Saturday, January 31, 2009

Agamben and the Camps

On Thursday I had my class read Giorgio Agamben's Remnants of Auschwitz. Instead of stumbling through my own lecture on the material, I asked someone who knows Agamben's work well to come and teach it for me. The lecture and discussion were great, even if my guest lecturer and I disagreed on some minor points. In fact, I'm more excited about Agamben now, particularly because what he's doing is so central to my own work on the ethics of Holocaust representation--especially his ideas about testimony and the Muselmann.

But there was one point of contention that I have not been able to fully work through. Then again, if the truth be told, I'm still working through pretty much of all of Agamben, so it's highly possible that I'm getting some things wrong in my analysis here.

The guest lecturer introduced into the class discussion Agamben's argument that the camps have become the norm (a comment that he apparently makes in Homo Sacer). Agamben uses the paradigm of the concentration camps to suggest that the "bare life" to which the camp inmates were reduced (they were called Muselmanner when they reached this point) is the extreme example of the point to which, today, we are reducing the lives of others. It is an example of the state of exception becoming, well, not an exception. In Agamben's view (or what I think is his view), it is not that we are making Muselmanner out of people, but rather that the Muselmann is the potential outcome of some of our current power structures--to the degree that the political arena begins to dictate the way in which people can live their life. And Agamben is concerned with how these states of exception become the bases for rules and regulations in the real world.

As the guest lecturer suggested, the case of Terri Schiavo provides one example for what is seen as the biopoliticization of human beings. Schiavo, in a vegetative state, was the epitome of "bare life"; she was still breathing, but was unable to speak or make any choices about her life. In this state, she became the object for heated political debates regarding who gets to decide when life should end. The Schiavo case is not an example of what our power structures have necessarily reduced a person to, but of the politicization of bare life, and the laws that are created based on such exceptional circumstances.

Okay, so let me connect all this back to the idea of the camp, and what makes me uncomfortable. In class, the suggestion was made that the idea of the (concentration) camps becoming the norm can be seen in the case of Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of the inmates there, who are treated like prisoners but have no access to legal representation. The "exception" is made here because we are (or, were, given the change in the rhetoric of the new administration in regard to "the war on terror") in exceptional circumstances in a post-911 era. So it's another instance in which laws are made based on exceptional circumstances.

Okay, fine. On one hand, I get what Agamben is saying--the power structures that allow people to be placed into camps and ultimately (at their extreme end) reduced to Muselmanner are also at work in places like Guantanamo Bay. I guess the point is that we need to examine these power structures and understand how they function so that we do not experience the manifestation of their extreme end again.

But I am still not comfortable with saying that the camps have become the norm. The implicit comparison bothers me. Perhaps we might find figures in our world who have become like Muselmann for various reasons, but I fear that in allowing such a comparison to be made we forget that the Muselmann of the camps did not become that way because of any of the choices they made; their mental and physical breaking down was intentional, and it was based on nothing other than the fact that they were Jewish.

Monday, January 19, 2009

De(i)fying the Holocaust

Tonight I was planning to see The Reader, just one of the many Holocaust films that are out right now. But after reading Jeffrey Goldberg's interview with Ed Zwick, the director of Defiance, I think I will see this one instead (yes, I plan to see them all, but one film at a time). Interestingly, A.O. Scott suggests that Defiance only re-affirms historical stereotypes, while Goldberg sees it as an attempt to comment on stories of Jewish resistance during WWII that are "insufficiently told."

More to come on Defiance...

Friday, January 02, 2009

Jews, Non-Jews, and Holocaust Memory

I have three days to organize the class I'm teaching this winter--"The Limits of Representation: Ethics and the Holocaust." I'm going to be teaching things like Giorgio Agamben (Remnants of Auschwitz), Primo Levi (The Drowned and the Saved), and Emmanuel Levinas ("Useless Suffering"); as well as fiction like David Grossman's See Under: Love, Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Far Euphrates, Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces, and Michael Chabon's Final Solution. I'll also look at some poetry by Paul Celan and a couple of films including Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. The texts are all there--I just need to decide how to arrange them.

I was discussing the course with someone, and after listing the texts I planned to include, I heard him ask, "And what non-Jewish writers are you using?" I had to think about it for a second, and I realized that other than Agamben and an essay by Dominick LaCapra, all of the texts are by Jewish writers. But is this really a problem?

Typically when I plan a literature course, I try to include works by writers from different backgrounds. In a contemporary American literature course, for example, I make sure to include works by women and people of different ethnicities. But it didn't occur to me in this context--I simply thought about the works I considered to be the best when it comes to approaching the topic of Ethics and the Holocaust.

So I'm teaching a bunch of Jewish men. And I'm not really that concerned about diversity this time around. But maybe this is wrong.

The question is whether or not I have an obligation to seek out books and essays about the Holocaust that are written by non-Jews. And, the second question is whether or not Jews, the primary group targeted by Hitler's genocidal impulses, have some kind of monopoly on the theoretization of Holocaust representation. Does being Jewish give someone a more authentic perspective of the Holocaust, or does it imply some kind of blindspot?