Commemoration

 

I

Today, when I was flying into Washington, D.C., I could see the Pentagon from above. It is strange how the mere sight of this building made me think of what happened in 2001.

Back then, I didn’t know what the Pentagon was or what it stood for or what it meant that a plane had crashed into the building.

In 2001, I was eleven years old. I don’t remember much about that day, September 11, but I do recall sitting in front of the television and watching German news coverage that showed how these planes crashed into the towers. I don’t remember what I felt or thought about what I saw, but I know that I did not understand the significance of the events until many years later. After all, this was happening in America, not where I was; I was not personally affected by what was going on. There must have been a minute of silence held in my school, and I am sure that – just like everywhere in the world – the attacks were on the news every day for weeks. I just don’t remember any of that.

Early in January this year, I visited the National September 11 Memorial in New York City.

Visiting the memorial was very moving, but it also made me feel strangely alienated. Being reminded of all these lives that were lost, of all these people who had lost loved ones made me incredibly sad. I went there with a friend from Boston who shared his own memory of that day with me, which was touching and also gave me a better understanding of the meaning and impact of what happened. At the same time, even though I now know a lot more about the impact that these attacks had both literally and in a figurative sense, I am still only an observer who is watching from the outside, who feels a little out of place at this site which symbolizes national grief. I can feel with the people who were affected, but I cannot feel what they feel.

 

 

II

It has been said that the Germans are tired of talking about WWII. I understand this tiredness: every other year the topic is part of compulsory history classes in school, all students make a trip to a concentration camp, and there are constant reminders all over the media, be it allusions in newspaper articles or on occasions of commemoration. The constant lessons and reminders of what happened – of what we did – fulfill their purpose for the most part: at least among reasonably educated people racist or extremist sentiments are rare and uttering opinions like that is frowned upon. My generation is tired of being cast as the culprit. After all, we were born half a century after Hitler came to power; our parents were born after this happened; most of our grandparents were little children at that point. Why should the holocaust be our fault? We refuse to take the blame for the atrocities which the mistakes of our misguided ancestors brought forth. We know better, or at least we believe that we do. This cannot happen to us. This will not happen to us.

But isn’t this what we all want to think? This cannot happen to us? This cannot happen to me?

I am sure that that’s what many Germans thought in 1945.

 

 

III

Drawing parallels between World War II and the 9/11 attacks is problematic. But I would like to point to the difficulties of talking about what happened and about the aftermath.

In today’s Germany it is impossible to criticize Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism. The public has difficulties distinguishing between what is appropriate with regard to collective guilt towards Jews, which still needs to be perpetuated, and potentially justified critique of contemporary politics of the country of Israel. In a very recent case, author and poet Günter Grass published a controversial poem which caused an uproar. In short, he accused Israel of being a danger to world peace and suggested that, if they follow through with their threats of starting a preemptive war against Iran, they could become guilty of wiping out a people based on the unproven assumption that the country is developing a nuclear bomb. Yes, the poem is provocative. Yes, some of the content may be inappropriate. Yes, Grass plays down the aggressions of Iranian leaders. But that is not the point. The point is that journalists, in discussing and slamming Grass’s claims, brought up his past as a teenager in the SS. Germany has yet a long way to go before it can start talking about today’s Israel without having to be overly considerate of its special responsibility for the nation.

Something similar happened in the United States after the 9/11 attacks and the government’s decision to start the war on Iraq, which at that time was presented as the right thing to do. Opposition was discredited: critique of the government’s action concerning intervention in Iraq easily resulted in the critic being accused of being “unpatriotic.” Fortunately, this has changed since lies about the operation have been uncovered.

In both of these cases, a national memory, or nationally prescribed way of thinking, the only socially acceptable way, created limitations on what can be said about what happened.

 

 

IV

My friend told me about the feeling of unity and of nation-wide grief and confusion that shaped the days and weeks after the attacks.

