(Image: Alicia Milesi-Ionescu)

Critical Memory Studies for the Posthumanist Age

Arleen Ionescu, Laurent Milesi and Stefan Herbrechter

As direct witnesses of last century’s major historical events, such as World War II, began disappearing, new memorial paradigms, together with a more pliable, creative understanding of memory itself, started flourishing to compensate for the irreversible loss of direct access to testimonial recollection in the new millennium. Within the context of a globalised, hypermediatised ‘digital age’ and, alongside it, a new cultural paradigm now institutionalised in academe as posthumanism, a ‘third phase’ in memory studies has emerged, following on from Maurice Halbwachs’s pioneering work on collective memory, and continued by Pierre Nora and Jan Assmann.[1] Acknowledging the societal challenge the risk of historical oblivion and waning of empathy might entail, the urgent necessity of linking the emergence of 21st-century ‘posthumanity’ needs to be explored through a reconceptualisation of the function and operations of memory in socio-cultural transmissions of the past.

Developing alongside the rise of new media and novel forms of aesthetic expression, posthumanism first centred on the relationship between humans and technology, while focusing on how technological enhancement could transcend the natural boundaries of the human species (‘transhumanism’) before it started incorporating a critical engagement with the limitations and unacknowledged exclusions at the heart of humanism itself. Known as ‘critical posthumanism,’[2] this philosophical reorientation can provide a model for achieving the concrete aims of rethinking the temporal and critical nature of rememoration in relation to posthumanity and of remedying the existing disconnection between memory studies and posthumanism.

Central to critical posthumanism is the idea that ‘post’ does not merely point forward to a future of the human or of humanism (as something ‘coming after’), including in the paradoxical forms of the ‘inhuman,’[3] a ‘nonhuman turn’ and ‘nonhuman media.’[4] It equally, through a temporal reversal, questions what came and what did not come before, as it is concerned with the problematic origins of what constitutes ‘humanity’.[5] Such a reversible temporality is most suitable to deal with emergent mnemonic technologies and their creative, imaginative or experiential re-enactments as means of transmitting and refashioning memory for those near-forgotten moments and sites of history in our ‘post-human condition’.[6]

As early as ancient Greek philosophy,[7] memory was conceived as the interaction of the narratable/representable (mnēmē); as ‘living memory’, or the process of recollection without relying on external supports (anamnesis); and as the ‘making-technical’ of memory, its substrates and mnemonic substitutes, such as writing, photography, machines (hypomnesis). It is at the intersection of these three conceptions – memory as (re)presented, experienced and mediatised – that a fourth phase in memory studies needs to be situated.[8]

In line with the ‘post’-temporality outlined above as integral to this view of (re)memorisation in posthumanism, ‘remediated memory’ likewise focuses on the dynamics of premediation,[9] whereby memories, their (re)presentation in any artistic, cultural milieu, are transmitted and ‘updated’, sometimes trans-generationally, via intermedial adaptations. A pertinent instance of this paradoxical conjunction of backward/forward looking can already be found in Jorge Semprún’s ‘remembering the future,’[10] which informs his historical fiction and reimagines his experience as a former camp inmate. Such an analytic framework and conceptual redeployment builds on the growing awareness of the social dynamics at work in shaping constantly evolving views and transmissions of the past beyond static models of analysis where the emphasis lies on cultural products.[11]

In the wake of Marianne Hirsch’s broader conception of ‘postmemory’,[12] scholars from different critical persuasions have devised alternative paradigms to account for a diversity of memorial approaches: Levy and Sznaider’s ‘cosmopolitan memory,’ Landsberg’s ‘prosthetic memory,’ van Dijck’s ‘mediated memory,’ Bernard-Donals’s ‘forgetful memory,’ Rothberg’s ‘multidirectional memory,’ Erll’s and Tomsky’s ‘travelling memory,’ Reading’s ‘globital memory,’ Silverman’s ‘palimpsestic memory,’ Feindt et al.’s ‘entangled memory,’ de Cesari and Rigney’s ‘transnational memory,’ and other transdisciplinary perspectives.[13] However, none of these conceptual schemes, including ‘mediated memory’, tackles how the diversification of mnemonic practices unfolds within the context of a (perceived, lived) posthuman age. We are here offering a prospect for remedying this oversight by bridging the so far unexplored gap between memory studies and posthumanism.

