Review Essay: Retheorizing the Holocaust; History and Memory after Auschwitz, by Dominick LaCapra

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Review Essay: Retheorizing the Holocaust; History and Memory after Auschwitz, by Dominick LaCapra

Holocaust studies is difficult to define. It has, of course, a unifying referent: the Holocaust. But its constitutive feature seems to lie elsewhere. After all, historical analyses of the Holocaust's causes often do not belong in the disciplinary category Holocaust studies. Nor is methodology its characteristic component. For Holocaust studies includes a variety of perspectives: philosophical, historical, sociological, literary critical, psychological. What, then, gives Holocaust studies its sense of coherence? Perhaps all the disparate intellectual undertakings that comprise it are bound together by their shared concern with questions of representation. Indeed, Holocaust studies has focused on the theoretical problems with which historians of the Holocaust must reckon, and on public and aesthetic processes of remembering trauma and memorializing catastrophe, as well as on the connections between historiographical problems and public remembrance. Holocaust studies takes place at the intersection of history and memory.

For the moment, however, it might be more appropriate to claim that Holocaust studies should take place at the intersection of history and memory. At least this is the point Dominick LaCapra pushes in his thoughtful and compactly written new book, History and Memory after Auschwitz. LaCapra argues that practitioners of Holocaust studies have been largely unsuccessful in their attempt to establish a kind of symbiotic relationship between history and memory, and that the project of sustaining a difficult tension between history and memory is worth pursuing. Why is this project so compelling? LaCapra's contention is that it is both theoretically satisfying and socially productive. Accordingly, three of his six chapters deal with the recondite historiographical challenges posed by "the limit-case" of the Holocaust; the other three assess the effectiveness of prominent aesthetic attempts at Holocaust remembrance: Camus's The Fall, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, and Art Spiegelman's Maus.

LaCapra is clearly the right man for this difficult job. He holds a chair of Humanities at Cornell University and is an eminent European intellectual historian, best known, perhaps for his long-standing and intense critical engagement with contemporary trends in historiography (See, for example, his History and Criticism, 1987). LaCapra has also managed to straddle disciplinary divides, mobilizing his theoretical acumen to play a key role in high-profile discussions of literary theory. And his readings of cultural phenomena, fiction, and film exhibit an easy familiarity with sophisticated techniques of textual analysis. Moreover, LaCapra has written extensively on the Holocaust. His Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma (1994) is one of the founding texts of Holocaust studies. And so his meta-reflection on Holocaust studies is also a kind of poignant exercise in self-reflection. Indeed, he refers to his own work often and, at times, rather critically.

But his most pointed criticisms are reserved for other theoreticians of the Holocaust. In his eponymous first chapter, for example, he pours opprobrium on both historians who try to separate history and memory cleanly and historians who would collapse the distinction between history and memory. Meanwhile, LaCapra himself tries to chart a course between the Scylla of strict division and the Charybdis of conflation. LaCapra objects, for example, to Charles E. Maier's disparaging remarks about the lively interest in memory in contemporary culture, both high and low. Memory in general, and the process of remembering the Holocaust in particular, may have become a privileged object of journalistic, artistic, and pop-cultural attention. And some of this attention may be opportunistic (the "Shoah business," as it has been called) and even obsessive (a narrow identity politics which appropriates the legacy of victimization as the seat of identity). …

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