The Representation of Extreme Violence: Glosses to the Last Book by Carlos Pabón Ortega

The theme of Historia, memoria y ficción. Debates sobre la representación de la violencia extrema (Ediciones Laberinto, 2022), the latest book by Carlos Pabón Ortega, is the treatment of genocide and extreme violence in the historiography of the 20th century and the epistemological problems that this has generated from the 1960s to the present. At the end of the book, the author introduces a detailed reflection on the same issue within the framework of literary fiction and cinematography: the logocentric and videocentric outlooks, their possibilities and limitations, are subjected to an intense critical study. It must be acknowledged that, in the light of the Holocaust, the twentieth century constitutes an unequivocal model of what can be called “modern barbarism.” There is something of refinement and vulgarity difficult to explain in the art of exploiting and killing according to reason, as manifested in the concentration camps and extermination of Jews during World War II.

Carlos Pabón Ortega’s volume is also a valuable commentary on 20th century historiography and its dominant representations: totalitarianism and extremism. Rationality and irrationality combined to produce the suggested effect. To a large extent, the twentieth century was the net result of the dualism of the Cold War (1947-1989), which the logic of the post-Cold War has reaffirmed. Extreme Manichaeism remains key to legitimize that metaphor, even though twentieth century culture did not create that representation out of thin air. I am afraid that, in the West —whatever that means in the present— Manichean dualism is part of a legacy impossible to erase that extends its roots to the outlook of Christian providentialism, a phenomenon that should be taken into account when confronting Pabón Ortega’s reading of the representation of the Holocaust, genocide and extreme violence in any medium.

The twentieth century was marred by bad aspects from before its chronological beginning and end. The collapse of a world order controlled by a handful of European countries inside the context of the imperialist competitions of the Great War (1914-1918) as well as the Bolshevik Revolution (1917); and the acceleration of the mutation of liberal capitalism into financial capitalism, suggested that Europe’s privileged place in the world framework would no longer be the same. A series of events around 1898 —the rise of the United States into the international geopolitical arena was one of them— foreshadowed the trend.

A few weeks ago, commenting on an anthology of texts by Puerto Rican anarchist authors of the early twentieth century, compiled by Jorell Meléndez Badillo, I drew attention to the terrible image that century provoked in some of the theorists included. Pessimism about the twentieth century and naive optimism about the inevitability of revolution and the advent of anarchy, an attitude inherited from bourgeois progressivism comparable to the Christian hope of salvation, were united in the voices of the anarchists. The collapse of an order can inspire one thing or the other: optimism and pessimism are two inseparable spheres. The anarchist authors to whom I allude were reflecting on the edge of the Great War that began in 1914 and before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, a process that did not fulfill their expectations either.

In the midst of reading, I was tempted to compare the impression, also pessimistic and full of melancholy, that the twentieth century produced in the elderly Krausopositivist sociologist Eugenio M. Hostos Bonilla, in a short essay of 1901.

Puerto Rican historian Carlos Pabón Ortega.

The idea of the twentieth century as a stage in which something/everything collapsed also marked, under peculiar circumstances, thinkers like Oswald Spengler and historians like Arnold Toynbee: the decadence and death of civilization obsessed both of them. The resentment shown against their reflections by Lucien Febvre in his Combats pour l’histoire remains emblematic. The twentieth century, the stage of the 1917 Revolution with its vein of hope, was also the century of great disillusionment. The dissolution of actually existing socialism since 1989 embodied the end of one epoch and the beginning of another.

In that sense, the premise in this volume that the “short twentieth century,” conceptualized by Eric Hobsbawm, was also the paradigm of “modern barbarism” has enormous illustrative value. It contradicts the Enlightenment conception of “progress” as a civilizing and humanizing promise capable of ensuring the material and moral betterment of all. The intelligentsia of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as we know, relied on that ethereal principle with a conviction comparable to faith. The “short twentieth century,” on the other hand, remains an intellectual challenge for historians of the present: recent events between Russia and Ukraine suggest that its follies have not been left behind.

