Introduction to After Effects: Performing the Ends of Memory

Bryoni Trezise, Caroline Wake


The German city of Cologne woke up yesterday without a memory. (Boyes, 2009)

In March of this year we were both struck by an image in the Times Online of a collapsed archives building in Cologne, which, before becoming a ‘pile of smouldering brickwork’, had held the manuscripts of Karl Marx, the letters of Friedrich Hegel, edicts issued by Napoleon and King Louis XIV, and an early document dating back to 922 (Boyes, 2009). The event was suggestive enough, yet the newspaper account was arguably even more so. The headline ran ‘The city without a memory’ and the article noted that ‘There was even less warning of the collapse of the building than would have been given during a nuclear attack’. Even the typos were evocative, with an image caption rather endearingly referring to the ‘six-story’ building. Inevitably the loss was read through the prism of other, prior losses – some of the documents ‘had been recovered from library buildings smashed by Allied bombing during the Second World War’, the damage was compared to that caused by a fire in the Anna Amalia library in Weimar 2004, and a reader (Jessica of Indianapolis) commented ‘It’s the library in Alexandria all over again.’ Intriguingly, it was also read in terms of future losses: John of Vancouver chastised the archive for not having digitised the documents, while Daniel of London opined ‘This story will trouble my sleep. My epiphany, my moment of clarity may have been prompted by a piece of literature now lost. I shall never know.’

Of course, these statements are both overblown and incomplete. What we would add to them is that while Cologne may have woken up without an archive, it has not woken up without a memory (Taylor, 2003). Yet this event, its reporting, and the response to it seem to literalise a cultural moment in which memory collapses under its own weight, in which citizens (both local and global) are traumatised both by the event (what has happened), and the non-event (what was never to happen – they will never read that book that they were unlikely to read anyway). In fact, it seems to speak to the parallel conversations taking place across trauma studies, memory studies, and performance studies, for how it positioned notions of the “unspeakable” familiar to trauma discourse, alongside notions of the “restorative” or “repeatable” familiar to memory discourse. Hence to write about performing the ends of memory is to write at the intersection of two prefixes: the ‘re’ and the ‘un’, where one can simultaneously mourn the loss of Marx and Hegel’s original documents and nonetheless celebrate their endless repetition(s) in contemporary research in the Humanities. As a post-discipline, performance studies attempts to find pathways through these oppositional pulls, where performance itself is at once recollective and generative, an unrepeatable event that is nonetheless constituted through acts of repetition.

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Boyes, Roger. ‘The city without a memory: treasures lost under collapsed Cologne archives’ Times Online 5 March (2009).

Eckersall, Peter, Edward Scheer, and Helena Grehan. ‘Introduction: Performance and Critical Optimism’ Performance Paradigm 4 (2008) %E2%80%93-performance-and-critical-optimism/

Phelan, Peggy. ‘Performing Questions, Producing Witnesses’, in Tim Etchells

Certain Fragments: Contemporary Performance and Forced Entertainment

(London: Routledge, 1999), 1-14.

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).


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