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.


Shahar Ozeri said...

Hi, Monica.

I too have used _Remnants_ in a course on the Holocaust, representation and theory, and I certainly appreciate your reservations per the "norming" of camp and the norming of "Muselmanner."

While certainly, Agamben attributes a "world-historical" significance to Auschwitz that complicates and even erases any conventional or normative ethics that came before it, one of his tasks --at least to me--seems to be to re-think ethics from the ground up in order to make audible the limit introduced by the Holocaust, a project that, according to Agamben, we have scarcely begun. No?

Agamben's use of the "testimony" of the Muselmann, who turn out to be the in-distinction between human and inhuman has produced no small reaction in some circles. Much of the lit about Agamben’s work I've looked at on the Holocaust has focused on the problem with the central role he assigns the Muselmann for Post-Holocaust ethics.

There seems to be a few different tacks one may take. The first is that Agamben, on the one hand, ignores the factors that produced the Muselmann and on the other, fails to take into account the importance of history and the social sciences in interrogating and transmitting the Holocaust. Closely tied to this critique is another, namely, that Agamben fetishizes the Muselmann as the only arbiter of truth for the camps and worse, according to J.M. Bernstein, the act of witnessing aestheticizes what remains of Auschwitz and produces a pornographic scene, “a pornography of horror.” Because of such festishizing and aestheticizing, the site of the witness becomes homogenized. Moreover, as his critics have pointed out, because Agamben absolutizes Auschwitz and the figure of the Muselmann, he also, tends to normalizes the state of exception that might be understood as producing them.

I wonder if some of your (ok, my own) reservations with Agamben's norming may lie in the "troping" of the Jew so prevalent in a good deal of "postmodern" theory.

Hope this didn't sound to "lecturey."

Just some thoughts, really.

Monica said...

Thanks for the comment--it's helpful to read since, like I said, I'm still working through Agamben myself. Yes, I think you're right in the sense that he is re-thinking ethics from the ground up; or at least he lays the groundwork for others to do so.

I haven't yet read very much regarding what other critics think of Agamben's use of the Muselmann. I don't know if it works completely for me (because of the troping of the Jew that you mention) in terms of post-Holocaust ethics, but I do think it works quite well if we are going to talk just about the issue of testimony and witness--not just in regard to the Holocaust but perhaps other collective tradies/atrocities as well. I think it's one of the most useful methods of understanding the inherent gaps/blindnesses in all testimony that comes out of trauma.

But, as you can see, it's working for me in the context of collective tragedy and the way we respond to it, rather than in the context of a broader "new ethics."

Back to the idea of the Jew as an all too familiar literary/philosophical trope-- I heard Alain Badiou give a talk at UCI last week on whether or not the word "Jew" can be used as a philosophical concept. It was an interesting talk, but it was the same sense of discomfort that I often have with these kinds of things.

Monica said...

Oops--I just realized from your blog that you already know about the Badiou talk. I will have to comment over there.

Shahar Ozeri said...

I think you're completely correct to emphasize the element of trauma and witnessing/testimony (an interesting continuation of the role of trauma in Shoshana Felman and Cathy Caruth I think) rather than the possibility for a "Post-Holocaust Ethics." (Whatever that may mean...)

That said, I still wonder if the Muselmann, as a "threshold of indistinction," ends up being a weird transhistorical concept evoked by Agamben in rather capricious ways. For one, the Muselmann, although historically determined, can be (is) used as a basis for "transhistorical reflection" on say, abjection. I don't think I'd be the first to point out that this turns (or at least risks turning) the Muselmanner into a sort of mighty exemplar of humanity, which I suspect would amount to nothing less than a perverse form of "victimology." That is, an identification with the disempowered, or worse, even in its transhistorical operation, a reversal of the extreme victimization under the Nazis.

I don't know, all of this said, there is something there that keeps me going back to Agamben because at bottom, what I want to ask is what (if anything) may Agamben’s making visible the Muselmann contribute to ethical discourse?


