An Interview with Dr. Gyorgy Toth, University of Stirling

Dr. Gyorgy Toth
Dr. Gyorgy Toth

Cultural Memory, “Counter-Commemorations,” and Transatlantic Relations

Dr. Toth is a Lecturer at the University of Stirling, Scotland UK, Division of History and Politics, where he researches Post-1945 US History and Transatlantic Relationsis. Previously he was an Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies at Charles University in Prague, The Czech Republic. Dr. Toth was a visiting Research Fellow at the International Forum for U.S. Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in September, 2014.

Dr. David Schrag for IFUSS: Your recent work has focused on contested commemoration practices in America, especially those involving foundational aspects of the United States as a nation of European colonists and how those celebratory commemorations thus conflict with the present realties and memories of American Indians. In looking at commemoration practices you’ve developed the original concept that you’ve termed “counter-commemorations.” Could you tell us more about this concept, what it adds to memory studies in general, and how it relates specifically to commemoration practices in the U.S.?

Dr. Gyorgy Toth: A counter-commemoration is when a group commemorates a historical event by claiming the mantle of one of the social actors who were involved in the “original” event; they usually also identify another current group as their “original” opponent – and they confrontationally attempt to carry out a political project related to the original historical event. With this, the particular group inscribes their present agendas on the past through their commemorative performance. Counter-commemorations stand out from other commemorative events in the extent and forcefulness of the group which asserts its vision of the past in the present.

A recent example of counter-commemorations is the fall 2006 riots in Budapest, Hungary, where ultranationalists both commemorated and attempted to ‘complete’ the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet-backed Communist regime – this time against the democratically elected government of the Hungarian Socialist Party. If you want an instance closer to home, you can think of the periodic American Indian demonstrations on Columbus Day in some US cities. My current research, however, concerns counter-commemorations in the 1970s by the American Indian Movement and its allies. In using US national historic sites and anniversaries like Plymouth at Thanksgiving and the Little Big Horn battlefield at the Bicentennial (the “spirit of ‘76”), Native activists at the same time performed critiques of the Anglo-centered view of the American past – and used media attention to push for historical and social justice for Native Americans.

To use a concept coined by Performance Studies scholar Diana Taylor, counter-commemorations use scenarios from national memory to make sociopolitical claims in the preset. Counter-commemorations are an example of how marginalized groups can creatively use national public memory to campaign for political rights and social justice. On a more theoretical level, the concept of counter-commemorations reminds Memory Studies scholars that manifestations of memory do not fall into neat categories, but are often relational: social groups creatively use national memory to promote their own causes. Increased attention to the forms and functions of counter-commemorations may enrich scholarly analyses, and it may add something to the practitioner’s tool kit of strategies for social justice.

IFUSS: How can we “get at” things like collective memory and what categories and methods can we use (e.g. ideas from Performance Studies) to think about and analyze this kind of memory?

GT: Instead of trying to further theorize the nature of collective memory, I think it is more productive to study its manifestations. Here I use Performance Studies at two levels: to study how people perform social categories such as memory / their ideas of the past; and also to isolate discrete instances of this, such as commemorations and anniversaries. Through the study of counter-commemorations, we as scholars can gain understanding of how social groups challenge dominant historical narratives and articulate alternatives from their vantage point in the present.

As a historian, I study past performances of memory by examining the records of anniversaries and commemorations – visual (photographs), audiovisual (film or video footage), printed (newspaper or personal witness accounts) – as well as the ‘scripts’ and planning for them. To better understand the motivations and context, I study the discourses about these embodied performances.

IFUSS: You grew up in Hungary and are thus socialized as a Central/Eastern European, at the same time you have spent a lot of time studying and living in the U.S. What do you think a Transatlantic perspective, and your perspective in particular, brings to the discipline of American Studies?

GT: I like to think that my shuttling back and forth between the continents (and by I have lived and worked in four different countries on both sides of the Atlantic) creates a productive tension in my work. I think my experience in all these academic and cultural systems helps me to combine and calibrate my scholarship and pedagogy to the needs of my current students and academic projects.

Within American Studies, as Central and Eastern Europe is once again becoming important geopolitically, it is our challenge as Americanists to use our position as a vantage point to critique both the US and our own societies and regions. In my current research project, I am trying to understand the nature of conflicts rooted in clashing collective memories, and how to work through them. Eastern Europe, the Baltics and Russia are now headed for a conflict over the memory of liberation from World War Two next spring. The US has experienced trauma and an incomplete reunion after the Civil War, and it had a major role in the normative memorialization of the Holocaust around the world. Are these productive comparisons here? I am trying to find out.

As regards my role as a Transatlantic public intellectual, I am seeing a new struggle simultaneously unfolding for academic freedom, university autonomy and free speech in the US as well as in Central Europe: For example, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is, in fall of 2014, currently embroiled in a free speech debate revolving around the Chancellor’s refusal to forward  Dr. Steven Salaita’s credentials to the Board of Trustees for final approval after the potential hiring unit, the American Indian Studies department, as well as faculty campus-wide appointments committee, and the Provost had approved, and formally offered the appointment. The refusal followed the revelation of tweets by Salaita about Palestine and Israel, some of which some people found deeply offensive and others found to be “protected speech” and irrelevant to his appointment. The issue has attracted wide-spread attention, protest, and debate on campus and across the U.S. and beyond. While the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has just jeopardized the career of Professor Salaita because he dared exercise his right to free speech, meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the Hungarian government is attempting to expand its self-described “illiberal” control by creating the new position of chancellor for all Hungarian universities. It seems that free speech and enquiry are now threatened by both the corporate university model and the illiberal state. When we Central Europeans are calling for a Western intervention in the Ukraine (whose universities have been bellwethers for the crisis there), we need to realize the need for an “intervention” in Illinois.

IFUSS: You have looked at transatlantic relations in the 20th century, specifically within the time frame of the Late Cold War and in relation to radical sovereignty movements of American Indians. How do you define or demarcate this period? What was the nature of some of these Transatlantic relations? To what extent did they involve a Transatlantic dialogue and to what extent was it Europeans imagining America at a distance or through received and popular notions of American Indians?

GT: The Cold War framed various fields of human life – not only international diplomacy or geopolitics, but also cultural production, criticism and consumption, as well as social group/relations – as political. This led to a heightened importance of what people did in their leisure time, as well as to increased scrutiny of this by the state. Even as the degrees of this differed in the different blocs and their countries, this was a persistent framework throughout the Cold War. This is the way I define the period in terms of cultural and social history / Cultural Studies.

Especially behind the iron curtain, a degree of isolation from the US as a real entity was a given. Paradoxically, the lack of actual information and materials allowed people to creatively fill in the vacuum. Social groups did not unthinkingly internalize their anti-US and anti-capitalist government propaganda – they sometimes resisted it, subverted it, or selectively used it, sometimes specifically to engage an imaginary “America”, or to build real relations with actual Americans for a variety of reasons, among them social justice, political dissent, and the struggle for democracy. Underneath this all lay an older history of European ideas about “America” as well as critiques of US realities. Thus, while Germans on two sides of the iron curtain were supposed to align themselves for or against the US according to their bloc ideology, they nevertheless still fantasized about an alliance between Germans and American Indians – which was rooted in older German dreams and affinities. On their own part, American Indian activists used such German sensibilities to forge a Transatlantic alliance for their own sovereignty movement – and to in turn buttress Central European green and anti-nuclear struggles.

Dr. David Schrag is Program Coordinator for the International Forum for U.S. Studies (IFUSS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.