. The pervading tone of the work as a whole is one of nostalgia, of sadness and loss that public success can never erase.

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