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Cultural Critique 51 (2002) 241-245

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Traumatic Realism:
The Demands of Holocaust Representation

Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation by Michael Rothberg University of Minnesota Press, 2000

In Traumatic Realism Michael Rothberg engages the question "how to comprehend the Holocaust and its relationship to contemporary culture" by reevaluating the function of realism in representing the Holocaust (1)—an event generally assumed to pose unique challenges to realism and to representation. Through a range of readings—literary, theoretical, and cultural—that engage with these challenges, Rothberg examines three points of intervention that he designates realism, modernism, and postmodernism. Not merely temporal periodizations, these designations imply diverse approaches to the function and presence of the real, the work of representation, and the position of the subject: realism, associated with the victim, demands documentation; modernism, associated with the bystander, reflects on the formal limits of representation; and postmodernism, the realm of those born after the Holocaust, engages with public circulation of discourses in a political and economic context.

The first part of the book considers the Holocaust's impact on modernism, specifically in its demand for a rethinking of space and time; Rothberg focuses on Theodor Adorno and Maurice Blanchot. The second part engages texts by Holocaust survivors (Ruth Klüger and Charlotte Delbo) and explores the Holocaust's impact on the function of the real in the work of representation. The final part explores cultural sources that partake in the problematic presence of the Holocaust in a postmodern world, such as texts by Philip Roth and Art Spiegelman, memorials such as the American Holocaust Museum, and films such as Schindler's List. Tying these disparate approaches, periods, media, and contexts together is "traumatic realism," [End Page 241] Rothberg's term for the presence and operation of an extreme and traumatic event in the quotidian continuum of everyday reality, and it is this term and its efficacy for Rothberg's project that are of most interest here.

Rothberg's concept of traumatic realism traverses some crucial fault lines in Holocaust studies. By situating traumatic realism as a productive response to the "realist" and "antirealist" debate that circumscribes the degree to which the Holocaust is conceived as a subject of epistemology, Rothberg addresses the uneasy coexistence of the ordinary and the extraordinary that underlines this bifurcation. The realist position—emblematized by Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" theory—suggests that the Holocaust can be approached by existing epistemological premises: realism can make the Holocaust seem "ordinary," a subject of knowledge like any other. The antirealist position, characterized by such sacrilization projects as Claude Lanzmann's and Elie Wiesel's, poses the Holocaust as an abyss within which all structures of knowledge are rendered irrelevant and obsolete, maintaining the Holocaust in the arena of the extreme—an arena that is crucially heterogeneous to the epistemological regimes that inform and maintain "ordinary" human culture (4-5). Trauma, for Rothberg, offers a way out of the realist and antirealist dichotomy by performing the presence of extremity in the everyday. "Beyond this deadlock between the 'abyss' and the banality of evil," writes Rothberg, "it is in the nonreductive articulation of the extreme and the everyday that I find the possibility for a reworking of realism under the sign of trauma" (118). Two questions rise out of Rothberg's project: why realism? and how trauma?

Rothberg's response to the first question—why reintroduce the question of realism in a study of the representations of an event so often posed as the harbinger of contemporary critiques of the realist agenda—opens some important avenues in Holocaust studies. Varying approaches to and problematizations of what constitutes the "real" (or whether the "real" needs to be questioned, constituted, or problematized at all) determine disciplinary differences and maintain them. As a result, approaches to the Holocaust remain locked in a "multidisciplinarity" in which distinctions between disciplines impede constructive approaches to the common subject matter. It is these diverse approaches to realism, says Rothberg, that maintain the [End Page 242] incommensurability between Holocaust scholars and cultural theorists (3). A crucial objective of Traumatic Realism...


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