Postmemory is a term first proposed by Marianne Hirsch in her 1992-1993 article “Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning and Post-Memory,” and further developed in her later work, particularly her 2008 essay “The Generation of Postmemory” (see also Hirsch, 1996, 1997, 2012). The term designates the relationship of the generations that follow survivors and witnesses of historical or collective traumatic events to these experiences. These events are internalized and “remembered” indirectly through stories, images, and other reminders and remainders of their family’s experiences (2008, pp. 106-107). Hirsch, however, distinguishes between “familial” and “affiliative” postmemory – while the former describes the transmission of traumatic events directly from forebears to descendants, the latter entails a horizontal transmission from the descendants to those of their generation who seek connection to past events (2008, pp. 114-115).

Postmemory is a type of inter- or trans-generational (mediated) memory that recalls the structure and function of memory, particularly in its affective force (2008, p. 107), but which is distinguished from memory because of generational distance and from history because of personal connection (1992-93, p. 8). Unlike memory, Hirsch explains, postmemory’s connection to the past is “not actually mediated by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation […]. These events happened in the past, but their effects continue into the present” (2008, p. 107). The “post” in the term indicates more than merely a belatedness or temporal delay; like the “post” of “postmodern” or “postcolonial,” it establishes both a critical distance from and relation to what came before. Like other terms in what Hirsch calls our “era of ‘posts,’” postmemory marks

"a particular end-of-century/turn-of-century moment of looking backward rather than ahead     and of defining the present in relation to a troubled past rather than initiating new paradigms. Like them, it reflects an uneasy oscillation between continuity and rupture. And yet postmemory is not a movement, method, or idea; I see it, rather, as a structure of inter- and trans-generational transmission of traumatic knowledge and experience." (2008, p. 106)

Hirsch uses the term in the context of the Holocaust and autobiographical works by writers and visual artists who are descendants of Holocaust survivors. Within this context, she argues that the photographic image is a central “medium of postmemory” (2008, p. 115) and plays a vital role in the transmission of trauma because photographs hold symbolic and affective power, can offer direct access to the past event itself, and easily transmit otherwise unimaginable events (2008, pp. 107-108). Elsewhere Hirsch observes that photographs “can contain the particular mixture of mourning and re-creation that characterizes the work of postmemory” (1996, p. 669). Her book, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (1997), expands on the role of photography as a means for the “postgeneration” to construct their identity in relation to events before their lifetime.

Along with photography the work of postmemory can be done by paintings, comics, novels, diaries, letters, architecture, memorials, museums, etc. Within a literary context, for instance, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (2002) is one such narrative of postmemory in the way it confronts and works through a haunting traumatic memory of the grandson of Holocaust survivors. Through a process of ‘creation’ of an otherwise incomplete family story, the protagonist forms connections between himself, recounted family stories, and the unrecorded histories in which these stories partake. In this way, Foer’s narrative recalls Hirsch’s assertion that “postmemory seeks connection. It creates where it cannot recover. It imagines where it cannot recall.” (1996, p. 664).

While Hirsch applies postmemory to the Jewish diaspora, with the Holocaust as her historical frame of reference (see also Kaplan 2011; and the 2002 special issue of American Imago, ed. Geller), she repeatedly states that postmemory is relevant to and can usefully describe second-generation memory in numerous contexts of traumatic transfers (2008, p. 108; 1996, p. 662). Indeed, the term has recently been extended to analyses of, for example, the Chinese, Punjabi, East African Asian, and Caribbean diasporas (Phung 2002; Kabir 2004; Pandurang 2011; Marquis 2012). In Claudia Marquis’s account of black British experience in Andrea Levy’s novels, she compares the experiences of second generation Britons of Caribbean descent to those of the families of Holocaust survivors, focusing specifically on memories transferred through generations via photographs and stories. “For Levy’s generation, growing up in Britain,” Marquis writes, “the Caribbean figures as a postmemorial space” (2012, p. 42). In another example, Malissa Phung explores how characters in Larissa Lai’s novels are in a constant process of relating to their inherited pasts of trauma and dispersion (2002).

