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About the Author
Matti Bunzl is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is author of Symptoms of Modernity: Jews and Queers in Late-Twentieth-Century Vienna and Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: Hatreds Old and New in Europe.
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On the Social Life of Postsocialism
Memory, Consumption, Germany
By Daphne Berdahl, Matti Bunzl
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2010 John Baldwin
All rights reserved.
VOICES AT THE WALL
Discourses of Self, History, and National Identity at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., respond to its stark, haunting beauty in a multitude of ways. Some come here to weep, pray, mourn, and to remember; others come to witness the emotion of the place. Many knew someone whose name is now engraved on the Wall; most do not. Some stay for hours, standing alone in silent contemplation and reflection, tracing a name with their fingers, taking a rubbing of a name, or leaving behind an offering to the dead; for others the memorial is a brief stop on a tour of the nation's capital. A public place where private communions with and mourning for the dead occur, this most visited monument in Washington, D.C., has come to be called "a national healing shrine"; many visitors come here not as tourists, but as pilgrims.
Much of the memorial's power stems from its simple design. Situated between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, two black granite walls are wedged into the earth of America's most sacred and symbolically loaded landscape. The walls meet in an obtuse angle whose sides point to the towering white marble tributes to the country's most revered presidents. Instead of climbing steps as at the Lincoln Memorial or taking an elevator as to the top of the Washington Monument, the visitor here walks down a gently sloping ramp alongside the 494-foot wall. A line of five names on a ten-inch panel begins at each end where the Wall emerges from the earth. The lines of names multiply quickly as the height of the memorial's panels increases and it rises to its ten-foot apex, where one is confronted with the reflecting blackness of the polished granite and thousands of names.
More than 58,000 names of American men and women killed or missing in Vietnam are inscribed on the memorial in chronological order by date of casualty. The ordering of names chronicles the escalating destruction of the Vietnam War, creating not a static monument, but rather a journey into the past that begins by moving from a name in the directory to a name on a panel that contains all the others who were casualties on that same day. The memorial's architect conceived of the Wall as a boundary between the living and the dead as well as a journey; the individual visitor decides when the journey is over.
Unlike most monuments that can be regarded passively by the observer, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial demands that the visitor "actively participate in the space defined by the work" (Blum 1987: 128) in order to experience it. The handprints that smudge the Wall's polished black granite surface are evidence of visitors' active participation, testament to the need to interact with and touch this memorial. A striking contrast to the traditional national war memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where uniformed military guards stand watch and keep visitors at a distance, this monument invites the observer to make contact with the names of the known casualties (Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz 1991; cf. Mosse 1990).
My principal aim in this paper is to explore the relationship between public space, private histories, and the production of cultural practices, historical memory, and national identity. Drawing on Bakhtin's theories of dialogic processes and discourse as language in its social form (Bakhtin 1968, 1981; cf. Bruner and Gorfain 1984), I examine a discourse generated at the memorial in which self, history, and national identity are constructed, reconstructed, and frequently contested. All are in a state of production and flux at the memorial, defined and redefined by the "multiplicity of social voices" that speak here (Bakhtin 1981). The Wall has become a place for metasocial commentary, where people as well as a nation tell themselves stories about themselves.
The organization of this paper parallels what I see to be a progressive development in the memorial's discourse. After briefly discussing how a notion of silence and healing became part of the memorial's discourse from the start, I examine how the construction of the memorial produced struggles over the control of historical knowledge and representation. My analysis then turns to the voices and stories that speak at the Wall that conflate personal memory with collective history and national identity. Arguing that the multitude of utterances, narratives, and offerings here are in a dialogic as well as power relationship to one another, I suggest how every act of remembering may also be an act of forgetting. Finally, I consider how the reproduction of this discourse in mass culture and media representations has routinized and structured practice, creating and sanctioning culturally coded responses to the Wall.
BREAKING A SILENCE: BACKGROUND
Vietnam was America's longest and, except for the Civil War, its most controversial war. Over three million served between 1959 and 1975; their average age was 19. Those who returned, 75,000 of whom were permanently disabled, faced their own personal battles amidst a turbulent nation opposed to the war. Traditional homecoming rituals for returning warriors like ticker-tape parades were never held; soldiers returning from Vietnam slipped in the country's back door — often 24 hours after leaving the combat zone — and were ignored. There was no public commemoration or recognition of veterans who served in Vietnam. Although Congress had authorized a Tomb of the Unknown Vietnam Soldier in 1973, and a white marble cover had been installed over an empty crypt at Arlington National Cemetery in 1974, these plans were abandoned in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. The marble cover was removed and replaced with a red granite slab that concealed the presence of an empty tomb.
