Nor are memories “misty water-coloured” as the song describes. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on memory, trauma, and history lately. Of course, my particular interest is in how art is implicated in these issues. What art can do.
Memories are tangled and interwoven and cannot be relegated to the corners of one’s mind, whether they are personal, communal, or national, private or shared. They constrain, limit, and haunt the present, but they can also be redirected productively and creatively.
One of the books I find most compelling is Gene Ray’s Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory: From Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11 and Beyond. This book is really about negotiating the past to find a radical ethical politics in the present.
What is forgotten in official histories is as important as what is remembered and how. Many of Ray’s condemnations, particularly of the U.S. government, are necessary, profound, and urgently forceful. Yet the book remains hopeful in terms of agency, empowerment, and refusal (the refusal of political domination, violence, and capitalism’s relentless inscribing of our world in terms of exchange value). It is a challenging and difficult book, but I am clinging to it as one example of how to move forward ethically and empathetically in light of this century’s inheritance of catastrophe and trauma, as well as the ongoing manifestations of appalling violence and cruelty.