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ASU symposium to focus on 'Memory and Countermemory'

September 22, 2011

In a 1989 episode of “The Twilight Zone,” a man named Simon Foster is having trouble finding a job, and needs money to pay his landlord. He goes to a pawnbroker, but has very little the pawnbroker is interested in buying … except for his memories.

In “The Mind of Simon Foster,” the pawnbroker downloads specific memories and sells them to wealthy clients who are looking for a unique experience.

The catch? Simon Foster will never get his memories back. Gone are his childhood birthday parties, his vacations, school experiences, and family outings.

Was it worth it in the end to Simon Foster? What if we lost our memories? Is memory more than a storehouse of our past experiences?

Memory will be the topic of a three-day research symposium at Arizona State University Nov. 6-8, titled “Memory & Countermemory: Memorialization of an Open Future.”

The symposium will take place at ASU’s Tempe and West campuses, and include both academic sessions and those of more general interest, said Martin Beck Matuštík, professor of philosophy and the Lincoln Professor of Ethics and Religion, who is a co-chair of the symposium.

Scholars from the United States and Europe, along with ASU faculty, will discuss “the relationship between trauma, memory, representation, memorialization, and education,” Matuštík said.

The event also will examine some contemporary conflicted places of memory and, anticipating Arizona’s centennial celebration in 2012, the symposium will highlight some of the Southwest legacies connected to the global and local memory. The event is part of the ASU-wide “Project Humanities 2011 – The Humanities at a Crossroad: Perspectives on Place.”

The symposium will look at the topic of memory and countermemory from three contexts:

Academic: developments and newly emerging fields of shared questions in holocaust studies, postcolonial studies, genocide studies, East European studies, memory studies and trauma studies.

Public: memory at war, representations of memory, contested sites of museums, memorials, monuments, memoirs, and public discourses.

Cultural: the memory of the victims, readings of the past that shape our present and future, liberating narratives and movements in art, architecture, literature, performance, and theory.

The idea for the symposium was put forth by Matuštík, who first discussed it with Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, ASU professor of history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies, and then joined with the faculty research cluster in Philosophy, Rhetoric & Literature in order to organize an ASU-wide research on memory and countermemory.

“The symposium had a professional inspiration because of the significant new work done over the years in several disciplines that have not usually gathered under the same umbrella: holocaust studies, trauma studies, postcolonial studies, including slave narratives, oral history, Native American studies, East European and post-1989 Russian studies (newly emerging nations),” Matuštík said.

“Because of this, this is not just another academic gathering of scholars; it is a potentially ground-breaking marker where synergy and innovation may arise from the transdisciplinary conversations among museum and memorial specialists, writers, activists, two generations of Holocaust survivors as well as those who have been born in the second generation of perpetrator nations, and conversations among these and Southwest memory of the Sephardic-Hispanic descendants, Southwest members of the first nations and postcolonial narratives.”

The event will bring together scholars who have been conducting research on a particular topic, such as memorialization, legacy, and selective memories, for a long time.

Many questions will be asked during the event, such as:

• How do physical and emotional harms impact memory?

• How does coming to terms with the past shape narratives and strategies of memorialization, monuments, and museums?

• What is the relationship between memorializing of the past on behalf of victims and narrating the past for the sake of the present?

• Given the fact that memory is usually inseparable from internal conflict, how can people in the present resolve their internal conflict about the past?

• What are the psychological resources available to dealing with trauma?

• How can we remember without homogenizing histories and idolizing seamless heritages?

• How does memory shape the future of an individual or a group?

• Which or whose memory makes our future possible, open, and hopeful?

• Can trans-generational memory transform uninhabitable places and difficult times that were weighted down by haunting legacies and conflicted heritages?

• Can succeeding generations remember human possibility without redemptive consolations of victory marches, monuments, museums, and other conventional ways of generating “cheap grace?”

Such questions are timely as the 21st century rolls on, Matuštík said, with major events such as the Holocaust and 9/11 entering different phases of the world’s memory.

With the last survivors of the Holocaust now reaching the ends of their lives, and the next generation in middle life, for example, what will remain will be “transgenerational mourning and learning that can become transformative,” Matuštík said, “when people remember past injustices dangerously and yet with hope.”

“Memorialization means that we can open up a future – not forgetting but opening up.”

For more information on the symposium, and a complete schedule of events, visit