The Trauma of Avoiding Trauma


In this, my first posting of the new year, I continue my discussion of the works of contemporary American historian and Holocaust expert Dominick LaCapra, that I began in my final three postings from last year.  As is true for all of the postings at this site, today’s consists of an entry from my philosophical journal.

The so called Historikerstreit–“battle between historians”–referred to in the entry below was a dispute, waged in the public media in Germany in the mid-1980s, between defenders of the “intentionalist” interpretation in accordance with which the annihilation of the Jews was a deliberate policy intended and pursued by the Nazi leaders from the beginning, and those who argued for a more “gradualist” account, in which the Holocaust was the eventual result of decisions made to address unforeseen demands and opportunities as they emerged with the unfolding of historical events.  Most controversial was the claim by some in the latter camp, above all in the works of historian Ernst Nolte, that the Nazi genocide was itself largely a response to earlier Stalinist genocidal acts and threats, so that, at least in Nolte’s account, the Nazi “final solution to the Jewish question” came to be relativized, and its moral horror accordingly diluted.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Reading LaCapra, especially his 1998 book, History and Memory After Auschwitz, shows me that Eisenstein’s critique of him [see my first posting on this site, for December 11, 2008] on the point is, perhaps, not sufficiently attentive to how he [LaCapra] handles the distinction between what he calls “structural” and “historical” trauma. Bot on the basics involved, I still side with Eisenstein:  More than the distinction just needing to be “problematized” but still retained, which is LaCapra’s stand, it really needs to be abandoned, which is what Eisenstein almost says.

A specific point that I might want to use to critique the whole distinction, preparatory to  abandoning it, could use LaCapra’s consistently claiming that the Holocaust (which he  prefers to call the Shoa in his 1998 book) is an example of an “historical” trauma.

Well, he also insists, per his basic stance, on p. 48, on “the need to explore the problematic relations between structural and historical trauma without reducing one to another.”

Yet, my point:  The “Shoah” itself emerged, as Eisenstein excellently points out, from a process of what, by LaCapra’s conceptualization , would have to be taken as a “reduction” of structural trauma to an historical trauma–namely, to the historical trauma which is (for the Nazis, mainly) “the Jew.”  That is, the Shoah itself is the horrendous completion of the very process of trying to treat an underlying (structural) trauma (the phrase ‘structural trauma’ actually becomes pleonastic, at this point in my own analysis) as though it could be traced to  an identifiable historical agent or cause.

In outline:  The German defeat in World War I is “read,” by the German right, as a matter of a “‘stab in the back, rather than seen to be symptomatic of an underlying repressed–“unmourned,” to speak as LaCapra might: not publicly acknowledged and processed–“structural” problem.

Hence, to  sum up:  The Shoah itself is a result of the very reductionism,  in effect, that LaCapra criticizes in reference to subsequent treatments of the Shoah itself.


With regard to the very need for “mourning,” and the public dimension of that very process, LaCapra is very good.  (Whether and, if so, how far, and how, his/Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholy can be kept useful, I’ll leave undiscussed here.)  On p. 71, in that connection, he quotes Andreas Huyssen on how, in the Historikerstreit of 1986, as in the “failure of the intellectuals” to deal with German reunification post 1989, “one wants,” in Huyssen’s words, “to get away from a past that is considered either a burden or an embarrassment in order to construct an alternative agenda for the future.”  In contrast, to borrow from AA (which LaCapra does not), what the sort of mourning LaCapra calls for is a matter of going through a process at the end of which one “neither regrets the past, nor wishes to shut the door on it” [a close paraphrase of a line in Alcoholics Anonymous], but can draw from it as a resource.

Also:  the same avoidance is not only what gave rise to Nazism and the Shoah (cf. Eisenstein’s counter-dominant reading of [Thomas Mann’s novel] Doktor Faustus:  Not Leverkuhn [the novel’s protagonist] but rather the bourgeois narrator is the representative of what led to the German disaster [of the Nazi period]), but also  what gave rise to the Bush wars [in Afghanistan and then in Iraq] and the Bush attack on civil liberties.

Published in: on January 5, 2009 at 3:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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