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Volker Wild: ‘Denkzeichen,’ Discourses, Processes

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In Germany today, monuments are often called Denkzeichen (‘reflection points’). While traditional monuments typically served to confirm existing attitudes towards history and to legitimize political power relations, Denkzeichen are expected to challenge the viewer to think and question. But there is as yet no theory of Denkzeichen or even a clearly defined process for developing such reflection points.

In what follows, an attempt will be made to fill this gap. The starting point is the premise that Denkzeichen should serve the purpose of social self-awareness and that they should have a ‘discursive’ function.

In the first section, we define the functions of Denkzeichen. The second section outlines the conditions that must be satisfied if monument projects are to contribute to society’s discursive self-understanding. These theses will be developed with the aid of Jürgen Habermas’s ideas and in particular of an interpretation of his ‘theory of communicative action’ (Frankfurt 1982). Surprisingly, perhaps, Habermas’s theory proves helpful in conceptualizing the aims and processes of memorializing in democratic societies.

This is not to question the autonomy of artistic design as Denkzeichen are not ‘pure’ but ‘applied’ art, where art functions within frameworks other than those of art itself. It ‘expresses’ itself on questions of history, morality, and collective self-awareness. Art also does this more generally, but it does so here at the behest of others. Politicians formulate tasks, while juries made up of historians, civil servants, and ordinary citizens make recommendations. Realized designs are supposed to fulfil a political function in the broadest sense. And yet, art remains autonomous. Its ability to subvert entrenched views and attitudes and create a space of the non-identical in the spirit of modern aesthetic theories allows it to refrain from lecturing, moral finger-wagging, or making confessions of faith. Art opens up opportunities for the observer to make use of his freedom to deal with the past on his own terms. Art is free, but not pure.



According to Habermas, discourses are ways of reaching an understanding through argument. In discourses, actors deal with claims of communications to validity. Habermas distinguishes between statements about objective, subjective, and social worlds. The claim to validity of statements about facts in the objective world lies in their being true. This claim can be verified using the methods of theoretical critique. Political norms and moral values in the realm of the social world claim to be valid because they are right. They can be scrutinized by practical critique. Truth and rightness are decided solely as the result of discourse. The third claim to validity named by Habermas is the sincerity of self-representations. On the one hand, self-representations are made by people when they share their feelings and inner experiences with others. On the other hand, Habermas applies this term to art. It too represents a subjective perception. Here Habermas speaks not of sincerity but of authenticity as the claim that art makes in its works. It is the task of therapeutic or aesthetic critique to examine self-representations.

In Denkzeichen, all four claims to validity are brought together. Historical statements should be true, moral messages should be normatively right, the way in which the collective self that makes this memorial is represented should be sincere, and, last but not least, artistic expression should be authentic – that is, it should show that the artist has engaged with these claims without giving them up himself.

Social self-awareness in the medium of remembrance implies that societies too come to an understanding about themselves and their inner relationship to the event in question. This is the blind spot of many monument debates because it is so sensitive. Denkzeichen usually remind us of a past that is not yet past, one that still affects us, and most often weighs on us. It is a past to which we are inwardly bound with feelings of pain, a sense of loss and guilt, often unconsciously, so that we are exposed to the risk of repeating it. Denkzeichen have the function of bringing this to light and making it possible to work through experiences that were previously kept locked up in the darkness of denial or repression or other forms of defensive response or that sealed themselves off in a space of confusing uncertainty. As long as ‘We’ are not sincere in coming to terms with our own past, the Denkzeichen’s claims to truth remain academic and its moral appeal is purely rhetorical.

In the case of open societies, the representation of a collective identity is particularly problematic. Such societies are characterized by diverse opinions, a move away from their traditions, and by individualization, and thus by multiple selves. When dealing with the truth in the context of a memorial, the key is for precisely this heterogeneous structure of the self to become transparent in the Denkzeichen itself. The process of self-questioning is a way of dealing with the difficult topic that has triggered the creation of the Denkzeichen in the first place and that has left – in any number of ways – its hidden traces in the collective memory. One of the most remarkable features of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the absence of a reference to a self that is to be represented. The monument thus remains ‘without a sender;’ it seems to have been commissioned directly by the Last Judgment itself, and hence to be exempt from the need to have its sincerity assessed. This is a consequence of the fact that the sponsors couldn’t get to the bottom of the attitude of ‘the Germans’ to the murder of the European Jews.

Discourses make use of language as a medium. This is the only way in which the claims to validity of communications can be justified. Artistic Denkzeichen may also make use of language as a medium. Here, however, language is not a medium of argument and debate but of representation, and only one of many. The particular nature of artistic design lies in its making the claims of validity, which are the objects of linguistic understanding in discourses, tangible to the senses. Claims of validity are not justified but embodied. And that is what they are supposed to do: the Denkzeichen should – at least for a time – lift a particular interpretation of a situation out of the realm of argument and controversy and endow it with a kind of permanence.

