Trauma, the Morality of Representation, Death, and Community


Coincidentally, in the same January 9, 2009, Sunday New York Times that contained Jacob Heilbrunn’s criticism of recent films depicting the Holocaust, which I discussed briefly in my last post, there also appeared a book review, by Richard Lourie, of H. G. Adler’s novel The Journey, the English translation of which, by Peter Filkins, appeared only last year from Random House.  As one learns from Lourie’s review, as well as from Filkins’s introduction to his translation of the book itself, Adler was born in Prague in 1910 into a secularized Jewish family, and was himself a survivor of both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, surviving 18 members of his family, including his wife, her mother, and his own parents, all of whom died in the Nazi camps.  After liberation, Adler eventually settled in London, where he wrote, among other things, The Journey, detailing in fictionalized form his own journey during the Nazi era.

Both Lourie’s review and Filkins’s introduction–as well as Adler’s son Jeremy Adler’s afterword to The Journey–also acquaint the reader with the journey Adler’s book, written in German, we are told in the son’s afterword, during 1950-1951, itself had to take before it was finally published in Germany in 1962.  Even after publication, the book languished little-known and little-read until only recently, as indicated by an English translation only now becoming available for the first time.

In all three places, Richard Lourie’s review, Peter Filkins’s introduction, and  Jeremy Adler’s afterword, we are also told that the influential German publisher Peter Suhrkamp vowed that the book would never be published in Germany so long as he lived.  And it wasn’t.  Lourie and Filkins also connect Suhrkamp’s reaction with the dominance at the time of the aesthetics of Theodor Adorno, who famously declared that literature was no longer possible after Auschwitz, that the very idea of transforming such horror into fiction was blasphemous and obscene, to use the same terms I already used myself in my last post to characterize any “exploitation,” as Heilbrunn appropriately names it, of “Auschwitz”–of all that name has come to  stand for–for the sake of telling some tale of redemption.

Interestingly, H. G. Adler himself refuses to tell any such tale in The Journey.  At least that is how I read what he says in the opening pages of his book, which are all that I have so far managed to read of it myself, having purchased Filkins’s translation just a few days ago.  At any rate, to help contextualize the series of postings I have been making recently on this site–the series of entries made in my philosophical journal months ago, concerning the works of contemporary American historian Dominick LaCapra, who is himself very much concerned with such matters as concerned both Adorno and Adler–it will, I hope, be helpful  to the reader to know a little about how I stand in relation to what, for short, I will call the morality of fictionalized representations of the Holocaust/”Auschwitz.”

To put it as clearly and bluntly as I can, my own strong sense of the matter is that the risks of falling into blasphemy and obscenity grow greater, the less “fictional” and more “realistic” the representation–in a certain sense of “representation,” to which I will return in a moment–becomes.   Thus, as I see it, we are much nearer to the swamp of blasphemy and obscenity, if not already neck deep in it, in, say, Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, which presents itself as basically a “true story,” than we are in, say, the “imaginative,” “fictionalizing” reworkings of the material in a work such as I (so far, at least) take The Journey to be.

The sense of “representation” I have in mind in making such remarks is one in which “representing” means something such as “presenting in an image,” or “picturing.”  It is representation in a sense that ties the notion very directly and closely to that of an image, itself taken as essentially, or at least paradigmatically, visual.

For me, there is an important sense in which, to put the point hyperbolically, with regard to such things as Auschwitz the photo-graphic is the porno-graphic.  That is, the more closely the representing comes to what Walter Benjamin called “mechanical reproduction” (in his often-cited article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction), as in the photographic image, the more morally questionable it becomes.  The  closer representation comes to reproduction in and as such an image, the greater the risk of blasphemy and obscenity becomes.

Fully to articulate what I am struggling to  articulate with such formulations will require further efforts in future posts.  It will also require the context provided by my confrontations, in the philosophical journal entries I have been posting and will continue to post, with a variety of the issues involved.  That most surely includes the entries in my journal that address the works of LaCapra, which entries I have been posting here for the last few weeks. 

The post before this one, to which I gave the title “The Truth of Auschwitz,” contains the final entry from my philosophical journal occasioned directly by my reading of LaCapra’s works.  In the next entry from my journal, posted below, my focus shifts away from LaCapra and, for the time being at least, away from direct concern with the issue of representing trauma, especially the Holocaust.  Nevertheless, the matters that concern me in the entry below and that will  concern me in the coming posts continue to provide a context for further direct discussion of the issue of the representation of trauma, when it does resurface, as it will eventually for me in this blog.

Below is the next entry in my philosophical journal.


