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Criticism 44.4 (2002) 438-441
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Writing History, Writing Trauma by Dominick LaCapra. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Pp. xvi + 226. $42.20 cloth; $18.95 paper.
Writing History, Writing Trauma marks less a new direction than a continuation, and in some senses an elaboration, of Dominick LaCapra's work over the last decade. It extends both his interest in Holocaust representation and his long-standing debate with his own discipline about the nature and purposes of historical study, and it turns to the same modes of psychoanalytic interpretation on which he relied in Representing the Holocaust (1994) and History and Memory after Auschwitz (1998). For LaCapra, any critical apprehension of twentieth-century history must have at its center a theory of trauma; trauma constructs the subjectivity of survivors of this history and demands the deliberate construction of a particular subjectivity for the "secondary witness" as well. He thus turns to the Holocaust as an historical "limit event," exemplifying a contemporary "vision of history . . . as traumatic, especially as a symptomatic response to a felt implication in excess and disorientation" (x-xi). Its occurrence challenges the most fundamental principles of Enlightenment self-understanding (176), just as the effort to interpret it challenges the most basic assumptions of historiographical methodology, indeed, the very existence of history as a discipline. "Should historiography," he asks, "rely only on standard operating procedures, however necessary some of them (such as footnoting) may be, when it confronts such limit events and attempts to address the problem of trauma in its bearing on different groups or subject positions?" (205).
Writing History, Writing Trauma reiterates LaCapra's long-standing critique of "objectivist" history, that is, any neutral, comprehensive survey of the past that does not recognize its own implication in the act of understanding. At the same time, it rejects the constructivist assertion that truth claims can be made only in relation to discrete events, not in relation to the higher-level interpretive structures within which historiography embeds them. For LaCapra, much about the past is determinable; it is the inditing of the past's reality into "critically tested . . . empirically accurate, accessible memory of significant events [End Page 438] which becomes part of the public sphere" (95) that the historian, particularly the historian of trauma, should pursue. Doing this requires more than simply recording the past, it demands a disciplined empathy with the traumatized, "understood in terms of attending to, even trying, in limited ways, to recapture the possibly split-off, affective dimension of the experience of others" (40). The survivor is a "living archive" (92), whose potential contribution to public memory must be solicited with ethical sensitivity, but whose testimony can and should be felt as emotionally and intellectually disruptive. LaCapra terms this sensitivity an "empathic unsettlement" that entails "being responsive to the traumatic experience of others" (41), while insisting that an empathy that, "resists full identification with, and appropriation of, the experience of the other would depend both on one's own potential for traumatization . . . and on one's recognition that another's loss is not identical to one's own loss" (79). This text looks forward to the approaching era of Holocaust criticism in which interpreters will have only texts and artifacts with which to reconstruct the past. If ethical questions are to remain central concerns for understanding the Holocaust, then these must assume different forms when all criticism will be by and for secondary witnesses; whether empathic unsettlement may serve as a bridge to a new hermeneutics is the central question raised by LaCapra's text.
LaCapra deploys empathic unsettlement within a psychoanalytic framework of pathology and potential rehabilitation (in the form of collective memory). Freud's distinction between mourning and melancholia—the former a restorative "working through" of traumatic loss, the latter an "acting out" that remains fixated upon a traumatic event—can be applied to the subjectivity of both the survivor and the secondary witness, though differently for each. In the "tense relations between procedures of objective reconstruction of the past and empathic response" (87) there may appear "the tendency to repeat or enact...