Memory and “what is seen”
Each successive generation has those public moments of crisis and tragedy that mark its history. For past generations, the Titanic, Pearl Harbor, and the Holocaust brought such moments. In recent years, we have seen the tsunami, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In 2001, it was the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon. “Where were you on 9/11?” we asked each other repeatedly in the days, months, and now years since the attacks on the towers. Say “9/11” and most people know what you mean: September 11, 2001, the day al-Qaeda attacked America.
How does this repeated discussion of public events shape our individual memories? How do these individual memories, in turn, shape our collective memories? Individual memories become collective memories as we begin to discuss the events that shape and change our world, coining slogans that embody the moment, passing stories to each other and from one generation to the next, listening to and reading the rhetoric of these tragedies, and viewing their images. Each of these acts of memorializing adds to the shaping of our memories. Commenting on how our memories are shaped, Elizabeth Loftus, a leading expert on memory makes the following comment:
But memory surprises me again and again with its gee-whiz gullibility . . . In my experiments, conducted with thousands of subjects over two decades, I’ve molded people’s memories, prompting them to recall nonexistent broken glass and tape recorders; to think of a clean-shaven man as having a mustache, of straight hair as curly, of stop signs as yield signs, of hammers as screwdrivers; and to place something as large and conspicuous as a barn in a bucolic scene that contained no building at all. I’ve even been able to implant false memories in people’s minds, making them believe in characters who never existed and events that never happened. (4-5
In the days and weeks following 9/11, we were bombarded with repetitive images of planes crashing into the towers, falling debris and bodies, clouds of dust and smoke, the Pentagon in flames. . . These images, whether we saw them first hand or not, shaped our reactions to and memories of 9/11. In an essay about Holocaust photographs and memories, Marianne Hirsch speculates that photographs “mediate the private and the public memory of the Holocaust” often becoming “overly familiar and iconic” (265). So too, the repetitive images that we saw on television and the internet, in magazines and newspapers, and in cartoons and editorials all mediated our private and public memories of 9/11.
Art Spiegelman's recollections of the events of 9/11 form a large part of his book, In the Shadow of No Towers . On the first panel spread (originally published as a full-page insert in the German newspaper Die Zeit ) among other things he notes that the “crumbling towers burned their way into every brain, but I live on the outskirts of Ground Zero and first saw it all live—unmediated” (1). In terms of memory, as we've seen with Loftus and Hirsch above, Spiegelman seems to be claiming that his viewing of the events of that day are more authentic, more real than our viewings of them on television or on the internet. His claim that he saw it “unmediated” suggests that his memories are not changed by the media (note that “media” is the root of the word “mediate”). And yet, his prior experiences, his life prior to 9/11, including the stories he heard from his parents about surviving Auschwitz , are, in fact, a type of mediation. Even viewing the events live and in person, his memory of them is changed, altered, manipulated by what and who he already was at that moment. Consider also, McCloud's discussion of cartoons and their focus on the “specific details” that he calls “amplification through simplification” (30). In this discussion of cartoons, McCloud points out that in cartooning certain details of an image are stripped away to reduce it to its “essential ‘meaning,'” (30). In fact, in any given moment, our minds process images, moments, and events as we store away what we each deem to be the details' “essential meaning.” Our perception of this essential meaning is mediated through a lifetime of experience – that is, the what and who we are.
TASK: (350-500 words)
As the discussion above indicates, the lines seem to blur when it comes to any discussion of memory. In this age of television and the internet, what we view can be filtered technologically, let alone through personal experience and biases, to name just a few things. In several places throughout In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman makes comments about what he saw or didn’t see, such as when he says in the first spread that he “saw it all live – unmediated” (1), or when he says, “his memories swirl and events fade, but he still sees that glowing tower when he closes his eyes” (4). Your task is to examine other places in this book where Spiegelman makes similar claims about the images that he saw and memory. Make sure that you focus only on those places where Spiegelman notes what he “saw.” What images does he discuss having seen? Why do these images seem important to Spiegelman? Speculate about those things that mediate Spiegelman’s memories. How might these things affect the author’s memories? Consider such issues as Spiegelman’s apparent bid for authority and his ethos. What, if anything, happens to Spiegelman (and us) when these images, as Hirsch asks, “become overly familiar and iconic”? How (and why) might it be important to reclaim these memories in non-iconic terms?
Alternate writing task: (350-500 words)
Spiegelman also makes good rhetorical (persuasive) use of elements of the 9/11 events that he did NOT see. As an alternate to the writing task presented above, consider the ways in which Spiegelman creates a particular ethos by emphasizing what he only saw later, or did not see at all. One example of this "absence" is his description of people who lept from the burning towers. He writes that he is "haunted now by the images he didn't witness. . . images of people tumbling to the streets below. . . especially one man (according to a neighbor) who executed a graceful Olympic dive as his last living act" (spread 6). How and why are such instances important to the argument that Spiegelman is making? Do such descriptions or uses add to or detract from his overall credibility? Consider, for example, the fact that Spiegelman made a point of telling us in the first spread that he saw it “all live--unmediated” (spread 1). How effective are such uses or descriptions? How might such descriptions further blur the line between memory and imagination?