Monday, April 4, 2008

Various things:

1.  [Alain] Badiou, Logiques des Mondes (Paris:  Éditions du Seuil, 2006), p. 571, in note on IV.3.4, just after Derrida died [my translation]:  “Death, decidedly, always comes too soon.”

Comments:  Death is not only a trauma, even the one trauma we must all come to “sooner or later.”  Rather, it is the trauma.  It is what is traumatic in every trauma:  the revelation without mask of the face of death, as in Poe’s “Dance of the Red Death.”  And insofar as to become a human subject–if that expression is not pleonastic–is, as Heidegger has it, to be cast into being-toward-death, then death (as being-toward-death itself, as Heidegger insists) is the founding trauma of  the human subject as such.

The trauma of time:  the trauma which is time.


2.  In an excellent essay [“Notes on Trauma and  Community”] in  Cathy Caruth, ed., Trauma:  Explorations in Memory (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), sociologist Kai Erikson distinguishes between what he [following two other researchers he cites] calls [p. 189] “corrosive communities” and “the ‘therapeutic communities’ so often noted in an earlier literature” about the way, after “natural disasters” like an earthquake, there comes a period of community drawing together in mutual support and aid.  In his “corrosive communities,” however, what happens is the opposite, and they emerge from “technological” rather than “natural” disasters–the key distinction.  Here, the disaster reveals and deepens the divisions within the community, as between the corporations responsible for the disaster but who deny all such responsibility finally, and the victims of it–in effect,though Erikson doesn’t say this himself, the trauma that gives rise to such a corrosive community is one in which the line between perpetrators and victims becomes crystal clear.  Yet the trauma–this is the point Erikson is making here–is still a founding one (not his term) for the community at issue.  Only now it is a riven, split, divided community.

Comment:  The truth that comes to  pass in a “technological” disaster that founds a “corrosive” community (where both or all sides of the divided parts of the community define themselves in terms of the traumatic event, from the date of that event on) is precisely the splitting of the given community into perpetrators (oppressor, dominant class) and victims–a splitting which has always already been there but did not yet, until the traumatic event, come to show its own face.

Accordingly, if that truth coming to pass in/as the traumatic “technological” disaster is  to be allowed to come to pass,the only way that can occur is by the restoration of justice, the healing of the rift between perpetrator and victim–better:  the redemption (in, e.g., Benjamin’s sense) of the victims.  And it is precisely the reaction of the  perpetrators not to let that happen–i.e., not to allow  comes to pass (that is here to say, what has come/comes/is coming now, here, on/as this date-event, as to pass, as demanding the emergence of its truth, the truth it is/reveals:  It has come/comes/is to come as to be allowed to pass).  The primary form of that reaction is to engender the false sense of community–to lay claim to the event as a trauma that “struck us all alike”–and in that process to reinforce the violence/oppression/perpetration and even to compound it, by denying the victims even the possibility of complaint, in effect, relegating them to a silence that, unlike the silence of Abraham in Kierkegaard’s reading of the sacrifice of Isaac, cannot even itself be voiced or heard.

So:  What, if any, truth comes to pass on 9/11?  What, if not precisely the truth the refusal of which the Bush reaction institutionalizes?  The refusal of the truth that America is not the victim here, but is, rather, the perpetrator?

A couple of pages later (pp. 193-196), Erikson notes how the victims (not his word) of such “technological” disasters often come together (in effect in their mutual  estrangement from the larger community wherein, know it or not, they are victims) for mutual support.  P. 194:  “They are not drawn together by feelings of affection . . . but by a shared set of perspectives and rhythms and words that derive from the sense of being apart.” As he goes on to note at the end of the next paragraph:  “. . . they can be said to have experienced not only a changed sense of self and a changed way of relating to others but a changed worldview.” 

So far, everything he says fits AA like a glove, though he says no such thing himself. However, he then goes on to characterize this new “worldview” that arises in the traumatized victims of refused (at the level  of the community as a whole and as run to satisfy the powers that be) trauma, as being characterized by a hyper-sensitivity and hyper-alertness to risk, etc.. 

Well, there the AA example presents a different possibility:  that of the creation of a new community “alongside” the corrosive one that just keeps on keeping on–a community in which all such hyper-vigilance can be and is let go, so that the community and its members can go on/go into, again or for the first time, their own lives, to live them, free of all such anxiety and constant, nagging insecurity, as the Big Book’s [that is, the book Alcoholics Anonymous’s] talk of how “we” [i.e., such alcoholics in recovery] “overcome our sense of economic insecurity,” which has nothing to do with “becoming financially secure.” 

