David Gottlieb (University of Chicago) responds to Divinity School Professor Richard B. Miller‘s ninth chapter, “The Moral and Political Burdens of Memory,” in Friends and Other Strangers: Studies in Religion, Ethics, and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2016).

The May issue of the Forum features Friends and Other Strangers, Miller’s most recent book, which argues for expanding the field of religious ethics to address the normative dimensions of culture, interpersonal desires, friendships and family, and institutional and political relationships. Professor Miller urges religious ethicists to turn to cultural studies to broaden the range of the issues they address and to examine matters of cultural practice and cultural difference in critical and self-reflexive ways.

Friends and Other Strangers critically discusses the ethics of ethnography; ethnocentrism, relativism, and moral criticism; empathy and the ethics of self-other attunement; indignation, empathy, and solidarity; the meaning of moral responsibility in relation to children and friends; civic virtue, war, and alterity; the normative and psychological dimensions of memory; and religion and democratic public life. Miller challenges distinctions between psyche and culture, self and other, and uses the concepts of intimacy and alterity as dialectical touchstones for examining the normative dimensions of self-other relationships. A wholly contemporary, global, and interdisciplinary work, Friends and Other Strangers illuminates aspects of moral life ethicists have otherwise overlooked.

The first post in the May issue includes the introduction to Friends and Other Strangers, “Alterity and Intimacy.” In the coming weeks, scholars will offer responses to different chapters of the book. At the end of the month, Professor Miller will close out the series with a final response. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.


The Thick and Thin of Memory

by David Gottlieb


Delving into Richard Miller’s contribution to the growing field of religious ethics, I could not help but reflect on the recent passing of Mark Hawthorne, better known on the streets of Berkeley as “Hate Man.” Hawthorne, who died in April 2017 at the age of 80, had in 1970 left his work as a reporter with the New York Times, moving to Berkeley and eventually becoming a full-time resident of the streets. “Hate Man” earned his nickname by prodding passersby into conversation by encouraging them to say, “I hate you.” If they obliged, he would return the favor, with gusto and perhaps a raised middle finger—as prelude to an intimate and wide-ranging conversation. Hate Man became a well-known and beloved figure in a city known for its celebration of individual rights and predilections.

It seems Hate Man’s aggressive embrace of otherness was meant to recognize and celebrate mutual vulnerability—to in essence turn a “thin” relationship of shared (and contested) citizenship into a “thick” one, of mutual care concocted through an instant of open, mutual animosity. This dichotomy between care and antipathy, or perhaps between passion and obligation, evokes for me the explorations in Miller’s fine work, which encourages the reader to explore and appreciate otherness, difference, and strangeness as a call to deeper and more ethically attuned relationship. “[D]ifference cannot be a matter of indifference,” as Miller notes in his introduction to this volume. “As a nonneutral summons to me, the other implicates me in her address. She reveals the quality of my reactive attitudes and thus becomes a matter of singular importance” (3-4; emphasis Miller’s).

In Chapter 9, “The Moral and Political Burdens of Memory,” Miller asks if we have an obligation to remember—a question that has received relatively little attention in the fields of moral philosophy and religious ethics. For Miller, memory is a form of care that is constitutive of cultural identity and continuity, but also of the bonds between individuals, the web of “thick relations,” through which the culture is continuously constructed. He offers a taxonomy of memory that maps the overlapping circles of community in which each individual is embedded, culling from “multiple, hybridizing discourses in religious studies” (230) to elucidate the moral and ethical dimensions of individual memory, and of their context within collective memory and memorialization.

This taxonomy can best be characterized by its approach to memory as “a dynamic process of remembering and forgetting that is constantly undergoing revision” (236). In his taxonomy, Miller emphasizes the dialectical relationship between different aspects of mnemonic activity as represented in three broad categories: procedural, propositional, and recollective memory (or memory how, memory that, and memory when). His principal focus is the issue of memory and moral agency: “Remembering is a function of being a certain kind of people, disposing ourselves toward certain ideals over time [and] transmitting our ideals to a younger generation” (231).

