Interview with Michael Rothberg
Cover picture: Michael Rothberg Photographed by David Wu, UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies
Michael Rothberg is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature and the 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Working in the fields of Holocaust, trauma and memory studies, critical theory and cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and contemporary literature, he developed the concept of multidirectional memory. He is a founding member of the Advisory Board of the Memory Studies Association and a partner of the Network in Transnational Memory Studies and Mnemonics: Network for Memory Studies. In this interview, he introduces the figure of the implicated subject, a new category to analyze the political responsibilities in the past, and presents his latest research.
In 2009 you published Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, forging this new concept that helped to analyze the transmission of the past by relativizing the competition between memories and allowing a new reading of the relationship between them. How do you assess the academic impact of your theory a decade later? How has this concept evolved since then?
My concept of “multidirectional memory” emerged out of the strong sense that I had in the first decade of the twenty-first century that both scholarship and public discourse were misunderstanding how public memory works. Much discussion of the clash of different memory traditions (say, African American and Jewish American in the US context) was premised on what I came to call a zero-sum logic of competition: the idea that different memories displaced each other from the public sphere. Too much Holocaust memory meant not enough memory of slavery, too much memory of slavery detracted from Holocaust memory, etc. My counter-proposal was that memories actually feed off of each other in a productive dynamic. That doesn’t imply that there are no conflicts or competitions. Indeed, we are experiencing a similar moment right now in the US where we are fighting over whether “concentration camps” can only refer to Nazi camps or whether they might also describe the detention camps in which the US government is placing migrants and refugees from Latin America. What I was trying to get at with the concept of multidirectional memory was the underlying dynamic of memory discourses, which I continue to think are non-zero-sum and based rather on borrowing, cross-referencing, and other kinds of echoes and ricochets. Thus, to stick with that one prominent example: the rise of a global Holocaust memory has led to more memory of other traumatic histories, not less.
I still stand by the fundamental argument of the book, but I also have seen the need to add some nuance and to stress other factors as well. Among those other factors are the question of power: memories are surely shaped by relations of power that are asymmetrical and contoured by political and economic factors, among other things. I have found Viet Thanh Nguyen’s recent book Nothing Ever Dies, on the memory of the war in Vietnam, helpful in this regard: he talks about the asymmetrical resources and impacts of different national “industries of memory” that project their visions of the past at different scales. In the context of the various memory exchanges that interest me, the different memories at play are not equal: some obviously have more prominence than others. At the same time, what interested me in Multidirectional Memory was precisely how marginalized groups—marginalized because of political ideology, race, minority status, and so on—were able to create counter-memories that challenged hegemonic memory regimes. I suggested that memory’s multidirectionality is a resource that less powerful memory agents can self-consciously deploy: mobilizing, for instance, memories of the Holocaust to challenge colonial or racist memories.
I’ve also tried to add nuance to the notion of multidirectionality by distinguishing different forms from each other. Although I see multidirectionality as a structural (i.e. unavoidable) feature of collective memory, not all multidirectional memory is the same. In my essay “From Gaza to Warsaw,” which is also included in my new book The Implicated Subject, I “map” memories by placing them on a grid defined by an axis of comparison that runs between equation and differentiation and an axis of political affect that runs between competition and solidarity. Situating memories on this map allows us to think with greater subtlety about the ethics and politics of public remembrance.
My sense is that the concept of multidirectional memory has been enabling for many people around the globe. I’ve seen it taken up by scholars working on every continent in relation to numerous histories that I know nothing about! Translations of the book continue to appear—after recent translations into Polish and French, a German edition is in the works. Even if there is also plenty of criticism, as there should always be, I think I’ve helped move the debate beyond the deadlock of the zero-sum logic of competition.
This new issue of Observing Memories has focused on the “tourism of memory”. Currently, we see how tourism is affecting different areas of our daily life (from renting a flat to using public transport). How do you think tourism affects places of memory or ways of thinking about the past?
