This special issue of the Yale Journal of Criticism on the Holocaust has been several years (at least two and half!) in the making.1 Our original interest as expressed in the call for papers was in finding work “drawing on historical, interpretive, and comparative approaches” and in placing a “particular metacritical emphasis on the theoretical uses made of the Holocaust by these approaches.” The call elicited an outstanding group of papers which, we believe, will help to reconfigure major debates surrounding the representation of the Holocaust.
As Geoffrey Hartman remarks in an interview on witnessing Holocaust video testimony (conducted by Jennifer Ballengee for this issue), “the Holocaust” is being disseminated in more media and in a wider formal arena than ever before. Now that this material has entered the public sphere, how is it to be interpreted? From film, video and photography to internet to literary criticism, philosophy, comparative history, religious studies, and beyond—and in any combination—we are confronted with an expanding array of interpretive matrices and responsibilities.
One way to respond to the questions that arise when the images and associations of the Holocaust come to be disseminated throughout the culture at large—and particularly in popular culture—is to try to restore to Holocaust experience a special status. How the experience is special, and to whom it especially belongs, are questions that contributors explore. Sometimes that special experience may be said to be a mark that sets apart those who engage with it through art or scholarship or other kinds of making, even when they cannot claim to have witnessed the disaster itself. We see one version of this in the notion of the “second generation survivor,” where the children of those who were incarcerated in the camps are represented—or represent themselves—as bearing a direct relation to the event of the Holocaust, even replicating, in certain ways, their parents’ experience of that event.
While many writers assert that children can absorb their parents’ experience independently of their parents’ own storytelling, the connection is more commonly theorized as emerging through representation. As Joanna Spiro puts it, “the representation of Holocaust events, necessarily ‘fictional’ for one who has no direct knowledge of them, is the one Wiesel calls perjury, Lanzmann calls transgression, and children of Holocaust victims regard as taboo. Yet it is this act of representation-to-oneself that all those in the second generation and [End Page 1] those generations to follow, who find themselves implicated in an experience they are barred from knowing directly, are sentenced to engage in, or suppress, or both.” In theorizing what Spiro calls “representation-to-oneself,” the question of dissemination comes centrally, though not unproblematically, to be addressed. While conserving the marking function of the experience, and the setting-apart belonging to the actual survivor, representation of the Holocaust nevertheless has come to be understood by writers like Perec and by scholars like Spiro as a mediated sign or mark of experience, even of Holocaust experience itself.
Because of this mediation through representation, it is not only within the intimacy of the family—the kind of intimacy that Bella Brodzki articulates between the mother and the daughter—that the mark of the Holocaust is imagined to be transmitted. Marianne Hirsch argues that psychological structures—screen memory, for example—that are said to characterize an individual also manifest themselves at the level of mass culture. Photographic images of the camps, repeatedly shown in the public realm, may replicate the psychological structure of traumatic experience itself. These repeated images of the camps become, in Hirsch’s account, the “screen memories” not only of those whose parents experienced the camps, but also of anyone who participates in mass culture. In contrast, Amy Hungerford challenges such formulations. Noting that trauma theory imagines representations of the Holocaust, and indeed, even language in general, as actually capable of transmitting trauma and (therefore) of creating new survivors, Hungerford argues that phenomena like Binjamin Wilkomirski’s false memoir of camp experience are an outgrowth of these kinds of beliefs about language. The question she raises is whether we can, or indeed want to, believe that literary or visual art functions to transmit rather than...