Art’s Work in Mnemonic Care
Sue Shon
Mihai, Mihaela. 2022. Political Memory and the
Aesthetics of Care: The Art of Complicity and Resistance.
Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Review of
Krisis 42 (1): 130-133.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 License International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2022 The author(s).
Political Memory, Systemic Violence, Aesthetics,
Care, Care Ethics
The Krisis two-part special issue on care arrives in a phase of the COVID-19 pandemic
in which the Global North forges a “return to normal, that is, to pre-pandemic social
and political orders which were already in crisis, and also to revamped processes of
neoliberal globalization playing out in nationalist spaces. Borders closed (except to
capital); governments prioritized national economy over workers in healthcare, fac-
tories, warehouses, and other frontlines; global north nations hoarded vaccines and
healthcare resources; anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-migrant, xenophobic
and ableist violence reinvented itself within, and traveled across, borders; militarized,
right-wing, and imperial nationalisms resurged around the world, with the February
24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine becoming the latest most visible manifestation.
As the pandemic laid bare devastating structural violence, perhaps the imperative
to “return to normal” could be understood as the writing of a globalized memory that
obscures the more than six million dead to COVID-19 worldwide. Political Memory and the
Aesthetics of Care by Mihaela Mihai, published in January 2022, invites a reading against the
backdrop of these reproductions and restructurings. While the book does not explicitly
discuss our current context, it gestures to ways of understanding the struggle over how we
remember the forms of violence of the past two years and how we tell stories about them.
Political Memory and the Aesthetics of Care reckons with the un/accountability of
systemic violence in the formation of ocial public memory. Perhaps the most powerful
forms of remembering include the nation narrative, constituted by simplistic understand-
ings of action that authorize the nation form as an outcome of revolution and decol-
onization or as a transition to justice. As Mihai emphasizes, national refoundation and
institutional memory-making projects—unable to narrate the constitutive violence of the
nation form—cast history in terms of victim/perpetrator gures and erase the widespread
complicity with violence that exceeds the logics of agency and a victim-perpetrator dyad.
This erasure not only renders invisible the work and the economies of systemic political
violence, but also places state violence and complicity with it outside of ocial memory,
absolving accountability for the very violence that made the nation’s formation and a
national temporality possible.
This erasure is complementary to an exceptionalized and canonized political
vision expressed in terms of heroic resister gures. In eect, the complexity of political
violence is narrated as simple antagonisms among victims, perpetrators, and resisters,
where the resisters represent a unied, puried political vision. The ocial and public
privileging of “resistance” singularizes political possibility and erases interlocuters, activ-
ities, and visions that demonstrate political plurality, collectivity, and unassimilability.
Fixed in place by the ocial account, the “absolute hero colonizes political memory,
closing the community’s “hermeneutical space” which ultimately reproduces “the very
practices and relationships—economic, political, and cultural—that led to violence in
the rst place” (7). Mihai argues that the ocial disavowal of complicity and ocial
exclusion of alternative or competing memories constitute a “double erasure” that the
book seeks to expose.
Art’s Work in Mnemonic Care
Sue Shon
The rst chapter, “Tracing the Double Erasure, denes the concept and traces
the moves of the double erasure. This chapter exposes the temporality of systemic vio-
lence that plays out in the remembering and telling of history. In underscoring the
continuities and genealogies of violence, Mihai exposes how the ocial public imag-
ining of a clean break from the preceding order marks the start of a distinct national
timespace and a new history. This temporal, historical, and juridical reimagining of vio-
lence as outside of the “new” order consequently occludes the structural and relational
nature of violence. It also avails individualistic, moralistic, and punitive frameworks for
responding to systemic violence. These limited frameworks arm the historical casting
of characters of victim, perpetrator, and hero.
The rest of the chapter puts complicity and resistance into context and argues
complicity and resistance must be understood as relation. With careful attention to
Pierre Bourdieu’s accounts of socialization, Mihai’s “alternative social-ontological
sketch” maps the relational powers of habitus (generated in social/ized positionality,
including gender, race, sexuality), individual inter/actions sourced by practical sense
emergent in and by unconscious, internalized social ordering (including statist struc-
tures of social ordering), and doxa or societal common sense which normativize what
counts as truth, “including ocial truths about its history and its agents” (33). Mihai
stresses that individuals’ positions in the making of history are constrained to ocial
temporal frameworks, as:
position is not xed but changes over time, reecting changes in both the
context and the agents themselves. Individuals’ sense of time, their capacity to
build on the past to imagine a future and to invest emotionally in that future are
interrelated aspects of their socially embedded experience, which have reper-
cussions on how they navigate the muddy waters of systemic wrongdoing, in
more complicit or more resistant ways. This highlights the need to think about
the temporality of action—that is, the ways in which the past and the future are
brought together in the habitus (34).
Mihai therefore breaks down a completely dierent understanding of action: action
must be understood beyond terms of individual agency. Action is situated in ideolog-
ical, racialized, gendered, classed habitus and in doxastic power of nationalist memory
production, circulation, and reproduction in ways that validate existing orders of race,
gender, and class. Therefore, a focus on systemic political involvement and complicity
with violence would reveal “ssures in the national doxa and recuperate the heretic,
counterhegemonic common sense that have historically challenged it” (38).
