Tuesday, March 14, 2006

For a Student Researching the Holocaust and Student Writing on the American War on Terror

Rubenstein, Richard L. The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future. NY: Harper Colophon, 1978.

{MB—pages 12-21 examine the judicial process that led to the development of the death camps and mass extermination. Important in this legalistic development was the designation of “apatrides or stateless persons” (12) at the end of WW1. These were people who had been denied any official standing in the nation and thus could be prosecuted or jailed at any time for no reason at all. Also the process of denaturalization or denationalization was increasingly used during and after the 1920s to deal with unwanted minority groups within the European states. This was an effective stripping of any rights whatsoever. Concentration camps first appeared across Europe to deal with apatrides (or refugees).}

The concentration camps for the apatrides served much the same purpose as did the original Nazi camps in 1933 and 1934. In the popular mind, the first Nazi camps conjure up images of wild sadism by brutal brown-shirted storm troopers. The images are, of course, well deserved, but they tend to hinder precise understanding of the development of the camps as a legal and political institution. (Rubenstein, 15)

Initially, the concentration camps were established to accommodate detainees who had been placed under “protective custody” (Schützhaft) by the Nazi regime. Those arrested were whom the regime wished to detain although there were no clear legal justification for so doing. Almost all of the original detainees were German communists, not Jews. Had the Nazis’ political prisoners been brought before a German court in the first year or two of Hitler’ regime, the judiciary would have been compelled to dismiss the case. This was not because the German judiciary was anti-Nazi, but because it was bureaucratic in structure. In the early stages of the Nazi regime, there was no formula in law to cover all the political prisoners the Nazis wanted to arrest. This problem was solved by holding them under “protective custody” and setting up camps outside of the regular prison system to receive them. Incidentally, the American government did something very similar when it interned Japanese-American citizens during World War II. They had committed no crime. No court would have convicted them. Prison was not the place to detain them. Happily, as bad as were the American concentration camps, they were infinitely better than the German counterparts. (15-16)

One of the least helpful ways of understanding the Holocaust is to regard the destruction process as the work of a small group of irresponsible criminals who were atypical of normal statesmen and who somehow gained control of the German people, forcing them by terror and the deliberate stimulation of religious and ethnic hatred to pursue a barbaric and retrograde policy that was thoroughly at odds with the great traditions of Western civilization.
On the contrary, we are more likely to understand the Holocaust if we regard it as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the twentieth century. (Rubenstein, 21)

In order to understand more fully the connection between bureaucracy and mass death, it will be necessary to return to the apatrides. They were the first modern Europeans who had become politically and legally superfluous and for whom the most “rational” way of dealing with them was ultimately murder. A majority of the apatrides had lost their political status by a process of bureaucratic definition, denationalization. (Rubenstein, 31)

Men without political acts are superfluous men. They have lost all right to life and human dignity. Political rights are neither God-given, autonomous nor self-validating. The Germans understood that no person has any rights unless they are guaranteed by an organized community with the power to defend such rights. They were perfectly consistent in demanding that the deportees be made stateless before being transported to the camps. They also understood that by exterminating stateless men and women, they violated no law because such people were covered by no law. Even those who were committed by religious faith to belief in natural law, such as the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church, did not see fit to challenge the Nazi actions publicly at the time. (Rubenstein, 33)

Finch, H.L. Wittgenstein. Rockport, MA: Element, 1995.

The notion that the power that has been discovered and released by modern science and technology is our power, as if it were at our disposal, is itself an example of philosophical naivete since, socially or “civilizationally” speaking, we have no independent life or identity apart from the whole complex which now contains both the powers and us. We are, as it were, inextricably at one with the scientific and technological powers and do not, as we imagine, merely “make use” of them. Socially speaking, apart from them, we have no reality, and this is why, as individuals, far from being in control of these powers, we feel ourselves to be completely at their mercy. The situation, in other words, moves as a whole, and we have no footing either within it or outside it from which to change it. That the whole moves of itself in a benign direction is the illusion of progress. That we are in control of where it is going is an even more pervasive and deadly illusion. (Finch, 17)

To speak of an epochal change is to suggest that the whole reality (ourselves and the world in which we live) is undergoing, or beginning to undergo, a transformation similar to what brought it into being in the first place from a previous epoch. (Finch, 17) {MB—a good historical look at an epochal change from a political/social standpoint is Hannah Arendt’s The Origins ofTotalitarianism. She examines the roots of the “Jewish Question” in Europe, the historical origins of anti-semitism, the Nazi “final solution,” the epochal changes from feudal monarchy to homogenous nation-state identity to expansionist imperialist empires, and the structures of fascist and totalitarian regimes.}

Barbara Ehrenreich's Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passion of War (1998)
Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1973)
Erich Fromm's The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1992)
Carolyn Marvin's and David Ingle's Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (1999)
Alexander Laban Hinton's edited collection Annhilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide (2002)
Chris Hedges and the Mythology of War

Agamben, Giorgio. Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneaplois: U of Minnesota P, 2000.

