Jason Groves (University of Washington, Seattle)
It is an understatement to say that debates in memory studies in Germany and German studies were invigorated in 2021 by the publication of the German translation of Michael Rothberg’s Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. But as much as this book and the topic of multidirectional memory warrant the renewed attention they have received, the positioning of ensuing responses and so many debates can be stultifying and unnecessarily combative. At its best, memory studies models, to cite the editors of Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness somewhat out of context, those “practices of reading and listening that create new possibilities for thinking of, caring for, and talking to one another” that work such as Rothberg’s seeks to foster (15).
I am attempting to develop such practices as something of an amateur and not as an established scholar in the field of memory studies. They grow out of the experience of re-reading Paul Celan’s 1959 poetry volume Sprachgitter (Language Mesh), one of the most consequential attempts to reflect on the historical and cultural ruptures of the Shoah in lyrical language, alongside several recent books in Black feminist and ecological thought, including Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being and Tiffany Lethabo King’s The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations in Black and Native Studies. Following thus perhaps unlikely pairing, and prompted by the March 2021 DDGC conference where I first presented this work, I found myself reading Celan’s poems otherwise, holding pauses and placing stresses differently than in previous passes that I and others have made. What began as an act of reading and enunciating otherwise has opened out into broader matters of breath and breathing, of memory and remembering, matters which are informed by recent developments in memory studies, Holocaust studies, genocide studies, Celan studies, Black studies, and environmental studies. If I single out memory studies in my title, it is from a position on the periphery where I can observe this field touching all of these others.
The question that opened my presentation on this topic at the 2021 DDGC conference and that I’m still grappling with today runs like this: how does Paul Celan’s call to enunciate literary art with “the acute accent of the present” (“den Akut des heutigen”) (3:190) play out in the “continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding” (14) to which Christina Sharpe attests in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being? Upon further reflection and study, another question arose: why would Celan’s recognition and commemoration of other histories of violence matter? In other words, why place this stress on the poems of a Czernowitz-born (now Chernivtsi), Paris-residing, German-language Jewish poet? Black Germans and queer Black Germans in particular are actively pursuing the “wake work” of repairing and resisting centuries of anti-Blackness, as Tiffany Florvil has indefatigably shown, for instance in “Black Germans and New Forms of Resistance” and “Queer Memory and Black Germans.” May Ayim offers a far more explicit and urgent articulation than Celan of overlapping histories of anti-Black and antisemitic racism in a European context in the poem “deutschland im herbst” (Ayim 68–70). Listening to hear how Celan’s German-language poems are haunted by the Middle Passage is perhaps less obvious than how they could be haunted by the German genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama people, to which Zoé Samudzi calls our attention in “In Absentia of Black Study.” I can’t say with certainty that my work does not play into the deprioritization of living communities undergoing ongoing dispossession. What is more, neither Celan nor I write from a position in the wake, and so I do not position my work as wake work, that is, “a theory and a praxis of Black being in the diaspora” (Sharpe 19). But as I live in the U.S. and work as a literary scholar, I am compelled to think through how the ongoing disaster of North American slavery manifests in how and what I read. I am also compelled to mark the startling resonances between Sharpe’s wake work and Celan’s diasporic poetics in the wake of the Shoah; moreover, and speaking of resonances, I also want to provoke an encounter between the Jewish Shoah and The Black Shoals in search of any point of edgelessness between the two—and to do so by extending and expanding the Black shoals’ slowing and disruptive effects, while being mindful of the ever-present danger of appropriating and displacing.
A few months after the DDGC conference in March of 2021, poet Rachel Zolf published No One’s Witness, a remarkable essay animated by the argument that “it is impossible to confront Celan’s poetry, and the Nazi holocaust in general, without confronting transatlantic slavery and its afterlives amid ongoing colonialism” (5). In Zolf’s assessment, Black studies “charts a field of thought that perhaps makes it possible to start understanding these irreducible, incalculable three lines by Celan [“No one / bears witness for / the witness”] as an index of the im/possibility of witnessing and witnessing witnessing” (5). I only want to add that the im/possibility of confronting multiple histories in Celan’s poetry is not only true for these three lines. Black studies makes other indexes and other prosodies possible in other poems as well.
