Between Fear and Sanctuary

Monday, July 7, 2008

posted under , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Kevin Healey, Institute for Communications Research

Editor's Note: This post is part of a summer-long series that includes the writing of Kevin Healey (Communications) and Martha Webber (English) as they attend Cornell's SCT (School of Criticism and Theory) during the summer of 2008. As always, feel free to join the conversation.

This week in SCT we discussed Jan Gross’s Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz (2007). Gross’s previous book, Neighbors, caused serious debate across the political spectrum in Poland, and Fear provoked a similar reaction. Poles are highly sensitive about their nation’s history of anti-Semitism, for reasons that Fear brings clearly into focus. While anti-Semitism existed prior to World War II in Poland (and indeed throughout Europe, a fact well-documented by Saul Friedlander), its persistence after the war is especially troubling. As Gross explains in often excruciating detail, the Polish city of Kielce was the site of the worst post-WWII pogrom in Europe. The author’s main task in Fear is to address the simple question: How could such events have taken place after the war had ended?

In our seminar, Carolyn Dean reminded us repeatedly that Gross’s attempt to answer this question makes Fear an extremely unusual historical work (if it remains within the disciplinary bounds of history at all). Rather than trying to establish causal explanations through the weight of evidence, Gross proceeds instead through a process of elimination. The usual explanations—the myth of blood libel, the idea that the Jews supported communism—simply do not stand up to the weight of evidence. So we are left with what Gross considers the best explanation we have: to paraphrase Tacitus (as Gross does), we hate those whom we have hurt. Poles benefitted materially from the persecution of their Jewish neighbors by appropriating possessions ranging from blankets to houses. The fear that Gross refers to is the fear that Poles have of themselves and their neighbors, in light of the guilty knowledge of their own past actions. This fear led to the need to eliminate its source, in the form of violent massacres that spread like wildfire through Kielce.

But Gross goes a step further in his proposed explanation...

and here is where Dean is most suspicious: in his conclusion, Gross cites the chimpanzee research of Jane Goodall, who described the capacity of chimps to treat members of their own community not merely as outsiders but as an enemy species. In an extended footnote, Gross cites an account of a community of chimps who split apart and subsequently engaged in violent, murderous aggression toward one another. Goodall describes the process as “pseudospeciation,” and Gross appropriates this evolutionary insight in his own explanation of the pogrom of Kielce. In our seminar, Dean bracketed this explanation as something that seems out of place in a work of history—an explanation undeserving of serious consideration. Most of my fellow seminarians appeared to agree.

I’ll pose 2 questions for consideration, only the first of which follows directly from the above summary.

1. Why not take Gross’s psycho-analytical approach—including his reference to Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research—more seriously?

Clearly Gross takes it very seriously. He structures his entire argument to lead up to it. And while he acknowledges that he cannot provide concrete evidence for such an analysis, he suggests that this is the best explanation we have at the moment. Dean’s concerns seem to revolve around the disciplinary bounds of history. But Gross clearly intends his work to reach a wide audience—especially those Poles whose conscience he wishes to shake. Since he begins with a simple question—“Why Kielce?”—his work proceeds in whatever manner can address this question. Should we reject this kind of explanation simply because it is difficult—if not impossible—to prove by the usual historical methods?

2. How should we think about representations of victimhood that involve animals?

I pose this question after visiting the Farm Sanctuary, which is located near Ithaca, NY, where our seminar is held. The Farm Sanctuary rescues abused and neglected animals—mostly from factory farms—and nurses them back to health. I thought I was taking a detour from my studies when we visited the Sanctuary, but I was struck by the resemblance of their introductory video to the Holocaust documentaries we’ve been discussing in class. The video portrays the terrible conditions of factory farm animals, focusing on several animals in particular who are presented as friends of the Sanctuary family. Gross’s reference to Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research made the “dots” beg for a connection, since his footnote includes a similarly personalized narrative of one chimp, Goliath, who was viciously beaten by members of his own community.

What connections should we make, if any, between these issues? That is, between Jan Gross, Jane Goodall, and the Farm Sanctuary? How do we make such connections without belittling the memory of the Holocaust? Political theorists like Martha Nussbaum have written extensively on the moral imperative to recognize the dignity of animals (see especially Frontiers of Justice). But how do we differentiate between these issues in a way that is morally responsible?


