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Of Other People's Holocaust: Trauma Empathy and Film

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article on trauma, empathy and film studies
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  G R E G O R Y J A Y Other People’s Holocausts: Trauma, Empathy,and Justice in Anna Deavere Smith’s Firesin the Mirror  he one-woman shows of Anna Deavere Smith combine journalism and performance art to explore the often-violent misunderstandings among different culturalcommunities. For both Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights,Brooklyn, and Other Identities (1993) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994), Smith interviewed many of the actual protagonists in twotraumatic urban conflicts that had riveted the nation. By deftediting, she then turned their words into a series of dramatic mono-logues and by imitation transformed their language, vocal manner-isms, gestures, and clothes into theatrical experiences that test theaudience’s social conscience. As Anne Anlin Cheng observes, “OnSmith’s multiethnic stage, it is precisely the ethical question of pointof view that is being explored,” as diverse characters move back andforth between grief and grievance, or between a mourning for lossand a demand for justice (171). In Fires in the Mirror , the ensuingcacophony grows most heated when speakers invoke the rhetoric of holocaust, including the Jewish Holocaust and the black experienceof enslavement. 1 There is something both illuminating and limiting Contemporary Literature XLVIII, 10010-7484; E-ISSN 1548-9949/07/0001-0119© 2007 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System  T  1.I will use “Holocaust” to refer to the historically specific attempt by the Nazigovernment to exterminate the Jewish people; I will use “holocaust” to refer moregenerically to experiences of horrific suffering by groups persecuted on the basis of ethno-racial difference. Thus my capitalizing of “Holocaust” does not assert theuniqueness of the Jewish experience but rather its historical status as an event (the way aproper name designates an individual person as distinct). I use “Holocaust” rather than“Shoah” in keeping with the language of Smith’s interviewees, while acknowledging thatmany in and out of the Jewish community prefer “Shoah” precisely because it connotes  about this rhetoric, as Smith’s performance demonstrates. In CrownHeights, each group has experienced a terrible loss—the accidentaldeath of a young boy, the stabbing death of a rabbinical student—that becomes rhetorically attached to foundational historical traumasthatlie at the center of that group’s cultural identity. In figurativelyswearing to never forget these losses, each community both endures akind of melancholy of unresolved grief and, at the same time,strengthens its identity by keeping alive the memory of what has been lost. As their speeches incite our empathy, however, they alsocreate competing and contradictory narratives that make it difficultfor the audience to take sides or to form a united community sure of where justice lies.In the introduction to their anthology Loss: The Politics of Mourning ,David L. Eng and David Kazanjian call for a “politics of mourningthat might be active rather than reactive,” and they suggest that “a better understanding of melancholic attachments to loss mightdepathologize those attachments, making visible not only theirsocial bases but also their creative, unpredictable, political aspects”(2–3). 2 In Fires in the Mirror , Smith enacts such a politics of mourning,taking it across ethno-racial and religious boundaries. By identifyingwith, acting out, and working through multiple points of view oncross-cultural conflicts, she endeavors to represent and depatholo-gize the attachments that fuel them. 3 Smith’s impersonations do jus-tice to each character’s interpretation of events by grounding thatindividual’s world view in exquisitely rendered details of localityand personality. Smith arranges the order of her monologues to 120  ã C O N T E M P O R A R Y L I T E R A T U R E the specificity of this catastrophe as a Jewish one. See “The Holocaust: Definition andPreliminary Discussion.”2.On “depathologizing melancholia,” see Eng and Han 363–67.3.Dominick LaCapra discusses “acting out” and “working through” in reaction toHolocaust trauma in Representing the Holocaust (205–24) and Writing History, WritingTrauma (141–53), as well as throughout  History and Memory after Auschwitz . For a diverseand helpful anthology of critical approaches to Holocaust representation, see Berel Lang’s Writing and the Holocaust . In Spectacular Suffering , Vivian M. Patraka explores theatricaltexts on the Holocaust which, like Smith’s Fires , move somewhat uneasily betweenreverence and playfulness: “it is postmodernism that sees the deadness of that reverentialgesture toward the Holocaust, but it is the Holocaust (and its goneness) that marks thepoint at which discursive play becomes a screen to keep the dead at a distance” (8).  highlight how they dialogue with and contradict one another; in sodoing, her performances make reconciliation into a problem at onceemotional, epistemological, social, and political. Smith intends audi-ences and readers to engage in the same labor of unsettling cross-cultural empathy with loss that she herself performs on stage; if wedo, the result complicates our commitments by challenging the iden-tity politics that influence them. In the process we become moreaccountable to each other’s griefs and grievances and thus enter intoa difficult negotiation of ethical, social, and political demands.Reconciling the competing claims of different stories, however, becomes especially problematic when each side invokes the rhetoricof holocaust to frame its tale, not least because the effort to “workthrough” trauma toward personal or social reconciliation runs head-long into the imperative to remain true to the lost.Surprisingly, commentaries on Smith’s work pay little attention tohow black and Jewish holocaust discourse shapes the language andperspective of her characters. While my analysis belongs to the generaleffort to connect Holocaust studies and cultural studies, it specificallyanswers Paul Gilroy’s injunction to set “the histories of blacks and Jews within modernity in some sort of mutual relation.” Aware of thedangers involved in comparing slavery and the Holocaust, Gilroynonetheless contends that the “issues of tradition and memory providea key to bringing them together in ways that do not invite a pointlessand utterly immoral wrangle over which communities have experi-enced the most ineffable forms of degradation” (212). Following recenttheorists such as Dominick LaCapra, Saul Friedlander, ShoshanaFelman and Dori Laub, Cathy Caruth, and Michael Rothberg, we canread Smith’s testimonial performance through the problematics of holocaust trauma, both black and Jewish. As Eng and Kazanjian’santhology shows, such problematics are not limited solely to blacksand Jews but may be discerned across a spectrum of texts by diversesocial or ethno-racial groups wherein the politics of loss, mourning,empathy, and justice is central.As we listen to the words of Smith’s African American speakers, wehear the echoes of a rich literature of terror’s survivors, from slave nar-ratives and songs to the major stories and novels of the AfricanAmerican tradition, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved , which remindsus how we may become possessed by the “re-memory” of slavery and  J A Y  ã 121

Resume Shwan14

Jul 23, 2017
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