Monday, December 24, 2007

Some notes on Agamben's Remnants of Auschwitz

A number of theorists, following Heidegger, have commented upon the tendency within modernity, within the modern subject and its quest for technology and an interventionist notion of sovereign power to slide towards the limit of mechanised and planned violence that is genocide. During the furore over Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1989, the Muslim intellectual and critic Shabbir Akhtar commented upon liberal modernity's quest to dissolve difference and seek scapegoats by comparing the image of the Jew in the Holocaust to the Muslim in contemporary Europe. He famously quipped, ‘The next time we see gas chambers in Europe, it will be no surprise to find Muslims in them’. This is a theme upon the notion of the experience of Muslims in Europe who find themselves within a police state, Nazi Germany being the limit of such a case.

One of Agamben’s most interesting and disturbing works is Remnants of Auschwitz. Setting aside his discourse on the messianic aspects of the notion of the remnant (one that incidentally finds a poignant echo in the Shiʿi tradition in Islam), what is most striking is his examination of the figure of the Muselmann in the camp. The term Muselmann (Muslim) was used at Auschwitz to denote a passive prisoner who had given up, had no consciousness or conscience, was despised and not object of sympathy, and was a mere staggering corpse, a bundle of physicality of no consequence [Agamben 1999b: 41–43]. More importantly, he had no agency, no dignity, and was not a survivor who could testify as he was devoid of his humanity. This state of being the Muslim is the limit case, the exception, the Orientalised and objectified Other. Survivors and witnesses speak for the inhuman Muselmann and resent it [Agamben 1999b: 120]. Following Foucault, Agamben argues that racism is the process by which biopower intervenes and marks breaks within the biological continuum of humanity and reintroduces the principle of war into the system of ‘making live’ [Agamben 1999b: 84]. Yet drawing on Levi, it is only the Muselmann as the inhuman who is truly human, a paradox as the witnesses are the mere remnants; at the same time, it is the human being who can survive being a human being [Agamben 1999b: 133]. In this sense, witnesses ‘were;’ Muselmanner. Wall 1999: 1 comments on the central concern of Agamben with inverting passivity; for example, an ontological paradox for Agamben is that a thing is simultaneously itself and its qualities without being the same thing as its qualities [Agamben 1993b: 97–8; Wall 1999: 19]; similarly presence and absence, image and reality [Wall 1999: 153].

Testimony is relation between the sayable and unsayable but archive is a system of relations between the said and unsaid [Agamben 1999b: 145]; this is analogous to the radical binaries that Agamben establishes in which the gap between the said and unsaid or rather between voice and language, and between the unwritten and the preface are articulated as key to understanding what we normally understand as philosophy of language or the politics of expression [Agamben 1993a: 6–8]. It also expresses a key feature of Agamben’s philosophy: the primacy and ambiguity of experience over its expression, of infancy over history, the ‘thing itself’ (in Platonic terms – see especially Agamben 1999c, chapter 1) over the manifest object, the deus absconditus over the deus revelatus.

Agamben references:

Giorgio Agamben (1993a), Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience,

tr. Liz Heron (London: Verso).

(1993b), The Coming Community, tr. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis, MN:

University of Minnesota Press).

(1998), Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, tr. Daniel

Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

(1999a), The Man without Content, tr. G. Albert (Stanford, CA: Stanford

University Press).

(1999b), Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, tr. Daniel

Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books).

(1999c), Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, tr. Daniel Heller-Roazen

(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

(2000), Means without End: Notes on Politics, trs. V. Binetti and C. Casarino

(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press).

(2004), The Open: Man and Animal, tr. Kevin Attell (Stanford, CA: Stanford

University Press).

(2005), State of Exception, tr. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago


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