Here I will deliberately set out in the opposite direction. Rather than deducing the definition of camp from the events that took place there, I will ask instead: What is a camp? What is its political-juridical structure? How could such events have taken place there? This will lead us to look at the camp not as a historical fact and an anomaly that—though admittedly still with us—belongs nonetheless to the past, but rather in some sense as the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we still live. (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 39)

The camps, in other words, were not born out of ordinary law, and even less were they the product—as one might have believed—of a transformation and a development of prison law; rather, they were born out of the state of exception and martial law. This is even more evident in the case of the Nazi Lager, whose origin and juridical regime is well documented. It is well known that the juridical foundation of internment was not ordinary law but rather the Schutzhaft (literally, protective custody), which was a juridical institution of Prussian derivation that Nazi jurists sometimes considered a measure of preventive policing inasmuch as it enabled the “taking into custody” of individuals regardless of any relevant criminal behavior and exclusively in order to avoid threats to the security of the state. (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 38)

Thus, what is being captured under the rule of law is first of all the very state of exception. In other words, if sovereign power is founded on the ability to decide on the state of exception, the camp is the structure in which the state of exception is permanently realized. (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 40)

If one does not understand this particular political-juridical structure of the camps, whose vocation is precisely to realize permanently the exception, the incredible events that took place in them remain entirely unintelligible. The people who entered the camp moved about in a zone of indistinction between the outside and the inside, the exception and the rule, the licit and the illicit, in which every juridical protection had disappeared; moreover, if they were Jews, they had already been deprived of citizenship rights by the Nuremberg Laws and were later completely denationalized at the moment of the “final solution.” Inasmuch as its inhabitants have been stripped of every political status and reduced completely to naked life, the camp is also the most absolutely biopolitical space that has ever been realized—a space in which power confronts nothing other than pure biological life without any mediation. The camp is the paradigm itself of political space at the point in which politics becomes biopolitics and the homo sacer becomes indistinguishable from the citizen. The correct question regarding the horrors committed in the camps, therefore, is not the question that asks hypocritically how it could have been possible to commit such atrocious horrors against other human beings; it would be more honest, and above all more useful, to investigate carefully how—that is, thanks to what juridical procedures and political devices—human beings could have been so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives to the point that committing any act toward them would no longer appear as a crime (at this point, in fact, truly anything had become possible). (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 40-41)

If this is the case, if the essence of the camp consists in the materialization of the state of exception and in the consequent creation of a space for naked life as such, we will then have to admit to be facing a camp virtually every time that such a structure is created, regardless of the nature of the crimes committed in it and regardless of the denomination and specific topography it might have. (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 41-42)

In all these case, an apparently anodyne place ... delimits instead a space in which, for all intents and purposes, the normal rule of law is suspended and in which the fact that atrocities may or may not be committed does not depend on the law but rather on the civility and ethical sense of the police that act temporarily as sovereign. (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 42)

There is something that no longer functions in the traditional mechanisms that used to regulate this inscription, and the camp is the new hidden regulator of the inscription of life in the order—or, rather, it is the sign of the system’s inability to function without transforming itself into a lethal machine. It is important to note that the camps appeared at the same time that the new laws on citizenship and on the denationalization of citizens were issued (not only the Nuremberg Laws on citizenship in the Reich but also the laws on the denationalization of citizens that were issued by almost all the European states, including France, between 1915 and 1933). The state of exception, which used to be essentially a temporary suspension of the order, becomes now a new and stable spatial arrangement inhabited by that naked life that increasingly cannot be inscribed into the order. (Agamben, “What is a Camp?”: 43)

We do not have, in fact, the slightest idea of what either a people or a language is. (It is well known that linguists can construct a grammar—that is, a unitary system with describable characteristics that could be called language—only by taking the factum loquendi for granted, that is, only by taking for granted the simple fact that human beings speak and understand each other, a fact that is still inaccessible to science.) Nevertheless, all of our political culture is based on the relation between these two notions. Romantic ideology—which consciously created this connection, thereby influencing extensively modern linguistic theory as well as the political theory that is still dominant nowadays—tried to clarify something that was already obscure (the concept of people) with the help of something even more obscure (the concept of language). Thanks to the symbiotic correspondence thus instituted, two contingent and indefinite cultural entities transform themselves into almost natural organisms endowed with their own necessary laws and characteristics. Political theory, in fact, must presuppose, without the ability to explain it, the factum pluralitatis—a term etymologically related to populus, with which I would like to indicate the simple fact that human beings form a community—whereas linguistics must presuppose, without questioning it, the factum loquendi. The simple correspondence between these two facts defines modern political discourse. (Agamben, “Languages and Peoples”: 65-66)

