How Should We Read Agamben’s Muselmanner?

Last month, I had a bit of a back and forth over here in which I shared the same sort of reservations as Monica regarding Agamben’s “norming” of the Muselman in his book,  Remnants of Auschwitz.   Over there she wrote:

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.

This has been sitting in the drafts folder for a month, so in my non-existent spare time I reread the book.   I’ve shamelessly incorporated my comments over there virtually verbatim into this post.  Just a er…confession of sorts.  Anyway, I think it’s rather uncontroversial to claim that in a good deal of “recent” criticism, that the Holocaust has led to a “crisis of representation” and a “troubling of theory” has become rather routine.   The continual complication that the Holocaust introduces into thought, whether political, philosophical, aesthetic, ethical or religious, hinges, I think, upon the question of how this threshold may be made audible within language.  This is, of course, one of Agamben’s points throughout.  In fact, a case may be made that this problem is nothing less than the inaugural move of deconstruction that “exhausts the concept. ”   One only needs to have a quick look at Lyotard, Derrida, Blanchot, or Jabes to make this case I think.

In Remnants Agamben attributes a kind of “world-historical” significance to Auschwitz that complicates and even erases any conventional or normative ethics that came before it. The task is 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. The task of thinking ethics after the Holocaust then,  is itself a never-ending complication; to put it into Derridaen jargon: it is the continual putting into question of ethics.

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 think some of  my own reservations with Agamben’s norming may lie in the “troping” of the “Jew” so prevalent in a good deal of “postmodern” theory.

Ok, so the task of ethics after the Holocaust–for Agamben–would presumably consist in making visible the Muselmann: “the Gorgon whom others could not bear to behold but upon whom Agamben gazes and enjoins us all to gaze.”   By doing this,  we are able to move beyond the limits of “post-Holocaust ethics” and in turn, expand the scope of ethics, which entails nothing less than a reconsideration of what it means to be human. Ethical behavior is to be thought under the sign of the Muselmann rather than qualities such as dignity, responsibility and self-respect, which have according to Agamben, been contaminated by their legal sense rendering them useless for ethical discourse.

The condition of the death camps becomes a launching pad for this reconsideration of ethics in light of the political determination of “life worth living.” As is well known, Agamben draws upon and brings together Foucault’s analysis of the “technologies of the self” and Arendt’s investigation into the logic of totalitarian states to interrogate the “biopolitics” of modernity.  Naturally, under biopolitics, the human operates as a political formation; the bare life, which is “the simple fact of living” common to all beings, increasingly infiltrates the mode of life proper to individuals or groups, thus collapsing the distinction.  To be effective, the bare life enters into political existence in the paradoxical form of an “inclusive exclusion” (that which is included through exclusion), best exemplified by the figure of the homo sacer (sacred man).    And yes yes, at once sacred and accursed, the homo sacer signifies that the logic of both sacrificial and juridical violence has been overcome.    This helps us understand Agamben’s reading of Primo Levi’s account of the death camps in If This is a Man (translated into English as Survival in Auschwitz) and The Drowned and the Saved, which plays a central role throughout his analysis. The Muselmann makes visible the “unrepresentable singularity” of bare life. However, “the Muselmann and those who bear witness for him, enters signification only in its exclusion from it”–this is to say, the witness signifies the non-signifying. Agamben argues that to bear witness to the Muselmann is to know and see “the impossibility of knowing and seeing.”   This idea, bearing witness to the impossibility or breakdown of witnessing, according to Agamben, establishes ethics by refusing to conspire with biopolitics’ silencing of bare life.   Because the Muselmann is a bodily existence without significance, aim, or dignity, he has lost everything: his self, the ability to narrate and thus the ability to give testimony.

Ethics can no longer be thought through the fundamentally legal categories of responsibility or dignity, but instead must be sought out in a topography that precedes judgment, a topography in which the conditions of judgment are suspended through the Muselmann, the in-distinction of human and inhuman.  As I indicated above,  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 rejected by Agamben as impertinent to ethics after the Holocaust. According to Agamben these ethical discourses become obsolete because the condition of the Muselmann disproves the notion of the universal dignity of the human being. 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.  Ethics after the Holocaust has to start at the point at which worth and dignity disappear as norms and the bare life reveals itself.

