“Topography of Terror”
The establishment of a museum as a form of moral reconciliation for national historical wrongs proves intensely problematic. In the same breath I will say there are many admirable benefited in the performance of cultural confessional seeking international atonement through the modern tourist. This raises the question of the responsibility of a tourist as witness and what the act of witnessing entails. Museums, by nature, requires the physical presence of the audience. While virtual museums exist on-line, a museums bases it’s true worth on the somatic experience of entering a specialized space to engage an audience with objects, art or artifacts, which are fetishized to represent larger cultural manifestations.
The naming of a museum of the “Topography of Terror” fascinates me. As my own reference, for my thesis I have been writing a great deal about the Terror of the French Revolution and it’s cultural perpetuation through the Jacobin narrative. German National Socialism took a page out of Robespierre’s book in his establishing the Committee of Public Safety as a secret police and the use psychological terror through the implementation of pain upon the body. Applying the notion of a typography to the ideology and practice of terror raises a number of implications. First there is the idea of typography in the mapping of a terrain. This is made explicit in the marking of locations of Terror through out Berlin, i.e. the offices of top SS officers, the walking of the former wall, etc, “There are hundreds or thousands of places, all of which are linked to [particular] histories. This despite the fact that in Germany there is no single place which can work as a symbol for the Holocaust-even the Topography of Terror is no symbol for the Holocaust.” (205) By casting the memory of Terror as a geography, the memorializing resists becoming fetishized. This natural perpetration of memory according to the aura of a site creates juxtaposed dynamic to the constructed topography of the museum as creating a specific affect to compliment the objects on display. The construction of a museum mediates an experience. For this reason critics are quite right to question to role of famous architects in creating a museum according to an individual artistic interpretation of a national memory.
Memorializing terror as a topography establishes another theoretical parallel, the role of terror within a national geography and the effect of terror upon the geography of the body. Akin to ‘sites’ of the Holocaust, being too numerous to have a singular representation, the bodies which were the sites upon which terror was inflicted are also too numerous to has a singular representative. I am curious to what extent Elaine Scarry’s work on the effect of pain upon the body in defining and collapsing borders of identity can then be applied to the geographic body of the nation. Sites of the Holocaust, places of torture, are wounds themselves on the national topography. Scarry says that the infliction of pain silences the voice of the victim. Does the marking of sites of torture with memorials then return the voice of the victim?
Theoretical implications of the typography of terror that interest me include how the civic architecture of National Socialism, now sixty years since its demise, is mapped. Also, how is terror as a political tool used outside of the national boundaries of Germany or even the historical period addressed? One could make the argument that these the addressing of the international phenomena of state sponsored terror is not the mission of these museums of consciousness. But in Germany’s assuming the role of a harbinger of morality in the post-Soviet world, looking to a globalized future becomes included in the experience. The article named other major Holocaust museums, those in Jerusalem and Washington D.C. The article cites the identity roles that are taken on by these museums of consciousness, the Germans as the self-continues perpetrators of violence and the Jews as the victims, which begs the question, what is the role of the Holocaust museum in D.C? In taking the international stage in building one of the most famous Holocaust museums in the world, in what role is the U.S casting itself? I would venture to say, as the liberator. As a non-Jewish American, when I visited the holocaust museum in the 8th grade, I was devastated by the plight of the Jewish people, horrified by the Germans, and…proud to be an American. The meta-narrative of the Holocaust museum in D.C. is that the U.S saved the world from the Nazi’s in World War II. Does that preclude the D.C. Holocaust museum from being a ‘museum of consciousness’ and just a museum of remembrance? This leads me to ask, if the D.C. Holocaust museum then not a museum of consciousness, where are America’s museums own museums of consciousness? To cite two of the many historical transgressions the U.S has to feel guilty about, why are there not a museums on par with the D.C. Holocaust museum (not to mention the 250 throughout the U.S.) (236 Williams), for slavery and the genocide of the Native American population? Is the Holocaust itself, consciously or unconsciously, becoming fetishized as a universal representation of genocide? Or at least the standard by which all other genocides are compared? This also leads to question regarding how to the Holocaust itself is remembered. The number that is most often repeated are the 6 million Jews. What of the 5 million other people? Why does the focus on 6 million Jews take precedence of a total of 11 million people? Where are the memorial to the homosexuals, Gypsies and disabled? What does this void say about the ‘back stage’ of museums. In a commercialized museum culture that aims to please the consumer, are people afraid that families touring Europe don’t want to visit museums about the execution of gay people? The establishing of Israel after the war established a political border intended to help heal the bleeding wounds of the Jewish people. By lacking a border, do the Gypsies forfeit their place in international memory? Do museums, which rely on archival history naturally fetishize history? Maybe that’s part of what interests me about a topography of memory, it’s de-essentialized nature. The reliance of a sensory experience. The knowledge that comes when the viewer’s body comes in contact with a topographical site, that is interacted with as another body. “These pleases of cultural trauma, “the wound that cries out, that address us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available. This truth…cannot be linked only to that is known, but also to what is remains unknown in our won very actions and language.’”(208) The quality of the ruin, the absence of architecture and presence, requiring the engagement of the audience to imagine, and recreate for themselves the horror of the unimaginable.
To extent the Holocaust stands as a model, both for memorials and for engaging the severity of genocide itself, is broached in the article “Witnessing Genocide.” The article illustrates how culturally and historically different every genocide, and hence, the different requirements for its remembrance. Unlike the detail oriented Nazi’s the Khmer Rouge did not leave comparable archival documentation of their genocide. This archival lacuna is one among many aspects of the Khmer Rouge regime that differentiates it from the Holocaust model. Another that the authors pointed out is the continued presence of former perpetrators still living and wielding considerable political influence.
This article had particular significance for me in that I visited Cambodia two years ago. I spent a week in Siem Reap, the town neighboring Angkor Wat. Siem Reap evidently had just laid asphalt for their roads, indicating the extent of nation wide poverty. Yet it was reasonable to assume that those Cambodians driving SUV’s where former government officials. This was just one example of how, what Williams describes “To some degree, Cambodia’s current stunted economic development, sporadic violence, and preponderance for war-wounded beggars form visible reminders of the impact of war and genocide.”(248) I would go further than Williams, the topographical experience of Cambodia, the somatic interaction with the people and the land creates a direct and unequivocal connection with the genocide. For one, there are very few people over thirty. Most local guides at Angkor Wat share stories of losing one or both of their parents. Second, perhaps a third of the people are missing a limb. Because of the memory of the genocides live so vitally in the day to day life of Cambodia, dozens upon dozens hotels, at $200-$1000 a night are going up outside of Angkor Wat, so that tourists can come to see the temples and nothing else. One of the most remarkable experiences was a tourist event that my guide insisted that I attend.
Once a week the head of the local Children’s hospital puts on a performance for the tourists. A Swiss doctor, Dr. Richner, formerly a clown, educates tourists in the history of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide between playing the cello. It has been one of the most powerful example of intermingling performance, education, tourism and social action I have ever witnessed.
Here are some links on Dr. Richner and his foundation: