Friday, July 4, 2014

Notes on Giorgio Agamben's Remnants of Auschwitz

Child survivors Auschwitz
In Remnants of Auschwitz (1999)[171pp] Giorgio Agamben examines some of the testimonial texts from the survivors of the concentration camps in Germany and Poland such as Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved, also by Primo Levi.  Agamben also looks at studies conducted after the liberations that collected testimony from a category of prisoners called the Muselmann, these survivors seemed to have already lost their humanity and had sunken to a subhuman existence.  In a sense the muselmann had experienced a death of the spirit, but their bodies were still alive.  An analysis of the muselmann is a central part of this book as he is a figure that stands at the threshold of death and many had crossed into Primo Levi’s “gray zone.”  Primo Levi identifies a "gray zone" in the ghettos and the camps where some of the "privileged oppressed" became oppressors themselves, thereby blurring any simple all-encompassing distinction between victim and executioner.  The muselmann was a being despised by both the Germans and the Jews as he represented a state of abjection worse than death.

One of the problems that Agamben takes up in Remnants of Auschwitz is the paradox of witnessing.  Testimony always contains a lacuna, or a unfilled gap because those who are able to bear witness did not touch bottom, as did those who perished.  “No one has told the destiny of the common prisoner, since it was not materially possible for him to survive…those who have not lived through the experience will never know; those who will never tell; not really, not completely…the past belongs to the dead…” (Wiesel 1975:314 cited in Agamben 33). 

In spite of the paradox of the witness, for Agamben, the muselmann is an example of the “complete witness” because he marks the threshold between being a man and a non-man (47).  He represents a state of being that is worse than death.  The muselmann suggests that there can be a category of evil that reduces one to a death in life.  This echoes Agamben’s concept of zoe and bios and Alain Badiou’s mortal and immortal man in Ethics of Evil.  Agamben and Badiou both coincide in theorizing that man has a higher consciousness (the Immortal or bios) and that death is not the worst thing that can happen to man, reducing man to an animal (zoe or mortal) is far worse (See Badiou's Ethics p 12).  Man’s immortal (bios) self survives by refusing and resisting being reduced to an animal against all odds.  So, humanity is not just based on preserving biological life, but on resisting being reduced to bare life at all costs.

Agamben's work, specifically the muselmann, is helpful in thinking through some of the examples that Alain Badiou posits in his Ethics of Evil.  There, Badiou argues that the discourse of human rights reduces man to a victim, a subhuman animal state and Badiou argues that living at a higher level with integrity is more important than surviving and being reduced to a victim.  I wonder if Badiou's victim is similar to Agamben's muselmann.       

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