[Paleopsych] Hedgehog: Berel Lang: The History of Evil, the Holocaust, and Postmodernity

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Berel Lang: The History of Evil, the Holocaust, and Postmodernity
The Hedgehog Review - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

          Berel Lang argues for thinking about evil within a context of
    historical continuity. He finds connections and continuity between the
    pre-Holocaust and the post-Holocaust, between the modern and the
    post-modern, in the existence of a moral history, a history of evil.
    He suggests that the Holocaust be viewed as occurring within a history
    of evil (rather than as rupturing that history, as some scholars
    suggest) and as bringing into that history radically new possibilities
    for evil.

          Berel Lang is Professor of Humanities at Trinity College in
    Hartford, Connecticut. His work has spanned a wide range of topics,
    including Marxism and art, philosophical style, the humanities and the
    academy, genocide, and the Ethics of language. Most recently, he has
    focused on the Holocaust, with such books as: The Future of the
    Holocaust: Between History and Memory, Act and Idea in the Nazi
    Genocide, and Holocaust Representation: Art Within the Limits of
    History and Ethics.

          I propose to look at "evil" as postmodernity itself first looked
    at it, in contrast to reading backward to it through the baroque
    superstructure more recently built on it; that is, to consider "evil"
    as postmodernity found it before going postmodern--in this way, also
    learning something of why it decided on that career in the first
    place. The framework to be proposed here is in part a reconstruction,
    close to a genealogy, of the moral inclination or direction of
    postmodernity. Obviously, even with our own proximity to
    postmodernity's divorce from modernity (it is difficult to say exactly
    when this occurred, but it can't be long past), the lineage remains
    conjectural, although no more, I should argue, than conceptual
    genealogies ever are and, in any event, no more than the categories of
    "modernity" and "postmodernity" themselves. A view of these categories
    as historical will in any event level the playing field, if it does
    not make it quite transparent. Nor is the issue at stake a history of
    the development from one to the other as that "actually" occurred,
    since I shall be attempting only to place them against a common
    background of moral history or more specifically, the (at least, a)
    history of evil.[3]^1

          It seems to me clear that any attempt to describe a connection
    among these several factors from the vantage point of the present must
    sooner or later address the event of the Holocaust, or so consciously
    avoid it as also to address it: that extraordinary design for genocide
    which, whether or not it is unique, whether or not (more moderately)
    it was unprecedented, occludes the view, certainly the progress, of
    twentieth-century history and, more generally, of any moral (and so
    also, immoral) history that does not simply avoid this century
    altogether. For Lyotard, the Holocaust defines the break between
    modernity and postmodernity as a moral chasm marking the end of one
    and the beginning (less tendentiously, the onset) of the other.[4]^2
    This is a dramatic view of the role of the Holocaust within history in
    general, perhaps as far as one can take it without placing the
    Holocaust outside history altogether. And it is indeed to stress this
    limitation--the place of the Holocaust within history--that the
    present discussion is directed. I mean to argue, in other words, that
    notwithstanding, or more precisely, because of its moral enormity, the
    Holocaust is nonetheless to be registered and understood in empirical
    and historical terms.

          The traditional question of evil in its classical context asks
    quite simply how evil is possible--that is, given the divinely or
    morally-ordered world in which it supposedly occurs--and yields the
    (also simple) answer that evil is not possible. However one otherwise
    analyzes or depicts an event like the Holocaust, in the end, for "the
    question of evil," even that extraordinary instance of moral enormity
    makes no difference. And this possibly startling conclusion follows
    for one or both of two reasons. The first of these is that the
    question in its traditional setting does not depend at all on the size
    or scope of the evil involved, on its duration or the extent of its
    consequences. When we recall Dostoyevsky's challenge to God's justice
    on the basis of the single tear of an innocent child, we confront the
    large issue of theodicy in brief: why, if everything happens for the
    best, should that single tear be shed? And for this question, the
    addition of millions of tears (or millions of lives) alters nothing.
    Without a justification for the one, there can be none for the other;
    and by the same token, to find a ground for the one would also assure
    a basis for the other.