I’m not a scholar of tourism, but of course, you are right to focus on the relation of tourism to memory because it is a significant, global phenomenon. From my non-expert perspective, I would judge it as an ambivalent issue. First of all, there is no doubt that the promotion of tourism is an important factor in the commodification and reification of memory, as Enzo Traverso pointed out in an earlier issue of Observing Memories. Museums, memorials, and other memory sites have become well integrated into tourist itineraries and are clearly part of the way that cities in particular market themselves. One should certainly be skeptical about the depth of the historical memory that is accessed in packaged tours and quick visits to famous sites of memory. At the same time, such tourism is in no way new—think of religious pilgrimages or, in a more secular vein, the visits of school children to national capitals, such as Washington, D.C. In addition, I would not want to discount entirely the sparks of effective memory work that might be produced by an otherwise banal tourist visit. Who can say what seeds are planted for future reflection and action in children who are dragged to museums or in adults confronted with a Holocaust counter monument? If tourism is surely disruptive of the urban fabric in negative ways (as your reference to renting and public transport implies), I think it can also be disruptive in positive ways: I would not underestimate the impact of coming across Stolpersteine [stumbling stones] dedicated to victims of the Nazis in the streets of European cities; I would be surprised if the historical consciousness of many tourists had not been deepened by such encounters.
You’ve recently published The implicated subject, in which you present a new figure that seeks to overcome the categories of victim, perpetrator, and bystander in order to analyze political responsibilities. Would you care to elaborate on the concept of the implicated subject?
My new book arose from a sense that we have had an impoverished and non-systematic conceptual vocabulary for addressing some key issues regarding responsibility for violence and inequality. I believe we have been too fixated on the binary opposition between victims and perpetrators in both scholarship and public discourse. I became interested in figures who enable, inherit, benefit from, and help perpetuate violence and inequality without being perpetrators in any moral or legal sense. In my opinion, the concept of the bystander is also too weak to describe these kinds of issues because it implies not only passivity but a certain innocence. My book is about people (most of us!) who are not guilty of crimes or “perpetrators” of exploitation but remain historically and politically responsible in different ways for atrocities and inequalities both in the past and present. There has been important work in recent years on related issues such as complicity by scholars such as Mark Sanders, Christopher Kutz, Naomi Mandel, and Debarati Sanyal, and on the figure of the beneficiary by scholars such as Mahmood Mamdani, Robert Meister, and Bruce Robbins, but I saw the need for an umbrella term that would bring together different forms of what I call implication: our indirect entanglement in injustices.
I distinguish analytically between diachronic (historical) and synchronic (contemporary) implication, but I also suggest that these two forms almost always appear together. To give an example of what I mean: white people in former slave owning and slave trading societies are diachronically implicated in slavery but the afterlives of slavery have also perpetuated inequalities in the present that render those same people synchronically implicated. It’s difficult to untangle those two axes, but I think it’s still worth making the analytical distinction for the purposes of conceptual clarity and in order to facilitate comparisons between different scenarios.
Among the other issues, I tackle in the book are what I call “complex implication,” which describes situations in which one may have strong ties to histories of victimization (what Marianne Hirsch calls “postmemory”) and still be implicated in contemporary injustices. I explore complex implications by discussing the work of Jewish artists who evoke the memory of the Holocaust while exploring implication in the Israeli occupation of Palestine and South African apartheid, respectively. Finally, I’m interested in how artists, intellectuals, and activists transform consciousness of their own implication into acts of what I call “long-distance solidarity,” forms of internationalist solidarity that cross lines of identity, nation, and status. Long-distance solidarity is a vexed and difficult form of affiliation, but I see the kinds of alliances it makes possible as necessary to political transformation.
Together with Yasemin Yildiz you are writing a book about how the population that has recently migrated to Germany perceives and relates to the Nazi history of the country and the Holocaust. Could you share with us some of the working conclusions of your study?
