Michael Bernard-Donals

Professor of English and Jewish Studies


6187A Helen C. White Hall

Rhetoric, critical theory, and post-Holocaust representation
Research Areas
Rhetorical Theory; Critical Theory, History and Memory

Michael Bernard-Donals

My teaching and research have increasingly focused on the relation of memory and ethics: to what extent do events compel us to speak, what is the relation between what we’re compelled to say and our obligations to others, and what formal properties of utterance — testimony, history, poetry — create what could be called a ‘memorial effect’ on both speaker and listener? I’m particularly interested in how these questions might be answered in the contemporary context, in which memorial locations seem to exert a kind of memory effect (Auschwitz, ground zero in Manhattan, and other sites of and memorials to atrocity) that both is and is not directly related to the events they presume to ‘name.’

Selected Publications

  • Mikhail Bakhtin: Between Phenomenology and Marxism (Cambridge, 1994)
  • The Practice of Theory (Cambridge, 1998)
  • Rhetoric in an Antifoundational World (Yale, 1998)
  • Between Witness and Testimony: the Holocaust and the Limits of Representation (SUNY 2001)
  • Witnessing the Disaster: Essays on Representation and the Holocaust (Wisconsin 2004)
  • An Introduction to Holocaust Studies: History, Memory, and Representation (Prentice Hall 2006)
  • Forgetful Memory: Representation and Remembrance after Auschwitz
  • essays and reviews on rhetoric, the teaching of writing, critical theory, and the Holocaust in various journals.

Recent Books

  • Forgetful Memory cover

    Much of the discussion surrounding the Holocaust and how it can be depicted sixty years later has focused on memory. In Forgetful Memory, Michael Bernard-Donals focuses on the relation between memory and forgetfulness, arguing that memory and forgetfulness cannot be separated but must be examined as they complicate our understanding of the Shoah. Drawing on the work of Josef Yerushalmi, Maurice Blanchot, David Roskies, and especially Emmanuel Levinas, Bernard-Donals explores contemporary representations of the Holocaust in memoirs, novels, and poetry; films and photographs; in museums; and in our contemporary political discourse concerning the Middle East. Ultimately, Forgetful Memory makes the case that we should give up on the idea of memory as a kind of representation, and that we should see it instead as an intersection of remembrance and oblivion, as a kind of writing, where what remains at its margins—what is left unwritten—is at least as important as what is given voice.

    “Forgetful Memory makes a major contribution to the growing literature on remembrance, and will be of interest to all who work in the fields of Holocaust, Memory and Trauma Studies.” — The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

    “…Bernard-Donals has produced an insightful and broadly reaching work that demonstrates that not everything has already been said on the role of memory and its component of forgetting in Holocaust studies.” — H-Net Reviews

    “Drawing on established work in trauma and Holocaust studies, philosophy, literary theory, and Jewish studies, each of the three major sections of Forgetful Memory addresses a different aspect of the relationship between history and memory … [its] limitations are counterbalanced by Bernard-Donals’s intensive and illuminating efforts to bridge a vast array of disciplinary idioms and conceptual vocabularies.” — Clio

    “This is a lucid and eloquent and consistently perceptive book. Exploring the vexed relationship between memory and forgetting, Bernard-Donals makes a powerfully persuasive case that the memory texts of the Holocaust are not—and cannot ever be—entirely credible. For some in Holocaust Studies today, to claim that memory texts have something necessarily figurative or false about them is to open the worrisome floodgates to Holocaust denial. Forgetful Memory refuses to give in to such worries. Yes, testimony necessarily fails to forge a transparent or seamless relation to the events to which testimony bears witness. But if we embrace the forgetful void at the heart of memory, we thus enable spontaneous acts of remembering that testify not to the certainties of a traumatic past but to the complexities involved in our memorial encounters with traumatic events themselves. What Forgetful Memorymakes plain is that the future of such events—their lessons—are bound up ineluctably with these complexities.” — Paul Eisenstein, author of Traumatic Encounters: Holocaust Representation and the Hegelian Subject

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  • An Introduction To Holocaust Studies cover

    This single volume traces three approaches to the study of the Holocaust: through notions of history, theories of memory, and a focus on art and representation.  It introduces students to the different ways we have come to understand the Holocaust, gives them an opportunity to ask questions about those conclusions, and examines how this event can be understood once all the survivors are gone. In addition, the book looks at the different disciplines — history, sociology, religious studies, and literary interpretation, among others — through which studies of the Holocaust take place.