The booklet that was given to visitors says that the National September 11 Memorial “commemorates the lives lost, recognizes the thousands who survived, and allows visitors to come together again in the spirit of unity that emerged in the wake of 9/11.” I think it is remarkable that this memorial is meant to evoke not only the memory of the victims but also something as intangible as “the spirit of unity,” which is “only” an emotion. I personally don’t remember feeling the spirit of unity, just like I don’t remember anything else that I felt in 2001. Maybe other people will be reminded of what they felt on that day in 2001; what the memorial does for me is create an idea of what it must have been like, and reading the names of all the people who died evokes compassion and sadness.

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is there to “remind the world of up to six million Jewish victims of the holocaust and honor them.” One thing that strikes me about the Field of Steles, the main part,  is its anonymity. The Steles are plain, there are no names written on them, and they all look alike except that they differ in height. There is an exhibit underneath the Field of Steles, and one part of this is the Room of Names, whose goal is to present as many biographies of the three million known victims as possible. This task hasn’t been finished yet; research is elaborate. But the most visible part of the memorial is the nameless Field of Steles.

Both of these memorials have been erected with the explicit purpose of commemorating the victims. If the 9/11 Memorial is also there to conjure up the spirit of unity, then what else is the Holocaust Memorial supposed to do? The spirit of unity of the 9/11 Memorial implies something or someone who we are to unite against. Who should we unite against when it comes to the Holocaust? Should Germans unite against Germans?

I am not sure which is easier: coming to term with the past and national memory when you’re the victim or the initiator.

The Color of a Place’s Soul

Orhan Pamuk dedicated a whole chapter of his memoir Istanbul to the theme of “black and white”. He says he has “always apprehended the city’s soul in black and white” (37), and for him the black and white of photographs of the city emphasize the decay of the glory of the Ottoman Empire, of Istanbul’s height.

“To see the city in black and white is to see it through the tarnish of history: the patina of what is old and faded and no longer matters to the rest of the world. Even the greatest Ottoman architecture has a humble simplicity that suggests an end-of-empire gloom, a pained submission to the diminishing European gaze and to an ancient poverty that must be endured like an incurable disease. It is resignation that nourishes Istanbul’s inward-looking soul” (39-40).

I had a very similar experience when I spent a couple of days on Juist, an island in the North Sea, with two friends. For many of the photographs I took there I set my camera to sepia because I felt that this hue would capture and reproduce the island’s “soul” much better than its real colors could. Juist is 17 km long and 1 km wide; half of the island is sandy beach. There are two villages, and almost every house has guestrooms for tourists. There are no cars there; the only people who have motored vehicles are the fire department, the Red Cross and doctors. Everybody else walks or uses bicycles or horse carriages. We went there in late summer – too late for beach weather, but it was still beautiful, windy but sunny on most days.

In many ways, this island seems like a timeless place – no cars, only leisure. Maybe this is the reason why I thought that sepia would suit it so much better, could capture our mood in a way that the lively colors of our surroundings could not.

 

 

For this week’s post I took a couple of pictures of the Vanderbilt campus. I loved how the morning sunshine illuminated the trees and buildings, how everything had this spring vibe and warmth and light.

For some reason, the same set of photographs doesn’t work for me in black and white. Yes, these pictures still have a certain charme; yes, they look timeless. But they lack the vibrancy of the beautiful spring colors, of sunshine. Black and white just won’t convey the mood the same way. The only two pictures that don’t lose their essence in black and white are the stone of former Kissam Hall and the interior of Kirkland Hall; but both of these places stand for the past and are there to keep memory alive. Black and white suits them.

But what about the Occupy Vanderbilt tents? They represent taking action against injustice, they are as much part of the present as anything can be. In black and white, the tents almost get lost in the trees, they don’t stand out at all. But this is not a camping trip. In much the same way, I could not bring myself to make the colors of the rainbow flag of the Office of LGBTQI Life fade: taking away the color there seemed like making the building’s purpose invisible.

