An interview with Professor Marita Sturken

As part of our postgraduate/Early Career Researcher conference, ‘Post-War: Remembrance, Recollection, Reconciliation’ on 26 May 2018, we were fortunate to be able to host Professor Marita Sturken (NYU). Professor Sturken gave an engrossing and highly stimulating keynote address for the conference entitled ‘Digital Mediations of 9/11 Memory and the Rebuilding of New York’, in which she discussed how the rebuilding of lower Manhattan has featured various modes of digital mediation that prompt questions about how the events of 9/11 should be memorialized. In her talk she explored how, in the 9/11 Memorial Museum, apps and digital storytelling are used to produce a collective memory of the events of September 11, how the museum itself is presented as a digital ‘platform’, and how algorithms are proposed as a means to create collective memory.

In this interview, conducted via e-mail after the conference by Dr Niall Munro, Professor Sturken reflected on changes in commemorative practices; the effect of 9/11 on the way that the United States commemorates; the relationship between politics and geopolitics on commemoration; when the focus on cultural memory becomes too overwhelming; and the future of digital commemoration.


Marita Sturken is Professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, where she teaches courses in visual culture, cultural memory, and consumerism. In addition to many articles in prominent journals, she is the author of Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (University of California Press, 1997), Thelma & Louise (British Film Institute Modern Classics series, 2009), Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (with Lisa Cartwright, New York: Oxford University Press, third edition 2018), and Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism From Oklahoma City to Ground Zero (Duke University Press, 2007), which won the 2007-2008 Transdisciplinary Humanities Book Award from the Institute for Humanities Research, Arizona State University. She is the former editor of American Quarterly. You can read more about her work on her website.


Niall Munro: How would you say commemorative practices have changed since you started working on cultural memory?


Marita Sturken: I first became interested in cultural memory when I was a graduate student in the late 1980s, and at that point I was pulled to the topic because of two innovative engagements with it in the United States: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (which opened in 1982) and the AIDS Memorial Quilt (which was begun in 1987). So my interest was sparked by the fervor of the affective responses to each and what that might mean at that moment of American culture. That was in a certain sense the beginning of what is now often called the ‘memory boom’ in the United States, Europe and Latin America in particular, during which a large number of memorials, memorial art projects, and memory museums have been built. So I could say that commemorative practices have changed in these years simply because they have proliferated across many very different cultural contexts and in response to very diverse kinds of events. They have largely been in response to war, state violence, genocide, and catastrophe, so the distinctive of the AIDS Quilt, in commemorating an epidemic, remains. 


Your question though is about practices, which if we think of it in terms of individual practices is a bit different from the actual memorials and museums themselves. How are people in these contexts engaging in commemorative practices in relation to these designs and sites of commemoration? Here, we can see that there is a tremendous variety of approaches in terms of aesthetics and tone, ranging from patriotism to kitsch to irony, and some of these designs, in particular those that deploy modernist aesthetics over figuration, succeed in allowing for a broad array of responses and practices. That range, which might include the engagement viewers might have to artistic counter-monuments that aim to question memory, is certainly a departure from how commemorative practices were defined before the 1980s.    


NM: Do you think that 9/11 changed the way in which America - or the world - memorializes or commemorates events, especially post-conflict commemoration?


MS: I am not sure that 9/11 has necessarily changed how the United State memorializes, since the memorials (and museums) it has produced have not for the most part aimed to engage innovatively with its commemoration. The urge to commemorate 9/11 happened very quickly, and it has spawned more than 1,000 memorials around the world, so it could be said that it has affirmed and heightened a sense of memorialization as an important response to traumatic events. It should be noted though that most of this commemoration is couched in terms of nationalist discourses and has served to justify the US military response to the attacks, including the Iraq War, a war that the American public now largely understands to have been a terrible mistake. 


Certainly 9/11 has transformed many aspects of American culture and society. As I noted in my talk, the list of what followed in its wake in the US is long, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were fought in revenge, the increased privatization of war, the secret prisons and the sanctioning of torture, the drone wars, the changing of legal norms, the security/defense culture, the financial crisis, political dysfunction, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant trends, which bring us to the current context in which immigrants and asylum seekers are being demonized and the country is increasingly isolated from the global community.  


