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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 7, Number 2 (June 2009) : 261--78
Narrative Tensions
The Archive and the Eyewitness
Jeffrey Wallen
Rubric A: Eyewitness Narratives



There is a basic tension between eyewitness narratives and archival records (which have attracted the attention for many artists and intellectuals in the last decade or two). Archival material bears the imprint of the bureaucratic, of that which has been institutionally preserved. It gives us traces of the dead, evidence of the past that has been recorded but not (yet) processed; it exists as a mnemonic device, as that which awaits the coming of the researcher to be brought back to life. The eyewitness narrative, on the other hand, is intensely personal, even if also collective. The opposition between these two modes of representation and of memory itself has a long history. In “Plato’s Pharmacy” Jacques Derrida stages and deconstructs the opposition between memory and re- and com-memoration, between the living truth and the archive.  More recently, Giorgio Agamben, writing about the new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, analyzes the differences between the “unforgettable” and that which can be recalled to memory and archived.

This paper  examines the ways in which the dynamic relations between the living and the dead, the private and the public, the fragment and the whole, the personal and the institutional, and the autobiographical and the historical, inform and complicate -- in different ways -- both the eyewitness narrative and the archive. The discussion will focus on the Memorial at Hohenschönhausen to the East German victims of the Stasi (at the site of the former interrogation center and prison, where the tours are all conducted by former inmates), and the Stasi Museum at the site of the former Stasi headquarters, with its miles of archival files.

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