Tuesday, April 26, 2005

I Recant

Or, strictly speaking, I revise. I said a while back that you can't squeeze any more juice out of the Holocaust, and in terms of its exploitation to confer Insta-Historicred in fiction I stand by that. But I wish now to add a rider to the effect that you can, it turns out, still find ways to look at the Holocaust that reinvigorate and make immediate its lived actuality, genuine pathos intact. Witness this gorgeous passage from Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life:
The wish to lend a sacrificial aura to the extermination of the Jews by means of the term "Holocaust" was, from this perspective, an irresponsible historiographical blindness. The Jew living under Nazism is the privileged negative referent of the new biopolitical sovereignty and is, as such, a flagrant case of a homo sacer in the sense of a life that may be killed but not sacrificed. His killing therefore constitutes, as we will see, neither capital punishment nor a sacrifice, but simply the actualization of a mere "capacity to be killed" inherent in the Jew as such. The truth--which is difficult for the victims to face, but which we must have the courage not to cover with sacrificial veils--is that the Jews were exterminated not in a mad and giant holocaust but exactly as Hitler had announced, "as lice," which is to say, as bare life.

"Bare life" does more to represent and understand what I see in images from the camps than any fully-orchestrated cultural widget the holocaust industry has ever turned out. No coincidence, I think, that Agamben's formulation explicitly militates against the very underlying symbolic conception of those products.

It's awfully good to be reminded that there are still ways we can think about this that don't doom us to kitsch and complicity.

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