Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate

Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate

Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate

Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate


Remembering the Holocaustexplains why the Holocaust has come to be considered the central event of the 20th century, and what this means. Presenting Jeffrey Alexander's controversial essay that, in the words of Geoffrey Hartman, has already become a classic in the Holocaust literature, and following up with challenging and equally provocative responses to it, this book offers a sweeping historical reconstruction of the Jewish mass murder as it evolved in the popular imagination of Western peoples, as well as an examination of its consequences.

Alexander's inquiry points to a broad cultural transition that took place in Western societies after World War II: from confidence in moving past the most terrible of Nazi wartime atrocities to pessimism about the possibility for overcoming violence, ethnic conflict, and war. The Holocaust has become the central tragedy of modern times, an event which can no longer be overcome, but one that offers possibilities to extend its moral lessons beyond Jews to victims of other types of secular and religious strife. Following Alexander's controversial thesis is a series of responses by distinguished scholars in the humanities and social sciences--Martin Jay, Bernhard Giesen, Michael Rothberg, Robert Manne, Nathan Glazer, and Elihu & Ruth Katz--considering the implications of the universal moral relevance of the Holocaust. A final response from Alexander in a postscript focusing on the repercussions of the Holocaust in Israel concludes this forthright and engaging discussion.

Remembering the Holocaustis an all-too-rare debate on our conception of the Holocaust, how it has evolved over the years, and the profound effects it will have on the way we envision the future.


One hears over and again that we are in a post-theory phase. Yet Jeffrey Alexander’s already classic essay on the construction of moral universals, and the responses that accompany it like a planetary constellation, show how energetic that period was and still is. This is especially true for a cultural sociology that refuses to let the specter of relativism frighten it away from demonstrating the rich and complex way meanings are made, coded, changed, and consumed.

It would be melodramatic to talk of the “Death of Meaning” after full awareness of the nature and extent of the Holocaust had sunk in. the “postmodern” is sometimes seen in that light. But what is mainly apparent is a cultural analysis that is neither foundationalist nor nihilistic. It counters depersonalizing forces in modern society that contribute to what Zygmunt Bauman has called the “production of moral indifference”—hence the emphasis on meaning, in particular moral meaning, as it challenges us constantly. Meaning should not be left to the semioticians any more than to the politicians. Besieged by large historical events apparently beyond our control, as well as media chatter and 24/7 reporting, we get little respite from having to think about either national or international and humanitarian crises.

More than sixty years after the Holocaust discussions about it do not take place over an ideological corpse. We continue to be confronted by attempted genocides. Globalization has struck here, too. While ideologies are more suspect than ever (I will come back to this point), Alexander’s type of sociology explores, as literary study does, how meaningfulness is constructed, but it includes as its object the changeable significance of macrocultural events. Meanings drawn from the Holocaust have changed over . . .

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