Make A Comment


martha webber said...

I am not a historiagrapher, so although I was jarred by Gross' twelfth hour move toward the concept of psuedospeciation, it was not because psychoanalytic concepts do not belong in a text. My background is in design and literary theory, so psychoanalytic accounts - although often suspect to me - are by no means unusual in criticism I encounter.

Rather, I was jarred by Gross' casual reference to scientific discourse that differed from the careful work he performs with the Polish/Kielce pogrom archive earlier in the book.

First, he doesn't acknowledge (something I came to discover later) that the term "pseudospeciation" first came from psychologist/analyst Erik Erikson, who conceived of it as a human phenomenon in which cultural differences are figured as analogues to the formation of biological species. In other words - what does his use of Goodall's primate example do for his argument that Erikson's previous conception does not? If anything, by invoking an "animal nature" argument, he contradicts earlier assertions in the book that claim the violent murder and aggression which occurred in Kielce was performed calmly and as though part of the mundane.

Really though, my greatest concern with his decontextualized application of the idea of psuedospeciation are the social (and I mean "social" in a complex Latourian sense) forces that lead to the moment of split/psuedospeciation which we never come to hear about. In the Goodall example, she noted that at some point a segment of chimpanzees began not only to fight with Goliath but used fighting techniques they use with their prey, not with one another. But what leads to that moment of pseudospeciation where one treats another in a completely different manner? Is there a moment? A history of separation? In raising this possibility for explanation so late in his book, Gross doesn't have adequate time to write that separation (or however pseudospeciation occurs, if in fact, it is something which we agree upon) into his text.

If he had, for example, looked to medical and popular scientific beliefs at the time about speciation (the type of which Stephen Jay Gould documents in The Mismeasure of Man), this might provide at least one of the discourses that fostered the ability to believe in, even if tacitly, and perform psuedospeciation.

But then again, the event that Gross is talking about - a rhizomatic, spontaneous, and yet somehow considered outbreak of violent anti-Semitism - seems to be one that provokes disbelief. Who wants to believe that after the nexus of events that occurred which we now understand as the Holocuast, a violent and new form of murderous anti-Semitism would develop in post-WWII Poland? In fact, Gross turns to explanations outside of his discipline because the possibility of the event he writes about seems to defy historical narration.

Saul Friedlander, another important historiagrapher of the Holocaust, argues the "goal of historical knowledge is to domesticate disbelief." Perhaps Gross' appeal to the psychoanalytic concepts of guilt and psuedospeciation was just another way, albeit a novel one, to try to account for the seemingly ineffable.

Michael Rothberg said...

Interesting discussion. One question I have coming out of Kevin's post and Martha's comment is: where does psychoanalysis come into Gross's analysis? I have to admit that I haven't read Fear, though I have read Neighbors, so this may be obvious. But the reference to Goodall is confusing me--does that have something to do with psychoanalysis? I don't see it.

I can understand that historians are wary of psychoanalytic (and even more so, psychological) explanations of historical phenomena and events, but I think it matters *what kind* of psychoanalysis we're talking about. Some version are much more attuned to social and historical factors than others, though it may be that there is a fundamental incommensurability between history and psychoanalysis, also--yet it may be a productive incommensurability.

Martha Webber said...

Even without reading Fear, your question hit on one of the biggest criticisms the seminar had with the book. Gross seems to offer almost two explanations for how the Kielce Pogrom (or more broadly conceived of, how violent, anti-Semitisim could flourish post WWII in Poland) could have happened, neither of which were strictly historical and neither of which he connects.

The first explnation was through the concept of transference, which we all could recognize as psychoanalytic in origin. The second account, however, was through the example of Goodall and primate psuedospeciation. By failing to connect them explicitly, it left most of us feeling the incommensurability of these two accounts as presented separately, yet together. My earlier response - which reminds us the concept of psuedospeciation arose from psychoanalyst/psychologist Erik Erikson and was initially conceived as a human phenomenon - helped me understand that pseudospeciation could be conceived as a form of transference (as described, it seems that it is a process whereby you allow yourself to transfer the responses and feelings you would have towards your "prey" or "prey objects" onto a person or groups of people that are obviously of your kind).