Zolf’s argument draws on a discourse of multidirectional remembrance, without naming it as such, that has been extensively elaborated by Michael Rothberg in Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in an Age of Decolonization. Reading Celan today means, for me, attending to his poems’ multidirectional memory, defined by Rothberg as “the way collective memories emerge in dialogue with each other and with the conditions of the present” (20). (See Lauren Hansen’s “Multidirectional Memory as Decolonial Pedagogical Practice in German Studies” in the DDGC volume for other pedagogical implications of this book.) As both Rothberg and Sharpe acknowledge, remembrance of the Shoah can and does sometimes have the opposite effect of erasing other histories of dispossession and genocide, thus preventing dialogue and solidarity from emerging. But Rothberg does document how many prominent early responses to the Nazi genocide—by W. E. B. Du Bois, Charlotte Delbo, André Schwarz-Bart, Aimé Césaire—placed it “on a conceptual continuum with colonialism and antiblack racism” and in doing so participated in a discourse of “multidirectional remembrance” that developed up through the decolonization movements in European colonies in the early 1960s (23). Celan does not figure into Rothberg’s study, but the composition of Sprachgitter in 1958–59 in Paris and during the Algerian War of Independence, could offer another case study.
Recent environmental and planetary turns in memory studies make it possible to see the implications of Rothberg’s work for matters of environmental justice (Craps et al.). Rothberg’s account of a postwar “countertradition in which remembrance of the Holocaust intersects with the legacies of colonialism and slavery and ongoing processes of decolonization” (xiii) resonates in recent decolonial accounts of the Anthropocene. Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin have defined the Anthropocene as beginning “with widespread colonialism and slavery” and as “a story of how people treat the environment and how people treat each other” (18). (Heather Davis and Zoe Todd’s “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene” develop this narrative substantially.) Resonating is not the same as dialoging, yet it is possible to point to an emerging countertradition in which, to synthesize the two definitions, remembrance of the ecological legacies of colonialism and slavery and ongoing processes of decolonization intersects with remembrance of the Holocaust. No comprehensive account of such a countertradition exists, but one could point to the existence of such in Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene and its discussion of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, as well as Heather Anne Swanson’s “The Banality of the Anthropocene.” But following Rachel Zolf, I want to suggest that Black studies also makes a confrontation with this countertradition in Celan possible.
Offshore is one place where some of these intersections might take place. Offshore is where, as Tiffany Lethabo King argues in the opening pages of The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations in Black and Native Studies, it becomes apparent that genocide and slavery cannot be contained. King elaborates the edgelessness in a context specific to North American history, where the Black shoals are the figurative sandbars that theoretically and methodologically impede the widespread practice of positing “land and labor as the primary frames from which to theorize coloniality, anti-Indigenism, and anti-Black racism” (11). Though the Black shoal is conceptually dynamic and subjected to continual revision throughout King’s book, it is firmly situated in Black diaspora studies within and around the Atlantic. And yet, the shoal also manifests in the form of a shoaling effect: “a disruption in the movement and the flow—of time and space reflected in and narrated by Western disciplinary formations and their seminal texts” (1–2). As such, the shoal is evoked most vividly in its liminality. Simultaneously land and sea, the Black shoal crosses over entrenched paradigms in Black diaspora studies and Native studies, as ocean-centered and land-centered respectively, while also contesting the grammar of “settler” colonial studies in North America. It instead proposes a grammar of “conquest” to expose the ongoing acts of violence to which Indigenous and Black people are subjected.
