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The History of Evil, The Holocaust, and Postmodernity

Berel Lang

Child survivors after the liberation of Auschwitz, 1945; Alexander Voronzow and others in his group; USHMM/Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/pa14532; Wikimedia Commons.

Sketching out the place of the Holocaust on the moral map of postmodernity.

I propose to look at “evil” as postmodernity itself first looked at it, in contrast to reading backward to it through the baroque superstructure more recently built on it; that is, to consider “evil” as postmodernity found it before going postmodern—in this way, also learning something of why it decided on that career in the first place. The framework to be proposed here is in part a reconstruction, close to a genealogy, of the moral inclination or direction of postmodernity. Obviously, even with our own proximity to postmodernity’s divorce from modernity (it is difficult to say exactly when this occurred, but it can’t be long past), the lineage remains conjectural, although no more, I should argue, than conceptual genealogies ever are and, in any event, no more than the categories of “modernity” and “postmodernity” themselves. A view of these categories as historical will in any event level the playing field, if it does not make it quite transparent. Nor is the issue at stake a history of the development from one to the other as that “actually” occurred, since I shall be attempting only to place them against a common background of moral history or more specifically, the (at least, a) history of evil.11xFor a fuller account of the concept of the “history of evil,” see Berel Lang, The Future of the Holocaust: Between History and Memory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), chs. 1–3.

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