Required Materials: Domnick LaCapra,
"Representing the Holocaust
in Probing the Limits of Representation
  Eric Santner,
"History Beyond the Pleasure Principle"
in Probing the Limits of Representation
Optional Materials: Shoshana Felman,
"Education and Crisis"
in Testimony

THIS CLASS was a rather special one for me, not only because of the difficult nature of the subject but because of the special circumstances of the course itself. The class was funded by a Lilly Retention Initiative Grant of $10,000, plus $1,000 for library acquisitions. The grant paid for a number of special events, including internationally-renowned visiting speakers, the production of a play by Brecht, a visit to two Holocaust memorials in Chicago, and the construction of a class memorial. (Click here for the original class home page.) The goal of the Lilly Retention Initiative at Purdue U is to provide special learning experiences for the very best incoming freshman at the university. Given that this class' group was made up of such strong students, the following lesson plan is designed to be rather challenging.

One of the ways that I tried to make sense of the Holocaust for my students was through the lens of psychoanalysis. Students had an early introduction to some of these issues in the first two weeks, when they read excerpts from two chapters by Shoshana Felman in the book she co-wrote with Dori Laub, entitled Testimony. By reading that book's first chapter, "Education and Crisis," my students were forced to think self-reflexively about the difficulties facing a teacher before such a subject. As Felman explains in that chapter, her own graduate students at Princeton responded to the traumatic nature of the subject in ways that resemble the responses of people who had actually gone through the trauma of such an event. Such reflexivity allowed my students to stay conscious (rather than unconscious) of the ways that the subject may be affecting their emotions and ability to make sense of the historical events.

On March 29, after more than two months on the subject, we returned to the question of psychoanalysis. This time, students read two excerpts:

  • 1) Dominick LaCapra's "Representing the Holocaust," in which LaCapra argues that our relationship to traumatic events in history should resemble the relationship between a psychoanalyst and his patient during the "talking cure." If we do not come to terms with such traumatic events, LaCapra argues, the past is liable to repeat itself in the same way that a neurotic feels compelled to repeat traumatic events in his or her past.
  • 2) Eric L. Santner's "History beyond the Pleasure Principle," in which Santner theorizes the applicability of Freud's theories about trauma to cinematic representations of the Holocaust.

In class, I then took this opportunity to think through the issue of Holocaust representation. As with the first few classes discussing Shoshana Felman, my class thus had an opportunity to discuss their own experiences dealing with the Holocaust as a class subject. The synopsis below feels more like a class lecture; however, the ideas were reached together with a group of very special students.

Synopsis of Class Discussion
(for the original class, click here):

Given that we have been skirting psychoanalytical terminology all semester, I decided today to give you a primer on a few terms that we have seen popping up from time to time and which are used by Dominick LaCapra and Eric Santner in the articles you read for today, including mourning, projection, the return of the repressed, repetition compulsion, transference, and fetishism.

Psychoanalysis provides us with the best model available for understanding trauma, which is, of course, an integral issue in dealing with the issue of the Holocaust. In particular, we discussed the tendency of human beings to repeat traumatic events either in the unconscious or through language and dialogue. There are two possible recourses in dealing with trauma:

1) one can deal with the trauma through the work of mourning. This entails an engagement with the trauma and an effort to deal with it in meaningful ways. It also tends to entail a degree of emotion, since one aspect of the original trauma is that it tends to divest you of emotion, to make you feel deadened inside. As so many Holocaust survivors state, one felt as if one were emotionally empty in the extermination camps. The emotion comes only later, sometimes not until the very act of relating what happened. As Abraham Bomba puts it in the clip we saw from Shoah,

I tell you something. To have a feeling about that... it was very hard to feel anything, because working there day and night between dead people, between bodies, your feeling disappeared, you were dead. You had no feeling at all. (107)

Part of the goal of the psychoanalytical talking cure is to make the patient experience the trauma again through the process of transference, thus allowing the patient to feel again and thus to come alive once again. As Eric Santner explains it, "Both the child trying to master his separateness from the mother and the trauma victim returning, in dream, to the site of shock are locked in a repetition compulsion: an effort to recuperate, in the controlled context of symbolic behavior, the Angstbereitschaft or readiness to feel anxiety, absent during the initial shock or loss" (147). Shoshana Felman made a similar point about Srebnik's return to Chelmno (represented in Shoah) and his decision to speak to Lanzmann about his experience: "It is therefore only now, in returning with Lanzmann to Chelmno, that Srebnik in effect is returning from the dead (from his own deadness) and can become, for the first time, a witness to himself, as well as an articulate and for the first time fully conscious witness of what he had been witnessing during the war" (258). This is the work of mourning that anyone must go through in order effectively to deal with trauma and incorporate it meaningfully into one's life. Of course, we have as a class been going through the same process in dealing with the Holocaust together.

As LaCapra suggests, transference in a more general sense can characterize one's relationship with historical trauma as well. What is important, according to LaCapra, is to avoid a sense of history as something closed and complete (the "way it really was," the claim of positivist historiography, which LaCapra discusses on p. 111 and which I explained in my last class lecture) but always to engage that past as something open, as something in dialogue with the present. LaCapra suggests that we must approach the past, specifically the traumatic events of the past, in the same way we approach the psychoanalytical cure. We work through it in the present in order effectively to complete the work of mourning and thus lead to positive results in the future. Transferential relations also apply to the witness, to testimony, as Shoshana Felman makes clear. As she puts it, "it takes two to witness the unconscious" (15). Lanzmann could be said to walk each of his witnesses through a kind of psychoanalytical cure; in the case of Abraham Bomba, he even has Bomba relate his experience as a barber at the gas chamber while he is cutting someone's hair (thus forcing the transferential relation). Transferential relations and testimony could also be said to apply to pedagogy—to the teaching of the Holocaust. Here is Felman again:

In the era of the Holocaust, of Hiroshima, of Vietnam—in the age of testimony—teaching, I would venture to suggest, must in turn testify, make something happen, and not just transmit a passive knowledge, pass on information that is preconceived, substantified, believed to be known in advance, misguidedly believed, that is, to be (exclusively) a given.

