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  • Recollecting Violence:Michael Rothberg's Multidirectional Memory
  • Lissa Skitolsky (bio)
Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009.

In defending uniqueness, I am not simultaneously endorsing the injudicious claim that the Holocaust is more evil than alternative occurrences of extensive and systematic persecution, organized violence, and mass death. The character of the uniqueness that I am prepared to champion is not tied to a scale, a hierarchy, of evil.

–Steven Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Volume I

The aim is to go beyond the simple comparative history of different genocidal phenomena, which has characterized much of the political science scholarship, and to look at interrelations between cases of genocide and the polities that perpetrate genocide.

–Donald Bloxham, The Final Solution: A Genocide

The interdisciplinary field of Holocaust studies has always been conceptually isolated from postcolonial and African American studies, due in no small part to the rhetoric of "uniqueness" that, as Michael Rothberg points out in Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, has unduly limited the expression of collective memory to a competitive, zero-sum logic in which various victim groups fight for recognition. Although those who propound this rhetoric often follow Steven Katz in claiming that the "uniqueness" of the Holocaust need not lead to a hierarchy of suffering or evil, Rothberg suggests that on the terrain of collective memory, one cannot easily separate claims of some special historical uniqueness from claims of some special historical victimization. And these claims have both ossified the scholarly boundaries erected between disciplines that focus on distinct sites of violence and, according to Rothberg, obscured the actual nature of collective memory, political violence, and traumatic experience.

In contrast to Daniel Lévy and Natan Sznaider in The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age (2006), Rothberg is not so much concerned with the sudden cosmopolitization of Holocaust memory as with the fact that the Holocaust has always served as a catalyst for other types of traumatic memories. The transnational, intercultural relation between these memories and memories of the Shoah lays bare an alternative model for remembrance and the politics of the public sphere.

Multidirectional Memory serves as the psycho-cultural counterpart to Donald Bloxham's recent book, The Final Solution: A Genocide (2009), insofar as Rothberg explains how comparative genocide is even possible; that is, he provides a model of memory that allows us to understand how we can imagine different sites of violence together without reducing them to either the same type of suffering or to utterly separate events. The first sort of reduction leads to the "universalization" of the Holocaust and provokes skepticism about the emerging field of comparative genocide, while the second sort often leads to what Rothberg calls "an ugly contest of comparative victimization" (7) and a competition over what appear to be scarce resources, such as land for memorials. In this sense, comparative history has been thwarted by the model of "competitive memory" that, in the case of the Holocaust, is supported by the rhetoric of uniqueness. The development of Holocaust memory is the central example of the sort of "multidirectional memory" that Rothberg presents, and he uncovers a history of art and scholarship that acts as a sort of counter-tradition to the more orthodox rendition of this development. For he unearths texts that examine the connections and interactions between Nazi Germany, slavery, colonialism, and decolonization in a way that illuminates the revelatory and meaningful nature of otherwise seemingly accidental and arbitrary historical juxtapositions. Throughout his book, Rothberg skillfully makes use of a variety of interdisciplinary sources (primarily from the 1950s and 1960s) to chart the alternative terrain of multidirectional memory that has emerged in the wake of the Holocaust.

For example, Rothberg's novel reading of the correlation between Nazi ideology and colonialism as first articulated by Hannah Arendt and Aimé Césaire demonstrates that productive lines of thought can emerge from this sort of juxtaposition, even though this reading also shows that making such juxtapositions has its limits. In this case, his analysis reveals how Arendt's multidirectional approach to the question of totalitarianism was still hampered by her lingering Eurocentrism, while...

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