Globalization and the Emergence of Cosmopolitan Memories

April 21, 2002

Debates over political expressions of regret, apology, reparations and restitution as well as ways to account for historical injustice have become increasingly important around the world. But do we increasingly share a common framework and vocabulary for this search across cultures and national boundaries? Is a "collective memory" emerging at the global level? Professor Levy's talk provided a historical background for this movement and also focused specifically on why the Holocaust plays such an important role.

The Debate over Memory

Memory, community, and geographic territory were once thought to be bound together inextricably, Levy explained. However, whereas the basis of state formation was "heroic memory" in the nineteenth century—defined as the exemplary narratives of great men and great deeds—the process of state formation and state definition has become self-critical and post-heroic since the mid-twentieth century.

Collective memory is a concept whose very existence and definition have been widely debated. For some, globalization produces a social and political category too broad to result in communities, solidarity, and the common memories which were thought to arise from them. However, as Levy explained, nation-states were also once rejected as too broad to produce a common memory for much the same reasons; in the nineteenth century, for example, fears were expressed over the loss of local traditions, and a contrast was made between the "natural" solidarity of smaller social units and the "mechanical", or unnatural and therefore weak, solidarity of the emerging nation-state. Levy argued that the transition to an order based on the nation-state in the nineteenth century very much resembles our contemporary one from nation-state-oriented politics to the emergence of transnational solidarities.

The Holocaust's Effect

The expanding memory of the Holocaust has had a particularly vivid effect on collective memory, Levy said, and it is now influencing moral debate and discussions about justice and human rights on a global scale.

As Levy explained, post-Holocaust memory implies the mutual recognition of the memory of the "Other", not just the public recognition of the victors or those who hold power, and not even just the recognition of victims' memories as well as perpetrators'.1 Publicly recognized historical narratives belong more and more to victims, the heirs of victims, and the newly defined categories of witness and bystanders, as well as to the perpetrators of atrocities. Professor Levy argued that the representations of the Holocaust have now become paradigmatic for cosmopolitanized memories.

Levy broke the memory of the Holocaust into three time periods. The first was the immediate post-war period, about a decade and a half, when the survivors were ignored and silence generally reigned about the dead what the survivors had suffered. The second period was the 1960s to 1980s, when the silence of the survivors was broken and the victims began to be recognized. And from the 1980s to the present, we see a "cosmopolitanization" of the memories of survivors, that is, a spreading of memories beyond the original group which experienced the remembered events.

It was the process of cosmopolitanization, Prof. Levy claimed, that added the important category of witness to the original Holocaust categories of victims and perpetrators. The meaning of the Holocaust has also evolved from pre-1990s representations to include new meanings influenced by local conditions and global influences. There is also evidence that the past decade has seen an emergence of transnational solidarity which draws on the cosmopolitanization of memory, and that the Holocaust provides the central paradigm for this process.

In conclusion, however, Professor Levy denied drawing a picture of a linear development of cosmopolitan memory for solidarity and social justice. This is a contested field, he said, and globalization also results in social and cultural fragmentation. Furthermore, the current academic debate is problematic as it is mired in the tendency to see historical memory as the solution to all social and political problems.


Literary scholar Andreas Huyssen prefers the term "transnational memory" to "collective memory": in his response, he agreed with Professor Levy that memory is no longer territorially confined. For example, the memory of the Holocaust clearly played a role in the U.S.-led bombing of Serbia in support of the Kosovo Albanians. But who or what is the subject of cosmopolitan memory, and how are new memory-shapes related to local contexts? These issues are less clear.

Professor Huyssen expressed pessimism about the future of memory discourse: what does the Holocaust mean in India, Nigeria or Malaysia, for example? Is it Eurocentric? Does reference to it in post-colonial countries, or in reference to their struggles for justice, block out memories of slavery and colonization? If the Holocaust is in fact becoming a metaphor for other genocides and traumatic events, can it hinder or distort insights and inquiries into local histories even as it energizes and internationalizes the discussion? Memory of the Holocaust has developed over the course of a half-century, but what is the meaning of the Holocaust for societies where the remembered atrocities happened recently and the perpetrators and survivors are still alive, such as Sierra Leone, Guatemala or Cambodia? Prof. Huyssen concluded by asking whether the events of 9/11 have meant the renationalization of the culture of memory. That is, the nation-state does seem to be losing its monopoly, or perhaps hegemony, over the way memory is interpreted, but is the opposite happening in the U.S. since 9/11?

Question and Discussion

The audience raised three areas for discussion. The first concerned the possibility of collective memory that could be national but non-territorial: a visiting Russian scholar raised the example of the Armenian diaspora community, which has preserved "from Moscow to Los Angeles" the memory of the 1915 genocide at the hands of the Turks. In an age of ever-growing refugee and migrant communities, the role of diasporas in the preservation of memory is a feature of globalization that should not be ignored.

A second comment concerned the role of the elite. In Bolivia, for example, only a handful of people know what the Jewish Holocaust is. These people are part of an international elite, but what do these memories mean for the non-elite in developing countries and their struggles for historical justice? Professor Huyssen pointed out that such projects as Nunca Más in Argentina and Uruguay and Nunca Mais in Brazil [courageous efforts to preserve documentation about the human rights abuses connected with the "dirty wars" in those countries] are references to the Holocaust by their very names: "Never Again". Yet many Argentinians, for example, resist the use of the Holocaust for determining moral categories in relation to the Argentinian past, as they feel it blocks important class issues that are the most relevant for their memories of the Dirty War.

Finally, an applied sociologist asked whether we know what kind of public opinion research exists on knowledge about the Holocaust, and whether this kind of research would contribute to our understanding of the meaning of the Holocaust in an age of globalization.

1 The "Other" can be defined as the group in relation to which a given group defines itself, most often with hostility, as can be seen, for example, in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Further Reading

Professor Levy's talk draws substantially on research he did for the article "Memory Unbound: The Holocaust and the Formation of Cosmopolitan Memory," in European Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 5 No. 1, pp. 87–106, co-authored with Natan Sznaider. An expanded version of the article has been published as a book in Germany with co-author Natan Sznaider, Erinnerung im Globalen Zeitalter. Der Holocaust. (Suhrkamp 2001).

Professor Huyssen is the author of two books specifically on culture and memory: Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia. Routledge Pess, 1995. and the new Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, a study of memory in three great cities, New York, Berlin and Buenos Aires. Stanford University Press, 2003.

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