There is a parallel between this kind of teaching (in its reliance on the testimonial process) and psychoanalysis (in its reliance on the psychoanalytic process), insofar as both this teaching and psychoanalysis have, in fact, to live through a crisis. Both are called upon to be performative, and not just cognitive, insofar as they both strive to produce, and to enable, change. Both this kind of teaching and psychoanalysis are interested not merely in new information, but, primarily, in the capacity of their recipients to transform themselves in function of the newness of that information....

It is the teacher's task to recontextualize the crisis and to put it back into perspective, to relate the present to the past and to the future and to thus reintegrate the crisis in a transformed frame of meaning. (53-54)

2) The other way of dealing with trauma is to ignore it, to avoid dealing with it, perhaps by pretending that it doesn't exist and doesn't affect you. The problem with this approach is that it always fails, and inevitably leads to the return of the repressed. One might be constrained, for example, to relive the trauma in one's dreams or, unwittingly, in one's actions, hence repetition compulsion. The danger resulting from not dealing with trauma, in other words, is the very possibility of that trauma's repetition either symbolically or even in action. (A perfect example is the fact that most child- and wife-abusers were themselves victims of familty abuse as children.) As Richard Wolin explained in the reading for last class, there is an analogous danger with countries like Germany:

The work of mourning is essential, not as "penance" but as an indispensable prelude to the formation of autonomous and mature identities for both nations and the individuals who comprise them. As Freud showed in his classic study, "Mourning and Melancholia," unless the labor of mourning has been successfully completed—that is, unless they have sincerely come to terms with the past—individuals exhibit a marked incapacity to live in the present. Instead, they betreay a "melancholic" fixation on their "loss," which prevents them from getting on with the business of life. The neurotic symptom-formations that result... can be readily transmitted to the character-structures of future generations, which only compounds the difficulty of confronting the historical trauma that wounded the collective ego. And thus the crimes of the past tend to fade into oblivion, unmourned and thus uncomprehended.

Instances of collective repression are, moreover, far from innocent. They prevent the deformations of national character and social structure that facilitated a pathological course of development from coming to light; instead, these abnormalities remain buried deep within the recesses of the collective psyche, from which they may emerge at some later date in historically altered form. (xi-xii)

One strategy for not dealing with trauma is what Eric Santner terms "narrative fetishism." Here's how he describes it in the article you read for today:

By narrative fetishism I mean the construction and deployment of a narrative consciously or unconsciously designed to expunge the traces of the trauma or loss that called that narrative into being in the first place. The use of narrative as fetish may be contrasted with that rather different mode of symbolic behavior that Freud called Trauerarbeit or the "work of mourning." Both narrative fetishism and mourning are responses to loss, to a past that refuses to go away due to its traumatic impact. The work of mourning is a process of elaborating and integrating the reality of loss or traumatic shock by remembering and repeating it in symbolically and dialogically mediated doses; it is a process of translating, troping, and figuring loss and, as Dominick LaCapra has noted in his chapter, may encompass "a relation between language and silence that is in some sense ritualized." Narrative fetishism, by contrast, is the way an inability or refusal to mourn emplots traumatic events; it is a strategy of undoing, in fantasy, the need for mourning by simulating a condition of intactness, typically by situating the site and origin of loss elsewehere. Narrative fetishism releases one from the burden of having to reconstitute one's self-identity under "posttraumatic" conditions; in narrative fetishism, the "post" in indefinitely postponed. (144)

Now, we've arguably already seen this strategy of narrative fetishism in Nazi kitsch, in which one contructs an evil stereotype of Nazi Germany in order to feel good about our own society, thus keeping us from dealing with the trauma in symbolically significant ways that can ensure that such horrors will not occur again. The question that we must ask ourselves in the next two weeks is whether the various memorials we'll be seeing consitute a healthy "translating, troping, and figuring" of loss, which aids our ability to deal with this trauma of our recent history. Or do they constitute an example of fetishism, and thus a way for us to avoid dealing with the trauma in meaningful and effective ways?

The thing to remember is that this trauma is not something experienced only by Germany but by the entire Western world given that it created a rift in our history that forces us to question all those things that failed to prevent Germany from following (and perhaps even helped that country follow) its path towards barbarity, for the fact is that our society is structured along similar lines as Germany in 1933 (particularly when one considers such issues as the monocratic type of bureaucratic administration discussed by Max Weber in our readings or the panoptic society discussed by Michel Foucault). It is also a fact that the twentieth century was a period filled with trauma (genocides, world wars, nuclear holocausts, etc.), so that, in a real sense, we are now living in not just the postmodern but a posttraumatic condition. Perhaps it is only through the work of mourning (through the effort to make sense of these traumas in our collective history) that we can avoid an unconscious compulsion to repeat them.




Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Lesson Plans for Psychoanalysis: The Holocaust." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.[date of last update, which you can find on the home page]. Purdue U. [date you accessed the site]. <>.







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