Skip to main content.

Elephant's head with teal rays in the background.

Interview with Barbara Biesecker

DWRL Assistant Director Trevor Hoag conducted an interview with University of Georgia Professor and Department Head of Communication Studies Barbara Biesecker, one of our noted speakers at The Digital Writing and Research Lab’s annual Speaker Series. In the following interview, Biesecker discusses the role of memorials, museums, and evental rhetoric in shaping publics of citizens through her exploration of the rhetoric that memorializes events such as the Holocaust, World War II, and September 11th. There is a radical potential, she argues, in creating technologies of exhibition that memorialize these events. You can read the interview below or listen to highlights from Currents’ interviews with Biesecker, Josh Gunn, and Alex Reid here.

Trevor Hoag: Given that you're here for that Digital Writing and Research Lab’s yearly Speaker Series event, I thought we could begin by talking a bit about technology. Lately critics of digital memory have expressed worries about technology making us, quote unquote, “shallow thinkers,” exposing us to greater surveillance, destroying our ability to forgive one another, and so on along these lines. Do you have any reservations about the increasing ubiquity of digital memory?

Barbara Biesecker: Of digital memory and not just technology?

Hoag: Or both.

Biesecker: Or both. I really believe strongly that we need to walk a delicate balance between technophobia and technophilia. You know, as others have said, I like my computer. I like my computer better than I liked my IBM Selectric. I think the key—and it's an enduring question, right? The question concerning technology was a question that Martin Heidegger asked at another critical conjuncture, and it would be maybe interesting to revisit that text again. But in terms of our everyday practices, I believe the new technologies wonderfully facilitate our work. I’m a better writer because I have a computer processor. I’m a better scholar because I have EndNote programs and Dropbox programs and so forth. So making us more shallow thinkers, no. I don’t think so. Plato was worried that writing was going to do that to us. Although, you know, we do want to tend carefully to what we’re doing with these technologies and what these technologies are doing with us. Surveillance to be sure, and I’ll speak a bit to the claims about the new technologies of emergence, within museums, for example, that some very, very serious thinkers have argued not only is destroying our ability to forgive one another but is destroying our ability to remember, our ability to be politically effective citizens, and so forth. So the question is not, you know, one or the other but what do we do with it and what is our relationship to it?

Hoag: I was thinking about Heidegger’s distinction between calculative and meditative thought. I mean, do you have any worry about technology—some people have expressed a worry that technology speeds us up, changes our mode of production. Does digital memory have anything to do with that speeding up and that kind of consuming calculative thought that Heidegger had worried about?

Biesecker: You know you probably know a lot more about digitalized memory than I do. Interestingly enough, for example, most of my experience in the archives and doing my research had not been digitalized. And so that has a relation to the piece that I wrote for Chuck Morris’s collection, a special issue in Rhetoric & Public Affairs, on the archive. Because for me, as I go to study, for example, the Enola Gay controversy at the Smithsonian Castle and the archives there, or I went and visited the archives many times of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and I didn't study the archives, their scholarly archives, but I studied the archives that they had for how the museum emerged. And what was extraordinary about those experiences, particularly the latter, was the “archive,” was a mess. It was not yet organized and there were boxes and boxes and boxes of things here and there. And what was very seductive about that archive was the notion that it was like this structure of anticipation that began to emerge, where you really felt as though the secret was in there, right? So it’s a very seductive kind of work, a detective story almost where I’m going to uncover the truth of the archive. And I think, even with those very, very material traces of history, one has to remember that the archive is a scene of invention, not a place of referential plenitude. So that doesn’t cut exactly to digital archive. I’m interested in what you’re thinking exactly when you say that. 

Hoag: Maybe as a transition I was curious about thinking about how museum spaces and memorials, and then of course those archival spaces you're talking about—all those different sites or places—are becoming increasingly digitized. Could you talk about what you see as being the significance of that shift in any of those spaces to digitization?

Biesecker: Well, I mean for example the Holocaust Memorial Museum just would not be possible without that kind of technology. In my experience, it’s one of the most mediated exhibits that I’ve ever attended—that I’ve ever had the pleasure of going through. But some of the more inventive uses of technology that I’ve paid attention to, particularly with an eye to audience, are the interactive uses of technology. So, for example, in the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, there is in that museum what they call a twenty-four-hour, round-the-clock roll call. And there’s a whole room full now of computer terminals and so forth. And you can search for your family member, your relative, your friends, whatever. If you cannot find them there, then you can build, help to build, the archive. And people are just really drawn to that. And then, for example, in the lower level of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, you have the interactive digital library there with various sorts of programs where patrons to the museum memorial can go in and do genealogical searches and put in information and so forth, so it’s quite extraordinary.