Vanderbilt’s soul isn’t that of “a city that has been in decline for a hundred and fifty years” (42); black and white won’t do the university justice in many cases. Taking away the campus’s colors feels like taking away something of Vanderbilt’s vibrant soul.

The Transcience of a Hodgepodge

Christian Boltanski’s installations with photos of people whose identity has been long forgotten fascinate me. Especially one work we looked at got stuck in my head: Gymnasium Chases, in which Boltanski extracted and manipulated images of students from a Jewish high school in Vienna. One would expect that his technique of singling out individual pictures would enhance the students’ uniqueness, their specific characters; instead, Boltanski chose to bloat up the faces beyond recognition. In addition, by extracting solitary faces, he took them out of the only context in which they still exist. Today, probably nobody would recognize any of the people in these pictures from the 1930s; their identities are unknown, their only purpose is to be part of a photograph of “the graduating class of 1931.”

Boltanski’s work made me think of a project which my class did in our last year of high school. In Germany, students leave primary school after the fourth grade and go on to different types of secondary schools. In my case, the type of school was a Gymnasium, from which people graduate after 9 years. In fifth grade everyone is put into classes of 20-30 students; in our case, there were three of them (5Ga, 5Gb, 5Gc). The students of one class have a classroom that is assigned to them, and they have most courses together as a group. This means that people will identify with their class as the group of people they belong to and are associated with.

The project we did in our graduation year was for our yearbook. We took class portraits from fifth grade and tried to recreate them with the people who were still there, only 9 years older. It was almost moving to see the results: So many people had left (they moved away, transferred to others schools, or had to repeat years because of bad grades), which created lots of gaps. In some cases there were more gaps than in others: compared to 5Gc, 5Gb was almost still complete. In addition, a picture was taken of the people who had joined as in later years. Somebody added the names of the people who were “missing” in each picture; I must confess that in many cases I have no idea who these people were, especially if they were from other classes than my own, and I have almost forgotten about some other people. Notice that not only the people have changed but the school grounds, too: A new building was added, and a sitting area was added in the garden.

All of us students were part of this group, our class. But what is this unit if, after nine years “together,” only about half of the people are left? And what about the people who were added to the classes in later years (and are in the portraits of later years)? Are they not full-fledged members of these groups? After all, this identity as part of a class was assigned to us very randomly, and it is very transient. It is too easy for the names of the people in the class portraits to get lost (many had to be looked up for the project because they were not remembered), and if that happens, then all that remains is a photograph of a group of people, and this arbitrary assignment will be our only identity.

The Spirit of Unity

Early in January this year, I visited the National September 11 Memorial in New York City.

In 2001, I was eleven years old. I don’t remember much about that day, but I do recall sitting in front of the television and watching German news coverage that showed how these planes crashed into the towers. I don’t remember what I felt or thought about what I saw, but I know that I did not understand the significance of the events until many years later. After all, this was happening in America, not where I was; I was not personally affected by what was going on. There must have been a minute of silence held in my school, and I am sure that – just like everywhere in the world – the attacks were on the news every day for weeks. I just don’t remember any of that.

Visiting the memorial was very moving, but it also made me feel strangely alienated. Being reminded of all these lives that were lost, about all these people who had lost loved ones made me incredibly sad. I went there with a friend from Boston who shared his own memory of that day with me, which was touching and also gave me a better understanding of the meaning and impact of what happened. At the same time, even though I now know a lot more about the impact that these attacks had both literally and in a figurative sense, I am still only an observer who is watching from the outside, who feels a little out of place at this site which symbolizes national grief. I can feel with the people who were affected, but I cannot feel what they feel.

