Aversion and Erasure

Aversion and Erasure: The Fate of the Victim after the Holocaust

Carolyn J. Dean
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Aversion and Erasure
    Book Description:

    In Aversion and Erasure, Carolyn J. Dean offers a bold account of how the Holocaust's status as humanity's most terrible example of evil has shaped contemporary discourses about victims in the West. Popular and scholarly attention to the Holocaust has led some observers to conclude that a "surfeit of Jewish memory" is obscuring the suffering of other peoples. Dean explores the pervasive idea that suffering and trauma in the United States and Western Europe have become central to identity, with victims competing for recognition by displaying their collective wounds.

    She argues that this notion has never been examined systematically even though it now possesses the force of self-evidence. It developed in nascent form after World War II, when the near-annihilation of European Jewry began to transform patriotic mourning into a slogan of "Never Again": as the Holocaust demonstrated, all people might become victims because of their ethnicity, race, gender, or sexuality-because of who they are.The recent concept that suffering is central to identity and that Jewish suffering under Nazism is iconic of modern evil has dominated public discourse since the 1980s.

    Dean argues that we believe that the rational contestation of grievances in democratic societies is being replaced by the proclamation of injury and the desire to be a victim. Such dramatic and yet culturally powerful assertions, however, cast suspicion on victims and define their credibility in new ways that require analysis. Dean's latest book summons anyone concerned with human rights to recognize the impact of cultural ideals of "deserving" and "undeserving" victims on those who have suffered.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6033-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: Victims, Suffering, Identity
    (pp. 1-30)

    In 2004, several French newspaper articles focused on Marie L., a young woman who, while traveling on the Paris metro with a baby, marked herself with swastikas and then blamed French men of Arab and African descent for having done so. This incident precipitated first a round of national soul-searching about renewed anti-Semitism in France and then, when the police discovered that Marie L. had pulled off a hoax, another set of denunciations, this time of a society “obsessed with” victims, and in which victimhood had become a form of prestige.¹

    This incident weaves together a series of increasingly pervasive...

  5. 1 The Surfeit of Jewish Memory
    (pp. 31-57)

    Some sixty years after the Holocaust there now exists a voluminous testimonial literature, an array of theological, autobiographical, and philosophical debates, and theoretical discussions of “postmemory.” Over the last few decades, and particularly since the 1990s, as I have already argued, those discussions have increasingly focused not on how and what we remember but on accusations of an alleged “surplus of talk”—companion to the “surfeit of memory”—that the philosopher Berel Lang argues now characterizes attitudes toward Holocaust representation.¹ At its best this discourse thoughtfully asks how Jews and others can most substantively engage the past in the context...

  6. 2 French Discourses on Exorbitant Jewish Memory
    (pp. 58-100)

    In his preface to a 1986 work about the Terror during the French Revolution, the French historian Pierre Chaunu alluded to the similarity between the genocide of European Jewry and the massacre of the rebellious population of the Vendée who rose up against the revolutionaries’ anticlerical decrees. Chaunu asked readers to recognize the repression of the uprising as “the first ideological genocide.”¹ Though he made the references to Jews as well as to Stalin’s gulags and the Khmer Rouge in passing, the idea that the French civil war might be conceived as “genocide” raised eyebrows. The writer Alfred Grosser argues...

  7. 3 Minimalism and Victim Testimony
    (pp. 101-142)

    Minimalism in its varieties is a sophisticated style characterized by aesthetic and emotive restraint. It was most prominent in postwar visual art and sculpture that emphasized the sheer contingency of the art-object by reducing it to “what you see.”¹ Eventually minimalism simply described any aesthetic form marked by antisentimental austerity, and it is this now generic usage of the term to which I refer. Minimalist narratives resist hyperbole in order to avoid the potential conversion of suffering into kitsch, voyeurism, or sublimity by following a dictum the writer W. G. Sebald attributes to Walter Benjamin: “I think Benjamin at one...

  8. 4 Erasures
    (pp. 143-177)

    Many commentators on Holocaust testimony and memoirs do not address the rhetorical construction of victims and how it generates affective responses to survivors. Rather, they discuss survivors’ experience of trauma and how it impacts the representation of atrocity, or they assess testimony’s reliability as a chronicle of events.

    Though the focus on traumatic memory and how it conveys what it does is important, as are historians’ efforts to document what happened, the vast array of discussions about trauma by public intellectuals, historians, and literary theorists embed testimony within a set of contested rhetorical and often implicitly negative claims about victims:...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 178-184)

    How do dominant Western cultural presumptions that suffering is central to shaping identity, that injury confers social recognition, and that we all have a narcissistic investment in trauma obscure victims’ sufferings? How might we acknowledge victims’ pain in this context? The quest for the ‘real’ victim stresses ambivalence toward self-proclaimed victims and suspicions of their motives at a moment in history when images of pain no longer carry the force of self-evidence, when technologies of reproduction and media sensationalism contribute to fears of distortion and false claims, and when the intensified demands for redress by a wide variety of populations...

  10. Index
    (pp. 185-194)