Theodore Kimble

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Memorials of Trauma


The Atlantic City Boardwalk Holocaust Memorial Competition took place in 2010 and attracted over 715 entries. Among these entries, the notable jurors — Daniel Libeskind, architect of Jewish Museum in Berlin; James Young, professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of several texts on memory and the Holocaust; Clifford Chanin, designer of the 9/11 Museum; Wendy Evans Joseph, designer of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.; New York architect Richard Meier; and Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum — selected 13 finalists and eventually one winner. The legitimacy of the jurors helps reinforce the importance of this competition and the selection of its finalists as a barometer of current memorial theory. And yet, the reliance on symbolism in nearly all of the finalists' designs suggests a contradiction with the competition brief.1 The extreme nature of trauma cannot be captured by language only; sensory experience, even at much lower intensities, is necessary. Thus, a memorial of trauma should be not symbolic, but experiential.

In all but two of the finalists' designs, at least one clear instance of symbolism exists. The entry by LOWICZ entitled When death became an industry likely exhibits the most extensive use of symbolism. The caption of the design board reads: “The Menorah, erected here as a succession of gas pipes over the industrious Atlantic Coast, rises high over a bed of ashes.”2 Every element of the design was composed to specifically erect this literal metaphor. Still, it is unclear how successfully understood the symbol of the gas pipes or the bed of ashes would be. The floor treatment, intending to represent the bed of ashes, appears to be a white and gray marble. The pipes look to be literal pipes, roughly two feet in diameter and rising to around 50 feet. The night image shows smoke rising from their tops. Even if understood correctly, it is uncertain the extent of the effect that these three entangled ideas could have.

Other ideas or concepts symbolized include dueling celebration and remembrance perspectives, unreachable platforms, zones of absence, living memories, and a “river of light (that) stitch together disjointed surfaces, expressing our hopes for peace.”3 Many of the ideas are implemented with a beautiful aesthetic, but their effect remains questionable. Similarly, a few of the finalists chose to design receptacles for written words — quite literally in one case, where the entire memorial is constructed of bottles to be filled with letters from around the world. As opposed to symbols that refer to ideas, which may or may not be derived solely from language, these memorials symbolize only ideas of language.

A submission by BRANSK, Outside of the World, consists of a hollow gable building — its roof has been removed — with a variety of punched openings.4 The openings are each outfitted with a particular window frame and, if necessary, matching shutters. The decoration is a clear symbol of not just an empty building, but of a deserted or evacuated building. However, the context within which we should understand this building is speculative, at best. Only in the context of a Holocaust memorial does the idea fully come through. When it does, this symbol has the power to be rather effective, as it symbolizes not just the idea, but is coupled with the immediate sensory experience of standing in front of such a dreary structure.

For a similar reason, I do not consider the glass house by BURKANOW02 to be an act of symbolism (although the jurors and even the designer may have).5 The design suggests ideas of being exposed and trapped, but those ideas are uncovered experientially instead of by linguistic or symbolic methods. The entire building is transparent and the exterior is shaped like an abstract gable roof house. Internally, there are four increasingly narrow partitions. However, each partition can only be accessed from the exterior – once you have entered a partition, you cannot directly move to another without exiting and reentering the structure. But overall, there is no association with the Holocaust, symbolical or otherwise. The nature of these ideas is different, in that they are experiential, but their effectiveness is still unknown and depends entirely on the context of the experience (e.g. how many people are inside versus out).

Memorials of Trauma

I have attempted to briefly introduce the design methodologies of the finalists of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Holocaust Memorial Competition in one of three ways: symbolism of ideas, which may be derived linguistically and/or experientially, symbolism of language itself, or experiential. The success of these three methodologies must be considered in the context of the competition's goals. I argue that the basic competition goals are the same as those of memorials of trauma. Consider the brief but suggestive text on the competition's website:

The Memorial is intended to commemorate the Holocaust in a way that is universal and enduring. It is envisioned to be a compelling visual statement at a significant public place, not a museum. To explain or depict the Holocaust is not our primary goal. Rather, we seek in this Memorial to inspire a vivid and continuing awareness of the terrible loss to humanity, history and culture which the Holocaust represents. Its purpose is to fix our collective memory, to bear witness, to embrace the ineffable sense of loss.

