Review of Alain Finkielkraut, The Future of a Negation: Reflections on the Question of Genocide, translated by Mary Byrd Kelly, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. Original date of publication, 1982.
Ilana M. Blumberg
Other Voices, v.2, n.1 (February 2000)
Copyright © 2000, Ilana M. Blumberg, all rights reserved
The Future of a Negation is, above all else, a European book. As the genocide of the European Jews has penetrated American consciousness in recent years with the rise of a national Holocaust museum, an increasing push to teach about the Holocaust in public schools across the country, and the integration of films such as Schindler's List into popular culture, Alain Finkielkraut's book appears to address a rather un-American concern: "negationism," or the denial of the Holocaust. Whether the above forms of representation are adequate or appropriate responses to the Nazi genocide is certainly a question for debate, yet that question already presupposes a basic agreement as to the facticity of the Holocaust. The revisionist challenges of the early eighties to the historicity of the Holocaust have been rebuffed, repudiated, and shamed; America is not dismantling the Holocaust, but building it.
The Future of a Negation, originally published in 1982, is the response of public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut to what had become known in France as "le negationnisme"—not simply the minimization of the atrocities of the Holocaust, but the outright denial of the existence of the gas chambers and the genocide of the Jews. Seeking to understand the causes for this denial—but, more specifically, trying to decipher the surprising union of French radical leftists with the right-wing deniers of the genocide—Finkielkraut returns to the infamous Dreyfus trial at the turn of the century to analyze the political choices of the left. Conducting his historical inquiry less as a continuous survey of the century than as an accretion of symbolic case studies, Finkielkraut offers what can only be called a Marxist analysis of negationism that indicts the Marxist vision of history.
In short, he argues that the left-wing in France has historically abandoned the Jews in order to support the working class. With insight that is transferable to the United States, and indeed, to any nation that is comprised of groups perceiving themselves as minorities, Finkielkraut exposes the logic of victimhood: there can really only be one victim at a time. In order to champion the oppression of the working class, the oppression of the Jews must be blacked out. The revolution will begin once the conditions of the working class jump into focus, and these conditions can become the primary focus only when the one atrocity that claims to be worse is finally made to disappear.
Finkielkraut's analysis is, uncomfortably, the "answer" to negationism. Ostensibly arguing against the totalizing tendencies of the Marxist historical tradition, Finkielkraut appears to fall into the same trap. Rather than advancing a new paradigm through which to understand negation—a paradigm that might have focused more closely and sustainedly on the history of French anti-Jewish sentiment, for instance—Finkielkraut reads the left wing practically through their own eyeglasses. In his neat resolution to the problem of leftist participation in negationism, he does not give sufficient attention to what might otherwise be the focus of his "reflections on the question of genocide": the deeply strange and violent, though at the same time, intimately understandable, impulse to deny a mechanized genocide—a "methodical, coordinated plan" that aims to annihilate human beings on the basis of their group identity. Perhaps it is the ahistorical American individualist in me that wishes to push beyond the paradigm of class struggle to the abstract, and not materially-determined human heart, yet I cannot help wishing that Finkielkraut would have railed less against the implications of Marxist history and meditated more fully on the impulse to deny.
The book seems widest in its discussion of the postmodern, era-of-the-spectacle tendency to subject images and even testimony to an ideological analysis that abandons consideration of the content of such testimony in favor of suspicion as to the intent of the speaker. In the attempt to demystify the testimony and to unveil the political aims of the one testifying, only the ideology of the judge can ultimately decide. As Finkielkraut argues, facts can then go by the wayside and reality is shaped by "doctrinal fidelity" rather than the "complexity of things."
The implications of this impulse can be grave and longlasting, and Finkielkraut offers a strong example in the revisionist history occasioned by the birth and rise of the state of Israel: "the genocide is subject to dispute due to alleged behavior by Israel." Suggesting that the antipathy inspired by Israel fuels not just new histories of the Holocaust, but new political fictions, Finkielkraut documents the usage of the term "genocide" to describe Israeli policies toward Palestinians. "Genocide," he argues, has become a catch-all term; the term itself is "wearing out and dying" as it ceases to mean the methodical plan to annihilate a group and becomes attributable to any infamous military actions. As we have seen in the nineties, an irate shopkeeper on TV's most popular sitcom can be casually referred to as a "soup Nazi," and political characters from Yitzhak Rabin to Rudy Giuliani to the Dalai Lama can be likened to Hitler. As Finkielkraut brilliantly writes, "a confusing give-and-take between the concrete and incoropreal, between reality and symbol, has come about: the Fuhrer made evil real and at the same time made himself less real through that eternal essence. Satan was incarnated in the person of Hitler, who from then on was merely the allegory of the demon. Nazism...became the reference for all accusatory discourse."
Paradoxically, as the terms "genocide," "Nazi," and "Hitler" have "lightened" to enter common discourse, suggests Finkielkraut, the ante has been upped. If a group is not the victim of "genocide," it is no longer the victim of anything serious enough to merit the world's attention or compassion. The word coined in 1944 to mean the attempt to annihilate an entire people has now been put to use as a linguistic strategy by which minorities may affirm their identities and legitimate their histories.
In his discussion of the drive to claim compassion through the use of the term "genocide," Finkielkraut leaves us with an insight more provocative than the historical argument that takes up the bulk of the book. There is a shout to be heard in this world. Each group is worried that another group will claim the monopoly on sympathy; each is consciously or unconsciously certain that the needs of no two groups can simultaneously be attended to. Finkielkraut's argument, that the impulse to deny genocide is linked to the desire to assert the pressing needs of one's own group, represents denial as a form of narcissism. The denier works moral harm through his or her desire to return to a fantastical childlike condition in which one's own weakness is always a call upon those more powerful to compensate: "Listen to my difference: therein lies the joy of every marginal group. Being the Other opens the door to the paradise of perpetual autobiography.... Being the Other is a way of dodging the human relationship the way one dodges the law, a way of substituting a favorable dissymmetry for an exacting reciprocity. By virtue of a right to express oneself, it is a self-liberation from the need to hear."
Yet the claim that minorities take advantage of their oppression to evade moral responsibility is one that must be rigorously historicized—as Finkielkraut does—lest we visit moral culpability upon the wrong party and let the offenders off easily. American readers who believe in the justice of minority claims in this country may find the potential implications, if not the specific details, of Finkielkraut's argument unsettling. Is there not a way to be the Other without claiming a victimhood that eschews moral obligation? This may be the most pressing and the most cross-culturally relevant issue raised by The Future of a Negation.
If the book disappoints, it may be oddly due to Finkielkraut's resistance to "autobiography," his desire to upset the postmodern ethic and reinstate the facts rather than direct the focus toward the speaker. The author's work of 1980, The Imaginary Jew, offers a vivid and incisive portrait of the experience of a certain branch of French Jewry and meditates far more interestingly and fully on the nature of antisemitism. Forgoing in that work a "doctrinal fidelity," Finkielkraut finds the "complexity of things," and offers it to his readers.