Hoag: In your upcoming work you critique Alison Landsberg’s Prosthetic Memory in relation to some of these issues of immersion and embodiment and things like that. Could you say a bit about that critique and perhaps how it connects back to some of these issues?

Biesecker: Sure. I think in her book, Landsberg makes a number of decisive and keen moves. She appeals to what she calls highbrow academics and journalists to begin to take measure of the uses to which the new technologies can be put for the ethical reformation of publics, of citizens, and so forth. In the chapter in which she engages the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, she quite rightly attends to the way in which that museum space, that exhibition space, has been structured in order for the patron to the exhibit to remember. Taking Nietzsche as her cue, she says if something is to be remembered it must be burned in, which suggests that exhibit spaces don’t just change our behaviors, our practices, our attitudes by changing our minds, but by putting our bodies into play. So she will attend, for example, to the architecture of the museum itself. The fact of the matter is it’s a huge exhibit and there are very, very few places to sit down. So the body becomes exhausted over the course of moving through the exhibit. The fact that the elevator that transports you from the entrance of the museum up to the exhibit hall as such has no buttons on it, so you’re immediately feeling very different, you’re in your body in different ways. You walk on cobblestones, so the pavement is uneven. And the cobblestones are actually from the Warsaw ghetto. I mean, there are many, many ways the body is put into play. And she’s quite right I think. She’s quite right to pay attention to it.

However, my reservation about her treatment of the exhibit is that I do not believe she addresses the rhetoric of the exhibit, which is to say its particular effects at a particular historical, political, and cultural conjuncture. So while I readily acknowledge that all of those various “technologies of comportment” are no doubt at work in that space, I believe there are other rhetorics at work in that space that are doing something very, very different. So ultimately, in the end, she and I have a very different understanding of the political work and ethical work that the museum is doing at this particular time. And, finally, the difference will come down to two very opposed, I think, understandings of empathy. For her, empathy, and this is a common argument, empathy is key to the museum’s success. On my view something quite else is at stake.

Hoag: Does that have anything to do with identification do you think, that difference?

Biesecker: Yes, according to Landsberg, the museum induces an empathic relationship between the patron—the U.S. patron—and the victim of Nazi brutality. What I’m wanting to point to are the ways in which identification is not the key to ethical resubjectivation at this particular conjuncture. But in the context of a larger World War II discourse formation, what is in fact key to ethical resubjectivation is the violent introduction of difference within. So, in other words, what I think is key is self-division or self-shattering rather than identification between the self and the other.

Hoag: Resubjectivization and the body and the pain that the body goes through to traumatize and shatter it seems to have to do with the notion of counter-memory. How do you see the use of that concept being, especially for rhetoricians? And also too, you mentioned in passing before that you saw some limitations to that concept or basing a politics on resubjectivization, or maybe we could pose it as rememorization. Could you say a little bit about that? 

Biesecker: Let me begin and then you can kind of point me in directions.

Hoag: Ok. 

Biesecker: In terms of counter-memory, what I like most in Foucault for this work, what I find most useful in Foucault, is his notion of effective history, and those are his words. Effective history sets bodies against themselves. So not in positive relation to others but in a discordant or negative relationship to itself. It’s a kind of self-splitting that then positions the subject differently within the existing formation. And that’s the condition for something else taking place. I believe counter-memory is very, very useful. For example, for me, in the Holocaust Memorial Museum, although it’s a very humble—and in the context of all the other elaborate technologies of exhibition or rhetorics of exhibition throughout the exhibit, this is one would even say a very homely—there’s an installation on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. And I believe to understand the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as a practice of counter-memory would not do justice to what took place there. So I agree, definitely there is counter-memory and there’s counter-conduct which becomes really important in Foucault’s later work. He elaborates on it in the later lectures that fortunately have been made available to us. But for me, there’s another quality and character of something like the Warsaw Ghetto where it’s not simply counter. It’s not just counter-conduct. It is considerably more radical than that that I’m trying to get at. Does that help?