The idea to build a memorial to honor the men and women who served in Vietnam was conceived by a Vietnam veteran, Jan Scruggs, who, as the legend goes, became obsessed with building a monument containing the names of those killed and missing in Vietnam after seeing the movie The Deer Hunter in 1979 (Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz 1991). Together with two other Vietnam veterans, Robert Doubek and John Wheeler, Scruggs organized a non-profit Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), which launched a massive nationwide lobbying and fund-raising campaign. By July 1980, the VVMF had succeeded in getting a bill through Congress and signed into law, authorizing them to build a memorial on a two-acre site near the Lincoln Memorial. The fund had insisted on this location in the shadow of Lincoln to symbolize national reconciliation.
This theme of reconciliation and redemption became a major trope in the early discourse of the memorial. The aim of the memorial project was to "heal the nation's wounds" from the Vietnam War by commemorating the soldiers who fought rather than the war itself (by "separating the war from the warriors"). In making a case for the memorial, fund-raising efforts called upon stories of the mistreatment of vets after the war, like this one recounted in Scruggs's book:
Back home, no one wanted to hear what you'd been through. If people saw you in uniform they might spit, call you a murderer, or — most painfully — ask you why you were stupid enough to go. And if you'd been seriously wounded ... someone might come up and say "served you right." Even ten years after you came back, the easiest way to clear a room was to mention Vietnam. (Scruggs and Swerdlow 1985: 11)
In the discussions of the memorial, this silence was not perceived as an imposed suppression of knowledge of the past, nor as a reluctance to speak on the part of veterans; rather it was viewed as a product of the American public's desire to forget the controversial war.
There is little question that such a silence existed following the war, and that it did suppress the voices and stories of veterans and quelled the expression of pain related to the war and loved ones lost, as letters to the fund accompanying donations illustrated ("My son was killed and I can't bring it up at a party" [Scruggs and Swerdlow 1985: 25]). But once part of the memorial rhetoric, the notion of healing a nation through breaking a silence became part of a dominant narrative of the public history and memory of Vietnam.
Having secured its site on the Mall, the VVMF called a national design competition, open to anyone over 18, professional or amateur. The enormous response was unprecedented: over 1,400 entries were submitted, "some obviously prepared in high-tech studios, others sweated out on kitchen tables." The jury of professional architects, sculptors, landscape architects, and an art critic were selected and asked by the fund to adhere to specific criteria in their selection of a design: the memorial could not make any political statement about the war; it had to contain the names of those who had died in conflict and who were still missing; it had to be reflective and contemplative in character; and it should harmonize with its surroundings. First prize went to Maya Lin, then a 21-year-old Chinese American undergraduate at Yale. Lin later wrote of her design:
I had designed the memorial for a seminar on funerary architecture ... We had already been questioning what a war memorial is, its purpose, its responsibility ... I felt a memorial should be honest about the reality of war and be for the people who gave their lives ... I didn't want a static object that people would just look at, but something they could relate to as on a journey, or a passage, that would bring each to his own conclusions ... I had an impulse to cut open the earth ... an initial violence that in time would heal ... It was as if the black-brown earth were polished and made into an interface between the sunny world and the quiet dark world beyond that we can't enter. The names would become the memorial. There was no need to embellish. (National Geographic 1985)
As the history of the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial demonstrates, commemorations are socially produced and negotiated events involving struggles over the control of knowledge. Once announced, the design of the memorial became the object of intense controversy and opposition. Calling it a "black gash of shame," "an insult to those it intends to memorialize," "bizarre," and "a black trench that scars the Mall," opponents argued the memorial made an obvious anti-war statement and failed to honor surviving veterans. A scathing criticism in the conservative journal the National Review voiced the opponents' objections on the grounds that it symbolized a silence the memorial was supposed to overcome:
Our objection to this Orwellian glop does not issue from any philistine objection to new concepts in art. It is based upon the clear political message of this design. The design says that the Vietnam War should be memorialized in black, not in the white marble of Washington. The mode of listing names makes them individual deaths, not deaths in a cause: they might as well have been traffic accidents. The invisibility of the monument at ground level symbolizes the unmentionability of the war. (National Review 1981)
In what came to be called "the battle of the Vietnam Memorial," "the controversy," and "the war on the Wall," debates centered around the purposes and responsibilities of public art. The need for a monument to be both aesthetically pleasing as well as symbolically appropriate, methods for its selection, the relationship between professional elite standards and popular taste, and the appropriateness of abstract symbolism or realist representation were at issue in the heated controversy that threatened to end the project. James Watt, Reagan's conservative secretary of the interior, refused to grant a construction permit to build the memorial until these issues were resolved.
After much deliberation and debate, a compromise was finally reached in January of 1982 to add a realistic statue and an American flag to the memorial site at a later date. "The idea was grotesque that you could design a memorial through this backroom debate — let's put up a statue — that it could be brokered like that" Robert Doubek, co-founder and project director of the VVMF, later remarked in an interview (August 9, 1989). But it worked; Watt granted the permit, construction began in March 1982, and Lin's memorial was completed 8 months later.