          The second sense in which the Holocaust does not change anything
    significant in the traditional response to "the question of evil" is
    this: that given the premise of a morally ordered universe, evil has
    at most only relative or apparent standing. All local occurrences
    (that is, historical events) must be judged in the context of the
    whole. That whole, furthermore, (by hypothesis) has justice or the
    Good or God on its side--which means in turn that when all has been
    said and done, it is better to have things the way they are than
    otherwise, with the implication then, that whatever is judged evil is
    only apparently so. In these terms, evil as such is also only
    apparent, at most a privation of reality (as the Platonic tradition
    has it), at its least a failing of human comprehension to grasp the
    totality of which humanity's limited comprehension is itself part;
    human events thus occur on a cosmic and transcendent stage, with the
    wings of that stage spreading well beyond history. Evil is not actual
    or real; it is thus historical only as a "likely story" (in Plato's
    phrase)--a variety of fiction and thus provisional, a station on the
    way to a larger truth.

          In reference to an event like the Holocaust, the implausibility
    of this view seems especially stark, but we cannot ignore the fact
    that it has the weight of significant traditions behind it. For the
    moment, however, its role here is to mark out one position on the map
    of moral history which I'm sketching and which thus sets this one
    boundary at the denial of that history's possibility. This denial
    surfaces not only on a cosmic level, furthermore, but also in a
    related feature of the human domain. For a side-eddy in the rejection
    of the notion of a history of evil argues also against the notion of
    human perfectibility, and thus against a moral history even in respect
    to human history alone. So, for example, the doctrine of Original Sin
    asserts the moral finitude of human nature--and the non-metaphorical
    point of that doctrine is constant and unforgiving even in its more
    moderate versions, as in the "evil impulse" described in the Hebrew
    Bible or through the concept of the body as the prisonhouse of the
    soul asserted in classical rationalism. On these views, since there is
    no hope of escape from the limits cited, there is also little to say
    about the detail of their disclosure or indeed about any other
    incidents or acts in our common experience; what might otherwise
    constitute a moral history amounts here to only a recitation of
    episodes, a virtually random chronicle; any apparent pattern is no
    more than that of a constant present--proof of what is already known
    and what, under the aegis of eternity, has no significance.

          A second moment in the reconstruction of the history of
    postmodernity against the background of the Holocaust goes like this:
    Explanations of the Holocaust's occurrence have moved between two
    poles. At one of these--one which draws still on the first moment
    referred to above--the Holocaust is also (still) placed outside time
    and causality. In one such version, it appears as a fit of national
    madness in an otherwise rational German history; in a second, quite
    different version, it appears as an instance of divine retribution for
    failings on the part of the victims; in the largest number of such
    accounts, it is viewed as simply inexplicable or (in related tropes)
    as incomprehensible or ineffable. By contrast, the opposite pole of
    explanatory attempts replace transcendent explanation with historical
    explanation. All these attempts include reference to the most obvious
    historical feature of the Holocaust's temporal and spatial
    location--the fact that it occurred, after all, in post-Enlightenment
    Europe, in the Europe of modernity, in one of the centers there of the
    high culture nourished by that humanist and liberal project. And "the
    question of evil" as it is in this way forced to be historical asks
    about that new setting in which it is found: why and how is the
    connection between the two possible?

          This question itself, admittedly, faces a charge of circularity,
    as it first juxtaposes two events and then asks how that juxtaposition
    is possible. But the writing of history is inevitably a matter of
    historians lifting themselves (and their histories) up by their own
    bootstraps (the hermeneutic circle here bridging the past and the
    present), and there is, at any rate, no shortage of responses to the
    question itself. There is the evidence, for one thing, in the
    Enlightenment ideals of universality, addressed to pure and practical
    reason (that is, in both science and ethics) and positing also an
    essential and common human nature. These essentialist dispositions
    leave little room for any except the most superficial differences or
    particularity of individual commitments. Followed to their extreme,
    these principles yield conclusions that by now have become only too
    evident in the varieties of tyranny and totalitarianism which are all
    the more menacing in their exclusions or repression because they act
    in the name of truth. Admittedly, associating the Holocaust with such
    basic principles of modernity runs the danger of the post hoc, ergo
    propter hoc fallacy; it ignores the possibility, for example, that the
    Holocaust represented a reaction against the modernity project (that
    would be a very different sense of "propter"), and there is no doubt
    that much of the Nazi rhetoric, at least at its manifest level, was
    directed against the Enlightenment's social principles of equality and

          Notwithstanding these qualifications, the evidence seems to me
    compelling of the "filiation" of principles central to Enlightenment
    ideals and to the "emancipation" they heralded as those same
    principles later surfaced in practices of exclusion and domination; as
    the latter became embodied in nationalism and racism, they
    characterized the "totalitarian democracies" of which Jacob Talmon
    spoke[5]^3 and left signs of their presence even in the more liberal
    and non-totalitarian democracies. Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of
    Enlightenment advances an extreme version of this view, but its
    central objection to the abstraction in Enlightenment claims of
    universality--the assumption in such claims that the universality
    asserted not only goes beyond all particulars but supercedes and
    dislodges them, in effect leaving them no place at all--is, it seems
    to me, compelling.[6]^4 This is not, it should be clear, a claim of
    "No Enlightenment, No Holocaust," but few historical explanations ever
    purport to find necessary conditions for the events they explain.

          Even a qualified version of this causal relation, furthermore,
    would provide a justification for the turn from modernity to
    postmodernity, with that turn then a reaction against the ideas
    dominant in the former. In this sense, the Holocaust would indeed
    represent a rupture marking the end of modernity as justified in
    principle, with history and Ethics for once acting there in concert.
    And indeed, even if the syntax of "postmodernity" inscribes it as a
    "condition," in the way that I earlier suggested, its advocates have
    been much more involved with marshalling objections against the
    universalist of the past it claims to supercede than in considering
    what is alleged to be its accomplishments (for example, the advance in
    moral history in the modernist discourse of universal human rights).
    But this discourse is by no means tied to the political or social
    principles that conduce to the exclusion or denial of particularity,
    notwithstanding the historical link of such principles to the
    Enlightenment. Thus, the search for an alternative might rest on this
    very ground: the possibility of legitimizing differences among
    individuals or groups without precluding the possibility of likeness
    or trans-personal principles that hold notwithstanding those

          The danger in the postmodernist reaction against such universal
    principles is the familiar one of throwing the baby out with the bath
    water. What I propose in contrast is thus meant, in relation to both
    the "post-Holocaust" and the "postmodern," to save the difference
    between baby and bathwater and so also to save the one without the
    other. An alternate way of describing the need for this revision is by
    noting that although the Enlightenment pitted itself against the
    obscurantism and superstition of religious or metaphysical thinking
    that imagined it could reach beyond history, it seems itself in the
    end to embody a similar impulse. For reason in the abstract, as
    Voltaire or Diderot or even Kant conceived of it, functions quite
    apart from any (and so also, it turns out, from every) instantiation;
    only so, it seems, can we understand the antipathy of these figures to
    parochialism or (in Kant's term from his essay on "What Is
    Enlightenment?") to "tutelage" of any sort, even, presumably, if its
    consequences were uplifting or enlightening. In other words, the
    effort to displace whatever was claimed as transcendent turned out to
    produce another version of the same; like the other, it too was a-or
    even anti-historical.

          Scoffing at Pangloss's naive faith in this "best of all possible
    worlds," Voltaire himself espouses an optimism on behalf of the power
    of reason which seems not much different; certainly it nourished in
    Voltaire, at least as much as it did in Pangloss (or Leibniz), an
    antagonism to particularity which in retrospect was at once ominous
    and prescient: I refer here (for one example) to his anti-semitism and
    most immediately to his promise of a "holocaust" for the Jews in that
    very term (in his Philosophical Dictionary). In this way, the turn to
    modernity, which, after all, had anticipated postmodernity by reacting
    vigorously against the grand narratives of its past with their
    transcendent and universalizing impulses, fell victim to the same a-or
    anti-historicism of those accounts. In respect to their origins, the
    histories of modernity and postmodernity are very much alike--a fact
    which both of them have been eager to obscure or ignore.

          The difference between them, then, must be found not in their
    origins but in their futures, with the future of postmodernity
    remaining at this point still (to some extent) open, poised between
    two main alternatives. The first of these would be to declare an end,
    well-earned and-deserved, to modernity, marking a breach in history
    accentuated by the claim that in addition to the human agents
    responsible for the moral breach, the writing of history itself has
    been also at fault. For the same "totalizing" impulse that expressed
    itself in political action, in the "total" state and then also in the
    Nazis' "Final Solution," would also express itself rhetorically in the
    total or grand narratives for which typically there was not simply a
    beginning, middle, and end, but the beginning, middle, and end. The
    reaction against that principle then insists that for postmodernity,
    the units of discourse must be so small and discrete that they
    exclude, or more strongly, give the lie to, any efforts to place them
    in a larger narrative, to view them as pieces of a whole. The purpose
    of this tactic is to break the lockstep of standard historical
    discourse without, however, losing the force of historical narrative.
    Also this option, however, whatever its intentions to the contrary,
    seems to me to place certain events, as well as everything that falls
    under the heading of values, outside of history; certainly, in the
    absence of any pattern of relative connectives--causal, temporal,
    comparative--there would be no historical ground or order among them.

