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The Drowned and the Saved

In Books, Politics, Theory on December 15, 2014 at 9:53 pm

From Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, an account of his time in Auschwitz. This is an excerpt from Chapter 9: The Drowned and the Saved.


What we have so far said and will say concerns the ambiguous life of the Lager. In our days many men have lived in this cruel manner, crushed against the bottom, but each for a relatively short period; so that we can perhaps ask ourselves if it is necessary or good to retain any memory of this exceptional human state.

To this question we feel that we have to reply in the affirmative. We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world which we are describing. We would also like to consider that the Lager was pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment.

Thousands of individuals, differing in age, condition, origin, language, culture and customs are enclosed within barbed wire: there they live a regular, controlled life which is identical for all and inadequate to all needs, and which is much more rigorous than any experimenter could have set up to establish what is essential and what adventitious to the conduct of the human animal in the struggle for life.

We do not believe in the most obvious and facile deduction: that man is fundamentally brutal, egoistic and stupid in his conduct once every civilized institution is taken away, and that the Haftling is consequently nothing but a man without inhibitions. We believe, rather, that the only conclusion to be drawn is that in the face of driving necessity and physical disabilities many social habits and instincts are reduced to silence.

But another fact seems to us worthy of attention: there comes to light the existence of two particularly well differentiated categories among men – the saved and the drowned. Other pairs of opposites (the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the cowards and the courageous, the unlucky and the fortunate) are considerably less distinct, they seem less essential, and above all they allow for more numerous and complex intermediary gradations.

This division is much less evident in ordinary life; for there it rarely happens that a man loses himself. A man is normally not alone, and in his rise or fall is tied to the destinies of his neighbours; so that it is exceptional for anyone to acquire unlimited power, or to fall by a succession of defeats into utter ruin. Moreover, everyone is normally in possession of such spiritual, physical and even financial resources that the probabilities of a shipwreck, of total inadequacy in the face of life, are relatively small. And one must take into account a definite cushioning effect exercised both by the law, and by the moral sense which constitutes a self-imposed law; for a country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak or a powerful one too powerful.

But in the Lager things are different: here the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone. If some Null Achtzehn vacillates, he will find no one to extend a helping hand; on the contrary, someone will knock him aside, because it is in no one’s interest that there be one more “mussulman” * dragging himself to work every day; and if someone, by a miracle of savage patience and cunning, finds a new method of avoiding the hardest work, a new art which yields him an ounce of bread, he will try to keep his method secret, and he will be esteemed and respected for this, and will derive from it an exclusive, personal benefit; he will become stronger and so will be feared, and who is feared is, ipso facto, a candidate for survival. [Levi’s footnote explains: ‘This word “Muselmann” I do not know why, was used by the old ones of the camp to describe the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection.’ By selection, he means transfer from the concentration camp to a death camp, i.e. extermination.]

In history and in life one sometimes seems to glimpse a ferocious law which states: “to he that has, will be given; to he that has not, will be taken away.” In the Lager, where man is alone and where the struggle for life is reduced to its primordial mechanism, this unjust law is openly in force, is recognized by all. With the adaptable, the strong and astute individuals, even the leaders willingly keep contact, sometimes even friendly contact, because they hope later to perhaps derive some benefit. But with the mussulmans, the men in decay, it is not even worth speaking, because one knows already that they will complain and will speak about what they used to eat at home. Even less worthwhile is it to make friends with them, because they have no distinguished acquaintances in camp, they do not gain any extra rations, they do not work in profitable Kommandos and they know no secret method of organizing. And in any case, one knows that they are only here on a visit, that in a few weeks nothing will remain of them but a handful of ashes in some near-by field and a crossed-out number on a register. Although engulfed and swept along without rest by the innumerable crowd of those similar to them, they suffer and drag themselves along in an opaque intimate solitude, and in solitude they die or disappear, without leaving a trace in anyone’s memory.

The result of this pitiless process of natural selection could be read in the statistics of Lager population movements. At Auschwitz, in 1944, of the old Jewish prisoners (we will not speak of the others here, as their condition was different), “kleine Nummer” low numbers less than 150,000, only a few hundred had survived; not one was an ordinary Haftling, vegetating in the ordinary Kommandos, and subsisting on the normal ration. There remained only the doctors, tailors, shoemakers, musicians, cooks, young attractive homosexuals, friends or compatriots of some authority in the camp; or they were particularly pitiless, vigorous and inhuman individuals, installed (following an investiture by the SS command, which showed itself in such choices to possess satanic knowledge of human beings) in the posts of Kapos, Blockaltester, etc.; or finally, those who, without fulfilling particular functions, had always succeeded through their astuteness and energy in successfully organizing, gaining in this way, besides material advantages and reputation, the indulgence and esteem of the powerful people in the camp. Whosoever does not know how to become an “Organisator,” “Kombinator,” “Prominent” (the savage eloquence of these words!) soon becomes a “musselman.” In life, a third way exists, and is in fact the rule; it does not exist in the concentration camp.

To sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp. Experience showed that only exceptionally could one survive more than three months in this way. All the mussulmans who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea. On their entry into the camp, through basic incapacity, or by misfortune, or through some banal incident, they are overcome before they can adapt themselves; they are beaten by time, they do not begin to learn German, to disentangle the infernal knot of laws and prohibitions until their body is already in decay, and nothing can save them from selections or from death by exhaustion. Their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the Muselmanner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.

They crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me : an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.

If the drowned have no story, and single and broad is the path to perdition, the paths to salvation are many, difficult and improbable.

The most travelled road, as we have stated, is the “Prominenz.” “Prominenten” is the name for the camp officials, from the Haftling-director (Lageraltester) to the Kapos, the cooks, the nurses, the night-guards, even to the hut-sweepers and to the Scheissminister and Bademeister (superintendents of the latrines and showers). We are more particularly interested in the Jewish prominents, because while the others are automatically invested with offices as they enter the camp in virtue of their natural supremacy, the Jews have to plot and struggle hard to gain them.

The Jewish prominents form a sad and notable human phenomenon. In them converge present, past and atavistic sufferings, and the tradition of hostility towards the stranger makes of them monsters of asociality and insensitivity.

They are the typical product of the structure of the German Lager: if one offers a position of privilege to a few individuals in a state of slavery, exacting in exchange the betrayal of a natural solidarity with their comrades, there will certainly be someone who will accept. He will be withdrawn from the common law and will become untouchable; the more power that he is given, the more he will be consequently hateful and hated. When he is given the command of a group of unfortunates, with the right of life or death over them, he will be cruel and tyrannical, because he will understand that if he is not sufficiently so, someone else, judged more suitable, will take over his post. Moreover, his capacity for hatred, unfulfilled in the direction of the oppressors, will double back, beyond all reason, on the oppressed; and he will only be satisfied when he has unloaded onto his underlings the injury received from above.

We are aware that this is very distant from the picture that is usually given of the oppressed who unite, if not in resistance, at least in suffering. We do not deny that this may be possible when oppression does not pass a certain limit, or perhaps when the oppressor, through inexperience or magnanimity, tolerates or favours it. But we state that in our days, in all countries in which a foreign people have set foot as invaders, an analogous position of rivalry and hatred among the subjected has been brought about; and this, like many other human characteristics, could be experienced in the Lager in the light of particularly cruel evidence.

About the non-Jewish prominents there is less to say, although they were far and away the most numerous (no “Aryan” Haftling was without a post, however modest). That they were stolid and bestial is natural when one thinks that the majority were ordinary criminals, chosen from the German prisons for the very purpose of their employment as superintendents of the camps for Jews; and we maintain that it was a very apt choice, because we refuse to believe that the squalid human specimens whom we saw at work were an average example, not of Germans in general, but even of German prisoners in particular. It is difficult to explain how in Auschwitz the political German, Polish and Russian prominents rivalled the ordinary convicts in brutality. But it is known that in Germany the qualification of political crime also applied to such acts as clandestine trade, illicit relations with Jewish women, theft from Party officials. The “real” politicals lived and died in other camps, with names now sadly famous, in notoriously hard conditions, which, however, in many aspects differed from those described here.

But besides the officials in the strict sense of the word, there is a vast category of prisoners, not initially favoured by fate, who fight merely with their own strength to survive. One has to fight against the current; to battle every day and every hour against exhaustion, hunger, cold and the resulting inertia; to resist enemies and have no pity for rivals; to sharpen one’s wits, build up one’s patience, strengthen one’s will-power. Or else, to throttle all dignity and kill all conscience, to climb down into the arena as a beast against other beasts, to let oneself be guided by those unsuspected subterranean forces which sustain families and individuals in cruel times. Many were the ways devised and put into effect by us in order not to die: as many as there are different human characters. All implied a weakening struggle of one against all, and a by no means small sum of aberrations and compromises. Survival without renunciation of any part of one’s own moral world apart from powerful and direct interventions by fortune was conceded only to very few superior individuals, made of the stuff of martyrs and saints.

We will try to show in how many ways it was possible to reach salvation with the stories of Schepschel, Alfred L., Elias and Henri…

Levi P. If This Is A Man. New York: The Orion Press; 1959, p.99-106

I have stopped there, but everyone would benefit from reading the whole book. In fact, I should be more forceful than that. Everyone should read this book. I think Adorno said something about writing poetry after the Holocaust being “barbaric”. Doing anything after reading about Levi’s experiences is certainly difficult. How does one think, how does one moralise, how does one act after the fact of the Holocaust? We are challenged to try to make sense of this. We must never forget that this happened.