Can the disrupting, impeding, and slowing effects of the Black shoals (and The Black Shoals) be limited to the histories and the disciplinary formations explored within King’s book? The genocide of European and Mediterranean Jews does not enter into the dialogic space of The Black Shoals, and there are many ways in which an attempt to insert it into this space would decenter its Black and Indigenous voices and thereby participate in the “series of appropriations, displacements, and disappearances” that the book seeks to expose and disrupt (70). King sites the dialogue “off the shores of White academic and political discourse” as a way “to continue ongoing conversations, and create new ones, among Black and Native peoples within and outside the academy” (35). Still, on the periphery of these conversations, and perhaps beyond the scope of the book, there are other ongoing conversations that are, or should be, impacted by the Black shoal. In German studies, for example, or Holocaust studies, or Celan studies. Just as The Black Shoals promises to pull settler colonial studies offshore in order to make it contend with Black thought, so too does it hold the potential to pull German studies offshore, both in archival terms (a wetter archive, a weather archive) and in disciplinary terms (their unexamined terracentrism, their Eurocentrism).
This is where I turn to Celan. On the shore, at low tide, in the poem “Low Tide” (“Niedrigwasser”) from Sprachgitter, looking at nearshore and offshore life: barnacles, limpets, and crabs, as well as shoal-like formations. Also: looking at wind-markings in the grey silt. One verse in particular—“Wind- / markings in the grey / silt” (“Wind- / zeichnung im grauen / Schlick”) (1: 193)—makes it possible to glimpse the horrors (“die Grauen”) of Auschwitz far from the banks of the Vistula river, the river that was mobilized to carry tons upon tons of ashes from the crematoriums away, eventually to the Gulf of Gdansk, where the river empties into what Alexis Pauline Gumbs calls “the one inseparable ocean” (11). The poem’s discretion does not allow for any unequivocal reference to this specific geographic location, but its tracing of “loose solute” (“das Gelöste”) in the gray/horrific silt of a shoal-like “hook” (“Haken”) of land remembers, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, this fraught history, which has also contaminated the language of the littoral zone (1: 193).
Uta Werner’s Textgräber: Paul Celans geologische Lyrik, opened my eyes and ears to these environmental and planetary legacies of Nazism in Celan’s poetry; Sharpe, King, Gumbs, Florvil, and Samudzi opened them to other legacies of violence exposed by “Low Tide.” Those nearshore and offshore sediments and inhabitants of that hostile environment do not only mediate the historical trauma of Auschwitz. Regarding the Middle Passage and the afterlives of slavery, Sharpe, drawing on the biogeochemical concept of residence time, observes that “because nutrients cycle through the ocean, the atoms of those people who were thrown overboard are out there in the ocean even today” (40). In the ocean, Sharpe writes, they, like us, “are alive in hydrogen, in oxygen; in carbon, in phosphorous, and iron; in sodium and chlorine. […] they are with us still, in the time of the wake, known as residence time” (19). Sharpe does not pursue all material implications of this biochemical form of the unresolved unfolding of the Middle Passage. Those atoms might not only be out there in the ocean but also in the exoskeletons of crustaceans and marine organisms, which take in sodium and other “loose solutes” and then secrete those in the form of shells, like those that populate Celan’s poem. Alexis Pauline Gumbs makes precisely this connection in the speculative documentary M Archive: After the End of the World, published two years after In The Wake. In the introductory section, “From the Lab Notebooks of the Last Sections,” a critical Black marine biologist suggests “that there may be a causal relationship between the bioluminescence in the ocean and the bones of the millions of transatlantic dead” which is “a signal to remember the character of calcium. the meaning of the presence of magnesium. both of which catalyze bioluminescence” (11). Continuing, this researcher sorting artefacts after the end of the world writes, “the bones are there as fine as sand, the marrow like coral to itself, the magnesium and calcium has infiltrated the systems of even the lowest filter feeders. so any light that you find in the ocean right now cannot be separated from the stolen light of those we [those critical Black marine biologists] long for every morning” (11).
