And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Saturday, June 18, 2022

The Muselmann - Subjectivity's "Psychoanalytic" 'Zero Point'?

Bruno Bettelheim

In short, is it not that today, in our resigned post-ideological era which admits no positive Absolutes, the only legitimate candidate for the Absolute are radically evil acts? This negative-theological status of the Holocaust finds its supreme expression in Giorgio Agamben's "Remnants of Auschwitz", in which he provides a kind of ontological proof of Auschwitz against revisionists who deny the Holocaust. He directly concludes the existence of the Holocaust from its' 'concept' (notions like the living-dead 'Muslims' are so 'intense' that they could not have emerged without the fact of the Holocaust) - what better proof is there that, in some of today's cultural studies, the Holocaust is in fact elevated to the dignity of the Thing, perceived as the negative Absolute? And it tells us a lot about today's constellation that the only Absolute is that of sublime/ irrepresentable Evil. Agamben refers to the four modal categories (possibility, impossibility, contingency, necessity), articulating them along the axis of subjectification- desubjectification: possibility ( to be able to be) and contingency (to be able not to be) are the operators of subjectification; while impossibility (not to be able to be) and necessity (not to be able not to be) are the operators of desubjectification - and what happens in Auschwitz is the point at which the two sides of the axis fall together:

Auschwitz represents the historical point at which these processes collapse, the devastating experience in which the impossible is forced into the real. Auschwitz is the existence of the impossible, the most radical negation of the contingency; it is, therefore, absolute necessity. The Muselmann [the 'living dead' of the camp] produced by Auschwitz is the catastrophe of the subject that then follows, the subject's effacement as the place of contingency and its maintenance as existence of the impossible.
Thus Auschwitz designates the catastrophe of a kind of ontological short circuit: subjectivity (the opening of the space of contingency in which possibility counts more than actuality) collapses into the objectivity in which it is impossible for things not to follow 'blind' necessity. In order to grasp this point, we should not consider the two aspects of the term 'impossibility': first impossibility as the simple obverse of necessity ('it couldn't have been otherwise'); then, impossibility as the ultimate unthinkable limit of possibility itself ('something so horrible cannot really happen; nobody can be so evil') - in Auschwitz, the two aspects coincide. We can even put it in Kantian terms, as the short circuit between the noumenal and the phenomenal: in the figure of the Muselmann, the living dead, the desubjectivized subject, the noumenal dimension (of the free subject) appears in empirical reality itself - Muselmann is the noumenal Thing directly appearing oin phenomenal reality; as such, it is the witness of what one cannot bear witness to. And, in a further step, Agamben reads the unique figure of Musselmann as irrefutable proof of the existence of Auschwitz:
Let us, indeed, posit Auschwitz, that to which it is not possible to bear witness, and let us also posit the Muselmann as the absolute impossibility of bearing witness. If the witness bears witness for the Muselmann, if he succeeds in bringing to speech an impossibility of speech - if the Muselmann is thus constituted as the whole witness - then the denial of Auschwitz is refuted in its very foundation. In the Muselmann, the impossibility of bearing witness is no longer a mere privation. Instead, it has become real; it exists as such. If the survivor bears witness not to the gas chambers or to Auschwitz but to the Muselmann, if he speaks only on the basis of an impossibility of speaking, then his testimony cannot be denied. Auschwitz - that to which it is not possible to bear witness - is absolutely and irrefutably proven.
We cannot but admit the finesse of this theorization: far from hindering any proof that Auschwitz really existed, the very fact that it is impossible directly to bear witness to Auschwitz demonstrates its existence. There, in this reflexive twist, lies the fatal miscalculation of the well-known cynical Nazi argument quoted by Primo Levi and others: 'What we are doing to the Jews is so irrepresentable in its horror that even if someone survives the camps, he will not be believed by those whose were not there - they will simply declare him a liar or mentally ill!' Agamben's counterargument is: true, it is not possible to bear witness to the ultimate horror of Auschwitz - but what if this impossibility itself is embodied in a survivor? If, then, there is a subjectivity like that of the Muselmann, a subject brought to the extreme point of collapsing into objectivity, such desubjectivized subjectivity could have emerged only in the conditions which are those of Auschwitz... None the less, this line of argument, inexorable as it is in its very simplicity, remains deeply ambiguous: it leaves unaccomplished the task of the concrete analysis of the historical singularity of the Holocaust. That is to say: it is impossible to read in two opposed ways - as the conceptual expression of a certain extreme position which would then be accounted for in terms of a concrete historical analysis; or, in a kind of ideological short circuit, as an insight into the a priori structure of the Auschwitz phenomenon which displaces, renders superfluous - or, at least, secondary - such concrete analysis of the singularity of Nazism as a political project and of why it generated the Holocaust. In this second reading, 'Auschwitz' becomes the name of something which, in a way, had to happen, whose 'essential possibility' was inscribed into the very matrix of the Western political process - sooner or later, the two sides of the axis had to collapse.
- Slavoj Zizek, "Welcome to the Desert of the Real"
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