IT HAS BECOME SOMETHING of a commonplace in recent criticism to claim that the Holocaust inaugurates a ''crisis of representation.'' To read, understand, and transmit a historical trauma of this magnitude is to confront the boundaries of the thinkable and the sayable. This essay critically examines the emergence of a theoretical current that presents the Holocaust primarily as a trauma that - as trauma - opens up unlocatable and unrepresentable forms of knowledge. It argues that the overwhelming focus on trauma as an optic for viewing the Nazi genocide leads to a dangerous conflation of the differences between victims, executioners, witnesses (primary and secondary); between literal and metaphorical survival and culpability; and between historical event and metaphorical, transhistorical condition.
For a generation that did not live through the Holocaust but encountered it as secondary witnesses, as readers and viewers of films and documentaries, a sense of metaphorical survival and second-hand guilt seems to be an inescapable condition of Holocaust reception. Theoretical approaches to representations and testimonies of the Holocaust, especially in the wake of deconstruction, increasingly rely on models of contamination, complicity, and trauma. Such models complicate not only the difference between victims and executioners within the camps, but also the differences between witnesses, bystanders, and successive generations of secondary witnesses. Primo Levi's description of a ''gray zone'' in the concentration camp (in The Drowned and the Saved) has played a crucial role in this recent focus on the traumatized culpability of the secondary witness. The ''gray zone'' describes situations that blurred and even dismantled the opposition between victims and executioners (as in the case of the Special Squads, or Sonderkommando s, composed primarily of Jewish prisoners working in the crematorium). This essay argues that Levi's ''gray zone'' is now deployed as a figure in the recent work of Giorgio Agamben, Cathy Caruth, and Shoshana Felman. Identifying proximities in their views of trauma and testimony, the essay shows how Levi's ''gray zone'' is transformed into an overarching metaphorical framework for thinking not only about the Holocaust, but more broadly, about history, subjectivity,and ethics in the fields of psychoanalysis, political philosophy, and literary criticism. This hypostasis of the ''gray zone'' not only erases the historical specificity of the Nazi genocide, but also subsumes the irreducibly distinct positions of victim, executioner, witness, accomplice, and proxy-witness under a general condition of traumatic complicity. The essay concludes with a paired reading of Albert Camus's La chute and Levi's The Drowned and the Saved, suggesting that Camus's novel, while often read as an exemplary testimony to historical trauma, instead stages some of the ethical and political problems of reading history through the optic of trauma.