          The alternative that I propose here to the postmodern conception
    of a rupture in history is to view the evidence of history--the same
    history--as attesting to a kind of filiation or linkage among
    historical events, including also and even the Holocaust, in such a
    way as to allow (and then, of course, to compel) us to speak of a
    moral history, as well as of a causal or explanatory material history.
    Certain historical events can undoubtedly be described apart from any
    reference to moral history, not only as an exercise in abstraction but
    also because the latter is not especially relevant (the Industrial
    Revolution might be a possible example of this, but even that only
    until one begins to fit it into the general framework of technology
    and the relationship of humans to nature). And certainly its place in
    moral history is as central historically to accounts of the Holocaust
    as any of the other aspects; indeed one can imagine that moral history
    without the others more readily than one can imagine the converse.

          The claim cannot be developed as fully here as it deserves, but
    I would begin that justification by repeating my earlier assertions
    about the retroactive status of the Holocaust; that is, with the
    historian himself as moral agent, responsible for the account he
    reaches back to in the past, and with the representation of the past
    then part of a continuum and, in a perverse sense, of a progression.
    What I mean by this point can be stated in quasi-figurative terms. It
    would by now require a radical thought-experiment to conceive of a
    world from which the murder of individuals is absent, whether in fact
    or idea. Yet it is also evident that there would have been a point in
    human history when that was the case; we might think of this
    emblematically through the Biblical account, as the interval between
    the expulsion from Eden and, subsequently, Cain's murder of Abel.
    Viewed thus, individual murder would, in Cain's hands, have the
    character of an invention, a new stage in the progress of evil.

          In a similar sense, I mean to suggest, genocide marks a further
    stage in the same progression, designating the murder not of
    individuals but of the group qua group, including individuals but
    including them through their identification with the group and then
    also (or rather, first) requiring the destruction of the group.
    Considered from this perspective, the concept of genocide not only
    designates individual historical events (like the Nazi genocide
    against the Jews), but also inscribes itself as a new element--no less
    indelible than the earlier ones--of social and moral consciousness.
    The features of this phenomenon, moreover, are recognizable only in
    relation to its historical place; that is, in respect to what is found
    or can be imagined on the two sides of the Holocaust: the difference
    between the pre-Holocaust and the post-Holocaust consciousness.

          Much more would need to be said on theoretical grounds to
    elaborate the reasons for locating the Holocaust on an historical
    continuum that, with the addition of its own distinctive contribution,
    constitutes a history of evil. But this is, again, a continuum, not a
    broken line or rupture; a single history, not one which has been
    shattered and which now has to start over again, beginning with its
    newest fragment. Moral history has a purchase in fact no more doubtful
    or tenuous than other historical modalities--and the Holocaust figures
    largely in this history just because of the changes it introduces
    there. This emerges, however, only as we view that history
    historically, placing the Holocaust within history, not outside
    it--and finding it together there not only with modernity but
    also--however reluctant its appearance--postmodernity itself. Why
    should postmodernity be rudely pushed into this position that it has
    worked so ardently to escape? In the first place, because the
    post-Holocaust has provided no basis, at least none that does not seem
    only arbitrary or ad hoc, for claiming a split in history which might
    then point to postmodernity as a novum; and then, still more
    conclusively, because postmodernity does not offer any more compelling
    evidence or explanation of its own.

    [7]^1 For a fuller account of the concept of the "history of evil,"
    see Berel Lang, The Future of the Holocaust: Between History and
    Memory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999) chs. 1-3. ] [8]^2 See
    Jean-François Lyotard, Heidegger and "The Jews," trans. Andreas Michel
    and Mark S. Roberts (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
    1990). ] [9]^3 Jacob Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy
    (New York: Praeger, 1960). ] [10]^4 Theodor W. Adorno and Max
    Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York:
    Herder & Herder, 1972); see also on this issue Berel Lang, Act and
    Idea in the Nazi Genocide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
    1990). ]

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