AA, like Benedictine monasticism, is life itself lived in and as a community of equals. It is justice reigning.  Not, however, as even disruptive of the unjust pseudo-community alongside which life in AA/the monastery is lived, but, rather, as the reality to and for which the pseudo-community is dismissed as a phantom, as God dismisses such phantoms [when he wakes], in one of the stanzas of one of the repentance psalms.

The Truth of Auschwitz


The truth of Auschwitz is that there is no truth in Auschwitz.   Auschwitz is the place where there is no longer truth.

As I recall, it is Primo Levi who somewhere tells of an episode when he was an inmate at Auschwitz in which he or another prisoner asks why something or another is done.  The guard or capo (I can’t remember which, but it  does not matter for my purposes here) replies, “Here, there is no ‘why.'”  Auschwitz is the place where there is no why any longer; what gets  done, gets done, that’s  all.

By the same logic, Auschwitz is the place where “truth” vanishes.  Auschwitz is a sort of black hole where deceit, betrayal, and denial are so condensed and concentrated that no ray of truth can any longer break out from there, just as in an astronomical black hole matter is so condensed and concentrated, and the resulting gravity is so great, that no light, no sort of “information” at all, can any longer escape from it. 

Those reflections occurred to me when I read, last weekend, a commentary in the Sunday, January 9, 2009, New York Times by Jacob Heilbrunn, called “Telling the Holocaust Like It Wasn’t,” in which Heilbrunn critiques the rash of recently released films (Valkyrie, Defiance, The Reader, etc.) that all, in one way or another, concern “Auschwitz,” that is, the Holocaust.  Heilbrunn sets the tone for his whole critique by citing a scene from one of those films:  “Toward the end of the new film about postwar Germany ‘The Reader,’ a holocaust survivor in New York curtly instructs a visiting German lawyer named Michael Berg that he would do  well  to remember that the camps were neither a form of therapy nor a university.  ‘Nothing,’ she says, ‘came out of the camps.  Nothing.'”

Despite that opening, however, Heilbrunn begins the two paragraph closing of his commentary with the  following remark, which effectively takes back what he says in that opening passage.  “Perhaps,” he writes, “nothing came out of the Holocaust other than the determination  to prevent a repetition  of the  crimes.”

With such an ending Heilbrunn, despite himself one may assume, undercuts the very critique he would seem to want to advance, the heart of which can be found early on, right after he cites the scene from The Reader, where he writes that “the further the Holocaust recedes into the past, the more it’s being exploited to create a narrative of redemption.”  Yet that is, ironically, just what his own ending remarks then proceed to do, creating a redemption story of their own.

But if, as I put it to begin this post, only this time with emphasis added, the truth of Auschwitz is that there is no truth in Auschwitz–that Auschwitz is that place where there is no place for truth at all any longer–then any attempt, including Heibrunn’s  own, to tell a tale of any truth at all coming out of Auschwitz, becomes unacceptable.  To tell any such tale, including his own, becomes blasphemous and obscene, an exploitation, to use one of  Heilbrunn’s own  terms, of what is never to be exploited.

My hope is that the preceding remarks will help to contextualize the entry from my philosophical journal given below, an entry which continues my reflections on the works of Dominick LaCapra, especially, for the last few posts as well as for this one, his book Representing the Holocaust.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

LaCapra, Representing, p. 73, on [former President] Reagan’s 1985 trip [with then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl] to Bitburg cemetery [where many German soldiers, including many SS members, are buried, in what was then West Germany]:  “Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan were at one in attempting to ’emancipate’ Germany from what they saw as a debilitating memory.  In Reagan’s case, the notion of emancipation was tantamount to  unearned, celebratory forgetting that invited the return of the repressed.  It simply ignored the  problems of public acknowledgement, mourning, and working-through.”  Then, [he writes, on] p. 74:  “. . .Reagan misconstrues the process whereby one can achieve a condition that allows one to let bygones be bygones, and he does not address the possibility that a viable and legitimate democracy cannot be based on celebratory oblivion but requires a critical attempt to come to  terms with the past.”

This analysis applies as well to the Bush administration’s orchestrating of the American reaction ([“reaction,”] not “response,” I  might add) to 9/11/2001.  Except the analogy would, in that case of 9/11 and the Bitburg incident, be between Bush  and Kohl, rather than between Bush and Reagan.  That is, the atrocities which are being consigned [by Bush after 9/11] to a convenient (for whom? one should ask) oblivion–in the immediate casting of everything in the language of good and evil, and all  the rest of the baggage of the “war on terror”–were those perpetrated by the US itself, just as the Nazi atrocities Kohl was glad to join Reagan in assigning to oblivion were committed by Germany itself.

