Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

3 the Holocaust Sublime: Singularity, Representation, and the Violence of Everyday Life

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

3 the Holocaust Sublime: Singularity, Representation, and the Violence of Everyday Life

Article excerpt

The world of the concentration camps ... was not an exceptionally monstrous society. What we saw there was the image, and in a sense the quintessence, of the infernal society in which we are plunged every day.

--Ionesco (1)


Between Realism and Transcendence

OVER THE LAST CENTURY, we human beings managed to inflict far greater harm on one another, and with far greater efficiency, than we had ever managed before. The rise of powerful nation-states armed with highly destructive modern technologies made possible the implementation of whole new scales of atrocity and extermination. The twentieth century began unpromisingly with World War I and the Armenian genocide, took a brief detour at mid-century into a global war that killed 60 million people and introduced humanity to atomic science at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, took another detour into a ruinous war in Southeast Asia that killed 3 to 5 million people, and finally drew to a close with the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans, the murder of nearly a million people in Rwanda, and the deaths of at least 5 million in the Congolese war. As if to redeem the past, or perhaps to inoculate the new century against the horrors of the last one, by the beginning of the twenty-first century human beings had made commemoration and memorialization of mass killing into a minor global industry. Millions of tourists flocked to the ruins of Auschwitz and Treblinka, Tuol Sleng and Hiroshima, or stood patiently in line at the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Those who lacked the resources to make the pilgrimage to such sites of witness instead took solace in the thousands of books and films about the genocides and atrocities of the past.

Ironically, though, as much as we are drawn to representations and narratives of historical mass trauma--the intentional infliction of extreme violence on one group of people by another--most of our public acts of commemoration and memorialization have taken pains to steer clear of anything that might resemble a politics, why this is so, and with what consequences for our understanding not only of the past, but of the present and future as well, is the subject of this essay.

Few issues are more contentious than the politics of the past, particularly in cases of historical genocide, where questions of fact sit uneasily alongside questions of blame, agency, and staggering moral failure. The debate over how, and indeed whether, mass trauma should be represented was joined not long after the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By 1946, with radioactive clouds still lingering over Japan, European and American intellectuals had already clashed over the problem of how to represent the bombings. At one end of the spectrum, critics such as Georges Bataille denied that there was anything fundamentally new or unique about the U.S. atomic bombings of Japan. (2) At the other end, Mary McCarthy condemned John Hersey for his essay in the New Yorker about Hiroshima, on grounds that it reduced a singular, unrepresentable event to mere reportage--by "minimizing the atom bomb by treating it as though it belonged to the familiar order of catastrophes--fires, flood, earthquakes--which we have always had with us." Hersey's reliance on interviews with survivors, McCarthy felt, amounted to "an insipid falsification of the truth of atomic warfare," since "[to] have done the atom bomb justice, Mr. Hersey would have had to interview the dead." (3)

For the first 15 years or so after the war, with the emergence of a nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Union, the public was understandably more focused on the implications of the atomic bombings in Japan than on the terrible fate that had befallen the Jews and other groups in Eastern Europe. By the 1970s, though, due in large measure to persistent efforts by Jewish historians, critics, and civic leaders to keep Hitler's murder of European Jewry from receding into the past, the "Holocaust" (as it was now called) had decisively replaced Hiroshima at the forefront of popular and scholarly discourses about "singularity. …

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