One issue that will strike any reader of Pabón Ortega’s book is the centrality he accords to the Holocaust in the dismantling of the naive progressive model alluded to. The primacy given to the Holocaust in this process of rupture may respond to several things. On the one hand, to the nature of the event, which is sometimes ineffable, that is to say, impossible to articulate in words, a condition that places it on the border of fiction. On the other, to the historical role played by Jewish culture in the formulation of the identity of the West. The culture represented by the victims of the Holocaust, despite the temporal distance between Antiquity and Modernity, two orbs whose continuity is assumed to be unquestionable, is considered one of the foundations of Christianity and the West. For centuries, it has been accepted that the West is the result of the complex hybridization of Jewish, Hellenic and Latin values, another trinity regarded as sacred.  I want to make clear that I am going to dismiss the geopolitical relevance of modern Israel to Western identity because I want to dispense with awkward geopolitical arguments in this commentary.

The problem raised by Pabón Ortega in his book has to do with the debates regarding the Holocaust, especially its transition from oblivion after World War II, when the subject was taboo, to memory when the issue returned from Lethe during the 1960s. The relevance of the fact that it was legal considerations —the perpetrators and victimizers of the crime had to be located and punished— that transformed the Holocaust into a central topic of discussion for a certain historiography cannot be discounted.

The phenomenon brought face to face two records of the past that have always had a problematic relationship. On the one hand, history, a disciplinary and systematic examination, the result of a more or less standardized method based on the spatial-temporal distance of the event in question. On the other hand, memory, a personal and emotional examination articulated around the spatial-temporal proximity of the event alluded to. In general, these are two types of testimonies regarding a traumatic event that will inevitably clash at some point. From my point of view, both fields articulate an impression of the facts in two different temporal records: chronological mathematical time and human vital time. The shadow of Henry Bergson’s vitalism is behind this comment.

The documentary model, specific to history, and the testimonial model, specific to memory, collided under the assumptions of philosophical considerations that some of us have already left behind.

I am referring to the dualism, from my point of view also Manichean, between the objectivity that the former assumes as distinctive; and the subjectivity that is ascribed to the latter as an inseparable element. I must remind my readers here that the frontiers between objectivity and subjectivity in historiography have always been blurred and questionable: this is a problem that should have been overcome long ago.

Pabón Ortega’s interesting reflection on the “linguistic turn,” an expression linked to the cultural turn that also began to flourish in the 1960s, and the recent development of what I have called “the inner turn,” linked to the history of emotions, confirm that objectivity and subjectivity are complex operative assumptions that illuminate the problem of “possible truth” in different but complementary ways. The relevance of Pabón Ortega’s comments has to do with a more far-reaching issue. I refer to the consideration that the definitive revolution against traditional and positivist historiography and the documentary historiographic model in general corresponded to the reflection of the cultural turn and the linguistic turn and not to that of the social turn, as is usually asserted. Memory and testimony played a leading role in this process of rupture.

‘Historia, memoria y ficción. Debates sobre la representación de la violencia extrema’, by Carlos Pabón Ortega.

Pabón Ortega’s discourse suggests that within the framework of memory and testimony we will find the most appropriate instruments to elucidate the problem around which his reflection revolves: the representation of the Holocaust, genocide, and extreme violence, that is, the traumatic events that marked the twentieth century. The need to “historicize memory,” to understand its changing situation over time and space, is easier to achieve from the empathy, emotional ties, and intuitions that these points of view imply. In this respect, I seem to be listening to the whispers of Marc Bloch brought back to life. Of course, the dilemma of the confrontation between scientific objectivity and emotional subjectivity would not exist if objectivity were not associated with the fetish of “truth,” a concept that corresponds to a fixed and immobile reality; and subjectivity with the fetish of “fiction,” a concept that suggests a pretense that does not correspond to a fixed and immobile reality. It is essential to acknowledge the plasticity and polysemy of “truth.”