What is at stake in transformative processes of mnemonic transmission is the very reshaping of the concept of ‘memory’ in what could provide the foundations for a new approach, called ‘critical memory studies’, offering a wider remit more attuned to contemporary reliance on new technologies and media. Used as an unproblematised phrase in Baumann, Sendyka, and very recently by Kaplan in her eponymous edited volume,[14] ‘critical memory studies’ more rigorously defined can foster a dialogue between (inter)media, visual studies and critical/cultural theory with an awareness of acquired knowledge from past critical thinking as well as our current Zeitgeist (i.e. posthumanism).

Erll and Rigney uncovered a shift away from static towards more dynamic cultural memory models, highlighting the growing interest in the role of media.[15] Kilbourn and Ty[16] considered the status of individual, collective, cultural and transcultural memory in more established media forms (literature and film), thus eschewing new developments in more interactive visual platforms such as videogames, with the latter’s power of creative preservation of cultural heritage.[17] Although not covering memory per se, Elleström dealt with media transformation, distinguishing between mediation and representation, devising a model for conceptualising the various entities in intermedial transfers involving different media types, with examples from speech, writing, music, cinema and the internet.[18] Going beyond these directions, we can (re)construct/reconceptualise memory in the 21st century by exploring interactive media platforms so far largely neglected by memory studies scholars, as well as new forms of witnessing in the ‘post-testimonial era’.[19] In the case of major events like the Holocaust or communist repression in post-WWII Stalinist satellite countries, the trajectory of witnessing has shifted from fast-disappearing victims and precariously surviving objects, preserved in museums from former concentration camps and communist prisons, to more durable (virtual, digital) media. Narratives must be regarded in their intermedial interconnectedness as works of memory/rememoration, since they can (re)present different testimonial modalities ultimately not reducible to the actual former victims’ human agency yet (re)constructing a work of memory endowed with powerful testimonial value. The process of ‘witnessing witnessing’[20] nowadays includes initiatives harnessing immersive, VR/AI-related technologies, holograms of survivors that audiences will be able to interact with for years to come, and videogames re-enacting history.[21]

So far Brunow[22] is the only memory studies scholar who has initiated a more comprehensive, transdisciplinary/transmedial approach articulating these concepts within the cultural practices and emergent critical constructions of the posthumanist millennium, as well as a theoretical exploration of 21st-century narratives, films, museums and videogames. Critical memory studies thus conceived, ranging across a broad array of media and aesthetic practices, will help us understand what role immersive media play in the production, circulation and transformation of cultural memory. It will shed light on how digital/virtual media technologies, and processes of (re)mediation and intermediality (re)shape cultural and aesthetic objects, generating new memorial practices. It will also show how newer, emergent media can help redefine and refashion what is collectively remembered or a fast-disappearing heritage.

[1] Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, ed., trans. and intr. Lewis A. Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992 [1950]); Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire (Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan, 1925); Jan Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011 [1992]); Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past, 3 vols, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996–1998).

[2] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 45–50; Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013); Pramod K. Nayar, Posthumanism (Cambridge: Polity, 2014).

[3] Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity, 1991).

[4] Joanna Zylinska, Nonhuman Photography (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).

[5] Stefan Herbrechter, Before Humanity: Posthumanism and Ancestrality (Leiden: Brill, 2022).

[6] Robert Pepperell, The Post-Human Condition (Bristol: Intellect Books, 1995).

[7] Paul Ricœur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blarney and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Bernard Stiegler, ‘Anamnesis and Hypomnesis’, Ars Industrialis, N.D., https://arsindustrialis.org/anamnesis-and-hypomnesis.

[8] Stef Craps saw the fourth phase of memory studies ‘prompted by our growing consciousness of the Anthropocene’ and connected it to memory studies starting to ‘think ecologically’ (Stef Craps et al, ‘Memory Studies and the Anthropocene: A Roundtable,’ Memory Studies 11.4 (2018): 500).

[9] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999); Richard Grusin, Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). See also Astrid Erll, ‘Media and the Dynamics of Memory: From Cultural Paradigms to Transcultural Premediation’, in Handbook of Culture and Memory, ed. Brady Wagoner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 305–24, for whom media designates the power of schemata of representation to shape and preform new memories, and their mediation.

