Memorialisation in the Postmodern-Neoliberal Conjuncture
This thesis analyses the place, meaning and significance of large-scale national memorials within what I describe as the contemporary postmodern-neoliberal conjuncture. Focusing on high-profile memorials and memorial-museums in the US and Germany, it contextualises the well-noted international memorial-building boom which began in the 1980s in relation to the rise of postmodernism (and its subsequent normalisation) and the contemporaneous ascendance of neoliberalism; conceived of here as at once a political project and the dominant ideology of our moment. The prevailing consensus in the literature is that the memorials with which I am concerned are ambiguous, pluralistic, non-didactic and non-nationalistic. In contrast, I argue that far from renouncing the traditional ideological role of the monument, contemporary memorials are engaged in rearticulating nationalism in line with the contradictory demands of the postmodern-neoliberal conjuncture. While neoliberalism is often, erroneously, perceived as anti-state and anti-national, in fact neoliberal capitalism requires the nation-state and nationalism. At the same time, however, shifts in the relationship between states and those who reside within them, as well as broader cultural changes associated with postmodernism, have motivated transformations in the ways in which memorials seek to represent the nation and engage and interpellate visitors.
Developing a distinctive theoretical and methodological approach, I explore the complex and contradictory relationship between neoliberalism, postmodernism and nationalism as it plays out in some of the most well-known and much analysed memorial projects to have emerged in the US and Germany over the last 35 years. My three central case studies are the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York. I also explore the German counter-monuments phenomenon, the Jewish Museum Berlin and the United States National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Tracing a specific trajectory from the “postmodern” memorials of the 1980s through to the most recent of my case studies, I argue that we are witnessing the emergence of an increasingly authoritarian style of memorialisation.
While clearly distinct, not least in terms of the national contexts within which they operate, the memorials analysed here share a number of formal characteristics which others have dismissed as mere questions of style.  In contrast, I offer a critical analysis of the relationship between the memorials’ form, the kind of “visitor experience” they’re intended to offer, and the understanding of history and our relation to it that underpins their philosophical, ethical and political stance. Motivated and justified as they are by a postmodern understanding of history as in some sense inaccessible and beyond comprehension, I explore some of the epistemological and political implications of viewing and representing history in this way in the context of the neoliberal state in general and in the specific national contexts which gave rise to the memorials in question, wherein they act as important sites of both hegemonic meaning and contestation.
Commonly invoked in discussions of recent catastrophic historical events and evoked through various means in contemporary memorials and memorial-museums, the always ideological and complex aesthetic concept of the sublime is an important critical category of analysis; not least, I contend, because it goes to the heart of both neoliberalism and postmodernism. Neoliberalism is founded upon the notion that social processes are unrepresentable, that the limits of the powers of our imaginations make it impossible for us to know, let alone plan for, the needs of more than ourselves and those closest to us. Likewise, the sublime plays a pivotal role in postmodern thought which warns against attempts to look beyond the local and specific. While the neoliberal ideology of the market and the consequences of its application are totalising, both neoliberalism and postmodernism reject any attempt to render the totality amenable to human understanding as both impossible and dangerous; indeed even as immoral. The place of the sublime in the postmodern-neoliberal conjuncture and some of the various ways in which it manifests in the case studies under discussion is therefore one of the central themes explored.
Analysed in these terms, a complex picture begins to emerge. Born of the contradictions of the postmodern-neoliberal conjuncture, today national memorials are required to pack an emotional punch, offering visitors unique and emotionally affective “experiences” whilst boosting the touristic and symbolic economies of the cities in which they are located. They must also fulfil the traditional requirement of representing the nation and appealing to national subjects usually at a time of national crisis and when “the public” is, or is perceived to be, sceptical of such appeals. Commonly praised for their ambiguity as well as affective power, viewed in this way these memorials, and others like them, begin to look rather less like radical departures from traditional memorial forms. While they may be formally innovative, politically they are deeply conservative, speaking to the requirements of the neoliberal nation-state and the predilections of subjects formed within the postmodern-neoliberal conjuncture.
 A. Huyssen, ‘Memory Culture at an Impasses: Memorials in Berlin and New York’, in W. Breckman et al (eds.), The Modernist Imagination: Intellectual History and Critical Theory Essays in Honor of Martin Jay, New York, Berghahn Books, 2009, pp. 151-161, p. 157.
Nicola has twice been awarded funding from the University of Brighton’s Research Student Fund. Along with assistance from the School of Humanities, this funding has enabled her to travel to the US to conduct her research into American memorials. She travelled to Washington in May 2010 and will be travelling to New York in September 2014 to visit the World Trade Centre Memorial.
Nicola’s research interests centre around the relationship between art and politics with a particular interest contemporary memorial architecture. She also has a keen interest in cultural and critical theory and political philosophy.
Nicola was a founding member of the Postgraduate Critical Studies Research Group, based in the School of Humanities at the University of Brighton. She is a member of the MARS (Morality and the Representation of Suffering) project and gave a paper on a related topic as part of the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial, where she was part of a panel discussing ‘ethics and the public use of images of war’ at the Fabrica art gallery. Nicola is a member of the University of Brighton's Understanding Conflict: Forms and Legacies of Violence research cluster. She is also on the editorial board of the ‘Off the Fence: Morality, Politics and Society’ publication series published by Rowman & Littlefield in partnership with the Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics, University of Brighton.
Chiara Certomà, Nicola Clewer and Doug Elsey (eds.) The Politics of Space and Place, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.
‘Getting the story right: the politics of memorialisation and fear of ambiguity on the Washington Mall,’ Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics (CAPPE), University of Brighton, Annual Conference ‘Politics of Fear; Fear of Politics’, September 2010.
In collaboration with Doug Elsey and Toby Lovat, ‘Neoliberalism, Capitalist Realism, and the Material Basis of Political Alternatives’, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands, ‘Nature™ Inc? Questioning the Market Panacea in Environmental Policy and Conservation conference’, July 2011.
‘The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the “End of History” and the “Holocaust Sublime”, IOTA Seminar Series, University of Brighton, February 2013.
‘“The Education Centre at the Wall”: Transformation or continuity in the meaning and purpose of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial?, University of Brighton Conflict Cluster Launch Symposium, April 2014.
‘Memorials and Neoliberalism?’, Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics (CAPPE), University of Brighton, Annual Conference, ‘Neoliberalism and Everyday Life’, September 2014.
‘How Capitalism Survives: The Neoliberal Monument?’, Historical Materialism Annual Conference, ‘How Capitalism Survives’, November 2014.
Nicola Graduated from the University of Brighton with a first class degree in Humanities in 2004. She subsequently gained an MA in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art, before returning to the University of Brighton. Nicola is a PhD candidate in the School of Humanities where she also teaches on the BA Humanities and MA Cultural and Critical Theory programmes.