Still, on p. 74, LaCapra goes on to quote Regan’s response to the discovery that Bitburg included graves of SS men.  Reagan, in the New York Times of April 19, 1985, is  quoted as saying:  “. . . these young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in German uniforms, drafted to serve to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazi’s.  They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.”

As LaCapra rightly bemoans, Reagan here conflates crucial distinctions between victims and perpetrators, and the mixed cases, as it were, in between.  He does not mention, though I’m sure  he’d agree, how Reagan also conflates the distinction between the SS and the regular German military, as well as that between the concentration camps and the extermination camps.

More important, to  me, is  that one can see structural similarities again here between the Bitburg episode and the Bush reaction to 9/11.  For one thing, the Bush reaction conflates the distinction between those who died in the Twin Towers as a result of the attacks on 9/11, and who were certainly in the obvious sense “victims” of that strike/attack, but who themselves had varying degrees of complicity in the destruction brought about by US policies and acts over the years(just as the German camp administrators from Camp Commandant to Kapos and Sondercommandos, had varying degrees of complicity in the Nazi camps), [with those victims who had no such complicity] .  In that sense, [University of Colorado professor Ward] Churchill’s remarks that the Twin Towers victims were “little Eichmanns” is  not off the  mark entirely, overstated as it may be–even offensively so. 

It seems to me Churchill himself is conflating, at least at the level of his rhetoric, a distinction between perpetrators as such (which Eichmann was) and accomplices, and then conflating important distinctions between different levels of complicity among the latter (accomplices).  Considered in general, the  victims of the collapse of/attack on the Twin Towers could not unreasonably be categorized as active accomplices, insofar as they helped administer the sub-structural mechanisms of  the  march of global capitalism.  Their analogue in Nazi Germany might be, for example, the workers in the chemical plants that produced the Zyklon B eventually used, by those who at that point in the system come closer to being perpetrators (or go all the way to it), to  exterminate Jews in the extermination camps.

As for other [categories of] victims of  9/11 in New York, we might take the rescue forces–firemen, police, health-care workers, etc.–who died in the aftermath of the strike of the two planes into the Twin Towers.  This category of the victims of 9/11 cannot necessarily be regarded as accomplices of American violence worldwide.  Rather, they are like what American military euphemism calls “collateral damage.”

That category marked by the US military euphemism would also include “innocent bystanders”–that is, those who were neither cogs in the engines of global capitalism (the majority of workers in the Towers), nor actively self-involving rescuers and helpers to  those caught in the destruction, but were merely “accidentally” present at the time–e.g., tourists visiting the World Trade Center, or delivery people, etc..  They (such innocent bystanders) would be analogous, I’d say, to the mass of the population of Dresden subjected to the Allied fire-bombing of  that city in WW II.

That last analogy also brings me to one more:  the attack on 9/11 by militant Arabs is analogous, it seems to me, to the fire-bombing of Dresden by the Allies.  To the degree there is such an analogy between the two, to that degree whatever moral reservations or judgments apply to  the 9/11 attacks applies just as much to the fire-bombing of Dresden (or to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for  that matter).  And to the exact degree the bombing of Dresden was justifiable, so  would the attack on the Twin Towers be.

LaCapra, Continued


My philosophical journal continues with further reflection on Dominick LaCapra’s Representing the Holocaust:  History, Theory, Trauma (Cornell University Press, 1994).


Friday, March 28, 2008

LaCapra, Representing the Holocaust, pp. 28-29:   “One sign of a science is that it no  longer reads its canonical authors.  To put it another way, it does not have a textual  canon or even competing canons.  It has relatively autonomous theories, textbooks, and problems . . .  Hence, a contemporary physicist need not read Newton or Einstein.”

Here, LaCapra’s use of the term ‘science’ could benefit from him displaying some of the very things he foregrounds in his  own discussions of historiography–mainly, it could benefit from a bit of historical “contextualization,” to use his term, of his own text, in its usage of ‘science.’

Clearly, the usage he has of that word in the above lines is  wholly uninformed and uninforming, so to speak, about the historically limited restriction of the correct use of “science” to cases such as he describes.  That is, what he says is true only if we fall uncritically into the modern equation of science with what Husserl, for example, calls “the exact/mathematical natural sciences,” of which modern physics is the model, as in LaCapra’s own text above.

With regard to the limits, however, of any such “contextualization,” a passage from LaCapra a few pages later [p.35] is insightful:  “If a text could be totally contextualized, it would paradoxically be ahistorical, for it would exist in a stasis in which it made no difference whatsoever. . . . If contextualization were fully explanatory, texts would be derivative items in which nothing new of different happened.”

Put paradoxically:  A completely historizing contextualization would miss the historical dimension of what is being contextualized.