Today, art has reacted to social developments in a variety of ways and has inscribed the internal discursive structure of public self-awareness in its designs. It understands itself as a part of the public sphere; it provokes responses, questions perceptions, understands itself interactively, and claims to be open to interpretation. It reacts sensitively to claims of validity as they are made in discourses. It no longer needs to immortalize historical truths in bronze plaques. In its normative statements, it refrains from making appeals. In its self-representations, it remains restrained, self-critical, and anti-heroic. The power gestures and the glorifications of the past and the propaganda slogans of authoritarian regimes have become obsolete. But even the more subtle methods of emotional persuasion and the affirmative rhetoric of a misconceived memorial pedagogy have been shown to be questionable.



Habermas’s theory of discourse is also a theory of the procedures and the conditions under which an understanding through discourse becomes possible. So as to ensure that the better argument can prevail, discourses must take place without external constraints or internal pressure. No one should be forced. Everyone should be able to participate in them on an equal footing. No one should be allowed to appeal to his established authority, acquired qualifications, or personal integrity. Subject-area expertise is valid only in the context of the arguments it provides. Any participant gifted with speech and rationality can criticize them. What can be seen as true, right, or sincere is the result of an argument-based negotiation between the participating actors. Even the term ‘validity’ makes clear the intersubjective nature of what discourses are about. Behind the emphasis on rational explanation as the foundation of consensus lies Habermas’s conviction that rationality – not beliefs, traditions, or membership – is the principle that sustainably integrates modern societies and makes their organizations generally acceptable.

If memorial projects today are to serve civil societies’ conception of themselves, we need to ask which requirements need to be placed on the process by which such projects are developed and through which results are decided. Hitherto there has been no broad debate on this question. The ‘Principles and Guidelines for Competitions in the Area of Regional Development, City Planning, and Construction’ and the ‘Guidelines for Art-in-Architecture’ were created for the purposes of competition and construction law. As important as they are, they do not answer the question of the conditions of success in memorial discourses. What are the prerequisites that commissioning authorities should agree to include in their requirements for competition entries? What should be included in the definition of particular projects? Who needs to be involved in which definition processes? What is the role of experts on the one hand and the public on the other? And what is the role of the individual subject disciplines in the process? How can artists be included in the project design at the earliest possible stage? How should jury processes be organized? Questions arise that would have been unimaginable in traditional memorial projects. In authoritarian states, it is the ruler who finally awards the contract and who decides on the result on his own. This, of course, would never work in civil societies.

Denkzeichen projects need more publicity and public participation. Projects need to be announced to the relevant section of the public long before the call for entries. A wide range of members of the public should be invited to talk about their own personal experience, their opinions, and their objectives. The results should be integrated into the call for entries.

The public and the experts are not mutually exclusive. Experts should not be allowed to dispute in principle the public’s right to express an opinion on historical or artistic questions or to contribute to reaching decisions about them. Conversely, the public has no right to refuse to acknowledge the experts’ competence in advising on questions of self-representation and political morality and on making judgements about them. Discourse theory promotes the Enlightenment idea of a political culture in which rationality and the public sphere are linked. Memorial projects must be opened up to many disciplines. Historical research is the business of professional historians, practical philosophy considers questions of morality, and aesthetic critique falls in the domain of Fine Arts. But memorial debates cannot be split up into disciplines. Expertise is interlinked. What historians investigate and how they interpret their results depends on political and moral value decisions. Fine arts experts take up positions on historical and moral questions. Politicians defend self-images and formulate tasks for art. Artistic design synthesizes the various dimensions and can only be judged from a ‘synthetic’ point of view.

Questions of self-representation are the business of social psychologists. Their participation in memorial projects should be sought. Their expertise is needed in order to shed light on the resistances and distortions that frequently result when societies are compelled to face up to burdensome historical events and to enable them to respond to such events with sincerity. ‘We’ should be able to recognize ourselves in relation to the historical event that is under scrutiny so that people can come to terms with the event and free themselves from the necessity of repeating the mistakes of the past.

Events that are memorialized trigger emotions in victims, project participants, and onlookers. Even so, memorial debates need to be conducted on the basis of rational arguments and without moral pressure. The frequent practice of emotionalizing debates and discrediting participants because ‘they weren’t there’ or are not ‘affected’ destroys the foundations of attempts to achieve self-awareness.

A precarious balance must be maintained between the goal and the process. Decisions about projects must be made in accordance with the wishes of the majority on the responsible committees. But so as to ensure that decisions are made consensually and that this consensus is durable, they need to be negotiated in open processes that in the initial phase have no set time limit. In particular, memorials that involve broad common interests, that are to retain their validity for an indefinite period in the future and that are not addressed on principle to a limited group of people must depend on consensus-building. The comment often made in the context of the competition for the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, that the discussion about the memorial is already the memorial, accurately describes the function of discourses in promoting self-understanding, but misses the point that Denkzeichen have the task of permanently and symbolically representing the order that has been brought about in these processes. The challenge of intelligent process design and sensitive process management is precisely to find the difficult balance between opening up debate and focusing on the result.