One of the cardinal points of this debate is related to the nature of “documentation”: the documentary historiographic model claimed to rely on material records; and the testimonial model legitimized countless emotional records. Everything suggests that the impertinences of the old Voltaire continue to plague numerous observers of the past to this day. Pabón Ortega takes care to elaborate a thoughtful critique of the limits of the documentary historiographic model and the potential virtues of the testimonial model in assessing traumatic events.

Two particular discussions stand out to me from this reading. The first relates to the links of memory to the practice of recent history around traumatic events: the century of totalitarianism and extremes is the best workshop for this kind of procedure. The theoretical observations on recent history made by Pabón Ortega are interesting. The fact that the most intense criticisms of recent history are based on arguments of the documentary historiographic model seems to me to be decisive. I am referring to the alleged impossibility of that practice when it comes to clarifying the scope of “recent” due to the subjective charge that animates the concept. The imprecision of the notion of “recent” should not be a sufficient argument to discard such a necessary interpretative experience.

A similar fate to that of recent history has befallen the history of mentalities confronted by the social and economic history of Fernand Braudel’s disciples, historical materialism and cultural history as Peter Burke understood it. The truth is that the documentary historiographic model, a condition shared by traditional historiography, social and economic history and historical materialism, perceives a threat in any space offered to subjectivity in the production of historiographic knowledge and is prone to delegitimize it. The reconsideration of memory as a polysemic, contingent, plastic entity, loaded with subjectivity but historicizable, is peremptory.

It is not only that the official or “strong” memory clashes with the subterranean, alternate or “weak” memory; or that the memory of the perpetrators and the victims is different. The historicity of memory confirms that the balance of power can change: the case of the Holocaust has demonstrated this. It is even more important to acknowledge that the control of memory is nothing more than a struggle for power and to problematize the effects that this may have on a specific order. The issue is more complex: it cannot be ignored that, in the territory of the victims, memory can also differ due to social, cultural, psychological and even neurobiological considerations. The study of memory invokes not only the articulation of resources from psychoanalysis, so present in the historiographical discussion of the last fifty years, but also from neuroscience. It is possible that neurohistory will have something to say about these issues at some point. Memory and forgetting respond to psychic and social factors, it is true. But they also have biological components that must be observed as a whole in order to understand the dialectic between the one and the other.

Pabón Ortega’s remarks on the intersections between memory, fiction and cinematography should be considered with great care. The first time I saw Night and Fog (1955) by Alain Resnais at home, I remained unmoved by the suggestion of the images. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) did not have the same effect on me. The filmmaker François Truffaut claimed that Resnais’ work and Roberto Rossellini’s Germania, anno zero (1947) were two of the best productions of all time. Those films, tied to the image of an ominous reality, exceeded the subgenre of fiction or documentary. The anxiety to turn trauma into aesthetic raw material raised the ethical problem of how far the imagination should be allowed to go in (re)producing a traumatic event. It seems to me that the “aesthetics of violence,” a practice that has been imposed in Western and Puerto Rican narrative legitimize by the filmic narratives since the 1960s, as I commented in a book of literary criticism I published in 2007, is here to stay.

One last comment. I must insist that Pabón Ortega’s interpretative suggestions in the light of the Holocaust, genocide and extreme violence can be extremely useful for the evaluation of the memory of events not as traumatic as those. For the scholar whose field of action is beyond those spaces, his indications are orienting and enlightening. The reinvestment of this meditation in other specific territories of historiographic research seems to me promising.

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MARIO CANCEL
MARIO CANCEL
Mario R. Cancel Sepúlveda (Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, 1960). He is Professor of History at the University Campus of Mayagüez, a system in which he has worked since 1994. He was a professor at the Graduate School Literary Creation specializing in Narrative at Sacred Heart University (2005-2014) and of Puerto Rican Studies and Puerto Rican History at the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in San Juan (2014-2019).  He has published books on history, biography and literary and historiographical criticism on various aspects of Puerto Rico in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries; and creative literature in the genres of poetry and short narrative, as well as numerous texts in the digital space. His most recent publication is El laberinto de los indóciles. Estudios sobre historiografía puertorriqueña del siglo XIX.

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