Keeping in mind the residence time of the wake, and the archive of the ocean documented by the critical Black marine biologists, I want to suggest that “Low Tide” commemorates both the unresolved unfolding of Auschwitz and, if inadvertently and involuntary, the unresolved unfolding of the Middle Passage. The poem does so—as in the writings of Sharpe and Gumbs—in the grey silt, in the fine sand, in the coarse sand, in the loose solute, in the calcium carbonate shells of the living crustaceans, as well as in the Nazified German language and in the “impassible silence” (“unbefahrbares Schweigen”) with which the poem closes (1: 193). Memory is multidirectional and multispecies in the poem. Celan does not explicitly acknowledge the disaster of Black subjection, but the reader of Sharpe and Gumbs might sense how the poem registers the climate of anti-Blackness in which it takes place. The poem is speechless about these other histories of violence, but it also holds a space for their speechlessness. As trauma studies scholar Shoshana Felman reminds us, “the speaking subject constantly bears witness to a truth that nonetheless continues to escape him, a truth that is, essentially not available to its own speaker” (27).
Whether or not Celan explicitly acknowledges that these disparate histories speak and seep together, whether or not he explicitly commemorates these multiple voices, the way in which he commemorates the Jewish and anti-Jewish ecologies of Auschwitz—environmentally, ecologically, geologically, biogeochemically, planetarily, linguistically—means that they cannot be entirely demarcated from the Black and anti-Black ecologies of the Middle Passage.
It’s crucial that an account of the poem shows more than Black and Jewish bodies in residence time and their “un/survival,” to draw on another of Sharpe’s terms (14). The poem is also about survival, afterlives, and multispecies futurities. As commemorative as Celan’s shoreline ecologies are, the poem also attests to a speculative multispecies future, as made legible in the tracks of the sand crab, tomorrow, and with them a testimony to the possibility of life in the ongoing ruination left in the wake of Auschwitz and the Middle Passage. The imagination of marine life as a site of resistance to, or liberation from, anti-Jewishness, let alone anti-Blackness, is extremely tentative in the poem. Here, again, Black study is precursory, and the tradition of “Black hydropoetics,” for which Joshua Bennett has made a preliminary sketch, offers a space to imagine the historical reach of anti-Blackness as well as Black persistence and fugitive possibility. That tradition might also help to expose forms of Jewish persistence and possibility in Celan’s lyric, underwater or otherwise.
Celan’s “Niedrigwasser” and an English translation can be found here.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem. Viking Press, 1964.
Ayim, May. blues in schwarz weiss. Orlanda Frauenverlag, 1995.
Bennett, Joshua. “‘Beyond the Vomiting Dark’: Toward a Black Hydropoetics.” Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field, edited by Angela Hume and Gillian Osborne. University of Iowa Press, 2018, 102–117.
Celan, Paul. Gesammelte Werke in fünf Bänden. Edited by Beda Alleman and Stefan Reichert with Rudolf Bücher. Suhrkamp, 1983.
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Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. M Archive: After the End of the World. Duke University Press, 2018.
Hansen, Lauren. “Multidirectional Memory as Decolonial Pedagogical Practice in German Studies.” Diversity and Decolonization in German Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. 251–267.
Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.
King, Tiffany Lethabo. The Black Shoals. Duke University Press, 2019.
King, Tiffany Lethabo, Jenell Navarro, and Andrea Smith, eds. Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness. Duke University Press, 2020.
Lewis, Simon L., and Mark A. Maslin. The Human Planet. Yale University Press, 2018.
Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford University Press, 2009.
Samudzi, Zoé. “In Absentia of Black study.” New Fascism Syllabus, May 30, 2021.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.
Swanson, Heather Anne. 2017. “The Banality of the Anthropocene.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, February 22, 2017. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/the-banality-of-the-anthropocene.
Werner, Uta. Textgräber. Paul Celans geologische Lyrik. Fink, 1998.
Zolf, Rachel. No One’s Witness: A Monstrous Poetics. Duke University Press, 2021.
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