Hoag: Could you tease that out some? I’m really interested in hearing what that is that we’re striving for, what that space does that goes beyond counter-memory for you.

Biesecker: The best way that I have of explaining it right now, and here will be an instance in which I feel as though I need to leave Foucault with his lessons in hand, not abandon him but leave him and take up something that we might call Lacanian psychoanalysis, is that I’m wanting to move out of logics of identity and difference that strike me as informing something like memory, counter-memory, practice, counter-practice, conduct, counter-conduct, to something that is radically other. And the logic, for me, of these events is the logic of what the Lacanians will call the part-object. What’s really interesting about the part-object is that the part-object’s relationship to what is in place, as I understand it, is that it doesn’t represent the part of a whole but a completely other whole, so it’s not a dialectic. It’s radically other, or as I’m trying to suggest in another completely different register and frame, a kind of evental rhetoric.

Hoag: Maybe we could gain some traction by talking about some of the concrete examples that I know you’re interested in. We’ve been talking about counter-memory, and not just counter-memory but also a notion of eventality or something, a shattering event that memory can’t contain. You’ve written a lot about World War II and about productions of counter-memory surrounding World War II. Could you talk a little about what’s at stake in problematizing those official narratives around World War II and transforming American public memory, maybe as the example of this kind of shift—this notion of traumatic encounter that shatters us and changes us and is radically other?

Biesecker: With respect to World War II, what I find disturbing about that, and I think it begins to function as a discourse formation—it’s not just a culture industry but it functions as a discourse formation—is that over the period of roughly a decade I think we see some dramatic albeit ever more conservative shifts. I believe that World War II was one of the means by which what I call “pedagogies of citizenship” take place. “Pedagogies of citizenship” teach persons, individual citizens, how to lead their lives, how to take measure of the present. Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation to Saving Private Ryan to the Enola Gay aborted exhibit and the replacement exhibit, the Women in Military Services Memorial, Windtalkers are all in a certain way pedagogies of citizenship. (My husband says please don’t take me to another—last thing I thought when I married a feminist was that she would take me to a lot of really bad war movies.)

But all of these many, many things—the D-Day Museum in New Orleans, the films we see on our televisions on Memorial Day, etc.—are effects of a very, very conservative formation that has upended the radical possibilities of identity politics, of a multiculturalism that just gets transformed to let’s say, for example, in The Greatest Generation, to whiny diversity talk. It all gets upended in significant ways and that serves very, very conservative hegemonic political agendas. And so you have an episode of Oprah Winfrey where Matt Damon, who was in Saving Private Ryan—he played Ryan—on Oprah Winfrey he says, “Oh, what are all these women and minorities complaining about these days”—this is a quote—“try taking a beach.” And I make the argument that the way the discourse works is it expropriates, violently expropriates, the discourse or the rhetoric of pain and trauma that belonged to the identity politics movement at a particular time, and it steals that logic and that rhetoric away and turns itso what’s worse than taking a beach? You win the argument, right? And what’s so vicious about it is it presents itself as not political. So you have this apolitical politics because the ground is the pre-political body of pain, war, and sacrifice.

Hoag: You mentioned before the sort of the problematic nature of people saying, immediately following 9/11, “this is our Pearl Harbor.” I was wondering if you could pick that thread up a little bit. 

Biesecker: Yeah, sure. I’d been studying the rhetoric and politics of World War II remembrance for ten years, then we have the tragedy that was 9/11. The World War II Memorial has become sort of the instantiation, literal instantiation, of a national nodal point. I mean that’s an extraordinary story in itself because of course there had been legislation, a law-in-place, for a very long time that nothing would ever be built between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. The World War II veterans made the case. The law was changed that the World War II Memorial would be built there. And after the World War II Memorial was built they got the law changed back. So literally if the law doesn’t change World War II will remain at the very center of the National Mall, that is, the national conscience, in the consciousness, etc. 

So anyway, when 9/11 came along, I thought that that was such a profound and shattering event that perhaps our national referent might begin to shift and change. But interestingly enough, in the wake of 9/11 and the chaos—epistemic, existential chaos in the wake of 9/11—then we immediately begin to hear this called our new Pearl Harbor. And I thought that that was a very dangerous move because to stitch it back into that familiar narrative that has its own obvious entailments, I think forecloses the possibility of asking some very important questions about today, and I use that in the Derridean sense, today and tomorrow and the future.

