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An Interview with Valentina Pisanty in Journal of Perpetrator Research

By Emiliano Perra 

Interview with Valentina Pisanty on her book The Guardians of Memory and the Return of the Xenophobic Right (New York: Centro Primo Levi Editions, 2021), a provocative investigation of the weaknesses of dominant Holocaust memory culture, which often ends up being appropriated by illiberal and xenophobic forces.

Valentina Pisanty is Professor of Semiotics at the Università degli Studi di Bergamo. She is the author of several monographs in Italian on the uses and abuses of Holocaust memory, including L’irritante questione delle camere a gas: logica del negazionismo (Milan: Bompiani, 1998 [2nd rev. ed. 2014]) and Abusi di memoria: negare, sacralizzare, banalizzare la Shoah (Milan: Bompiani, 2012). She has also published extensively on the racist and antisemitic fascist journal La difesa della razza, including Educare all’odio: La difesa della razza (Milan: Motta, 2003) and La difesa della razza: Antologia 1938-1943 (Milan: Bompiani, 2006). Her latest book The Guardians of Memory and the Return of the Xenophobic Right (New York: Centro Primo Levi Editions, 2021) is a provocative investigation of the weaknesses of dominant Holocaust memory culture, which often ends up being appropriated by illiberal and xenophobic forces.

As Michael Rothberg states in his Foreword to The Guardians of Memory, your book ‘is explicitly written to challenge consensus’. It takes the lead from the consideration that far from marking the permanent establishment of a hegemonic liberal paradigm, the years since the end of the Cold War have witnessed the rise of xenophobic and populist far right leaders and movements. You also state that these thirty years have been dominated by the centrality of the Holocaust in memory culture, at least in the Global North. Your claim is that these two phenomena are not entirely unrelated. Can you explain for our readers the gist of your argument and how you came to formulate it?

The job of critical thinking is to defy conventional wisdom and problematise what is often taken as given. Perhaps, what appears prima facie obvious is a symptom of unselfconscious acceptance of a certain ideology.  The cultural object discussed in my book is the commemorative rhetoric that has imposed itself as foundational metanarrative of Western liberalism. We have introjected this narrative to the point of feeling surprised whenever we are reminded that the Americanisation and later Europeanisation of Holocaust memory are relatively recent phenomena. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the inclusion of former Communist Bloc countries in the NATO sphere of influence, ‘cosmopolitan’ Holocaust memory filled the vacuum left by the collapse of twentieth-century revolutionary ideologies, becoming the hegemonic paradigm compatible with the support of neoliberal market economy and the protection of human rights championed by the theorists of the ‘third way’. In this view, the memory of twentieth-century totalitarian violence illustrates the triumph of liberalism, seen as light at the end of the tunnel and ultimate end of history, after which there is no point asking whether there are alternatives.

From this stems the Never Forget = Never Again mantra, the idea that remembering great historical traumas of the last century is an antidote against the rise of the new racist and xenophobic right. We do not lack evidence of the contrary, with ultranationalist leaders in power, fascist symbols being paraded, symbolic and physical violence, and authoritarian tendencies becoming mainstream. All these phenomena coexist with the consolidation and expansion of memory culture. I am certainly not arguing that the politics of memory are responsible for the rise of the xenophobic right in the Global North. The causes are more complex, multi-layered, and structural. However, my argument is that a complex web of not immediately visible connections unites them. Independently from their promoters’ intentions, current memory regimes operate in the same discursive field as the ultranationalist rhetoric, even if from opposite positions.
I started reflecting on this years ago when I studied the style and rhetoric of Holocaust deniers, whose trajectory in terms of media visibility overlaps with that of memory culture. It is not a coincidence that the Faurisson affair hit France between 1978 and 1979 to coincide with the international success of the Holocaust miniseries. By the same token, it is not a coincidence that the peaks of notoriety achieved by deniers coincide with controversies in the broader field of Holocaust memory, allowing them to garner attention beyond their traditional far-right niche.

Read the full article here: https://jpr.winchesteruniversitypress.org/articles/abstract/10.21039/101/

Perra, E., 2021. The Guardians of Memory: An Interview with Valentina Pisanty. Journal of Perpetrator Research, 4(1). DOI: http://doi.org/10.21039/101

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