Those LaCapra’s own usage [it  seems to me] moves [too] uncritically between the two senses, what his lines, especially in my paradoxical rewording, bring out is two very different, but complexly interrelated, uses of the very terms ‘history,’ ‘historical,’ and the like:

  1. “History” as “times past,” and
  2. “History” as happening, as event, which is the past that, to use
    Faulkner’s formula,not only “isn’t over yet,” but that “isn’t even past.”

A stab at some formulations of my own:

What is historical about any given phenomenon–“text,” “artifact,”occurrence”–is what in it “contextualizes” everything else.

In that same way/sense, art, the artwork, is historical:  It creates–draws forth and draws–context.  (Does that provide a way of rethinking Heidegger’s notion of art as the setting-itself-into-work of truth–a way of rethinking his notion that comes after and incorporates [Phillipe] Lacoue-Labarthe’s critique in [La fiction du politique:  Heidegger, l’art et la politique (Christian Bourgeois éditeur, 1987)]?  That is, might Heidegger be read to strip him of all mimetic trappings, in Lacoue-Labarthe’s sense, so that the “founding” movement in and as art is no longer thought as the provision of a copy/model, a model to be copied?  Might even the notion of fiction be recast along such lines?  So that the fictive/making/creative becomes the (re)contextualization of contextuality itself, in effect?)

Trauma and Representation: More in Response to LaCapra


The title I have given to today’s post is enough of an introduction to the following entry from my journal.  I will only add here, as a side comment, that my own reading of the Augustinian (if not so much of the so called “Gnostic”) tradition sees far less of what LaCapra,  in a passage cited in the entry below, calls “extreme world-negating, ascetic, transcendental Christianity” than he seems to.  Eventually, I will have a bit more to say about that particular issue in some entries I plan to share in future posts.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Working now back to LaCapra’s Representing the Holocaust:  History, Theory, Trauma, of 1994.  Read chapter on Heidegger and the Nazi’s before going back to start of book.

Preface(p. xi):  “The Holocaust has been both repressed and ‘canonized’ in the recent past . . .”  Even his own later thought (if not in this work itself) suggests that the two go together:  the canonization is a way of repressing.

In the chapter, “Heidegger’s Nazi Turn” (pp. 137-168), with which I tend to be in overall agreement [concerning what he says on the question of Heidegger’s relations with the Nazis], despite disagreement on some small specific points [on that same, limited matter], LaCapra does already in this work what I criticize under [item #]1 in my entry [given in my immediately preceding post, put up on January 7, two days ago] for Easter Sunday, March 23, above, when he writes:  “In addition,  this indiscriminate form of ‘culture critique’ [which he thinks he finds in Being and Time] is reinforced or  doubled by the uncritical role of secularized and displaced Christian motifs whose provenance and precise nature are not thematized as a problem–motifs such as fallenness, originary guilt, the  call of conscience, and the everyday as the locus of divertisement.  In this respect the text often reads like an evacuated secular version of extreme world-negating, ascetic, transcendental Christianity in the Augustinian (if not the Gnostic) tradition.”

There are a lot of problems in what he says here, including under-recognition of how openly, taking his  whole work, Heidegger acknowledges perfectly consciously his own provenance in  Augustine, Paul, etc.  But above all I’m citing it [that is, citing LaCapra’s passage above] for reinforcement of the  point I made in that earlier, Easter entry:  LaCapra fails to  see and explore the possibility of reading these “secularized” Christian elements of Heidegger’s thought, not as “displaced,” but as brought to  clarity and  fulfilled only in such “secularization.”  LaCapra, here at least, shows no familiarity with what Heidegger says about the relationship between “phenomenology” and “theology” in his earlier works [by which I here in my journal mean the lecture courses he gave at Freiburg and Marburg even before the publication of Being and Time in 1927] and the lecture “Phenomenology and Theology” [given after the appearance of Being and Time].

Later, however, to cite something I think is much  nearer the mark, LaCapra (pp. 161-162) suggests reading Heidegger’s thoughts on “resoluteness,” “repetition,” and “moment of vision” in terms of Freud’s contrast of working-through vs. acting-out:  “The moment of vision in this sense would be a certain kind of repetition in the face of trauma and the uncanny anxiety it brings.”

He’s on the money there, I think.

Items Concerning LaCapra’s Works #2


The following entry from my philosophical journal continues with what the entry from my last post started:  presentation of some separate, though still interrelated, musings on some of Dominick LaCapra’s works.