TO REMEMBER the suffering is to recognize the Danger and Evil that are present whenever one group wantonly and unjustifiably persecutes another. The Holocaust was the ultimate act of malignant and lethal Bigotry. The memory of the Holocaust is the legacy and responsibility of all Humanity. Our overall objectives in building this Memorial are to witness History and reaffirm the basic Human Rights of our common Humanity. Those who survived the Shoah require no aids for their indelible Memories. It is those of us who were not there that Demand such a Memorial, and our Descendants will depend on it even more than We.6

Memorials of trauma are those memorials that wish to preserve not just the idea of an event or events, but the actual memories of trauma those events implanted in individuals and communities alike. “Those who survived the Shoah require no aids for their indelible Memories. It is those of us who were not there that Demand such a Memorial, and our Descendants will depend on it even more than We.”6 Evoking such a traumatic memory is difficult, but the Holocaust provides a particularly challenging event to memorialize, as its traumatic truths are commonly believed to be unspeakable, unthinkable or possibly even unknowable.7 The competition also notes that the “Memorial is intended to commemorate the Holocaust in a way that is universal and enduring.”6 Thus, the memorial should be universal in its affects; that is, the memorial's affects on any particular individual should be realized (at least to some degree) regardless of the varying connections the individual may have with the original source of trauma. Evoking such traumatic and universal memories should be at the heart of each entry's design intentions.

Language of Trauma

Problems arise, however, when attempting to understand and describe trauma. Roann Barris describes in Architectures of Memory and Counter-Memory: Berlin and Bucharest how a number of scholars, himself included, have confronted trauma.7 For Cathy Caruth, trauma is best understood as the “missed experience”. As she explains, “trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in the individual's past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature — the way it was precisely not known in the first instance — returns to haunt the survivor later on.”7 As Barris continues, Caruth's traumatic experience is “one which oscillates between memory of the first unbearable event and memory of the equally unbearable survival.”7

Barris condenses Caruth's and others' writing about the traumatic experience as a failed experience: “first, because it involves a confrontation with the impossibility of either knowing or preventing trauma, and second, because it further involves the continued impossibility of being able to imagine life without trauma.”7 Thus the traumatic experience is felt by the survivor rather than the one who experienced the physical pain (although they may be the same). Freud, for example, explicitly ruled out physical pain as a source of trauma.7

Studies on the relations between physical pain and language may have some applicability to the field of trauma. A model by Scarry suggests that the extreme pain inflicted by war and torture “destroys language because such pain can only be expressed nonverbally.”7 Although Scarry does not consider psychological (traumatic) pain, Barris hypothesizes that the extreme pain of war or torture also destroys the victim's world, and thus “creation, or the act of remaking the world, is the act of making the invisible visible, of uniting absence with presence.”7 Because this specific act of making the invisible visible resonates with Barris' idea of trauma, it is no surprise that he believes the destruction of language to be a link between torture and trauma.

How then can a language of trauma exist? Barris hints that it is not necessarily a failure of language, but rather a “failure of words, narrative and memory — unless memory is somatic, imagistic, and non-verbal.”7 If this is the case, architecture (or anything that gives rise to spatio-temporal experiences) would seem like a fitting medium to evoke such a memory. But Barris, still in a language-first mentality, contests that architecture's associations with shelter (and with power) reduce it's ability to evoke such memories — the subjectivity of architecture will tend to mask the raw sensory experience. Thus, it becomes necessary to identify an architecture which denies shelter and power in its existence.7 One possible architecture is Anthony Vidler's notion of the “architectural uncanny”.