Chapter two, “The Aesthetics of Care, theorizes artwork as a response to,
and a strategy of, a political memory that works against doxastic power and hege-
monic sense-making. Mihai’s methods for exposing the ssures in the national doxa
and recuperating unassimilable sense and sensing reckons with what I interpret as the
archives of ocial memory. Lisa Lowe has argued that the organization of institutional
archives—archives that mediate what Mihai poses as ocial memory—works to resolve
the contradictions and uncertainties of state capacity. For Lowe and others, the archive
is conceptualized as the terrain and the framework that politicizes and spatializes
erasure, silence, absence. Political Memory and the Aesthetics of Care constructs and oers a
counter-archive of works by artists, activists, historians, and social scientists that hesitate,
interrupt, and thus politicize anew temporality, sense, and memory. Mihai’s archival
selections include artworks that speak to the double erasure, de-heroify nationalist ver-
sions of history, and create hermeneutical space in response to violence, for the sake of
In this eort, Mihai builds on Alia Al-Saji’s concept of aective hesitation to
theorize the capacity for revising memory in hegemonic common sense. Mihai fore-
grounds how this imaginative capacity can be accessed by the work of art; “artworks
can play a transformative role to the extent that they trigger aective but also cogni-
tive, emotional, and moral hesitations” (52). Hesitation can interrupt and politicize the
individual’s practical sense and habits of perceiving, remembering, and imagining as
the subject faces “epistemic friction, a process Mihai elaborates from the work of José
Medina. Epistemic friction can develop in the hesitation opened up by the artwork,
and friction enables the imagination to “prosthetically include previously disconsonant
instances—of victimhood, complicity, or resistance, within our repertoire of herme-
neutical resources, which we actualize practically in time” (53). Accordingly, the work of
art for Mihai is in the operations of prosthesis and also in “seductive sabotage” or the
pleasure that is part of the art experience—which might sabotage habits and habitus.
Mihai argues that her archive of artworks—lms and novels produced in the
wake, and in reection, of systemic violence—complicate the complicity/resistance
dyad, reframe heroic action beyond the terms that serve national doxa, carve out tempo-
ralities, experiences, vulnerabilities, and rationales that remain unaccounted for in nation
narratives, and oer alternative visions of the past. This archive might be understood as
a counter-archive to nationalized public memory. Mihai’s knowledge production and
reection might be understood as practice in community. In constructing this archive,
Mihai works as “curator” in the original sense of the word: care-taker.
The rest of the book takes care, curates, and, in eect, archives lms and novels
that “pluralize a community’s space of meaning” (57). Mihai oers a care ethics that
always-already integrates interdependency and relationality, which opposes liberal philo-
sophical models that privilege the subject in accounts of sociality. Care ethics necessitate
the framing of violence through relationality. In relationality, the memorialization of
resistance (and complicity) no longer makes sense. Caring therefore is relational practice
and practice in relationship: “we begin to care in the act of caring” (59). As practice, caring
works against instituted and systemic suering, oppression, exclusion, and assimilation.
Thus care ethics oppose “socialized misremembering, which accepts ocial memory,
and the nation narratives that regulate common sense, and instead oers hermeneutical
space in which seeing, thinking, and feeling otherwise become possible.
The nal three chapters of the book tackle three global sites reckoning with the
temporality of ocial memory’s double erasures: France, Romania, and South Africa.
Mihai takes care to expose the double erasures, summarizes the memorialized ocial
story, and presents an archive that counters the story to restore what has been erased
across the three sites. She looks to ction and lm by Louis Malle, Jacques Laurent,
Patrick Modiano, Brigitte Friang, Marguerite Duras, and Alain Resnais in post-war
France; Norman Manea, Dan Pit
a, Herta Müller, Calin Peter Netzer, and Corneliu
Porumboiu in Romania following nearly a quarter century of Nicolae Ceaus
dictatorship; and Zoë Wicomb, Achmat Dangor, Tatamkhulu Afrika, John Kani, Ivan
Vladislavic, and Ralph Ziman in post-apartheid settler colonial South Africa. As Mihai
provides views over nationalist memory in France, Romania and South Africa, the
analyses in each and across these sites and chapters also provide tools for deconstructing
doxa and for curating and creating archives of heretic political visions at other sites of
systemic political violence around the globe.
Mihai’s theory of the double erasure and its functionality can be used to analyze
a variety of contexts around the globe. This is her most impactful contribution to the
elds of political theory, philosophy, history, and historiography. Therefore I am curious
how the book situates the temporality of the double erasure in relation to classic and
recent theories of nation time and historical narrativity. Mihai qualies her care and
contributions within the scope of political theorization of systemic violence; her aes-
thetic investigations demonstrate the capacities of artistic care as located in refusenik
artistic production (i.e. the artwork-object). Yet there are some missed opportunities
to engage with intellectual comrades in Asian American Studies, Black Studies, queer
and trans theory, and abolitionist feminist theory who reimagine the care of reading,
hearing, and seeing erasures, silences, and absences in the archives by politicizing the
“where” and the “how” meaningfulness gets located in the work of art.
Most importantly, Mihai’s book shows us how to understand action dierently.
In the present moment, as we struggle against the writing of political memory within
enclosed perceptual experiences and hermeneutics, we might draw from Mihai’s the-
orization of mnemonic care. This would require careful attention to coalition-based
politics of care that emerged in the internationalist George Floyd uprisings of 2020,
especially agents, actions, solidarities, and successes that escape existing languages,
including that of national frames; ephemeral, intangible ground-level mutual aid eorts
that confront state abandonment of Black, Indigenous, migrant, woman, queer, trans,
and poor and working-class populations; and abolitionist critiques including art and
aesthetic practices against the normalization of systemic state-sponsored violence in
carceral society.
Lowe, Lisa. 2015.The Intimacies of Four Continents.
Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Dr. Sue Shon is Assistant Professor of Critical and
Cultural Studies at Emily Carr University of Art and
Design. She researches and teaches critical race and
ethnic studies and comparative diasporic literatures
and visual cultures. She is working on a book project,
Racial Sense and the Making of Aesthetic Modernity,
which tells the story of how race acquired a visual
feel due to constraints in the language of modern
human perception.