Sunday, March 23, 2008–Easter

(1)  At various places in History and Memory After Auschwitz, LaCapra writes of “secularization” as “a process of displacement involving at times a return of the repressed,” with what gets repressed–and, therefore, compulsively re-enacted time after time–being “religious” in nature.  Most especially, he sees such repression as is at play in, for example, the Nazi projection of and upon “the Jew” in terms of the return of religious sacrifice and scape-goating, with the victimization at play in the religious yoking of those two, the sacrifice and the scapegoat.

Yet might one not think secularization not as the repression of religion but rather as its liberation–releasing it into its truth, precisely by stripping religious notions such as “sacrifice” from their idolatrous formations?

Bonheoffer, Vattimo, and Girard?

Religion as the repression of trauma (see, e.g., Freud’s story of the primal horde and the murder of the father) and secularization as the sublimation of that trauma?  The “sacrifice” of the Christian mass read, a la Girard, as itself a milestone on the road of such sublimation–in that the Eucharist transforms the exclusion of scape-goating to the inclusion of the sharing of the body and blood of Christ as transformed (“trans-substantiated”) into bread and wine?


(2)  At more than one place (e.g., p. 69, pp. 204-205) in History and Memory After Auschwitz LaCapra argues that “not everyone deserves” (p. 69) to be mourned, “not everyone is deserving” (p. 204) of the “gift”of mourning–or, accordingly, even “a proper burial” (!).


The wisdom of AA, for one example, is that to mourn or grieve something [or someone] does not entail one is not glad to be rid of what [or even who] one mourns or grieves.  Even when an addict wants, embraces, and luxuriates in letting “the habit” go, there can be a grief and mourning to go through for that very “habit,” and for oneself as addict.

LaCapra might be able to learn something here from AA.

Items Concerning LaCapra’s Works #1


In the entry below from my philosophical journal, as in those for my next few postings, I continue my exploration of works by contemporary American historian and trauma theorist Dominick LaCapra.  Both today’s entry and the one I will post next contain a series of related but independent, separate numbered items pertaining to various  aspects of his thought.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

(1)  The use of the Holocaust as what LaCapra calls a “founding trauma”–e.g., as used too often by Israel–does not honor the debt all of us alive after the Holocaust owe to the dead.


(2)  LaCapra ([History and Memory] After Auschwitz, p. 166) quotes Art Spiegelman [comic-strip artist, winner of the Pulitzer Prise for his two-volume Holocaust comic-strip classic  Maus] in an interview on the Poles who witnessed the Holocaust:  “The Poles were the victimized witnesses.”

That notion, of “victimized witness,” is useful.  It covers all witnesses to abuse, from those who try to do something to stop the abuse, to those who are gleeful in watching it.  Just to witness abuse is, as such, itself traumatizing.  That, I  think, is the deep  truth in what Spiegelman says–in the concept he formulates in his remark.


(3)  La Capra comes (After Auschwitz, pp. 182-183) close to saying what I would about “false memory syndrome”:  “Here ‘recovered memory syndrome’ is not a pathology. . . . It is rather a subcase or even a metonymic exemplar of a larger problem concerning the difficulties of memory with respect to traumatic events…”

He does not go quite as far as I would, which would be to argue that all memory is traumatic, and to combine that with the double sense I’ve used [before, in earlier posted entries from my philosophical journal] of “screen” memories, whereby they (1) mask/cover at the time time–indeed, as such “masks/covers” of what cannot be masked as such–that they (2) become the “surface” (screen) upon which the trauma projects itself (in and as the image).

Memory is always symbolic!


(4) LaCapra comes very close (p. 187 [of same book]) to what, following Eisenstein, I would also say about what such disasters as the Holocaust come from:  “Particularly when one avoids recognizing the sources of anxiety in oneself (including elusive sources that are not purely empirical or historical in nature), one may be prone to project all anxiety-producing forces onto a discreet other who becomes a scapegoat or even an object of quasi-sacrificial behavior in specific historical circumstances.”  He gives the figure of the Jew in German culture as an example.


(5)  LaCapra (p. 195 [same book]):  “. . . historical events of the seismic nature and magnitude of the Holocaust may, in transgressing a theoretical limit, pose a challenge to the distinction [between structural and historical trauma, with the former defined earlier in this paragraph as “the condition of possibility that generates a potential for  trauma”]:  the structural (or existential-transcendental) seems to crash down into the empirical.  Thus [it can come to serve in effect] as an index of God’s intention in history,” or the like.

Might this not be because catastrophes such as the Holocaust arise from  an idolatrous identification of the traumatic, which is as such a structural, transcendental, existential  birth of the historical, empirical, [and] individual, with one instance of that which it so makes possible, with, that is, an isolable, historical “this” such as “the Jew”?