The architectural uncanny “focuses on the moment or shock of estrangement from the familiar as the underlying drama of the uncanny.”7 An uncanny architecture requires the familiar in order to produce the moment of estrangement. As Barris notes, “the uncanny cannot be experienced in a discrete building unless that building has either been invested with an uncanny experience or is itself conceptualized as incomplete.”7 Further, both Young and Barris suggest that the architectural uncanny must not provide any shelter if it is to be effective. Barris summarizes his discussion of the language of trauma, and now an architecture of trauma, as follows:

An architecture of trauma, if it exists, does not represent the traumatic narrative. Instead, it creates that uncanny moment of knowing what one does not know or want to know. Neither symbolic nor hermetic, these will be spaces which evoke patterns of movement, thought and feeling without producing or relying on the visitor's memory or direct, personal experience of trauma.7

The three sets of design methodologies I placed the finalists of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Holocaust Memorial Competition in can be analyzed in this framework. Based on Barris' assessment, it would appear that those memorials which act as receptacles for language are in a difficult place. Not only will their language be unable to grasp the raw experience of trauma, but each of them seemingly deemphasizes the patterns of movement architecture is capable of providing but which language cannot.7 Similarly, those memorials that act primarily as symbols of other linguistic ideas will fall short. Even if the symbolic element is not grasped (or simply ignored), the memorials are all still physical objects that may have the ability of offer an uncanny, or at least spatio-temporal, experience. However, three of the finalists contribute virtually nothing to the spatio-temporal experience of the boardwalk. Of those that do, “uncanny” is hardly the proper word to explain these experiences. This is especially true in the context of their larger site, Atlantic City and its accompanying spectacles.

An interesting data point is again the glass house submission. It is at once both quite ordinary and remarkably uncanny. First, the memorial is shaped as a small, traditional, gable roof dwelling. In a way, even this traditional form is out of place on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. But the memorial is also completely transparent and its interior partitions segregate the space into four disconnected spaces. If the shelter and traditional form provided by this memorial are not in spirit with the uncanny, its transparent and segmented nature surely is. The architectural uncanny is a thinking device — it prompts visitors think about what they should be thinking about. But what then is one supposed to think about? This is the purpose of the traumatic narrative. The traumatic narrative can, and does, occur in all sorts of manners. For a Holocaust memorial, the traumatic narrative likely exists in the form of signage, fliers, or program — the below ground section of Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Berlin, Germany provides a narrative to the uncanny field of stelae above. The point is that the architectural uncanny does not provide such a narrative, but rather a spatio-temporal context from which the narrative can be more deeply experienced.

As has been shown, the architectural uncanny provides a possible implementation of an architecture of trauma. This is distinct from the traumatic narrative, as any such linguistic narrative will face the difficulties of evoking universal memories of trauma. The finalists categorized thus far implement Barris' suggestions to little degree, but their use of symbolism suggests a strong connection to Barris' work — the assumption that language begets memories. Instead, I propose that memorials of trauma are studied within the theory that sensory experience, and thus memories and ideas, exist prior to language. Even under this theory, the architectural uncanny still has merit. But instead of a final solution, the uncanny aspects of a design act as deterritorializing moments that allow not just a traumatic narrative to be more deeply realized, but actual sensory experiences of the design to be felt more strongly than normally possible.

Sense Impressions and Subjectivity

I want to finish by suggesting that memorials of trauma be approached with a theory of subjectivity that is based not linguistically but on actual sense impressions. In previous language-based models, any particular sense impression is recognized only as it is classified into some more general mental category or, rather, linguistic word or concept. As a different approach, David Hume and empiricists provide a theory of knowledge in which all knowledge is ultimately reducible to actual sense impressions. Gilles Deleuze then took this starting point and further refined it. As Manuel DeLanda writes: “Deleuze discovered in David Hume something much more interesting than such a dated foundational epistemology: a model of the genesis of subjectivity that can serve as an alternative to the dominant one based on the thesis of the linguisticality of experience.”9 Understanding the genesis of subjectivity has profound impacts for all arts, particularly those that engage on a spatio-temporal level.