The booklet that was given to visitors says that the National September 11 Memorial “commemorates the lives lost, recognizes the thousands who survived, and allows visitors to come together again in the spirit of unity that emerged in the wake of 9/11.” I think it is remarkable that this memorial is meant to evoke not only the memory of the victims but also something as intangible as “the spirit of unity,” which is “only” an emotion. I personally don’t remember feeling the spirit of unity, just like I don’t remember anything else that I felt in 2001. But a place like the 9/11 memorial is important: it helps empathize with the people who were directly affected, and even if it fails to evoke an emotion that was not felt by all visitors, I am confident that it may succeed in creating this emotion.

A Picture Story

When I went through my collection of photographs to find one for this week’s assignment, I found these pictures that I had almost forgotten – in fact, I only remembered taking this one photograph of my friend, and not even taking this photograph, I just remembered that this photograph existed, but nothing else about that evening.

Going through this specific folder that contains photographs of this one evening revealed many things that I hadn’t remembered. First of all, the date: this happened on July 15, 2009. This means that we had just graduated from high school a couple of weeks before, and it was the last “free” summer before we all went off to different cities to study. In addition, since I remembered only this one photograph of my friend, I had completely forgotten that another friend of mine went with us. I associate that summer mostly with this second friend who is not in the picture because I spend more time with him than ever before. I remember going to his family’s house (a really awesome house… it’s one of my favorite houses; both of his parents are teachers and quite intellectual, and their house contains an impressive collection of books and movies and random things, and they had Persian kittens), and especially driving back home late at night, through a country setting that was often very foggy; sometimes I stayed there so late that I could see the sun rising on my way back.

The setting is a castle in the town of Burghausen, about 15 minutes from my home town. I don’t remember how we got there; either my friend (the one in the first picture) or I must have been driving because my other friend didn’t have a driver’s license. We spent a couple of hours at that castle (the photos show that the light was fading as night fell), had a little picnic of peanuts and melon there (I brought a blanket), and we also took more or less random pictures of each other and our surroundings. There are pictures of me looking at a hedgehog; I now recall that we heard something rustle in the greenery, and when we tried to see what it was we found this hedgehog. I thought the fading light looked beautiful in the background, so I made my friend balance on a fence and hold ballerina-like poses. I tried using flash first, but I didn’t like the outcome so I took some blurry photos without using flash. I must have noticed how pretty the shadows looked on the castle walls, so I took pictures of that, too. We then moved on into the town center. There is a photo of a wedding dress in a shop window, but I don’t remember whether my friend or I liked it so much that we thought it was worth taking a picture of it. Actually, it may just as well have been so ugly that we thought we should photograph it. We went to a bar – more blurry pictures. And that’s where the evening ends, according to the photographic evidence.

Going through this particular folder containing photographs of this one summer night, I had a rather strange experience. I did not remember this night; nothing noteworthy happened, nothing that would give me a reason to recall it. Yet, when I look at these pictures, some memories do come up – the one about the hedgehog that I described earlier on, which cannot be found in any of the pictures. But most of what I now “remember” about this night is inextricably linked to the photographs, does not go beyond what is visible in them. Looking at them, some memories emerge, but does that mean that they are still stored in my head, just not on the surface? Or are these not actually memories but are they put into my head by the images I see? In primary school, a frequent task was to write short stories that were prompted by a small number of images – picture stories. The point was to make a connection between the pictures, to create the missing link that lead from one picture to the next. Is that what’s happening when I look at these photographs? Do I just create random links between them? But at the same time, some memories, or impressions, of a wider context (which this one evening was part of) do come up: the blurred memory of that summer. I am not sure what to make of this. Often, single photographs prompt a more extensive memory; in this case, many photographs tell a story but do not trigger memories. All I know is that in this case, memory and photography are fused into one entity, and I cannot separate them anymore.