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  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Traumatic Uniqueness and the Proscription of Idolatry


This will be my final posting at this site for this year, 2008.  I anticipate putting up my next posting on January 5 of the new year.

My discussion of the works of Dominick LaCapra continues in today’s posting, as it will in the first few entries I plan to post early in 2009.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Both in the work above [Writing History, Writing Trauma] and in History and Memory After Auschwitz (Cornell University Press, 1998), LaCapra advances (see pages 7 and 26 in the work  just cited) a useful notion of “uniqueness” which liberates that concept from any purely numerical criterion.  For him, [to speak of] the uniqueness of, say, the Holocaust, is to say that a “limit” is reached in/by such events such that (p. 26) “something radically transgressive [of those limits] or incommensurable [with them] has occurred.”

As he goes on to say:  “The limit may be reached more than once in history and still remain distinctive or even unique in a specific, very important sense.”  As he puts it earlier (p. 7), when an event of such uniqueness happens:  “In it an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression was crossed, and whenever that threshold or limit is crossed, something  ‘unique’ happens and the standard opposition between uniqueness and comparability is unsettled, thereby depriving comparatives (especially in terms of magnitude) of a common measure or foundation.”

In effect:  In an event such as the Holocaust there is a breakdown of the notion of uniqueness as numerical, where it means “one of a kind,” and a breakthrough into a sense and site of uniqueness as no  longer “of a kind” at all.  In that second, traumatic (we could call it) sense, the  unique is no longer any kind of  kind. 

Later that same day:

LaCapra (n. 21 on pp. 32-33, History and Memory After Auschwitz):  “From the perspective of a radically transcendent conception of the sublime, such as that of Jean-Francois Lyotard, the immanent sublime (notably including sacrifice) would be a degeneration  of an unrepresentable, radical alterity that is misappropriated when it is rendered immanent or ‘spectacularized.’ . . . One may also argue that the prohibition of representation [in Judaism, presumably] is a safeguard against–or foreclosure of–the immanent sacred, notably including the role of sacrifice.”

Compare Eisenstein [see my first posting on this site, for December 11, 2008,] on the Lacanian “quilting point.”

In general:  idolatry.

The History of Trauma, the Trauma of History, #2


The very short entry from my philosophical journal posted below is the second of a series pertaining to the works of historian Dominick LaCapra.  This entry, like the last one, concerns his Writing History, Writing Trauma (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

My remarks in the entry about “self-escalating  repetition” are based on Gregory Bateson’s discussion of self-escalating systems in his “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’:  A Theory of Alcoholism,” Psychiatry 34 (February 1971).

Saturday, March 15, 2008

LaCapra, p. 178:  “This is a very important component of historical understanding:  to try, symbolically, to compensate for certain things that can never be fully compensated for.”

Even with the term ‘symbolically’ providing a hiding-hole of qualification, this is nothing short of a formula for compulsive, continually self-escalating repetition.  Seen as broadly as [systems-theorist Gregory] Bateson suggests, such a process escalates itself eventually to the point of breakdown, at which point the possibility of letting the whole attempt go at last opens up.  It is the point opening the possibility of at last letting the trauma traumatize, rather [than] remaining struck in the doomed endeavor to “compensate” for it.

Trauma is the point at which the debt the survivor comes to owe the dead breaks out, breaks over, breaks open, and breaks to  pieces all endeavors to pay it back, to”compensate”  for it.  It is the point at which the debt becomes unpayable, even “symbolically.”

The History of Trauma, the Trauma of History


Today’s posting contains the first of a number of entries from my journal that pertain to the work of the influential contemporary American historian and trauma-theorist Dominick LaCapra, who  has written especially about the Holocaust.  The journal entry contained in my first posting on this site, on December 12, 2008, already mentioned LaCapra, but only in connection with work of literary theorist Paul Eisenstein, a specialist in German literature.  I also mention Eisenstein again in the entry below.  Today’s entry, and those to follow that will  continue to address LaCapra’s thought, should be taken in conjunction with that earlier entry, from my initial posting.  They all concern, either directly–as is true both for the entry from my first posting and for the one posted below–or indirectly, LaCapra’s drawing of a distinction between “historical” and “structural” trauma.

On my way of taking the notion of “screen memory,” which also comes up in the posting below, what I say there should be compared with what I say on the same topic in my posting for December 17, 2008, “Gender, Trauma, and Screen Memories.”  I will have still more to say on that matter in future postings.