Kevin said...

Thanks for this, Monica.
Read it a week ago. Due to my total ignorance of the author under discussion, and the well-informed nature of Shahar’s comments above, I was going to leave this uncommented. But it now strikes me that the problem with the application of Agamben’s thoughts to Gitmo which is bothering me (and perhaps bothering you as well) is almost purely analytic. So here goes.
I take it the basic idea here, drawn from Agamben, is that, tolerated long enough, exceptions to norms become normal, and, in time, become norms themselves. A law long-evaded becomes degraded—the exception becomes the rule—defining deviancy down and all that. Indisputable. So far so good.

However, in any given case, to call something an ‘exception’ to a rule/norm/law presupposes one can distinguish between (a) a particular law being evaded, and (b) a particular law being inapplicable. But how does one decide whether an apparent ‘exception’ (say, an ambulance blowing through traffic lights) is (a*) a threatening exception (in this case, an exception posing a direct threat to the mores of morning traffic), or (b*) a perfectly proper, context-sensitive application of a completely different rule? One is logically free to run a slippery-slope argument against the ambulance driver (e.g. “he is setting a dangerous precedent—soon everyone will disdain the fundamental authority of the stop sign!”); but to argue this way, I think, would betray a very strange and ethically tone-deaf allegiance to a context-indifferent consistency—a consistency that would itself require a prior ethical defense.

This means that the applicability of Agamben’s insight to a given case depends on a prior settling of the question of applicability of laws/rules/norms in that circumstance. It seems, then, that to earn the right to apply the 'exception-to-norm' apparatus of Agamben—e.g. any claim that Gitmo is an exception which degrades our moral defenses against the next Buchenwald or Belzec— has to suppose the relevant distinction (between ‘a’ and ‘b’) has already been made. However, as regards Gitmo, “Which law is applicable to this sort of person rather than that?” was and is the subject of the original debate. So in both cases (in applying Agamben and applying rules to Gitmo) applicability is what is in question, not what answers the question; and whether Agamben’s ‘exception’-talk applies at all depends on the former applicability question (i.e. which norm applies?) being answered. ‘Exception’ talk supposes this central debate to be already settled--needs it to be if it is to proceed. And this means that Agamben's point cannot serve as the basis for an argument that Gitmo is morally or legally exceptionable. Agamben’s work here, then, cannot answer the original moral question which Gitmo raises; carelessly applied in the way you describe, it merely begs it.

Apologies for the length of this and my towering ignorance of Agamben, and so ignorance of whether he himself offers resources to guide our ‘a’/’b’ distinction-making, but: might this rather blatant bit of question-begging be your worry? That what posed as an application of Agamben's thought was a hijacking of it—an unearned appropriation—trying to pass itself off as an ethically significant demonstration?
If this is not your worry, and if the structure here is right, it might be that you agree that some rule is being degraded by ‘exceptional’/exceptionable Gitmo, but that it is not a rule which, when degraded, would legitimize/lead to holocaust. Both roads, objection-wise, look inviting.

Monica said...


Thanks for the long response, especially since it means you had to spend time thinking about a writer with whose work you weren't familiar! Okay, a couple things. You write: "...any claim that Gitmo is an exception which degrades our moral defenses against the next Buchenwald or Belzec," but I don't think that's the claim that's being made, by Agamben or others. The point is that both the concentration camp and Gitmo are states of exception. And apparently (I feel like a dope because I haven't actually read it) Agamben has talked specifically about Gitmo in one article. But I suppose what concerns me is that he doesn't (at least I don't think) seem to be saying anything about not letting Buchenwald/camps happen again; he seems only to be using it as an example to explore how power functions in our society. I'm just wondering, I guess, if one doesn't have some kind of ethical (?) responsibility when it comes to using the Holocaust as an example for something. But, of course, this is my thing, so it's entirely possible that I'm being overly sensitive or critical.