Hoag: How does that play out, do you think, in terms of mourning and our incapacity to mourn not only certain aspects of World War II, but also 9/11? I mean, it seems we’re in trouble because there’s something about this event that we’re unable to mourn. And I know you’ve talked about being stuck in a state of melancholy. Could you talk about that distinction? About melancholia versus mourning and being unable to mourn these events?

Biesecker: Sure. I mean, this is an old lesson from Freud and Lacan picks it up. But in terms of following a traumatic encounter—typically a death of someone dear to you—you go through stages, you go through kind of psychological stages, mourning and melancholy. And now that you say it, of course, maybe I should come up with a new title for the World War II book because there would be no small sense, and we could think about World War II memory, collective memory practices, as an elaborated moment of mourning and of incorporation. Because the key to mourning is incorporation. And I would say incorporation to the extent that, you know, the iconic image of Tom Hanks’ character in Saving Private Ryan becomes the ego ideal for the nation, right? And I have a lot of things to say about that that are in the essay. In any case, versus melancholy, melancholia is when that incorporation is not successful and you get stuck in a structure of loss. And therefore you cannot move forward. So it’s a kind of paralysis and so forth. And so in a piece called “No Time for Mourning: The Production of the Melancholic Citizen-Subject in the Wake of The War on Terror,” I take objection to a number of the readings of the discourses that were circulating at that time, making an argument that the Bush Administration, their discourse, as well as the discourse of the looped videos of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, etc., function rhetorically to extend, to institute the citizen-subject in a state of melancholia such that then in a state of melancholia, what you have is complete loss of ego so that you give ego or will over to the state. And I think, I think it worked. I really do. I mean, we saw people—the Bush Administration was a very top-down, a very patriarchal, political regime and we were very happy. I mean, the image of Bush with the megaphone, standing on the pile. There we had it, right?

So, yes. And then there are distinct features to that discourse that I think are very different from what we have had before that and from what’s coming after. What is Obama’s rhetoric and campaign of hope? What is it doing? How is it different from this discourse? For me, 9/11 was melancholic and it wasn’t about remembering at all. I mean, what I argue is that there was the constitution of what I call the phantasmatic politics of the as-if, and that’s not a discourse of memory at all. That’s a discourse whose rhetorical modality or temporality is the future anterior. It is the threat of the catastrophe that will have been ours if we do not do X, Y, and Z. So you have this phantasmatic production of the apocalypse.

Hoag: I am curious about the future, the future anterior, moving forward. If we find ourselves as a culture paralyzed or stuck in these melancholic states, can we talk about how we move forward out of that? And I was wondering, because you and I have been talking a lot about forgetting, what part forgetting might have to play in that process of moving forward and what maybe the limitations of it are. I’m curious about forgetting especially as a productive event, because I know you’ve thought a lot about events and eventality and things like that so I was wondering if you could speak to that a bit.

Biesecker: Again, I think Brad Vivian has done really, really good work in his book in terms of helping us to get out of the habit of thinking of remembering and forgetting in exclusively dialectical terms. And if I recall correctly, one of the lines that he wants to talk about is idioms of forgetting. Is that right? Do you recall that? He talks about idioms of remembering, but there are also idioms of forgetting, and they can do as much good work for public culture as the idioms of remembering. And I think he is right on there. I’ve also read a powerful piece by Elizabeth Gross on the virtual. Then there’s a lovely piece by a young person that I wanted to make sure you know about that I just recently came across by Grant David Bollmer called “Virtualities in Systems of Memory: Toward an Ontology of Collective Memory, Ritual, and the Technological.” It’s a great, great essay. Bollmer understands that we don’t need to simply theorize rhetoric and the digital or theorize rhetoric and the new technologies or rhetoric of the new technologies, but to let the new technologies help us to move forward in the way we theorize rhetoric because sometimes these technologies can make visible to us structures that otherwise we can’t see. And these people, and I think you’re working in those directions too, have prompted me then to think about the virtual as a rhetorical modality. So not just the actual, the probable, the possible, the impossible, but also the virtual and the virtual as the opening on to something other. And then I’m wanting to also think about rhetoric as evental in terms of the moments of rupture that I don’t think could be captured simply in the terms of remembering or forgetting. Maybe that’s invention, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know.

Hoag: I like the idea of ending on an “I don’t know.” It leaves the question open. 

Biesecker: Good. Good.

Share this