This week I attended a masterclass given by Susannah Radstone, a cultural theory and memory studies scholar, as part of the Flinders Uni Moving Cultures, Shifting Identitities conference. She had to the ability to make less-than-familiar ideas into something recognisable. I felt with her that I was travelling into new territory and getting there before realising it. The session I attended was about memory research in cultural theory: wih the early twentieth century concerns with memory as evoked by Freud, Benjamin, Proust; and the more recent concerns with oral history and how individual memories are treated, as well as the rise of trauma theory and thinking about how we can imbue a presence to the traces of those taken away by war and other tragedy.
This got me thinking again about the book of photographs by Simon Norfolk, For Most Of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory. (His site above has many images from the book as well a chance to flip through some of the pages.) What he does here is to document sites of genocide as they stand today: Rwanda, Cambodia, Vietnam, Auschwitz, Dresden, Ukraine, Armenia, Namibia. The structure of the book is simple but indicates clearly that as the event recedes into the past, so do its traces recede also. The events are placed with the most recent (Rwanda) first, and the most distant (the extermination of the Herero tribe in Namibia by German colonists) last. The traces of murder in Rwanda are much more visceral, with ragged bones still lying where they fell, while the landscape in Namibia is covered by new sand, a smooth and beautiful landscape. Admittedly, the desert landscape is more likely to shift and change, and the European reconstruction of Dresden is likely to proceed differently from that of a Cambodian village, but I think the argument still holds: that we must make efforts to remember, otherwise what happened will disappear. (Yes, it’s arguable, as the book admits, whether the American war in Vietnam was a genocide; it’s at the boundaries of the definition. But the scale of destruction visited on that country and still present in unexploded ordnance is pretty clear.)
This photograph, of chimney stacks in Aushwitz, shows how much of the architecture has disintegrated and how much the natural landscape is growing over its remains.
[image: Simon Norfolk. ‘Auschwitz: Chimneys of destroyed barrack blocks’ © 1999]
One of the differences between history and memory is that memory is about something that is experienced. These photographs are of a different order to archival photographs that document the events of the past as they happened. Those older images can have a set of resonances of their own, but they are from the past. What Norfolk’s images do is, by being contemporary images, locate these sites into our present. If we really wanted to we could go and stand in that church in Rwanda, that field in Ukraine. They come close to making the locations a part of our own lived experience, our own memory.
I guess that’s what ritual and commemorations do: they move events of the past into the lived experience of those in the present. And that is what Norfolk’s pictures do also. They do tell us a bit about the events, though words can do that better. But even more, they are elements of a process by which we bring traces of the past into our present. Michael Ignatieff writes in the introduction that “[e]ach photograph here is like those pebbles placed on the top of gravestones in Jewish cemeteries, the symbol of a link which not even death can destroy.” But that is not enough: “these photographs also tell us that nature will wash away both pebbles and headstones alike. All we can do is to place them there, over and over, from generation to generation, for as long as we can.”