I guess what I have a problem with is Agamben's idea that much like Auschwitz is a state of exception, so is Gitmo. I think he's right, but what I find problematic is what seems to be an inevitable reduction of both to simply "states of exception." I just don't like that implicit comparison.

Drc said...

Hi everyone, the discussion of Agamben is interesting. I will see if I can add a thought or two here.

Monica, I am troubled by the comment about ethical responsibility when dealing with the camps. Agamben's project deals with sovereign power and how it functions. By studying how the camps break a human being down to bare life, i.e. the Muselmann, he is examining how the exceptional nature of the camps and sovereign power decides who is able to live and die, it controls life itself. Isn't Agamben being ethically responsible by exposing the methods in which power functioned in that extreme situation? And, by making comparisons to how power functions today, is Agamben's project not helping us to prevent the next genocide that will take place in the state of exception?

Gitmo is an example of a state of exception, and this will address some of Kevin's points as well as provide an example of how Agamben's work is applicable to contemporary society. Gitmo was put on that military base, both in and outside of Cuba, for the specific reason that there is no other base in the world like Gitmo, a legal black hole that is outside of U.S. law but within it at the same time (current legislation might change that, but the still unresolved fight proves the point). All of our other military bases exist under an agreement with the local government, except Gitmo. Yes, Agamben's point addresses the original moral question of Gitmo because sovereign power should not be an exception to the law; it should operate within the law. To my knowledge, Agamben does not compare the Holocaust to Gitmo. He examines the way both are examples of the state of exception. I don't believe this is a "hijacking of it—an unearned appropriation—trying to pass itself off as an ethically significant demonstration" as Kevin calls it. By examining how the exceptions still persist in contemporary politics, Agamben is demonstrating how, to agree with Shahar's point, ethics has not been rethought in the wake of the Holocaust. Agamben seems to be pushing for us to, as Shahar says, "re-think ethics from the gound up." Gitmo, hopefully, makes us realize the unfinished nature of this project.

Kevin said...

Good, Monica—glad to hear the argument (or at least the argument which concerns you) is not that the exception that is Gitmo somehow undermines our moral resistance against a holocaust redux (though Drc clearly disagrees here). Put it down to the hazards of my commenting rather quickly on an author whose work is unfamiliar to me. In my final paragraph I did hedge a bit in this direction—i.e. did want to allow that the denial of a moral Gitmo-to-Camps continuum was consistent with your alternative concern—that both were nonetheless comparable in being states of exception; and I did and do think that this, too, might be found objectionable. And this is (I hope I’ve got it) what you do not like. So at the end of the day, we may be agreeing—a fact obscured, perhaps, only by my profound ignorance of the material and writing too fast.

I take Drc, however, to be making the kind of claim I was targeting. Drc, I appreciate your clarifying that claim—that was helpful. But I’m presently unable to see your post as an objection to the fallacy I wrote of; rather, it very much appears to me to be an instance of it. You claim that Gitmo is not covered by current law, and is unusual. So far (let us allow) so good. What is important to note—and my entire point— is that, even supposing this is true, precisely nothing follows from this, ethically. Given Gitmo’s uniqueness and current legal limbo, one is free to either indict Gitmo for being an exception to present law, or indict the law for its ethical shortcomings in not being able to handle the sort of problem for which we built Gitmo. One can either call for new laws that are presently missing but are needed for ethical reasons; or one can denounce Gitmo as an ‘exception’ to present law AND an ethical degradation of it. But to simply point out, as you do, that Gitmo is not covered by present law—is an ‘exception’— is a statement which, by itself, is ethically ambivalent.
So my complaint, I think, is not an argument about particular facts you offer; it is a structural flaw in your argument—specifically: you just can’t get there (to ethical conclusions denouncing Gitmo) from here (noting it is a legal exception) unless you are willing to say that what is presently legal exhausts the ethical space in which we rightfully engineer our laws (which are themselves ethical technologies). To call the ethical space in which we create/engineer newly needed laws a “legal black hole” seems to suppose that where no law is (yet), no ethics is either—and that is a difficult thesis to defend! For ethics (I trust) is what law is FOR; thus law can fall short of ethics, and so one cannot show an absence/abscess of ethics by showing a current absence of applicable law. So if you decline to argue that the present legal structure is equivalent to/exhausts the ethical, then your post contains precisely the kind of flaw I wanted to highlight in my previous, both in terms of ‘exception’-talk, and in terms of ethical/legal discourse in general.