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  • Witnessing the Disaster: Essays on Representation and the Holocaust cover
    Bernard-Donals (Editor), M., and R. R. G. (Editor). Witnessing the Disaster: Essays on Representation and the Holocaust. University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

    Witnessing the Disaster examines how histories, films, stories and novels, memorials and museums, and survivor testimonies involve problems of witnessing: how do those who survived, and those who lived long after the Holocaust, make clear to us what happened? How can we distinguish between more and less authentic accounts? Are histories more adequate descriptors of the horror than narrative? Does the susceptibility of survivor accounts to faulty memory and the vestiges of trauma make them any more or less useful as instruments of witness? And how do we authenticate their accuracy without giving those who deny the Holocaust a small but dangerous foothold?

    These essayists aim to move past the notion that the Holocaust as an event defies representation. They look at specific cases of Holocaust representation and consider their effect, their structure, their authenticity, and the kind of knowledge they produce. Taken together they consider the tension between history and memory, the vexed problem of eyewitness testimony and its status as evidence, and the ethical imperatives of Holocaust representation.

    Michael Bernard-Donals is professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Richard Glejzer is associate professor of English at North Central College in Illinois. They are coeditors of Between Witness and Testimony.

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  • Between Witness and Testimony
    Bernard-Donals (Editor), M., and R. R. G. (Editor). Between Witness and Testimony: The Holocaust and the Limits of Representation. SUNY University Press, 2001.

    “One of the book’s strengths is that it speaks to many of its potential competitors. Reading this book will lead people new to the study of the Shoah to read other books. This is a rare book, one that is interesting not only in terms of what it says but in terms of what it prompts its readers to reconsider.” – David Metzger, Old Dominion University

    The Holocaust presents an immense challenge to those who would represent it or teach it through fiction, film, or historical accounts. Even the testimonies of those who were there provide only a glimpse of the disaster to those who were not. Between Witness and Testimony investigates the difficulties inherent in the obligation to bear witness to events that seem not just unspeakable but also unthinkable. The authors examine films, fictional narratives, survivor testimonies, and the museums at Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in order to establish an ethics of Holocaust representation. Traversing the disciplines of history, philosophy, religious studies, and literary and cultural theory, the authors suggest that while no account adequately provides access to what Adorno called “the extremity that eludes the concept,” we are still obliged to testify, to put into language what history cannot contain.

    Michael Bernard-Donals is Professor of English and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin, and the author of The Practice of Theory: Rhetoric, Knowledge, and Pedagogy in the Academy and Mikhail Bakhtin: Between Phenomenology and Marxism. Richard Glejzer is Assistant Professor of English at North Central College. They are the coeditors of Rhetoric in an Antifoundational World: Language, Culture, and Pedagogy.

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  • The Practice of Theory: Rhetoric, Knowledge, and Pedagogy in the Academy cover
    Bernard-Donals, M. The Practice of Theory: Rhetoric, Knowledge, and Pedagogy in the Academy. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    Theory has become a common language in the humanities in recent years, but its practical application as a pedagogical aid has yet to be fully addressed. In The Practice of Theory, Michael Bernard-Donals examines the connection between theory and pedagogy at the level of practice. He argues that though rhetoric links pedagogy with theory, this tradition must also connect with other human and natural sciences. A materialistic rhetoric can, he claims, reinvigorate the link between theory, teaching and practice. This book offers a sustained reflection on the production of knowledge across a range of contemporary disciplines.

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  • Rhetoric in an Antifoundational World cover
    Bernard-Donals (Editor), M., and R. R. G. (Editor). Rhetoric in an Antifoundational World. Yale University Press, 1998.

    In this brilliant collection, literary scholars, philosophers, and teachers inquire into the connections between antifoundational philosophy and the rhetorical tradition. What happens to literary studies and theory when traditional philosophical foundations are disavowed? What happens to the study of teaching and writing when antifoundationalism is accepted? What strategies for human understanding are possible when the weaknesses of antifoundationalism are identified? This volume offers answers in classic essays by such thinkers as Richard Rorty, Terry Eagleton, and Stanley Fish, and in many new essays never published before.

    The contributors to this book explore the nexus of antifoundationalism and rhetoric, critique that nexus, and suggest a number of pedagogical and theoretical alternatives. The editors place these statements into a context that is both critical and evaluative, and they provide for voices that dissent from the antifoundational perspective and that connect specific, practical pedagogies to the broader philosophical statements. For those with an interest in rhetoric, philosophy, comparative literature, or the teaching of composition, this book sets forth a wealth of thought-provoking ideas.

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  • Mikhail Bakhtin: Between Phenomenology and Marxism cover
    Bernard-Donals, M. Mikhail Bakhtin: Between Phenomenology and Marxism. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    The work of Mikhail Bakhtin does not fall neatly under a single rubric, because its philosophical foundation rests ambivalently between phenomenology and Marxism. The theoretical tension between these two positions creates philosophical impasses in Bakhtin’s work, which have been neglected or ignored in previous studies of Bakhtin. Michael Bernard-Donals examines developments in phenomenological and materialist theory, providing a contextualized study of Bakhtin, a critique of the problems of contemporary criticism, and an original contribution to literary theory.

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