The Guardians of Memory
and the Return of the Xenophobic Right
(CPL Editions, 2021)
by Valentina Pisanty (University of Bergamo)
From Michael Rothberg’s preface to the book: "Valentina Pisanty’s The Guardians of Memory opens with a paradox and a question. The paradox derives from an empirical observation: that the very post-Cold War era that has constructed a widespread commemorative culture dedicated to the Holocaust has also been a period in which politics has experienced a rightward turn characterized by ever more virulent racism and racist violence. The question Pisanty poses involves interpreting this paradox: is this conjunction of a memory culture that understands itself as dedicated to tolerance and antiracism and a political culture that is trending racist merely a coincidence or is there a deeper causal connection to be found? Has a much-vaunted cosmopolitan Holocaust memory — with its linked slogans of “Never forget!” and “Never again!” — simply failed to prevent the rise of the right or, more darkly, might it even be implicated in that political turn?
Faced with a perilous global situation, this question should haunt us all. In addressing it, Pisanty employs her considerable analytic talents and a wide-ranging knowledge of postwar European and North American culture. Readers will find here a provocative, even polemical, perspective on some of the some of the taken for granted truisms of recent years. Indeed, her book is explicitly written to challenge consensus. If we want to understand the rise of the right, she argues, we who consider ourselves part of a liberal-left democratic culture need to start by practicing “ruthless self-criticism.” As she puts it powerfully: “before lancing the boil of xenophobic nationalism, it is necessary to understand the setting it has taken root and flourished in.” That setting is — in part — a liberal and cosmopolitan memory culture that has sought to promote an agenda of human rights and tolerance though a selective appropriation and commemoration of the Nazi genocide. This memory culture, which Pisanty indeed sees as bearing considerable responsibility for the political dangers of the present, is in the hands of those she calls “the Guardians of Memory.”
The Guardians of Memory include those “people, associations or institutions… appointed to conduct appropriate commemorative practices” and, in the case of disputes, to adjudicate who “has more right to express their claims in the vocabulary of the Holocaust.” She has in mind prominent public spokespersons, museum and commemorative site professionals, and — I would assume — scholars like herself and like me. Pisanty’s book is a challenge for all of us who have dedicated ourselves, in our different ways, to preserving the past and remembering for the future.”
Omer Bartov’s early research concerned the Nazi indoctrination of the Wehrmacht. He then turned to the links between total war and genocide, discussed in his books Murder in Our Midst, Mirrors of Destruction, and Germany’s War and the Holocaust. His book Erased (2007) investigates the politics of memory in West Ukraine, while his most recent monograph, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (2018) is a microhistory of ethnic coexistence and violence. Bartov has just completed a new monograph, tentatively titled Tales from the Borderlands: Making and Unmaking the Past.
Manuela Consonni is the Pela and Adam Starkopf Chair in Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is currently the Director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. Consonni has written extensively on the process of memorialization of the resistance and the Shoah in Italy. Her seminal volume L’eclisse dell’antifascismo. Resistenza, questione ebraica e cultura politica in Italia 1943-1989 (Laterza 2015), is forthcoming in English. Her current research focuses on antisemitism, race and nation in Julius Evola. She co-edited with Vivian Liska, the volume, Sartre, Jews and the Other (2020).
Valentina Pisanty is Professor of Semiotics at Bergamo University, and has written several essays on interpretative semiotics, fables, humour, political speech, rhetoric of racism, and memory. Bompiani has published Leggere la fiaba (1993), Semiotica e interpretazione with Roberto Pellerey (2004), La difesa della razza (2006), L’irritante questione delle camere a gas (1998, enriched edition 2014).
Michael Rothberg is the 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest book is The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (2019). Previous books include Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009), and Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation (2000). With Yasemin Yildiz, he is currently completing Inheritance Trouble: Migrant Archives of Holocaust Remembrance for Fordham University Press.