Miller’s taxonomy sets a religious-ethical context for his reviews of works on memory by W. James Booth, Avishai Margalit, Jeffrey Blustein, and Paul Ricoeur, and a volume of essays edited by Oren Baruch Stier and J. Shawn Landres. Miller’s reviews help the reader to place these works not only within the expanding field of religious ethics, but also in the larger domain of memory studies, which has experienced “metastatic” growth in recent decades, according to Jeffrey C. Olick, one of the field’s foremost practitioners.1 More important, each of the works reviewed reflects in different ways on Miller’s contention that individual memories are defined not only by care but by passion: “memories possess eros: they are energized by love, unity, and desire” (231).

Challenges arise principally in two theoretical domains of Miller’s work: first, in the treatment of the complex relationship between individual and collective memory, and second, in Miller’s underestimation of the power of electronic and especially social media to alter the cultural-mnemonic landscape. As to the first conundrum, the author, while acknowledging that “[c]ollective memories are admittedly more difficult to pin down,” defines them as “those that individuals have as members of a group.” Whether “common” or “shared,” “popular” or “institutional,” such memories occur or are invoked through memorial practices and sites (232), or through more “subversive” and less official expressions (233). And yet these taxonomic distinctions would suggest that memory is stubbornly individual, and that it is not the memory per se but genetic, historical, cultural, and physiological situatedness that determines which memories are collectively held—by individuals.

This is related to the second main challenge surfaced by Miller’s work: its consideration of “prosthetic memory,” which, as mediated through “film, television, and experiential museums” (233), binds individuals into mass-mediated ‘imagined communities’. Electronic and especially social media deserve inclusion in this category. For indeed, said media’s capacity to reinforce highly customized identities, and to reshape memory, has in recent years begun to outpace the cultural-mnemonic influence of the other media Miller identifies. Prosthetic memory thus not only has the capacity to “challenge the essentialist logic of many group identities” (233), but, it would seem, to reinforce such logic. Prosthetic memory can morph into a curated counter-memory, through which collective memories are explicitly rejected and re-engineered. If memory possesses eros, a crowdsourced counter-memory contains a toxin that threatens to extinguish its host. Or perhaps, as Miller notes in his review of Blustein’s work, collective memory has a “bipolarity”: memory engages dialectically with truth and myth, seeking a path between independence of and reliance on context (258).

In the final analysis, this essay succeeds because of its careful attention to the moral, ethical, and communal energies that memory both requires and reinforces. The moral imperatives of memory are rooted in acknowledgement of the other, and indeed cultivate a remembering that embraces that other. Perhaps these qualities are what reminded me of the “thick relationships” aggressively sought by Hate Man: his new way of hating, he said, “is about being straight with people . . . and then you can have a real conversation.”


Works consulted:

  • Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning, Eds., Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008)
  • Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)
  • Barbara A. Misztal, Theories of Social Remembering (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2003)
  • Eviatar Zerubavel, Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997)
  • Kevin Fagan, “Berkeley’s homeless Hate Man dies at 80,” SFGate, April 3, 2017. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Berkeley-s-homeless-Hate-Man-dies-at-80-11046860.php

David Gottlieb is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is producer and co-host of the New Books in Jewish Studies Podcast, part of the New Books Network. Gottlieb is the recipient of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies Undergraduate Lectureship for 2017-18, and a member of the teaching faculty of Claremont Lincoln University. Gottlieb’s research focuses on rabbinic substitutions for sacrifice and the formation of Jewish cultural memory.

 * Photo image: “Touching Strangers” by Richard Renaldi. Since 2007, photographer Richard Renaldi has worked on a series of photographs for which he asks complete strangers to physically interact while posing together for a portrait. The second photo is “Hate Man” on the campus of Berkeley (Stephen Loewinsohn | East Bay Express).

  1. Jeffrey C. Olick, “’Collective Memory’: A Memoir and Prospect,” Memory Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (January, 2008), 26.