This essay reviews the recent book by Carolyn Dean that seeks to elucidate the ways in which complaints about a “surfeit of memory” and the privileging of Jewish victimization during the Holocaust as unique and as the emblem of radical evil in our times has shaped discussions of victims in general, creating an environment in which groups vie for victim status as a means of validating their grievances and making claims for justice. The hostility to such claims has, Dean argues, created antivictim discourses that end up generating aversion toward victims, primarily by denying the validity of their claims to suffering and, in the case of Jews, projecting them as “perpetrators” in their neglect of the suffering of others. At the same time, Dean argues, the demand that victims narrate their suffering in the aesthetically constrained style of “minimalism” equally undermines the legitimacy of victims' memories by demanding that they be presented in an already mastered form, thereby erasing the very trauma that, in principle, such narratives seek to represent.
At stake in the debates concerning Holocaust memorial consciousness and its proper modes of representation, this article suggests, are larger historiographical and ethical issues about how to integrate the horrors of the past and the traumatic experience of terror into the normal protocols of historical writing, which rely on distance, objectivity, and interpretive critique as governing procedures. To incorporate terror into historical representation will mean acknowledging and accepting as historiographically legitimate the differing status of analytically recuperated “facts” and victim testimony and finding a way to theorize the reality of “voices” from the past without assuming the necessary “truth” of what they convey.