NM: In Tourists of History, you identified a tendency after the Oklahoma City bombing and after 9/11 to ‘see U.S. culture as somehow distanced from and unimplicated in the troubled global strife of the world.’ In this revivified era of American exceptionalism under President Trump, do you think this trend has continued or increased?


MS: In Tourists of History, I argue that there are many aspects of US culture than enable us to have a distanced (tourist) view of global events and politics that allow the narrative of US innocence to screen over the role that the United States has played in producing the animosities toward it. It is of course sadly the case that in some parts of American society (and media), this has reached new extremes. The current debate over immigration and refugees is an obvious example where there is little discussion of understanding of how US actions were key factors in producing the extreme violence in Central America that has forced people to flee their homes northward, or the reason why refugees from the Middle East are fleeing a violent context produced in part through the actions of the US government and military. At the same time, there is also a kind of awakening that took place after the 2016 election for many previously disaffected citizens, and so we also see political activity, activism and engagement in unprecedented ways. While much of the revived political awareness is focused on the current crisis of US politics, it is possible that it will also spawn an increasingly aware discussion and debate of the role played by the US in global politics.  


NM: In your commentary on the plans for the rebuilding of the Ground Zero site in Manhattan, you observe that ‘reenactment has functioned as a kind of mourning and a compulsive repetition, one that has constituted both stasis, with architectural imaginings caught in the moment of trauma, but also mourning.’ What kind of risks are involved in creating a building (or in the case of Daniel Libeskind's original masterplan for the site, a set of buildings) that ‘reenacts’ an event that is being memorialized? Why are we constantly compelled to create buildings, museums, or monuments that mark moments or periods of trauma, and if they seem confused about their purpose, should we stop doing so?


MS: I have argued that the trend of reenactment in architecture and design in response to 9/11 in particular was not about architectural visions about rebuilding and commemoration so much as it was about grief, a perhaps even unconscious working out of grief (one that resulted in many designs that aimed to rebuild downtown Manhattan as a kind of shadow design of the twin towers). Beyond the evocation of the twin towers in the pools of the 9/11 memorial, very little of the reenactment was built or survived the rebuilding process. One example was the cathedral-like ceiling of the Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus transportation hub (and shopping mall) was supposed to open up every year on the anniversary of 9/11 (to evoke a dove in flight) but that proved to be too expensive and it was shelved.


More broadly, the question of how much we should memorialize and commemorate and reenactment is a constant debate around memory projects: when is the focus on memory just too much, too disabling and too much about the past? In many of the contexts of memorialization in Latin America, this concern has produced projects that aim directly to connect the past to struggles in the present, to connect, for instance, the state terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s to the struggle for human rights in the present. The debates about how much cultural memory should matter, how it can be deployed politically, and how it gets overdetermined, are absolutely crucial.  


NM: How do you see our negotiation of memory and commemoration developing in the future? Will there be more digital mediation of memory? Will there be a resistance to this? In your keynote talk, you seemed quite skeptical about the value of current digital forms of commemoration, particularly in the 9/11 Memorial Museum.


MS: The trend of digital mediation of memory is clearly only going to increase, and I think that we should be open to the kinds of ways that digital technology can enable ordinary people to tell their stories, and foster grass roots memory projects. While I think that some of the digital media at the museum does not rise to the level of promise it is burdened with, I think that some (such as the audio collages of ordinary people’s stories of that day and the contexts for visitors to tell their own stories) does provide, as intended, a powerful way for the public to engage in commemoration. So, I am looking forward to seeing how the digital can enable collective memory. What I am skeptical about is the way that digital media is set up to promise more than it can deliver, which of course has been the narrative attached to it since its beginnings. The 9/11 museum exhibit demonstrates at the same time that material objects remain some of the most powerfully evocative memory objects available to us, so as we live in an increasingly digitally mediated world, we also rediscover and embrace older media forms.


Professor Marita Sturken is Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University.

Dr Niall Munro is Senior Lecturer in American Literature at Oxford Brookes University and Director of the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre.


Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation

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