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  • Terror, Representation, and Postmodern Lessons in Hitler Studies
  • Alan Nadel (bio)
Review of: Karen Engle, Seeing Ghosts: 9/11 and the Visual Imagination. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens UP, 2009. Print.
Jeffrey Melnick , 9/11 Culture. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.
Marc Redfield , The Rhetoric of Terror: Reflections on 9/11 and the War on Terror. New York: Fordham UP, 2009. Print.
Phillip E. Wegner , Life between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2009. Print.

Hapless Jack Gladney seems to have wandered into the postmodern world of Don DeLillo's White Noise directly out a David Lodge novel. The chair of a Department of Hitler Studies in a small Midwestern college, Gladney feels an obligation to remain neutral about Hitler (a position in part facilitated by Gladney's inability to read German). What makes Gladney a man ahead of his time is DeLillo's reliance on the fact that "Hitler Studies" is painfully anachronistic, a point illustrated by the way the term "Nazi" seems to have lost its intellectual content. "Nazism: Hitler Studies:: Poststructuralism: Postmodernism" might be the answer to a hypothetical SAT question, but in what year? In 1934, before SAT questions or postmodernism existed? In a non-existent future, after the moment when Hitler Studies will have had emerged as an institutionalized option of the liberal education? Is Nazism the nexus of a potentially renewable intellectual engine, we are forced to ask, or simply a leveling pejorative, the relic of a bygone moment (except in the Vatican) when the word signified—as does today the word Republican (or Democrat, Tory, Liberal, or Socialist)—a viable political movement with issues and agendas? The problem of Hitler Studies, both for Gladney and for DeLillo's readers, is to construct an imaginary space wherein Hitler Studies attributes to an academic field a vitality and a legitimacy that it denies to Hitler himself. Constructing this space fissures the seam where imagining is cemented to conceiving, for we can certainly imagine Hitler Studies by applying paradigms from other "interdisciplinary" academic programs: conferences and journals clustered around loci of mystery and controversy, requirements of the major, curricula that partition and redistribute privileged topics along temporal, geographic or disciplinary axes (e.g., "Hitler's Art and Nazi Aesthetics," "Hitler's Rhetoric," "Hitler and Globalization," "The Semiotics of the Hitlerian," "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," etc.).

What is so discomforting—in both the best and worst sense of that word—about the plethora of writing on "9/11" is that it evokes the same contradictions as does the (fictive) world containing a place for Hitler Studies. Can we study the event of 9/11 with Jack Gladney's intellectual and ethical distance, and if not, can we be said to be "studying" it—as opposed to invoking, or denouncing, or mourning, or memorializing it—at all? All four of the books at hand evoke this question, and even more so in conjunction. Jeffrey Melnick (9/11 Culture), treating the destruction of the twin towers and the panoply of its cultural fallout as a series of questions, comes closest to Jack Gladney's objectivity. Philip E. Wegner (Life between Two Deaths, 1989-2001) resembles Gladney as cultural historian, and Marc Redfield (The Rhetoric of Terror) manifests Gladney's philosophical doubt. Karen Engle (Seeing Ghosts) resembles Gladney's haunted aspect in his uncertainty about how to interpret signs and meanings, how to distinguish in his own perceptions between the visionary and the hallucinatory, and in his own conclusions between insight and paranoia. Melnick raises better questions, to be sure, than Gladney, and Wegner is a much better cultural historian. Redfield and Engle, similarly, are more genuinely philosophical than Gladney, and both are a hell of a lot smarter. All four authors, moreover—like those who try to ward off misfortunes by imagining that they are about to occur—express awareness of their awkward positionality in relation to their topic. But it is still hard to shake off the disquieting concern that all these books exist in, or at least are haunted by, the hypothetical space of Hitler Studies, since the very act of imagining Hitler...

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