Michael Bernard-Donals

Position title: Chaim Perelman Professor of Rhetoric and Culture

Email: michael.bernarddonals@wisc.edu

6187A Helen C. White Hall

Rhetorical history and theory, memory and memorial culture, contemporary public higher education
Research Areas
Contemporary Jewish history and rhetoric, rhetorical history and theory, 20th and 21st century literature and culture
Michael Bernard-Donals

My teaching and research focus on the relation of history, memory, and representation — how do we write about and depict historical events, and how do those representations affect us and give us access to what happened? I’ve also begun two new projects. The first, on rhetoric and the sacred, examines how we talk about, and represent, what is often described as God, a higher power, or sacred spaces. The second project, based in notions of contingency and vulnerability, imagines what public higher education could look like in the twenty-first century.

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 (2010)
  • Jewish Rhetorics: History, Theory, Practice (Brandeis 2014)
  • Figures of Memory: The Rhetoric of Displacement at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (SUNY 2016)
  • Responding to the Sacred: An Inquiry into the Limits of Rhetoric (PSU Press, forthcoming spring 2021)
  • essays and reviews on rhetoric, the teaching of writing, critical theory, and the Holocaust in various journals.

Recent Books

  • Bernard-Donals (Co-editor), Michael. Responding to the Sacred: An Inquiry into the Limits of Rhetoric. Penn State University Press, 2021. Print.

    With language we name and define all things, and by studying our use of language, rhetoricians can provide an account of these things and thus of our lived experience. The concept of the sacred, however, raises the prospect of the existence of phenomena that transcend the human and physical and cannot be expressed fully by language. The sacred thus reveals limitations to rhetoric.

    Featuring essays by some of the foremost scholars of rhetoric working today, this wide-ranging collection of theoretical and methodological studies takes seriously the possibility of the sacred and the challenge it poses to rhetorical inquiry. The contributors engage with religious rhetorics—Jewish, Jesuit, Buddhist, pagan—as well as rationalist, scientific, and postmodern rhetorics, studying, for example, divination in the Platonic tradition, Thomas Hobbes’s and Walter Benjamin’s accounts of sacred texts, the uncanny algorithms of Big Data, and Hélène Cixous’s sacred passages and passwords. From these studies, new definitions of the sacred emerge—along with new rhetorical practices for engaging with the sacred.

    This book provides insight into the relation of rhetoric and the sacred, showing the capacity of rhetoric to study the ineffable but also shedding light on the boundaries between them.

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  • Explores how the USHMM and other museums and memorials both displace and disturb the memories that they are trying to commemorate.

    Figures of Memory examines how the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC, uses its space and the design of its exhibits to “move” its visitors to memory. From the objects and their placement to the architectural design of the building and the floor plan, the USHMM was meant to teach visitors about the Holocaust. But what Michael Bernard-Donals found is that while they learn, and remember, the Holocaust, visitors also call to mind other, sometimes unrelated memories. Partly this is because memory itself works in multidirectional ways, but partly it’s because of decisions made in the planning that led to the creation of the museum.

    Drawing on material from the USHMM’s institutional archive, including meeting minutes, architectural renderings, visitor surveys, and comments left by visitors, Figures of Memory is both a theoretical exploration of memory—its relation to identity, space, and ethics—and a practical analysis of one of the most discussed memorials in the United States. The book also extends recent discussions of the rhetoric of memorial sites and museums by arguing that sites like the USHMM don’t so much “make a case for” events through the act of memorialization, but actually displace memory, disturbing it—and the museum visitor—so much so that they call it into question. Memory, like rhetorical figures, moves, and the USHMM moves its visitors, figuratively and literally, both to and beyond the events the museum is meant to commemorate.

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  • Forgetful Memory cover
    Bernard-Donals, Michael. Forgetful Memory: Representation and Remembrance After Auschwitz. SUNY Press, 2009. Print.

    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.

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  • An Introduction To Holocaust Studies cover
    Bernard-Donals, Michael.“An Introduction to Holocaust Studies: History, Memory, and Representation.” 2006: n. pag. Print.

    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), Michael, and Richard R. Glejzer (Editor).“Witnessing the Disaster: Essays on Representation and the Holocaust.” 2004: n. pag. Print.

    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), Michael, and Richard R. Glejzer (Editor).“Between Witness and Testimony: The Holocaust and the Limits of Representation.” 2001: n. pag. Print.

    “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, Michael.“The Practice of Theory: Rhetoric, Knowledge, and Pedagogy in the Academy.” 1998: n. pag. Print.

    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), Michael, and Richard R. Glejzer (Editor).“Rhetoric in an Antifoundational World.” 1998: n. pag. Print.

    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, Michael.“Mikhail Bakhtin: Between Phenomenology and Marxism.” 1994: n. pag. Print.

    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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