Monica said...

DRC--thanks for commenting. You write: "Isn't Agamben being ethically responsible by exposing the methods in which power functioned in that extreme situation? And, by making comparisons to how power functions today, is Agamben's project not helping us to prevent the next genocide that will take place in the state of exception?"

You may be right, which is why I need to keep reading Agamben. I suppose I simply remain a bit troubled by "the camps have become the norm"--and maybe this is only because I fear how such a great soundbite of a statement can be (mis)used by people. And for that reason, perhaps it is misleading and perhaps I am misreading Agamben.


SHAHAR--I want to respond to the question you raise at the end of your last comment (sorry my response is not very timely): "...what (if anything) may Agamben’s making visible the Muselmann contribute to ethical discourse?"

I suppose Primo Levi already made the Muselmann visible, right? And Agamben is really just identifying in Levi's work a "new ethics," revealing what was already there to some degree? But, again, my impression is that Levi is talking specifically about how power and testimony function in relation to the Holocaust, while Agamben is using it as a broader paradigm for victims, as you indicate. And there's the problem...


KEVIN--I'm thinking...

Shahar Ozeri said...

Hi, Monica. Yes, I think that's exactly right. To parse it another way: Agamben, throughout Remnants, is at pains to show that any ethics that bases itself on dignity, whether Kant’s maxim to never use others as a means, but always as an ends, Camus’ idea that dignity resides in the perpetual revolt against the human condition, or Amery’s insistence that dignity consists in social recognition, are all to be rejected by as impertinent to ethics after the Holocaust. Unless I'm missing something, it seems to me like Agamben thinks these ethical discourses become obsolete because the condition of the Muselmann disproves the notion of the universal dignity of the human being. Ok, fine. And, for Agamben, the ability of the human to endure all hardship and emerge on a higher level of spirituality cannot be a norm for ethics since it has no relevant ethical content in light of the Muselmann. Ok. So presumably, any ethics after the Holocaust has to start at the point at which worth and dignity disappear as norms and the bare life reveals itself. By doing this Agamben is able to reject the idea of a full recovery or redemption that reveals meaning in life, and instead cook up an ethics out of the form of life that begins where dignity ends. While that seems like a good idea, I think we're back to the same problem, for although dignity may be say, inapplicable to the Muselmann, it risks approximating the views of the SS. Not good...

Regardless, the whole norming of the camp allows Agamben to say "hip" and/or "edgy" things like "gated communities are camps." Hmmm...

Anonymous said...

people are all the more anti-semites because they know that the camps never closed, they became generalized; their fear of jews is their fear of realizing that, indeed, WE are the musselmanner. dragging along our wasted bodies, only caring about food, just food; but what we're after now as 'food' is nourishment for our identities, our collapsing egos. read the craigslist personals and you'll see them. it makes you want to cry, they're so desperate for any kind of human attention, their 'food'. 'please i'll even scrape the potato skins [of human kindness] out of the mud.'
in this, the 'society' of the nazi commodity, we are so completely ghettoized in our alienation and misery, which we hide under our mask of participation in social rituals, that we can certainly talk about the universalization of the camps. agamben and tiqqun have discussed the universal musselmannization of our moribund 'identities,' and successfully ridicule the repression that keeps us there, kept on a leash by our own egos and subjugated to and by our own bodies. whether it's those kinds of ideas penetrating the collective psyche deeply enough or whether something else does the trick, when at last in mass revolt we run riot through this disgusting extermination camp of a society we will reduce this whole fuckin enemy world to fertilizer; finally then life can blossom and our dreams can be cleared of these sickening lies. only then.