Gramsci on Government as a Political Party

In Politics, Theory on April 7, 2014 at 2:34 pm

“Classes produce parties, and parties form the personnel of State and government, the leaders of civil and political society. There must be a useful and fruitful relation in these manifestations and functions. There cannot b any formation of leaders without the theoretical, doctrinal activity of parties, without a systematic attempt to discover and study the causes which govern the nature of the class represented and the way in which it has developed. Hence, scarcity of State and government personnel; squalor of parliamentary life; ease with which the parties can be disintegrated, by corruption and absorption of the few individuals who are indispensable. Hence, squalor of cultural life and inadequacy of high culture. Instead of political culture, bloodless erudition; instead of religion, superstition; instead of books and great reviews, daily papers and broadsheets; instead of serious politics, ephemeral quarrels and pers0nal clashes. The universities, and all the institutions which develop intellectual and technical abilities, since they were not permeated by the life of the parties, by the living realities of national life, produced apolitical national cadres, with a purely rhetorical and non-national mental formation. Thus the bureaucracy became estranged from the country, and via its administrative positions became a true political party, the worst of all, because the bureaucratic hierarchy replaced the intellectual and political hierarchy. The bureaucracy became the State/Bonapartist party.”


Gramsci A (1971 [1948]) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. London: Lawrence and Wishart, p227-228

Chantal Mouffe

In Politics, Theory on April 9, 2011 at 10:19 pm

Friday 12 November, 2010

Liverpool Biennial Visitor Centre, Liverpool

Heavy rain and cultural theory go hand in hand.  Especially on a Friday night.  In Liverpool.  With free wine.

We had gathered in the Biennial Centre on Renshaw St to hear Chantal Mouffe and Mark Sealy speak.

Chantal Mouffe is a luminary of the left, a political theorist who was involved in the May ’68 protests and is most famous for formulating a theory of democratic ‘agonism’ with Ernesto Laclau.  Mark Sealy is the director of a charity that educates the public in photography and curator of many different exhibitions throughout his career, with a particular interest in identity and identity politics.

After a short introduction from Alfredo Jaar, Chantal Mouffe came on stage.  From the warmth of her reception, it seemed that most people were here primarily to hear her.  This good will was further amplified by the fact that she could not see over the lectern, and so had to ask for it to be replaced a step lower than her.  Diminutive, yes.  But unfazed.

She broke her talk down into the three parts; starting with a précis of the current state of the left in Europe, followed by her thoughts on how it could make steps to move forward, before finishing with how art could contribute to this.

The picture she painted of today’s left was appropriately disheartening, and yet not quite something I recognised.  She described a movement which had given up on working through conventional channels, such as parties, unions, etc, and was now advocating self-organisation.   To me, this sounded like mutualism or even anarchism, i.e. a branch of the left.  Has this become the dominant force on the left?  I don’t believe it has.

However, she did make some more accurate, and more interesting observations.  One of these was that the left was no longer appealing to what she called the ‘passion,’ or the ‘affect’ of the general public.  Nor was the centre, and nor was the right.  In fact, in her estimation, it was only the far right that was doing so.  Only they were able to mobilise this mysterious passion of which she spoke, and the left must think of ways to do so too.  She did not go into the specifics of how this might be done, and this lack of flesh on the elegant bones of her theorising became a frustrating theme.

The far right appeals to people through oversimplification and demagoguery, as well as having the advantage of only wanting to appeal to a small and homogenous group.  The left and the centre parties are somewhat hindered by their desire to appeal to a larger and more heterogeneous group.  The message therefore becomes either atomised or vague.  Or both.  So how does one appeal to the ‘passion’ of the people?  Mouffe did not offer anything more concrete.

In discussing how the left might move forward, she outlined her theory of ‘agonism,’ as compared to ‘antagonism’ and ‘competition.’  She described the antagonist model as that of revolution, i.e. wanting to destroy the current order to rebuild a new one.  She offered Lenin and the Jacobins as examples of this approach.  Her example for the competitive model was New Labour, and the ‘third way’ of the 90s.  Frankly, her description of how the left had been subsumed and therefore ultimately defeated by neo-liberalism, and in particular how the architects of New Labour had contributed to this, was right on the money (pun intended).

In the agonist model, the aim was neither to accept the prevailing system, nor to destroy it.  The aim was to disarticulate the structures through which the authorities effected their hegemony, and re-articulate them with a new alignment, new priorities, new goals.  Again, elegant theory without the ugliness of practical suggestions or specifics.  A what, but no how.

Finally she discussed how art might contribute to this.  Here her theorising was more palatable and less frustrating.  And her ability to offer sharp analysis remained; in particular her observation that art need not be ugly to be subversive.  Beauty need not be the betrayal of truth, and nor should it be understood as such.

So eloquent analysis, and elegant theory.  While I felt somewhat more edified for having listened to Mouffe, I did not feel any more ready or better equipped to tackle inequality.

Perhaps we should not be looking to her for specifics.  Perhaps we should not be looking to her for practical ideas.  Perhaps it is easy to criticise her, and perhaps in so doing we are actually abdicating our own responsibility to take on her ideas, analyse them and use our own imaginations to formulate our own ideas.  But if we do not look to our intellectuals for ideas, the very intellectuals who are able to offer such clear understanding of our times and circumstances, then to whom shall we look?  Of course, we must continue to formulate our own ideas, but I do not feel it is unfair to expect more from Mouffe too.