The relation between Gypsies and argot puts this correspondence radically into question in the very instant in which it parodically reenacts it. Gypsies are to a people what argot is to language. And although this analogy can last but for a brief moment, it nonetheless sheds light on that truth which the correspondence between languages and people was secretly intended to conceal: all peoples are gangs and coquilles, all languages are jargons and argot. (Agamben, “Languages and Peoples”: 66-67)

What is at stake here is not to evaluate the scientific accuracy of this thesis but rather not to let its liberating power slip out of our hands. Once our gaze is focused on this matter, the perverse and tenacious machines that govern our political imaginary suddenly lose their power. It should be evident to everybody, after all, that we are talking about an imaginary, especially nowadays when the idea of a people has long lost any substantial reality. Even if we admit that this idea never had any real content other than the insipid catalog of characteristics listed by the old philosophical anthropologies, it was already made meaningless, in any case, by the same modern that presented itself as its keeper and its expression. All well-meaning chatter notwithstanding, the idea of a people today is nothing other than the empty support of state identity and is recognized only as such. For those who might still nurture some doubt on the matter, it would be instructive to take a look at what is happening around us from this point of view: on the one hand, the world powers take up arms to defend a state without a people (Kuwait) and, on the other hand, the peoples without a state (Kurds, Armenians, Palestinians, Basques, Jews of the Diaspora) can be oppressed and exterminated with impunity, so as to make clear that the destiny of a people can only be a state identity and that the concept of a people makes sense only if recodified within the concept of citizenship. In this regard, it is also important to not the peculiar status of those languages that have no state dignity (Catalan, Basque, Gaelic, etc.), which linguists treat naturally as languages, but which practically operate rather as jargons or dialects and almost always assume an immediately political significance. (Agamben, “Languages and Peoples”: 67-68)

The thesis according to which all peoples are Gypsies and all languages are jargons untangles this knot and enables us to look in a new way at those linguistic experiences that have periodically emerged within our culture only to be misunderstood and led back to dominant conceptions. What else can Dante mean, in fact, when he says—while narrating the myth of Babel in De vulgari eloquentia—that every kind of tower-builder received its own language, which was incomprehensible to the others, and that the languages spoken in his time derived from these Babelic languages? He is presenting all the languages of the Earth as jargons (the language of a trade, in fact, is the figure of jargon par excellence). And against this intimate aptitude for jargon that every language possesses, he does not suggest the remedy of a national language and grammar (as a long-standing falsification of his thought would have it); he suggests, rather, a transformation of the very way of experiencing words, which he called volgare illustre. Such a transformation was to be something like a deliverance of the jargons themselves that would direct them toward the factum loquendi-—nd hence not a grammatical deliverance, but a poetical and a political one. (Agamben, “Languages and Peoples”: 68-69)

Languages are the jargons that hide the pure experience of language just as peoples are the more or less successful masks of the factum pluralitatis. This is why our task cannot possibly be either the construction of these jargons into grammars or the recodification of peoples into state identities. On the contrary, it is only by breaking at any point the nexus between the existence of language, grammar, people, and state that thought and praxis will be equal to the tasks at hand. The forms of this interruption—during which the factum of language and the factum of community come to light for an instant—are manifold and change according to times and circumstances: reactivation of a jargon, trobar clus, pure language, minoritarian practice of a grammatical language, and so on. In any case, it is clear that what is at stake here is not something simply linguistic or literary but, above all, political and philosophical. (Agamben, “Languages and Peoples”: 70)

Only those who will be able to carry it to completion—without allowing that which reveals to be veiled in the nothingness it reveals, but bringing language itself to language—will become the first citizens of a community with neither presuppositions nor a state. In this community, the nullifying and determining power of what is common will be pacified ... (Agamben, “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle”: 85)

Exposition is the location of politics. If there is no animal politics, that is perhaps because animals are always already in the open and do not try to take possession of their own exposition; they simply live in it without caring about it. That is why they are not interested in mirrors, in the image as image. Human beings, on the other hand, separate images from things and give them a name precisely because they want to recognize themselves, that is, they want to take possession of their very own appearance. Human beings thus transform the open into a world, that is, into the battlefield of a political struggle without quarter. This struggle, whose object is truth, goes by the name of History. (Agamben, “The Face”: 93)