However, the battle over the memorial was not only a debate over the nature of public art; it was a struggle over the control and appropriation of history through representation and commemoration. It was not only an aesthetic controversy between advocates of modernism and proponents of realism; it was a political debate that mirrored much of the controversy surrounding the war itself. But it was not necessarily an argument between hawks and doves, between those who had supported the war and those who demonstrated against it; it was also a dispute between a group of primarily professional military men who strongly believed the memorial should make a political statement about the righteousness of the war's cause, and the veterans who believed it should remain apolitical by focusing on the individual casualties.
However, a non-statement about the war — either through lack of commemoration or in an ambiguous, apolitical memorial design — does make a statement. The open-endedness of the design itself conveys the message that a unified, monolithic statement about the war cannot be made. As Robert Doubek pointed out:
To a certain extent we [the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund] expressed doubt about the war by not making any statement about it. There was obviously some doubt in our minds. (Interview on August 9, 1989)
Jan Scruggs also conceded that the memorial's ambiguity makes a particular statement about war:
I always thought that the opponents were basically right, that the memorial is kind of an anti-war statement. It is not an anti–Vietnam War statement, but a kind of universal statement on war. I think it really focuses on the tragedy of the loss of individual lives. I do not think, nor have I ever thought, that the memorial makes a political statement about that particular war. (Interview on August 11, 1989)
A devoted long-term National Park Service volunteer at the Wall, John Bender, most clearly articulated the type of statement made by the memorial's open design:
The memorial says: this is the price we pay. It doesn't say whether it was right, it doesn't say whether it was wrong, it doesn't say whether it was worth it or not. It simply says "this is the cost of war."
The controversy surrounding the memorial also concerned the issue of who controls memorialization in society. This was not a project initiated and fought over by the state but rather by the people the memorial was to commemorate. Funded entirely by over $7,000,000 in private contributions, the memorial project's success was largely due to the way its discourse of silence and commemoration resonated with individual experience. Many letters to the fund and stories told at fundraisers expressed a longing for space, both discursive as well as a physical site, in which veterans and their families could tell their stories, as the following excerpt illustrates:
If I can touch the name of my friends who died, maybe I will finally have time to react. Maybe I will end up swearing, maybe crying, maybe smiling, remembering a funny incident. Whatever it is, I will have time and the focal point to do it now. (Scruggs and Swerdlow 1985: 126)
AN EXPLOSION OF PERSONAL NARRATIVES
While the struggle to build the memorial established the tropes of silence, healing, and redemption as part of the memorial's discourse, the Wall's dedication in November 1982 affirmed and reproduced the notion that a national silence had been broken. The week-long National Salute to Vietnam Veterans triggered an explosion of personal narratives, creating a permanent discursive space as well as a physical site from which the voices could continue to emerge. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial immediately became a collective point in the manner of Bakhtin's medieval carnival and marketplace (characterized by the expression of voices and the use of language otherwise suppressed), as well as a culturally framed space and "memory site" where people could tell their stories (Nora 1989). Veterans quickly named it "the last firebase," a metaphor that reveals their perceptions of the Wall as a safe place, a gathering point, a final stop before leaving the war behind them.
Excerpted from On the Social Life of Postsocialism by Daphne Berdahl, Matti Bunzl. Copyright © 2010 John Baldwin. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Michael Herzfeld vii
Introduction Matti Bunzl xiii
Part 1 Washington, D.C.
1 Voices at the Wall: Discourses of Self, History, and National Identity at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial 3
Part 2 Kella
2 Consumer Rites: The Politics of Consumption in Re-Unified Germany 33
3 "(N)Ostalgie" for the Present: Memory, Longing, and East German Things 48
4 "Go, Trabi, Go!": Reflections on a Car and Its Symbolization over Time 60
5 Mixed Devotions: Religion, Friendship, and Fieldwork in Postsocialist East Germany 68
Part 3 Leipzig
6 The Spirit of Capitalism and the Boundaries of Citizenship in Post-Wall Germany 87
7 Local Hero, National Crook: "Doc" Schneider and the Spectacle of Finance Capital 101
8 Expressions of Experience and Experiences of Expression: Museum Re-Presentations of GDR History 112
9 Goodbye Lenin, Aufwiedersehen GDR: On the Social Life of Socialism 123
What People are Saying About This
The wide-ranging themes of this marvelous collection—memory and history, consumption, citizenship, nostalgia, identity, postsocialism—are unified by Daphne Berdahl's sophisticated overarching conception of their interconnections and her splendid gift for ethnography. A valuable and enduring resource for anyone interested in socialism's aftermath.