One of the things I like about Agamben is the theory of trauma, transmission and testimony it offers.   Agamben bears a proximity to a body of literature that conceives trauma as a basic element for understanding history and experience. Although Agamben quickly distances his own project in Remnants of Auschwitz from Shoshana Felman’s work in Testimony, I think they certainly share the same general account of the Holocaust. Both understand the Holocaust as an event that paradoxically bears witness to the collapse of witnessing and as a result leads to an endless aporia. According to Felman, the experience of listening to Holocaust testimony produces symptoms of trauma similar to the traumatic symptoms produced by actually experiencing the Holocaust. The significance of our feelings is found in the significance we assign to the survivor’s feelings. Testimony is redefined by Felman as “a “life testimony”, which “is not merely a testimony to a private life but a point of conflation between text and life-a textual testimony which can penetrate us like an actual life.”   In Felman’s scheme, text becomes the actual experience of another life, an experience that also becomes ours. While one view, which can be represented the poet Paul Celan, insists that we must experience disaster to transmit traumatic experience, Felman goes one step farther and links the central role of sympathetic identification to the process of transmission. Using Claude Lanzmann’s films as an example, she argues that to receive traumatic experience we have to feel an identification with the victims of the Holocaust and willingly immerse ourselves in the literature of testimony. So, the identification Felman describes requires, at least on a theoretical level, a commitment to the central roles of both sentiment and desire in the production of that identification over and against the lived experience of the trauma represented.  This move is I think at best, a thorny one, which risks an affective sameness that dissolves the particularity of diverse events.

Ok, but to be fair, Felman correctly points out that in its own specific way, watching survivor testimony is traumatic, but we have to distinguish this experience of trauma from the trauma the survivor has experienced and subsequently represents in testimony. However, for Agamben, the only true witnesses are the Muselmanner, who of course, are dead.   Agamben resists relating the threshold of in-distinction, derived from the making visible of the Muselmann, to an understanding of human being as a compromise formation between biological life and political or ethical life, which would risk participating in the same logic that governed the sacred man (homo sacer) and the concentration camps.   This allows for a more complex or dissonant non-interaction between human and inhuman, survivor and reader. The witness bears witness to the Muselmann, and in turn, to radical impossibility or the breakdown of witnessing. Agamben’s approach is open to such a breakdown when it occurs in both the witnesses’ attempt to recount traumatic experience and in the commentator’s empathic attempt to record and transmit traumatic experience.  One bears witness to–“radical transcendence”–the aporia of Auschwitz, only indirectly by indicating over and over in various repetitive formulas the impossibility of acceding to it through representation. This paradoxical witnessing is Agamben’s project of translating the non-audible; it engenders his new ethical territory.

Here we return to the risk of norming, or troping the Muselmanner.  The Muselmann, as a threshold of indistinction, is–it seems to me–a transhistorical concept evoked by Agamben in capricious ways by historical phenomena or specific cases.   Now, I’m certainly not the only person to say this, but the Muselmann, although historically determined can be used as a basis for transhistorical reflection on abjection.  Of the top of my head, I think it was Dominick LaCapra who suggests somewhere that this turns the Muselmann into a mere  exemplar of humanity, which amounts to “an extreme victimology,” an identification with the disempowered, or worse, even in its transhistorical operation, it serves as nothing less than a reversal of the extreme victimization under the Nazis.

If we take Felman’s conception of the relation between writing and trauma seriously, where writing and trauma both exist in and are transmitted by speech or writing, Agamben’s project of translating the non-audible, as an ethical discourse might start to come into focus.  Felman argues those who bear witness to suffering reverse death. The role of the historian shifts from narrating history to reversing suicide.  Felman’s rather bold suggestion plays out like this: the camps traumatized their survivors so deeply that some committed suicide; the suicide silenced their testimony to the trauma; the historian by his or her testimony to the trauma can restore what was lost in the suicide; therefore the historian can reverse suicide. Writing becomes the embodiment of the kind of experience of life specific only to people. Agamben’s project on translating the testimony of the Muselmann follows a similar logic, in fact we could have substituted Muselmann for survivor, whether we call it reversing death or giving speech to impossibility, this marks the beginning of ethics. Perhaps, not unlike Blanchot’s idea of the disaster that involves an obligation to speak rather than an insistence on silence, Agamben renders Auschwitz as a unique, but not unsayable event that has to measure up against a (ethical) norm: the impossibility of speech.

I don’t know.  The “non-coincidence” of the human (survivor) and the inhuman (Muselmann), the “subtle ridge that divides them,” is the place of testimony.  The tearing away of experience from the subject of experience means that trauma is transmissible. In this sense, testimony is an ethics of openness, of potentiality. If we learn anything from Agamben, Levi’s paradox that “the Muselmann is the whole witness” articulates a possibility of speaking through impossibility. This marks the “taking place” of a language as an ongoing reverberation that opens us up to a diversity of unsettling pasts that refuse to be neatly assimilated. The ethical difference, the coming into visibility of the Muselmann, inaugurates an ethics that wrestles with this exposure with an eye not to any sort of redemption of meaning in life, but rather, registers a statement about the continual complexity of the traumatic effect.

In effect, 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 can’t help but thinking 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.”


2 thoughts on “How Should We Read Agamben’s Muselmanner?

  1. How did I miss this? I suppose I’ve been hit and miss in the blogosphere lately. I’m struck again by your writing style–very clear and smart. I’m not going to say anything else worthwhile right now because I need to think through some more of these Agamben issues. But I will be back…

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