1The term “multidirectional memory” was coined as a way of conceptualizing what happens when different histories of extreme violence confront each other in the public sphere. While acknowledging the struggles and contestations that accompany public articulations of memory, the theory of multidirectional memory seeks an explanation of the dynamics of remembrance that does not simply reproduce the terms of partisan groups involved in those struggles. I have developed this theory at greatest length in my book Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009), which focuses on exemplary sites of tension involving remembrance of the Nazi genocide of European Jews in relation to slavery, colonialism, and decolonization.
2In Multidirectional Memory, I offer a new framework for thinking about memory contestation via three core arguments. First, I argue against what I call “competitive memory,” an understanding that is based on the logic of the zero-sum game and has dominated many popular and scholarly approaches to public remembrance. According to this understanding, memories crowd each other out of the public sphere – for example, too much emphasis on the Holocaust is said to marginalize other traumas or, inversely, adoption of Holocaust rhetoric to speak of those other traumas is said to relativize or even deny the Holocaust’s uniqueness. In contrast, I suggest, memory works productively through negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; the result of memory conflict is not less memory, but more – even of subordinated memory traditions.
3In illustrating this nonzero-sum logic, I take a second step already implied by an understanding of memory’s productivity: I argue that collective memories of seemingly distinct histories are not easily separable from each other, but emerge dialogically. For example, not only has memory of the Holocaust served as a vehicle through which other histories of suffering have been articulated, but the emergence of Holocaust memory itself was from the start inflected by histories of slavery, colonialism, and decolonization that at first glance might seem to have little to do with it.
4Finally, the theory of multidirectional memory casts doubt on the taken for granted link between collective memory and group identity that has been at the core of memory studies – the direct line that seems to bind, for example, Jewish memory and Jewish identity and to differentiate them clearly from African American memory and African American identity. Multidirectional Memory demonstrates, however, that the borders of memory and identity are jagged (see also Landsberg, Silverman, Sanyal). Groups do not simply articulate established positions but come into being through dialogical acts of remembrance that take place on a shared, but uneven terrain. The shared terrain of multidirectional memory creates possibilities for unexpected forms of solidarity, but it offers no guarantees.