Alexander, Jeffrey, C., with Martin Jay, Bernhard Giesen, Michael Rothberg, Robert Manne, Nathan Glazer, and Elihu and Ruth Katz. Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Author:||Hare, J. Laurence|
|Publication:||Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308|
|Issue:||Date: Fall-Winter, 2010 Source Volume: 85 Source Issue: 3-4|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate (Essay collection)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Alexander, Jeffrey, C.; Jay, Martin; Giesen, Bernhard; Rothberg, Michael; Manne, Robert; Glazer, Nathan; Katz, Elihu; Katz, Ruth|
Alexander, Jeffrey, C., with Martin Jay, Bernhard Giesen, Michael
Rothberg, Robert Manne, Nathan Glazer, and Elihu and Ruth Katz.
Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate. New York: Oxford University Press,
2009. xvii + 205 pages. Cloth, $27.95.
While reading Jeffrey C. Alexander's excellent essay in this book, this reviewer was reminded of Wolfgang Borchert's 1947 play, The Man Outside, in which the main character is a German soldier who returns to a ruined home after the war. Confronting both his own plight and the suffering around him, the soldier declares at last, "We are murdered each day and each day we commit murder." (1)This final scene at once exculpates and condemns the protagonist, placing him impossibly between the victims of Nazi crimes and complicity in a far broader nexus of guilt. In so doing, it anticipates the struggle that lies at the heart of Alexander's essay, "The Social Construction of Moral Universals," which concerns the historical development of Holocaust memory. For Alexander, a professor of sociology at Yale University, the meanings derived from the Holocaust are informed by socially-constructed representations "[which] are best studied by taking a sociological rather than philosophical approach." He thus sets out to explain how depictions of the Holocaust transformed the mass murder of Jews during World War Il into a "generalized symbol of human suffering and moral evil" (p. 3). To accomplish this, he traces the development of two narratives: a particularist, "progressive" version that casts the event as a crime of Nazism to be overcome by Enlightenment rationalism, and a universal variant in which the Holocaust exists without precedent as a "metaphor of archetypal tragedy" (p. 58). Alexander asserts that the former narrative was prominent in the early postwar era, but it is the latter, with its more encompassing implications, that has since become dominant in representation.
Alexander's essay is indispensable reading for students of the Holocaust, or for that matter anyone with an interest in the moral history of the postwar world. Accompanying his essay in this book are six commentaries from leading social scientists, whose criticism of Alexander's thesis frame a larger debate about the ways in which we remember the Holocaust and connect it to subsequent tragedies. Each of the essays proves an excellent addition, and, as a whole, they provide a welcome variety of disciplinary and global perspectives. Though they are often highly critical, the reviews reveal the degree to which Alexander's work is, in the words of Robert Manne, "stimulating and original" (p. 135). Among their concerns is the degree to which Alexander's emphasis on representation threatens to efface the reality of the Holocaust. They also express doubt about the optimism that colors Alexander's study, particularly when he claims that the universal narrative offers, paradoxically, the best chance of moral progress. In a response at the end of the book, Alexander concedes to harboring a more optimistic outlook in the pre-9/11 atmosphere in which he wrote the essay, which suggests that the evolution of representation may be ongoing.
A number of Alexander's critics ask whether there is a real distinction between his "universal" representation and one that is merely Westernized or Americanized. Martin Jay questions the global reach of the "tragic" narrative's didactic power, while Michael Rothberg sees a give-and-take relationship between Holocaust memory and postcolonial cultures. Even if Alexander's universalism is in fact challenged by the non-Western world, there can be little doubt that representations of Holocaust memory have become permanent artifacts of Western culture. As such, Alexander is right to see them stepping beyond the temporal preserve of history to demand the attention of scholars from across the humanities and social sciences.
Taken together, the essay and its commentaries provide a compelling thesis and a significant contribution to a difficult but essential debate. In such books, of course, there is rarely a sense of closure, and readers are left ample space in which to extend the discussion. Within the wide range of issues mentioned in this book, not every salient question gets its due. This includes one raised in the foreword by Geoffrey Hartman, who asks how we can find balance between particularist and universal meanings. This is an important unanswered question, and, returning to The Man Outside, I suspect that the coexistence between representations that we see implied in the words of Borchert's German soldier lives on to a greater degree than Alexander admits.
(1) Wolfgang Borchert, The Man Outside, trans, by David Porter (New York: New Directions, 1971), 134.
J. Laurence Hare, PhD
Assistant Professor of History
University of Arkansas
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