Monday, March 11, 2008

In Writing History, Writing Trauma (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) Dominick LaCapra writes about distinguishing [between] “structural” and “historical” trauma. He writes (p. 82):  “When structural trauma is reduced to, or figured as, an event, one has the genesis of myth wherein trauma is enacted in a story from which later traumas seem to derive (as in Freud’s primal crime or in the case of original sin attendant upon the Fall from Eden).”  He regards this as a source of confusion and warns against two opposed errors:  (1) “to generalize structural trauma so that it absorbs or subordinates the significance of historical trauma,” and (2) “on the contrary, to explain all post-traumatic, extreme, uncanny phenomena and responses as exclusively caused by particular events or contexts    . . . what one might term reductive contextualism . . . for example, deriving anxiety in Heidegger’s thought [where it plays a major role in Being and Time and other early works] exclusively from conditions in interwar Germany.”

LaCapra, despite [prefacing] this whole discussion with the remark, “The belated temporality of trauma and the elusive nature of the shattering experience related to it render the distinction between structural and historical trauma problematic,” immediately adds, “but do not make it  irrelevant.”  Yet, his way of going on to make [the distinction] does not, I’d say, justify itself.  It seems to me that his way of drawing the distinction is not acceptable, given the very remark with which he has begun (about its problematicity):  It does not reflect how–and where–the distinction must be problematized.

Eisenstein is much closer to  the mark, when he  insists that “historical” trauma presupposes “structural” trauma:  In effect, what makes an “event” traumatic is  that it focuses, both revealing and concealing at once, the structural fault or trauma at issue.

The way I’d put it is by using Freud’s notion of “screen memory.”  I’d say the “historical” event is traumatic precisely and only insofar as it functions as a “screen” for the underlying structural trauma.  And I’d insist on a double sense of “screening”:  first, the sense, to the fore for Freud, of masking, dissembling, covering-over; but also, second, the sense of being a projection surface, as in the movie screen for filmed images.

To paraphrase Spinoza:  Nothing is ever traumatic, save screening make it so.  Precisely because of  its “belated, elusive” quality, “structural” trauma must and can take place (literally) only by screening (i.e., maskingly projecting) itself as a specific image–screening itself, in short, as “historical” trauma.

In turn, “historical” trauma is  not a kind of trauma distinct from “structural” trauma.  Rather, it is the taking place of structural trauma itself.

So it would be better to speak, perhaps, of the historical and structural “faces” of trauma–or, perhaps, to drop the whole distinction.

After all, what really “took place” in the Holocaust?  In and as “9/11”?  In the outbreak of World War I?  What these “events” are cannot be separated from their event-ful character–how they carry their own time with them, as, precisely, the “belated,” “elusive,” traumatic character of temporalization itself.

LaCapra follows up his discussion by an example referring (p. 83) to [some other contemporary] historians’ writing, [wherein he finds the idea that] “once there was a single narrative that most Americans accepted as part of their heritage,” but has now come apart into diverse stories.  LaCapra says this is “close to reductive contextualism . . . in which the proverbial past-we-have-lost becomes the  metanarrative we have lost.”  He wonders when that metanarrative was ever in place, and suggests, instead, “one might argue that there never was a single narrative and that most Americans never accepted only one story about the past.”

But, in effect, the [other] historians at issue can be taken to be themselves sharing, with one another and unspecified “others,” what amounts to a screen memory.  In that case, one is not dealing in the first place with any simple “empirical” claim and its denial (as LaCapra denies it), but with a “truth” the truth of which is itself traumatic, in effect.

Next page (84), he writes:  “. . . structural trauma . . . may not be cured but only lived with in various ways.  Nor may it be reduced to a dated historical event or derived from one.”  But, to speak paradoxically, neither can a “historical” trauma be”cured,” or “reduced to a dated historical event.”  Or, to bring the paradox to its sharpest form:  A dated historical event is no longer an historical event at all!  History is not a series of datable events at all; history is traumatic; it is event-ful.

Finally, on yet the next page (85), the last page of the chapter (“Trauma, Absence, Loss”) to which this discussion belongs, LaCapra writes, “But historical traumas and losses may conceivably be avoided and their legacies to some viable extent worked through . . .”  However, as I’ve noted in this journal earlier this year [see my journal entry for December 26, 2007,  posted on December 12, 2008, as the first posting for this site, “Trauma, Truth, Sovereignty, and Philosophy”], the connection of history to trauma (which is what I’m suggesting is  how the whole supposed distinction between two types or levels of trauma, “structural” and “historical,” needs to be recast) is  such that it is especially the attempt to avoid “historical” trauma–that is now to  say, to avoid history in its trauma:  the trauma which ishistory–that condemns us to the ever more insistent escalation of the very trauma we are so trying to avoid.  Another paradox:  The avoidance of trauma generates the worst trauma.