The basic idea is that first and foremost, the subjective experience is built from distinct and separable sense impressions.9 These sense impressions can register as ideas or memories in a way that is not different in kind from the actual experience, but in degree; they differ only in that they are lower-intensity replicas of actual experiences. It is also important to note that each of these replicas, whether visual, aural, or of hatred or happiness, possesses their own singular identity, which helps to further distance this model from language-based models.9 Therefore, actual sensory experiences, and thus ideas, exist prior to any form of language. Further, it is through three processes — “the habitual grouping of ideas through relations in contiguity (in space and time), their habitual comparison through relations of resemblance, and the habitual pairing of causes and effects by their perceived constant conjunction” — that subjectivity is formed.9

Crystallizing a subject, so that it can retain stability over time, is a process of territorialization. The most significant territorialization process is that of habitual repetition. For instance, hearing or saying the word “red” every time a particular color is encountered, allows one to link the word red to a series of particular impressions through the relations described above. But as Hume notes, the “idea of red, which we form in the dark, and that impression, which strikes our eyes in sunshine, differ only in degree, not in nature.”10 This point can illustrate why a language of trauma is so difficult to grasp.

First, many words, which we can think of as discrete ideas, can be related through one of three ways to actual sense impressions. Thus, words like “red” have consisted meaning, as we have all experienced the color of red. But because words are discrete and so vast in number, they possess a combinatorial productivity that can produce language for which no sense impressions may exist.9 For instance, although we can imagine “someone stepping on our tail”, that image is not representative of the actual experience, but rather whatever impression we have experienced that best approximates to it in our mind (perhaps someone stepping on our toe). I suspect that trauma is similarly difficult to understand precisely for this reason; only those who have experienced trauma can fully understand it. Further, this is true of all architectural symbols whose references are merely literary ideas — those literary ideas must then link to strong sense impressions if they are to be effective.

If the goal is to preserve a traumatic memory in a enduring and universal way, then linguistic ideas are the wrong approach under this model. Instead of portraying the linguistic idea of a traumatic memory, memorials of trauma should instead attempt to reproduce lower-intensity replicas of trauma. This is not to say that the actual traumatic experiences should be recreated, but rather an experience that is similar in magnitude to the lower-intensity replicas of actual traumatic memories. In other words, a memorial of trauma should be similar to, but many orders of magnitude small than, the traumas they represent. If they can accomplish this, then they have successfully met their goal of preserving memories of trauma.

It is at this point that I agree with Barris and his assessment of the subjective connotations of architecture (or of memorials). The success of an instance of architectural uncanny is not because it evokes some feeling or impression, but because it is an act of deterritorialization. Unlike a process of territorialization, where a subject is stabilized, deterritorialization takes the subject to a place before the connections between ideas became so rigid.9 The architectural uncanny inflicts only a small degree of temporary deterritorialization. More extreme forms of deterritorialization include “madness, high fever, intoxication, sensory deprivation and even deliberate interventions aimed at disrupting daily routing, as performed, for example, on prisoners in concentration camps.”9 Perhaps deterritorialization is a necessary component to any traumatic experience. But a memorial of trauma must do more — it must provide a sensory experience that can produce an impression similar to that traumatic memory that so many ineffably suffered with.


  1. More information on the competition and the jurors can be found at the competition's website,

  2. Entry image retrieved at Images of all finalists can be found at

  3. 'Fractured landscapes' selected as Atlantic City Holocaust Memorial design, The Press of Atlantic City Media Group.

  4. Entry image retrieved at Images of all finalists can be found at

  5. Entry image retrieved at Images of all finalists can be found at

  6. Atlantic City Boardwalk Holocaust Memorial website.

  7. Roann Barris, Architectures of Memory and Counter-Memory: Berlin and Bucharest.

  8. This is completely my opinion. By definition, each memorial as a physical object produces sensory experience. My point is that this capability is deemphasized in order to accommodate linguistic concepts.

  9. Manual DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity, Continuum publishing, 2006, page 47.

  10. As noted by DeLanda (See 9), quote originally taken from David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part I: Section I. Of the origin of our ideas.