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The Fragility Of Empathy After The Holocaust…
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The Fragility Of Empathy After The Holocaust

by Carolyn J. Dean

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Caroline Dean's “The Fragility of Empathy€? is a book about the issues at stake in historiography and historical narratives. Indeed, I believe this book to be an active search for the duties of a historian. Dean looks at possibly the most challenging and defining event in history, the Holocaust, which she shows to cause some historians to merely throw up their hands and call "essentially incomprehensible" (pg.57) Indeed, the material of this singular event is shown to be able to overwhelm the analytical tasks of historical work but also traditional narrative style and aims of historical writing, as well as notions of empathy and dignity. The author is concerned that the universalism based on compassion and dignity has given way to a false universalism based on suffering, due to the prized status as victim. Indeed, this false universalism concerns itself more with the spectacle and the self-indulgent notion of Pseudovergangenheitsbewaltigung, a way of amusing one's own sense of sensitivity.
Dean states in the introduction that this work is actually an inquiry into the narrative of numbness. To understand the how numbness coheres and what cultural fantasies that narrative constitutes, Dean asks four questions: Why are representations of the holocaust referred to as pornographic? How have Historians discussed means of generating empathic responses to Jewish Victims? How might we understand historians' invocation of indifference when addressing bystanders of Nazi crimes? Why did psychoanalysts, journalists, and other intellectuals associate Hitler's cruelty and Nazism with male homosexuality in spite of Nazis' vicious treatment of gay men, and why does it resonate today?
In answer to the first question "Why are representations of the holocaust referred to as pornographic?", Dean explores what is meant by pornography. Whether it is the simple reduction of humans into commodities, or a metaphor for degradation of any kind, or even the voyeuristic pleasure of having not been a victim, pornography functions as a link of erotic compulsions to perverse political formations and thereby contains an implicit denunciation of popular culture. She quotes Alvin H. Rosenfeld, "in place of mass suffering, prurience has come to be."
Dean identifies pornography as erotically charging our ambivalent identification with the perpetrators while impeding our empathic identification with the victims. She then visits the idea of moral habituation, wherein commodities suck the life out of you while keeping you spellbound deadening the emotions and concurrently driving you to see more, to be even more horrified. Dean revisits Foucault's idea of power allegorized in sexual terms, and determines that although the term pornography carries much meaning, it is an empty category so imprecise that it currently should be abandoned as a descriptor unless much further explored.
Moving on to the second question "How have Historians discussed means of generating empathic responses to Jewish Victims?", we find some of the most meaningful work in Dean's book. She explores the book "Hitler's Willing Executioners" by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, interesting both because of its popularity and the vicious backlash it incurred from many Historians. Dean states that Goldhagen's central thesis is that the Genocide of the Jews was possible in Germany because ordinary Germans had been conditioned by anti-Semitic rhetoric into becoming a nation of murderers.
Historians condemn Goldhagen for both the problematic aspects & the popular appeal of his work, and Dean records a litany of historiographical complaints. Goldhagen has not seem to have mastered secondary sources in field, and he demonstrates little familiarity with Holocaust scholarship and available primary sources. He fails to acknowledge most other scholars and demonstrates little respect for competing interpretations with which he is familiar, merely dismissing them. Goldhagen takes no account of more recent studies that focus on anti-Semitism & ideological indoctrination, and strips the genocide of its socio-economic & political context, neglecting the role of the state. He also fails to place data in comparative historical perspective, ignores gains Jews made in Germany before 1933. Dean judges that Goldhagen thereby returns to German exceptionalism at best, and ahistorical speculation at worst.
While the popular appeal of Goldhagen may be in his reduction of the Holocaust to a moral struggle, he creates a larger problem in his mobilization of identification with victims and perpetrators, causing both moral outrage and moral numbness. He derives his moral authority from the lurid narrative, and places the Holocaust as a stepping stone to a morally understandable universe. Although he portrays the victims still sympathetically, Dean argues that it comes at the cost of analytical sophistication and historical veracity. Dean states that the real difficulty comes in Goldhagen's logic that refuses any simple choice between moral numbness which is equated with voyeurism and moral integrity which is equated with empathy. She then proposes that the venom directed at Goldhagen could be construed as a dodge by the historical community of the question of how best to represent knowledge of the Holocaust.
The alternate strategy that the historians employ is of suspending judgment while portraying victims at a great emotional distance & generating empathy via cognitive apprehension of the event. But she points out that material provided not only overwhelms analytical tasks but also power of traditional narrative style & aims. Dean quotes Christopher Browning on the aims of historical writing, describing it as "to instruct about the frailty of the human condition and the necessity for civic virtue" She then asks how we avoid cognitive numbing in content & narrative of work while remaining faithful to evidentiary standards and narrative conventions of historiography?
To answer this, Dean explores two works, Inga Clendinnen's Reading the Holocaust and Omar Bartov's Mirrors of Destruction. Clendinnen seeks a more traditional narrative motivated by a desire to avoid the emotional and analytical paralysis. But if we retain our faith in rationality & explicability of all things, we can give the monstrous a human dimension. Clendinnen's narrative is about triumph of humanity through the victims who nobly suffer, behave & die with dignity. Dean criticizes Clendinenn for rendering SS so rational and pragmatic they become the automatons she insists they aren't. And while her insistence on rationality expresses a desire for no horror, but instead creates a normalization of horror.
Clendinnen says historians "are the foot soldiers in the slow business of understanding our species better, and thereby extending the role of reason and humanity in human affairs"
Ergo, isn't this what looking into terror and moving beyond bafflement all about? The moral rhetoric of dignity and religious rhetoric of sacrifice merge imperceptibly "they died so that we might know."