It is happening more and more often that in pornographic photographs the portrayed subjects, by a calculated stratagem, look into the camera, thereby exhibiting the awareness of being exposed to the gaze. This unexpected gesture violently belies the fiction that is implicit in the consumption of such images, according to which the one who looks surprises the actors while remaining unseen by them: the latter, rather, knowingly challenge the voyeur’s gaze and force him to look them in the eyes. In that precise moment, the insubstantial nature of the human face suddenly comes to light. The fact that the actors look into the camera means that they show that they are simulating; nevertheless, they paradoxically appear more real precisely to the extent to which they exhibit this falsification. The same procedure is used today in advertising: the image appears more convincing if it shows openly its own artifice. In both cases, the one who looks is confronted with something that concerns unequivocally the essence of the face, the very structure of truth. (Agamben, “The Face”: 93-94)

The face, truth, and exposition are today the objects of a global civil war, whose battlefield is social life in its entirety, whose storm troopers are the media, whose victims are all the peoples of the Earth. Politicians, the media establishment, and the advertising industry have understood the insubstantial character of the face and of the community it opens up, and thus they transform it into a miserable secret that they must make sure to control at all costs. State power today is no longer founded on the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence—a monopoly that states share increasingly willingly with other nonsoveriegn organizations; rather, it is founded above all on the control of appearance (of doxa). The fact that politics constitutes itself as an autonomous sphere goes hand in hand with the separation of the face in the world of spectacle—a world in which human communication is being separated from itself. Exposition thus transforms itself into a value that is accumulated in images and in the media, while a new class of bureaucrats jealously watches over its management. (Agamben, “The Face”: 94)

There are two words in Latin that derive from the Indo-European root meaning “one”: similis, which expresses resemblance, and simul, which means, “at the same time.” Thus, next to similitudo (resemblance) there is simultas, that is the fact of being together (which implies also rivalry, enmity); and next to similare (to be like) there is simulare (to copy, to imitate, which implies also to feign, to simulate). (Agamben, “The Face”: 99)

The face is not a simulacrum, in the sense that it is something dissimulating or hiding the truth: the face is the simultas, the being-together of the manifold visages constituting it, in which none of the visages is truer than any of the others. To grasp the face’s truth means to grasp not the resemblance but rather the simultaneity of the visages, that is, the restless power that keeps them together and constitutes their being-in-common. The face of God, thus, is the simultas of human faces: it is “our effigy” that Dante saw in the “living light” of paradise. (Agamben, “The Face”: 99)

In the same way in which the great transformation of the first industrial revolution destroyed the social and political structures as well as the legal categories of the ancien regime, terms such as sovereignty, right, nation, people, democracy, and general will by now refer to a reality that no longer has anything to do with what these concepts used to designate—and those who continue to use these concepts uncritically literally do not know what they are talking about. Consensus and public opinion have no more to do with the general will than the “international police” that today fight wars have to do with the sovereignty of the jus publicum Europaeum. Contemporary politics is the devastating experiment that disarticulates and empties institutions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities all throughout the planet, so as then to rehash and reinstate their definitively nullified form. (Agamben, “Notes on Politics”: 109-110)

However, the problem that the new politics is facing is precisely this: is it possible to have a political community that is ordered exclusively for the full enjoyment of worldly life? ... Once again Walter Benjamin, in the “Theologico-Political Fragment,” leaves no doubt regarding the fact that “The order of the profane should be erected on the idea of happiness.” The definition of the concept of “happy life” remains one of the essential tasks of the coming thought (and this should be achieved in such a way that this concept is not kept separate from ontology, because: “being: we have no experience of it other than living itself”). (Agamben, “Notes on Politics”: 114)

The second consequence of the experimentum linguae is that, above and beyond the concepts of appropriation and expropriation, we need to think, rather, the possibility and the modalities of a free use. Praxis and political reflection are operating today exclusively within the dialectic of proper and improper—a dialectic in which either the improper extends its own rule everywhere, thanks to an unrestrainable will to falsification and consumption (as it happens in industrialized democracies), or the proper demands the exclusion of and impropriety (as it happens in integralist and totalitarian states). If instead we define the common (or, as others suggest, the same) as a point of indifference between the proper and the improper—that is, as something that can never be grasped in terms of either expropriation or appropriation but that can be grasped, rather, only as use—the essential political problem then becomes: “How does one use a common?” (Agamben, “Notes on Politics”: 117)

The new categories of political thought—inoperative community, compearance, equality, loyalty, mass intellectuality, the coming people, whatever singularity, or however else they might be called—will be able to express the political matter that is facing us only if they are able to articulate the location, the manners, and the meaning of this experience of the event of language intended as free use of the common and as sphere of pure means. (Agamben, “Notes on Politics”: 117-118)

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