The Fragility of Empathy After the Holocaust

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Overview

When we are confronted with images of and memoirs from the Holocaust and subsequent cases of vast cruelty and suffering, is our impulse to empathize put at risk by the possibility of becoming numb to horror? Carolyn J. Dean's provocative new book addresses the ways we evade our failures of empathy in the face of massive suffering: Has exposure (or overexposure) to representations of pain damaged our ability to feel? Do the frequent claims that artistic representations of extreme cruelty are pornographic allow us to dodge the real issues that we must confront in attempting to come to terms with suffering? Does an excess of terror place constraints on compassion?Dean examines the very different representations of suffering found in visual media, history writing, cultural criticism, and journalism that grapple with the assumption that Americans and Western Europeans have been rendered numb and their appropriate human responses blunted by the events of the past century. The Fragility of Empathy after the Holocaust will be of interest to all readers concerned with contemporary "victim culture," Holocaust representation, and humanism.
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Editorial Reviews

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"Carolyn Dean brings to bear her impressive skills as an intellectual historian to trace changing attitudes toward the representation of the suffering, vulnerable body. The Fragility of Empathy after the Holocaust is a wonderful example of the ways in which a certain kind of close critical reading can open up new perspectives on a field one thinks one knows. Dean takes what seem commonplace observations (the idea, in this case, that our capacity for empathy has been exhausted by the brutalities of genocide and world war) and asks how they operate to create explanations that avoid rather than confront what has happened."—Joan Wallach Scott, author of Gender and the Politics of History

"Carolyn J. Dean has written an original and very thought-provoking study of emotional and intellectual numbness as a response to the Holocaust. Her analysis of various case studies of the failure of empathy, particularly the association of Holocaust images with pornography and the controversy over Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, is rigorous and profound."—Ruth Franklin, Senior Editor, The New Republic

"In her important new book, Carolyn J. Dean explores the complex relations between perceptions of a diminished modern capacity for empathy and a constellation of associated themes, including the so-called pornography of violence, the status of indifference as an often invoked category calling for critical historical investigation, and the search for an appropriate ethic of response to the Holocaust and other extreme events. Her thought-provoking, cross-disciplinary analysis should be of widespread interest."—Dominick LaCapra, Cornell University, author of History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801489440
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2004
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Empathy, suffering, and Holocaust "pornography" 16
Ch. 2 Goldhagen's celebrity, numbness, and writing history 43
Ch. 3 Indifference and the language of victimization 76
Ch. 4 Who was the "real" Hitler? 106
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