An exploration of the links within the study of history between experience and identity, history and various theories of subjectivity, extreme events and their representation, institutional structures and the knowledge produced within them.
This article discusses together two recent prize-winning works of epic proportions that have received much attention: Saul Friedländer’s two-volume historical study Nazi Germany and the Jews and Jonathan Littell’s novel Les Bienveillantes , the former of which focuses on victims and the latter on perpetrators of the “Final Solution.” I provide a critical analysis of Littell’s novel, especially with respect to its seemingly fatalistic mingling of erotic and genocidal motifs and its disavowal or underestimation of the difficulty and necessity of (...) understanding victims of the Nazi genocide. My analysis raises the question of the extent to which the notoriety of the novel may be due to the way it instantiates influential approaches to both literature and the Holocaust in terms of an aesthetic of the sublime, excess, radical ambiguity , and fatalistic entry into an incomprehensible “heart of darkness.” Crucial here is the notion that an object both demands representation or explanation and ultimately is beyond comprehension, narrative, or even words. I also reevaluate the bases for the justified praise accorded Friedländer’s masterwork and question certain claims made on its behalf by commentators, especially with respect to literary and historiographical innovation. In so doing, I explore and defend the role of critical theory in relation to historical narrative. (shrink)
The difficulty in historical research is to develop an exchange with the "other" that is both sensitive to transferential displacement and open to the challenge of the "other's" voice. Contemporary sociocultural history has often tended simply to reverse the assumptions of an abstracted history of ideas and replicate its documentary treatment of artifacts as symptoms of society and economy rather than of mind. Its populism replicates the scapegoating propensities of populism in society. Even the best historians, Carl Schorske and Robert (...) Darnton, have tended to deny the contestatory dimensions of high culture and the challenge of forging new links between it and popular culture. Everyone is a mentalito~ case, but certain artifacts are exceptional products of cultural activity with critical power and an uncanny ability to play uncommon variations on commonplace things. (shrink)
The focus of this essay will be on Freud, although my approach is informed by certain aspects of “post-Freudian” analysis. In the works of Freud, however, history in the ordinary sense often seems lost in the shuffle between ontogeny and phylogeny. When Freud, in the latter part of his life, turned to cultural history, he was primarily concerned with showing how the evolution of civilization on a macrological level might be understood through—or even seen as an enactment of—psychoanalytic principles and (...) processes. And he openly acknowledged the speculative nature of his inquiry into prehistory, “archaic” society, and their putative relation to the civilizing process.One might nonetheless argue that throughout Freud’s work there are theoretical bases and fruitful leads for a more delimited investigation of specific historical processes for which documentation is, to a greater or lesser extent, available. This kind of investigation is, moreover, required to test the pertinence of Freud’s speculative and at times quasi-mythological initiatives. At present one can perhaps do little more than tentatively suggest how such an investigation might proceed and the sorts of issues it might conceivably illuminate. For its elaboration has been relatively underdeveloped in the research of those who looks to Freud for guidance. Dominick LaCapra is GGoldwin Smith Professor of European Intellectual History at Cornell University. His most recent books are “Madame Bovary” on Trial , Rethinking Intellectual History , and History and Criticism . He has just completed a book-length manuscript entitled “History, Politics, and the Novel.”. (shrink)
The introduction and appendices to Habermas's texts reveal, both explicitly and implicitly, some inner contestations within his social theory. Habermas attempts to ground critical theory in a philosophical anthropology based upon quasi-transcendental cognitive interests and an ideal speech situation involving a consensus theory of truth. Unlike other expositors of dialectical theory, Habermas fails to address systematically the notion of supplementarity. Thus the dichotomous typologies of his analysis appear frozen within the existing ideological framework and some are in conflict with the (...) emancipatory aspect of his theory. Habermas must clarify the overlapping character of his categories and recognize the logic of harmony implicit within his analyses in order to make his theory compatible with his criticism. (shrink)