Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America

October 7, 2010

In most Western countries, the late 19th century saw a mania for building statues, many of them contentious at the time and many not standing the test of time. Since the late 20th century, we have seen a mania for erecting memorials, whether temporary floral shrines after a disaster or formal permanent memorials to women, ethnic minorities or other groups previously excluded from war and other national memorials. Admittedly the new generation of formal memorials looks different - typically minimalist and abstract rather than heroic and representational - but does it and will it fare any better than its predecessors?

Literature on this topic can be less than illuminating - often either knee-jerkingly critical or implicitly accepting of the new memorials. On the one side are journalistic rants against floral shrines, rants that castigate the bad taste entailed in mourning those you never met (although apparently it's good taste at war memorials), along with academic critiques that owe more to fashionable ideas within cultural studies than to careful examination of empirical data. On the other side are carefully descriptive studies of the material culture of spontaneous shrines, along with studies of the history or architecture of more formal memorials, which tend to be implicitly justificatory.

Erika Doss comes from a tradition that falls into neither of these traps. She is extremely well informed, references her sources immaculately, and covers the whole range of memorials from the most informal and temporary to the most formal and permanent (but not cyber-memorials). I was surprised to read of the extent of the proliferation of 9/11 memorials across the US.

Doss notes that the contemporary "memory boom", while rejecting "objective" history, acknowledges public feeling as a source of knowledge. She shows how different feelings - grief, fear, gratitude, shame, anger - are at the root of different kinds of memorials and provide an original way to analyse contemporary memorialisation. British readers will recognise the range of both emotions and memorials she identifies, even if the politics behind them are specific to the US.

The book is extensively illustrated and a pleasure to read, provocative and highly informative. It is also polemical, but its assumptions are clear, in particular its political commitment to memorials that are democratic, that include oppressed groups, and that admit that American history is conflictual. Doss is angry that her country's memorials have ignored its slave history and the genocide of its original population, and continue to ignore the causes of terrorism. She is dismayed that spontaneous memorials to school shootings have been immediately co-opted by the Christian Right, and that in 9/11 memorials the innocence of individual victims is so easily extended to a presumed innocence of the nation.

With some memorials Doss carefully documents how Americans have read them, whereas with others she can be somewhat cavalier in imposing her own readings. For Doss, all memorials are ideological, but I am not persuaded by all her analyses of how this operates.

And by the end of the book, I was still unclear what her ideal memorial would be like. She complains that memorials are rarely about the past they purport to symbolise but instead represent the claims of contemporary interest groups. But what is she advocating? Memorials that get the history right, which for her would mean a history that acknowledges conflict? Or memorials that represent hitherto marginalised interest groups? Or memorials that highlight alternative readings that provoke people to start talking about their history?

Even if her answers are unclear, these are good questions to ask, and not just in the US.

Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America

By Erika Doss. University of Chicago Press. 488pp, £22.50. ISBN 9780226159386. Published 10 August 2010

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