Such accounts emphasize the importance of memory in the formation of a diasporic consciousness. As Khachig Tölölyan explains, the “work of memory” is central in allowing diasporas to endure as “distinct diaspora[s]” (2007, pp. 649-650). In a lecture at Stockholm University in October 2012, Tölölyan suggested that diasporas, which he argues emerge from transnational communities of migrants and refugees in the second, and most commonly the third generation, are not bound to the homeland by personal experience or strong familial connections. Rather they are bound “by an organized discourse, by communal practices, by what Marianne Hirsch calls ‘postmemory’” – that is, “memories of things you never experienced which now become internalized” (2012, 16:40-17:30). The moment of migration or rupture, including historical events like the Holocaust, the Atlantic slave trade, or the Armenian genocide, constitute such events inherited by subsequent generations who undergo an ongoing process of relating to this past. And as Anne-Marie Fortier contends: “Memory, rather than territory, is the principle ground of identity formation in diaspora cultures, where ‘territory’ is decentered and exploded into multiple settings” (2005, p. 184). Hirsch likewise connects postmemory to the diasporic experience in her consideration of the aesthetic forms postmemory shapes: “the aesthetics of postmemory is a diasporic aesthetics of temporal and spatial exile that needs simultaneously to rebuild and to mourn” (1996, p. 664)

The implications and questions raised by this concept are many. As Hirsch observes, growing up with “such overwhelming inherited memories, to be dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness, is to risk having one’s own stories and experiences displaced, even evacuated, by those of a previous generation” (2008, p. 107). So while postmemory is vital for transmitting certain formative narratives, it in turn may threaten or overwhelm the formation of the postgeneration’s identity. In this way, postmemory asks how we relate to and are implicated by our histories. By engaging postmemory and questions of transmission, Hirsch notes that we also engage questions of ethics of remembrance after catastrophe: “What do we owe the victims? How can we best carry their stories forward without appropriating them, without unduly calling attention to ourselves, and without, in turn, having our own stories displaced by them? How are we implicated in the crimes?” (2008, p. 104)


Works Cited

Foer, J.S. 2002. Everything Is Illuminated. New York: Harper Collins.

Fortier, A-M. 2005. Diaspora. In: Atkinson D, et al. eds Cultural Geography: A Critical Dictionary of Key Concepts. London, New York: IB Tauris, 182-187.

Geller, J. ed. 2002. Postmemories of the Holocaust. Special issue of American Imago 59(3).

Hirsch, M. 1992-1993. Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning and Post-Memory. Discourse 15(2), pp. 3 -29.

Hirsch, M. 1996. Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile. Poetics Today 17(4), pp. 659–686.

Hirsch, M. 1997. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hirsch, M. 2008. The Generation of Postmemory. Poetics Today 29(1), pp. 103-28.

Hirsch, M. 2012. The Generation of Postmemory: Visual Culture After the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kabir, A.J. 2004. Musical Recall: Postmemory and The Punjabi Diaspora.Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 24, pp. 172-189.

Kaplan, BA. 2011. Landscapes of Holocaust Postmemory. London: Routledge.

Marquis, C. 2012. Crossing Over: Postmemory and the Postcolonial Imaginary in Andrea Levy’s Small Island and Fruit of the Lemon. EnterText 9, pp. 31-52.

Pandurang, M. 2011. The Story of a ‘White Sadlo’ and a Meal of ‘Bhakhri and Salt’: A Gendered Reading of the Unspoken Narrative of Widowhood in Parita Mukta’s Shards of Memory. Research in African Literatures 42(3), pp. 88-99

Phung, M. 2002. The Diasporic Inheritance of Postmemory and Immigrant Shame in the Novels of Larissa Lai. Postcolonial Text 7(3), pp. 1-19.

Tölölyan, K. 2007. The Contemporary Discourse of Diaspora Studies. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27(3), pp. 647-655.

Tölölyan, K. 2012. Claiming Diasporas, Reclaiming Diaspora Studies. Lecture, Stockholm University, October 23, 2012.