Bartov, on the other hand, says historian's struggle is "provide a picture of the past as a model for the future" and thus determine "what will be remembered and what will recede forever into oblivion" above all a struggle to keep the ideal of human dignity alive. His story is about humanity's unfulfilled potential to do good. While Clendinnen's work links collective memory to production of civic virtue here & now, Bartov forges identification through moving calls to action, and according to Dean, is more successful at achieving accurate representation of victims. Dean states that "this powerful restorative mission imperceptibly defines discussions of what good history is as well as the mission of historical scholarship." Most importantly to Dean, these works (especially Bartov's) prove that the efforts of Holocaust historians to draw on dignity and empathy are not necessarily bound to fail.
Dean starts to answer the third question ("How might we understand historians' invocation of indifference when addressing bystanders of Nazi crimes?") by referencing the Amnesty International's statement that many people make conscious effort to not know what is happening. Believing it best to remain ignorant, they avoid making difficult moral choices. Dean says that Holocaust showed up the terrible insufficiency of supposedly natural human attributes of pity and that while thinkers conceived indifference as normal human response to distant others, it is still considered ethically irresponsible.
One of the most important parts of the third chapter is where Dean uses David Bankier's statement that the German people's "deliberate escape into privacy & ignorance did not save public from being aware of criminality" (pg.85) which she builds into the concept that knowledge generates guilt, but that generates more repression rather than moral action, and can be seen as a spiraling effect. She looks at German cultural acceptance of legalized anti-Semitism, but that the disapproval of Kristallnacht is then ascribed to the dislike of disorder. Then, if we look at the German people's support for a regime's criminality they aware of, indifference becomes not merely matter of ideological indoctrination or self-protective numbing, or even a calculated retreat, but more active form of uncaring.
Indifference is a symbolic erasure that is palpable to those who disappear. To delineate indifference as an active form of complicity that is a form of symbolic rather than literal murder, this then restores the particular responsibility and agency of the bystander. We must, Dean says, try to understand problem of indifference from point of view of victim. (pg. 104)
The fourth question addressed is why did the intellectuals associate Hitler's cruelty and Nazism with male homosexuality in spite of Nazis' vicious treatment of gay men, and why does it resonate today? This link seems easily dismissed, yet has enough appeal to be a recurring theme since the first smear campaign was spread by the German left. Basically, it's an easy explanation that Nazism was born of nexus between Protestantism, socioeconomic instability, and cultural/social forms of capitalist domination that made a sort of radical freedom possible, and that then Germans longed for submission, being terrified of that freedom & aloneness. It then embeds Nazism in potentially universal psychic (that is, homosexual) patterns.
The latent homosexual argument is particularly hard to shake, as it is deduced that Nazism is a linked to latent homosexuality of German culture by discovering it in Nazis or verifying real homos joined the Nazi party. Assuming that there are real and latent homosexuals in the Nazi party then constitutes empirical proof of the German cultural unconscious because the German identification with Hitler offers a neat explanation for the normal social process of group identification that brought about selective constriction of empathy. Specifically, the homosexual underground forms group apart, a model for helping members and denying outsiders. Also, Dean notes that Hitler's "latent homosexuality" cuts him down to size. Hitler no longer escapes meaning but menace still alive as Nazism can then be seen as a socio-cultural disease.
However, merely deducing presence of latent homosexuality by observation of Nazi brutalities is specious reasoning at best, and the relationship between homosexuality and murder is oddly construed. But Dean notes that latent homosexuality describes how empathic failure is inseparable from repressed guilty pleasure in which suffering of others becomes the object of fascination and eroticized gratification. (pg. 131) Homosexuality is a tautology for Hitler's magnetism, Nazism, genocide, but as an explanatory tool it is tautological and vacuous, Dean ultimately rules.
At the conclusion Dean says that these "essays have sought to expose a new narrative about numbness as a profound cultural investment in not fully confronting failure of empathy," and I think she has succeeded. She works throughout with the historiography of Holocaust historians, both in their methodological and theoretical work, but I think she explores this genre because it is so challenging, and here many shallow assumptions of the nature of historians' mission founders on the incredible material. Dean is able in this work to show much of what is important in the mission of historical research.
I find her quote of Robert Cover's statement that "in almost people social cues may overcome or suppress the revulsion to violence under certain conditions" to be one of her most important themes, especially in relation to her exploration of erasure of victims' identity. The exploration of violence in politesse, either by the conversational generosity of Albert Speer to a Jewish author of a biography of Hitler, or the ordinary Germans' dissolution of the Jewish friends they are talking or even helping at that very moment, as she says, restores agency to the bystander in the social murder of the minority, that makes the actual murder to come possible. Perhaps the most important lesson for a historian to come away with is not to abandon certain concepts (pornography, latent homosexuality, numbness) but to understand the problem of indifference from point of view of victim. ( )
  Devin | Jul 6, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 080148944X, Paperback)

When we are confronted with images of and memoirs from the Holocaust and subsequent cases of vast cruelty and suffering, is our impulse to empathize put at risk by the possibility of becoming numb to horror? Carolyn J. Dean's provocative new book addresses the ways we evade our failures of empathy in the face of massive suffering: Has exposure (or overexposure) to representations of pain damaged our ability to feel? Do the frequent claims that artistic representations of extreme cruelty are pornographic allow us to dodge the real issues that we must confront in attempting to come to terms with suffering? Does an excess of terror place constraints on compassion?Dean examines the very different representations of suffering found in visual media, history writing, cultural criticism, and journalism that grapple with the assumption that Americans and Western Europeans have been rendered numb and their appropriate human responses blunted by the events of the past century. The Fragility of Empathy after the Holocaust will be of interest to all readers concerned with contemporary "victim culture," Holocaust representation, and humanism.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:32 -0400)

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