Jews and Gender: The Challenge to Hierarchy

By Jonathan Frankel | Go to book overview

Postmodernism and the Jewish Question

Elizabeth Bellamy, Affective Genealogies: Psychoanalysis, Postmodernism, and the “Jewish Question” after Auschwitz. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. 214 pp.

Dominick LaCapra. History and Memory after Auschwitz. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. 214 pp.

Dominick LaCapra, Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. 230 pp.

It should be no surprise to Jewish scholars and to scholars of Jewish history that Auschwitz has come to constitute an important subject within much contemporary thinking about history, philosophy, and culture—Jewish and non-Jewish alike. But what may be something of a revelation to those outside the field of current literary theory and postmodernist philosophy is just how central Auschwitz really is. Auschwitz, or more precisely “after Auschwitz”—that is, Auschwitz represented (significantly, as we shall see) in quotation marks—may no less than define postmodernism itself. Even more surprising and troubling is how, in this self-definition around and through the concept of “after Auschwitz, ” the Jew continues to function in ways uncannily similar to the ways in which the Jew functioned in premodernist and modernist thinking. It is this thinking about the Jew that, according to postmodernism's own account, may well have produced Auschwitz in the first place. The implied subtext in all three of these books is the continued repression of the Jew in postmodernism, which, despite its powerful investment in coming to terms with “after Auschwitz, ” seems incapable of properly mourning and thereby genuinely working through Auschwitz. In the psychohistory narrated by Dominick LaCapra and Elizabeth Bellamy, the Jew emerges as nothing less than the unconscious of Western culture itself. LaCapra, who is a historian, and Bellamy, who is a literary critic, come at their shared subject through different types of disciplinary expertise and with somewhat different academic agendas. But their projects converge in sharing the assumption that, as LaCapra puts it in Representing the Holocaust, “much recent debate in critical theory and historiography is recast if the Holocaust is perceived as at least one more or less repressed divider or traumatic point of rupture between modernism and postmodernism. In this light, the postmodern and the post-Holocaust become mutually intertwined issues that are best addressed in relation to each other” (p. 188).

The “debate” to which LaCapra refers, and which is taken up both by him and by Bellamy, centers largely on the philosophy of deconstruction as articulated by Jacques Derrida and others. Deconstruction, briefly, constitutes a critique of traditional West-

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