The Punctum in Memory

The one thing that I remember most clearly about my first night at Vanderbilt is the confusion I felt. I was very tired after a long flight from Europe, which had been the first time I was travelling all on my own. A very nice employee of the ISSS welcomed me and drove me around, to my dorm and to a supermarket, and she provided me with blankets for the night. It was dark outside when I got here, nothing was familiar, and I was taken to a number of places that I had never seen before, and I had to deal with a foreign language.

 

When I think back to that first night, I remember faces and places that are disconnected. I remember what McTyeire Hall looked like that night, I remember what the supermarket looked like, I remember what the Student Life Center looked like (not that I knew that this was the name of the building). The main difference between then and now is that I could not make any connection between the individual places; I did not know how to get from one place to the next, and the darkness did not help at all.

McTyeire Hall at Night

In W or The Memory of Childhood, Georges Perec describes a number of childhood memories. What stood out to me in these descriptions is that they are often fixed on a very specific, random detail – on page 116, for example, “a petrified image, unchangeable, which I can recall physically, down to the feeling of my hands clenched round the uprights [of the balustrade], down to the cold metal pressing on my forehead when I leaned against the handrail.” This element of his memory seems so arbitrary, yet I recognize this specificity; this fixation is very familiar and occurs in my own memories, too.

This detail in memory reminded me of Barthes’s concept of the punctum in a photograph. He describes it as follows: “In this habitually unary space, occasionally (but alas all too rarely) a ‘detail’ attracts me. I feel that its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value” (42). Could it be possible to replace the photograph with a memory? Of course, every memory is unique. You could try and share your memories with someone, but they would never be able to remember what you remember. Even if someone else has a memory of the same event, the two memories will be different. But could this difference be the thing that makes a difference, the thing that changes the “reading” of a memory? If the event has been the same, then the difference must be in the specific memory, in your specific focus on some detail that is different from what others focus on.

It might be necessary to adapt and slightly alter Barthes’s concept of the punctum for memories instead of photographs, but I do see a similarity there. At least to me, some memories stand out more than others do, often because of some arbitrary detail which I would not be able to explain to someone else. I do feel inclined to call this detail the memory’s punctum. When it comes to the memory of my first night at Vanderbilt, the punctum would be the confusion and disorientation: it stands out to me more than any specific places or faces or conversations that I had.

Harmonies and Contrasts Hidden in Colors

In my last year of high school, I talked my teacher into letting me do a photography project of my own choice. I ended up walking around the beautiful grounds of my school (which used to be run by nuns and still is on the property of the Congregatio Jesu), trying to capture views and images that would depict the buildings and gardens in a way that the students and teachers, who are used to seeing the place every day, would not expect. One of the images I took was this view of the sky as seen through the old, knobby trees that line one of the pathways.

I liked the eerie mood that the photograph conveyed, which I ascribed to the greyish, sad color of the sky and the bare, desolate trees of late fall. But I was not quite satisfied: the picture did not really show an aspect of my school that was not an ordinary part of daily life; it would not strike anybody as surprising. So I started playing around with Photoshop. And when I increased the contrast of the photograph to the maximum, the outcome was stunning: suddenly, the bland grey of the sky revealed a diversity of colors and hues that had not been visible before.

Section XVI of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” highlights a distinctive feature of photography: its ability to reveal features of our surroundings which are not visible to the naked eye. He talks predominately about how close-ups and slow motion disclose “new structures of matter” and “quite unknown aspects within” “familiar aspects of movements” (17) respectively. Photo editing (which is particularly easy with digital photographs) opens up even more possibilities. As Benjamin says, “[i]n most cases the diverse aspects of reality captured by the film camera lie outside only the normal spectrum of sense impressions” (18). The multitude of colors that Photoshop revealed cannot be perceived by the human eye. Picture editing allows us to go beyond this “normal spectrum”; it can alter and broaden the way in which we perceive reality.

In the end, I used this “enhanced” version of my initial photograph for my project, and I paired it with the following quote:

“There are harmonies and contrasts hidden in colors which automatically work together.” (Vincent van Gogh)