This is a short excerpt from a book that I am currently writing on the theological and political significance of witnessing to atrocity. The book is a theological dialogue with Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, on the nature of remembering as a political and theological task.
In his unforgettable Remnants of Auschwitz, Giorgio Agamben reflects upon the figures of the so-called Muselmänner, the name given to those prisoners so ill and malnourished that they hovered between life and death. The Muselmänner, according to Agamben, compel us to rethink the human fundamentally, and if we are to rethink the human, we must also rethink those categories that we habitually engage to distinguish human and non-human life.
In Remnants of Auschwitz, Agamben draws his account of the Muselmänner from Primo Levi, the Italian chemist, writer and survivor of Auschwitz:
All the Muselmänner who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly the have no story; they have followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea…. Their life is short, but their number is endless; they the Muselmänner, 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 in them…. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death…
In these paragraphs Levi systematically deconstructs all cherished notions of what constitutes the human. There is no unique identity or personality; there is no speech
(so often identified in the Western tradition with human uniqueness). Theirs is a faceless presence; there is no thought; they are even deprived of the dignity of death; they have no divine spark within them.
Thus not only does the Muselmann come to represent the caesura between life and death, but also between human and non-human. Stripped of speech and dignity, the Muselmann is denied even those seemingly self-evident qualities by which we distinguish human and non-human life and by which we offer ethical protection.
Agamben wants to explore what takes place when humans are stripped of their humanity. This is not because of a moral failure on the part of the Muselmänner; rather, their lack of humanity is produced through a separation that is extrinsic to them. They are produced as non-human by sovereign power – the very power that the Nazis wielded to separate Jew from non-Jew: those destined for the gas chambers, those destined for a few more weeks of life, and, among the latter, those who would toil and survive, and the Muselmänner – those whose life is a living death.
Thus Auschwitz creates a new human, who is “non-human,” and yet such power is not singular. It is replicated in all those places where forces over life and death subject the human creature to increasing political control while simultaneously stripping them of any course for redress. We need simply think of the growing masses of refugees whose very survival depends upon the sovereign choice of nation states to grant asylum, which is increasingly denied.
Having challenged conceptions of human uniqueness Agamben asks us to consider an alternative account of humanity – one that is characterized not by dignity, but by shame. Agamben here is not talking about an intrinsic psychological experience, but rather a fundamentally constructed phenomenon that is a feature of contemporary political life now inscribed upon the experiences of men and women. Agamben cites Robert Antelme’s story of the death marches of the prisoners at the end of the War, in which a young man is summoned by an SS guard to step from the line. The young man’s immediate response is to blush. Why does he blush? Certainly he had already been subjected to the most humiliating of experiences. And yet he blushes because he feels shame before the guard. According to Agamben, “That flush is like a mute apostrophe flying through time to reach us, to bear witness to him.”
What we bear witness to is not the student’s courage, because he was not courageous; no one could be in those circumstances. It is also not to his survival, for he did not survive. We must bear witness instead to shame, a shame that is at the heart of the human experience, not ontologically so, but as a result of the extremity of contemporary political forces that conspire to reduce a young student to one who is compelled to apologize for his death before his executioner.
But just so, Agamben offers us a glimpse of hope. To witness to that flush – “that mute witness flying through time” – is to be compelled to cry out on behalf of those who cannot. As Agamben puts it, “The human being is the one who can survive the human being.” This is not to say that the human being is the one who survives Auschwitz or any other atrocity; but rather, it is to say that the human being is the one who survives being consigned to humanity or inhumanity by sovereign power. To witness to the human is to resist the demarcation of human from inhuman. To witness to the human is to dare to attend to (in)human cries of the shamed.
Jane Barter is a priest in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, who is currently serving St. Peter, Dynevor and St. Bartholomew parishes. She is also Professor of Religion and Culture at The University of Winnipeg.