The Politics of Memory

Term: Spring 2012

Subject Code: GPHI

Course Number: 6657

Theoretical: What is memory? What is the role of memory on social life? Why has the rhetoric of memory become inescapable in contemporary politics? We will pursue these questions through the work of Walter Benjamin, Maurice Halbwachs, Pierre Nora, Jan Assmann, and recent theorists.To some extent, the choice of case studies will be up to student interest. However, we will probably look at the following:
(a) Freud on Moses. Freud's Moses and Monotheism, written just before his death, was his attempt to come to terms with his own Jewish heritage. It was extremely speculative, even by Freud's relaxed standards, and has often been dismissed as historical fiction. However, in recent years it has attracted extremely important commentary from Yosef Yerushalmi, Jan Assmann, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Bernstein. This debate introduces some of the main issues and problems on thinking about memory; it is surprisingly relevant to contemporary politics.
(b) The Holocaust: Moral Universal, Nationalist Icon, or Moral Kitsch? Much of the impetus for the current boom in memory studies comes from the Holocaust. It is important to look beyond its near sacred aura and engage with its role in contemporary politics. We will discuss the relationship between individual ('survivor') memory and public commemoration, the concept of trauma, and look especially at the tension between recent claims that the holocaust functions as a 'moral universal', and its special place in the self-understanding of Israel, Germany, and the United States.
(c) Memory and Transitional Justice. We will look at some of the problems in making a transition from authoritarian and repressive regimes to more liberal and democratic ones. To what extent should new regimes pursue the crimes of the past? One proposal calls for 'acts of oblivion,' that is, amnesty and amnesia, so that the new regime can look to the future. Others call for trials, truth commissions, and the like, not merely to pass judgment on the past, but also to create memories that are appropriate for the future. We will consider two or three examples, probably South Africa, and others drawn from Latin America and/or Eastern Europe.

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