We started working on this project about a decade ago when we noticed the emergence of a troubling discourse on immigrants—especially those from so-called Muslim countries like Turkey—and Holocaust memory. In a 2011 article called “Memory Citizenship,” we came to identify a “migrant double bind”: the fact that people identified as racialized immigrants were simultaneously told that in order to be German they had to “remember” the Holocaust and that they could never remember the Holocaust because it wasn’t part of their history. The double bind was summed up well by a Turkish-German woman who had participated in a civil society project on National Socialism and the Holocaust called the “Neighborhood Mothers.” In reflecting on her experience with the group, she wrote, “We often hear that the topic of National Socialism is not for us because we’re migrants. Just as often it’s insinuated that in any case we are too anti-Semitic to be interested in this topic.” Becoming aware of the migrant double bind led us to recognize another powerful social logic that we called the “German paradox,” which finds expression in dominant society. This is the idea that in order to take responsibility for the Holocaust an ethnic notion of Germanness has to be preserved, even though this very notion of Germanness contributed to the committing of that crime in the first place.
A lot has changed since we first became interested in this topic—not least the large influx of refugees in the summer of 2015, which led both to inspiring examples of solidarity and, ultimately, to innumerable attacks on people perceived as foreign that persist to this day along with the strengthening of the far right in the political sphere through the rise of the AfD. But, from my somewhat distant perspective in the US, my sense is that the basic parameters of the migrant double bind and the German paradox remain in place. That is to say that despite increased recognition of the diverse nature of German society, a strongly ethnic definition of Germanness continues to reign and to have powerful shaping effects on cultural memory, not least memory of the Holocaust and National Socialism.
Our project, however, is not primarily a critique of these discourses about Germans, migrants, and Holocaust memory; it is an argument that despite those discourses there has been significant memory work across society by minorities, migrants, and post migrants. We collect and analyze what we call a “migrant archive” of acts of remembrance that includes civil society initiatives, performance and visual art, music, literature, and theater. While we don’t claim such remembrance is representative of all immigrants and minorities, we find very creative—sometimes multidirectional—acts of memory that open up what has become a ritualized and moralized Holocaust memory in Germany. Ultimately, we believe, these acts of memory are also democratic forms of “memory citizenship,” that is, contestations of the paradigms of belonging and participation that determine who gets a say about the character and constitution of contemporary German society. I think this focus on migrant archives and memory citizenship has implications that go well beyond Germany.
How would you describe the policies on memory and remembrance that the EU has carried out so far? What would be the main challenges faced by the EU in this sense?
I don’t usually focus on memory at the institutional level, so I don’t really have much to say about the EU as such. However, I can say something about European memory as a heterogeneous social formation. Certainly, all of the projects I have described above—the books on multidirectional memory, the implicated subject, and migrant memories—have implications for thinking about remembrance in Europe as a whole.
Europe faces many challenges and many of them—though certainly not all!—do involve questions of memory. My own work on the Holocaust leads me to highlight four interlinked issues that intersect with memory of the war and genocide: the East/West divide; the colonial past; the reality of migration; and far-right mobilization. While in the last couple of decades the Holocaust has come to function as a founding continent-wide, “negative” memory, this fact has also opened up a field of tensions. First, it unleashed a new post-Cold War East/West conflict concerning the questions of how to remember World War II and how to calibrate memories of Nazism and Soviet Communism. Second, it raised uncomfortable questions about histories of racism and violence that predated—some would argue, fed into—the Holocaust and that continue into the present: colonialism, slavery, and their afterlives. The reality of racialization, produced in no small measure out of the history of colonialism and slavery, also shapes the European reception of migrants and refugees, who are persistently marked as other, as not belonging, as unintegratable. Various scholars, including Rita Chin and Fatima El-Tayeb in the German context and Françoise Vergès in the French context, have been drawing attention to the racialized notion of Europeanness, but in public life as well as in much scholarly writing, race goes unmarked and unspoken. This unspeakability has untold effects on European memory—for the memories of both those who consider themselves unproblematically European and those migrants who are also European (among other things), but are not recognized as such.
My hypothesis would be that all of these difficulties then converge in the rise of the far right. Of course there is much more than memory politics at stake, but I think the failures to adequately address these various tensions within public remembrance—unevenness within Europe, colonial legacies, histories of race and migration—constitute the backdrop for the current political crisis. I have no magic solution to solve this crisis—I wish someone did!—but I suspect that the cultivation of a greater sense of implication for Europeans in histories of colonialism and race would be a step in the right direction. That’s a project that will demand broad forms of education and democratized cultures of memory that include multidirectional sensibilities and migrant perspectives.