Saturday, February 25, 2006

How Much Memory Does That System Come With?

The Internet is a paradoxical place for memorialization, given the often ephemeral character of digital artifacts that are disseminated through distributed networks and preserved only by informal contracts of social exchange. Already many of the September 11th memorials that were established in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks only lead to dead links. Yet for those seeking a rhetorical platform in a society that is increasingly impacted by globalization and organized remotely via peer-to-peer technologies, the World Wide Web continues to serve as a site for commemoration and cultural memory. This is particularly apparent in the case of the greatest memorial task of the 20th century: marking the genocide of European Jews under Nazi rule.

Right now, there is considerable conflict about how much information should be accessible to users of historical archives, given contemporary norms about individual privacy, in light of the pervasive and prurient spying by the Nazi racial state, which often propagated falsehoods . Recently the website of the International Tracing Service, which was set up by the Red Cross after World War II to reunite families and communities and provide answers about missing loved ones, announced that it was neither "morally nor legally justifiable at present" to open the archive to historians, according to "60 Years After the War, A Fight for Victims' Files." Visitor counters at this tri-lingual site show 43,947 German-speaking visitors, 23,233 English-speaking visitors, and only 6,926 French-speaking visitors.

Ironically, some of the biggest users of records of the International Tracing Service seem to be heavy-traffic Holocaust denial groups, such as Vrij Historisch Onderzoek and the Institute for Historical Review. I also noticed during a recent Google search that someone had fought back against the pseudo-institutional authority of these sites by monkeying with the Google system so that the Focal Point website is tagged as the "website of disgraced British Holocaust denier David Irving," a designation which doesn't appear anywhere on the site or its metadata and is obvious albeit welcome editorializing.

Although human subjects and copyright rules make it tricky to provide a complete library of the filmed oral histories of survivors to the public in digital form, thus countering the deniers, there are samples of such online testimony at major American archives at both USC and Yale. In Testimony, Shoshana Felman used these films as texts to show the pyschoanalytical complexities of the position of the witness, but when the book came out these films were not yet accessible as part of a common cultural history.

Just as national libraries build websites to organize and exhalt digital archives, as they also break ground on ambitious new building projects in the real world, so too do museums create virtual spaces that display their institutional character and demonstrate public support for their knowledge-preservation activities. Major Holocaust museums with either new edifices or recent expansions include the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Vad Yashem, and their cultural ambitions as sites of memory are also reflected in their websites.

More should probably be done in website development to counter the work of Holocaust deniers on the World Wide Web. "Virtual tours" like those at the Florida Holocaust Museum are a relatively superficial way to place visitors in the position of the witness, a position that Jacques Derrida, following Paul Celan's declaration that "no one bears witness for the witness," argues is uninhabitable in the case of the Shoah. I was actually more interested in finding a virtual tour of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, where visitors to the physical site negotiate a maze of forbidding blocks in a public outdoor space that has also served as an unintentional communal park and even playground. I actually found a 360 degree interactive panorama of the Berlin Memorial on a website that also features other locations that commemorate the violence of war (Dachau, Hiroshima, etc.). The official Berlin memorial website also includes a horrific and haunting exhibit about five children.

Another approach to online memorialization is at the Digital Monument to the Jewish Community in the Netherlands. It is an interesting approach to the aesthetics and representation of such a digital project and is well worth checking out. The site's "About" page explains their rhetorical rationale, and their "Explanation" page elucidates their information design principles and decodes their color coding methods. By using the extra features, you can actually watch historical footage of the deportation of the De Jongh family and then go inside their house on a virtual tour.

These media-enriched materials are worth a detour, but when visiting the site, it may be best to simply start by interacting with the basic design. Like Peter Eisenman's Berlin memorial, it creates a level of abstraction to represent the legacy of those murdered: each colored pixel leads to a victim's story and a request for further information about the person's life from visitors, potentially to build a kind of wiki to commemorate particular victims while also recording the impact of the larger historical event. By clicking on red and blue lines in the overall pattern, one discovers that they represent where entire single-gender schools or charitable institutions were wiped out. You can also explore the virtual streets where whole neighborhoods were emptied. I could easily imagine walking from Textstraat 1 to Texstraat 57 where I passed the homes of dozens of victims.

Of course, one of these yellow rectangles in the memorial represents Anne Frank, whose diary and five long-missing pages has sadly been involved in a series of copyright wrangles in recent years. As early as 1996, the copyright owners have been asserting their intellectual property rights against those who reproduce Anne Frank materials on the web without permission, as this site from the University of Washington shows.

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