[10] Jorge Semprún, The Long Voyage, trans. Richard Seaver (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2005 [1963]).

[11] Susanne Knittel and Kári Driscoll (eds), Parallax 23.4: ‘Memory After Humanism’ (2017).

[12] Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); ‘Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory’, The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001): 5–37; The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

[13] Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, ‘Memory Unbound: The Holocaust and the Formation of Cosmopolitan Memory’, European Journal of Social Theory 5.1 (2002): 87–106; Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); José van Dijck, Mediated Memories in the Digital Age (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Michael Bernard-Donals, Forgetful Memory: Representation and Remembrance in the Wake of the Holocaust (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2009); Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009); Astrid Erll, ‘Travelling Memory’, Parallax 17.4 (2011): 4–18; Anna Reading, ‘Memory and Digital Media: Six Dynamics of the Globital Memory Field’, in On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age, ed. Motti Neiger, Oren Meyers and Eyal Zandberg (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 241–52; Max Silverman, Palimpsestic Memory: The Holocaust and Colonialism in French and Francophone Fiction and Film (New York: Berghahn, 2013); Gregor Feindt et al., ‘Entangled Memory: Toward a Third Wave in Memory Studies’, History and Theory 53.1 (2014): 24–44; Chiara de Cesari and Ann Rigney (eds), Transnational Memory: Circulation, Articulation, Scale (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014); Rick Crownshaw, Jane Kilby and Antony Rowland (eds), The Future of Memory (New York: Berghahn, 2011).

[14] Marcel M. Baumann, ‘Critical Memory Studies and the Politics of Victimhood: Reassessing the Role of Victimhood Nationalism in Northern Ireland and South Africa’, in Victims of International Crimes: An Interdisciplinary Discourse, ed. Thorsten Bonacker and Christoph Safferling (The Hague: T.M.C. Asser Press, 2013), 373–93; Roma Sendyka, ‘Sites of Violence and Their Communities: Critical Memory Studies in the Post-Human Era’, Heritage, Memory and Conflict 1 (2021): 1–11; Brett Ashley Kaplan (ed.), Critical Memory Studies: New Approaches (London: Bloomsbury, 2023).

[15] Astrid Erll and Ann Rigney (eds), Mediation, Remediation, and the Dynamics of Cultural Memory (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009).

[16] Russell J. A. Kilbourn and Eleanor Ty (eds), The Memory Effect: The Remediation of Memory in Literature and Film (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013).

[17] For the socio-cultural impact of ‘meaningful play’ within a gamified society, see Mathias Fuchs et al., Rethinking Gamification (Lüneburg: Meson Press, 2014); Erinnern mit Games: https://www.stiftung-digitale-spielekultur.de/project/initiative-erinnern-mit-games/; ‘Play the Past’ initiative: https://www.stiftung-digitale-spielekultur.de/project/initiative-erinnern-mit-games/, https://www.playthepast.org/, especially ‘Videogames and Memory’, http://www.playthepast.org/?p=6097.

[18] Lars Elleström, Media Transformation: The Transfer of Media Characteristics among Media (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[19] Arleen Ionescu and Simona Mitroiu, ‘Holocaust Narratives in the Post-Testimonial Era: Introduction’, in Parallax 29.2: ‘Holocaust Narratives in the Post-Testimonial Era’ (eds Arleen Ionescu and Simona Mitroiu), https://doi.org/10.1080/13534645.2023.2271720.

[20] Thomas Trezise, Witnesing Witnessing: On the Reception of Holocaust Survivor Testimony (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

[21] See The Skokie Illinois Holocaust Museum: https://www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/; The USC Shoah Foundation founded by Steven Spielberg in 1994: https://sfi.usc.edu/; The VR Auschwitz app project: https://auschwitz-vr.pl/en/; Witness Auschwitz: http://www.101-percent.com/Works/Witness-Auschwitz; Attentat 1942 (Charles University, 2017); Svoboda 1945: Liberation (Charles University, 2021).

[22] Dagmar Brunow, Remediating Transcultural Memory: Documentary Filmmaking as Archival Intervention (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015).