Saturday, January 27, 2007

Auschwitz as a Creation Story

"Therefore thus said God: You have not hearkened unto me, proclaiming liberty, every man to his brother, and every man to his neighbour; behold, I proclaim for you a liberty, said God, unto the sword, unto the pestilence, unto the famine; and I will give you away to the terror of the kingdoms of the earth"
-Jeremiah, 34:17

The discussions Auschwitz as a creation story didn't wane away into something without the burdensome significance of having been in itself an after thought, or a truth which isn't arrived at but that exists there somehow even before you actually open the conversation. I shall briefly expound some general reflection on Auschwitz as a creation story, that might ground epistemologically the reconstruction of the foundations that lie at the core of the "fallacies" which form the undercurrents of contemporary philosophical discussions, that are in themselves historical and experiential in a sense. I will follow a model similar to that of Hannah Arendt's "phenomenology of the public world" with certain built-in alterations that I've inherited from the hermeneutics of social sciences and the literatures.

Auschwitz isn't a self-standing concept or image, therefore it can't be accurately described as an entity or identity of "Being" (to use the language of Heideggerian deconstruction), Auschwitz isn't a "Sein-des" and accordingly it doesn't constitute a "ground to stand", condition that in the Jewish hermeneutic tradition (since Rashi) takes the meaning of "Existence" (that in the Hebrew languages is analogous to "being present"; needless to say this idea of "Being" is obviously inherited from a Greco-Christian tradition of thought (not Judeo-Christian) and is entirely unfamiliar to whoever wrote the Bible, namely I'm saying that "Being" wasn't a foundational problem in the Bible, that "Ontology" didn't fall into the Biblical thinking. This problem might have acutely displaced itself back to the center of "Anxiety" before Existence with the Cartesian doubt that unbounds an untimely Greek preoccupation and summons elements that thereafter would gather "dualectically" (a term borrowed from the philosopher Andres Ortiz-Oses, pupil of Gadamer) in what we know as Modernity; I'm of the opinion this "doubt" broke its reins free since Spinoza and challenged the net of metaphysical security that since Roman times solved the problem of history (and others as well, i.e. consciousness, memory) with the introduction of such "handing-over" known as the "Tradition" and its authority. This authority however illegitimate remains unchallenged all throughout the history of theology when the philosophical thinking of Aristotle mainly but also some others is turned into dogma by Christian and Islamic thinkers that have integrated him into the Tradition. It is at the same time part of the Catholic self-understanding for example that the Tradition is a part of faith, secondary in importance to none.

The Protestant reformation in the other hand didn't overturn the tradition in the sense Marx would later on, but it did schew it by "protesting" this authority, this protestation is in a way one of the forefathers of the great protestation known as "Modernity"; hermeneutically speaking one can trace the elements of this Modern rebellion to the beginning of philosophical thinking in Socrates (and not in the Pre-Socratics as some interpreters of Heidegger have claimed) all through history. This could verify the thesis of Eveline Goodman-Thau that the tradition in fact stood broken since its very beginning and consequently collapsed as a matter of fact in a rather natural process brought about by a self-reflexive anxiety, which could be another of the many definitions of Modernity. I'm by no means implying that Auschwitz as a historical momentum is the obvious consequence of this "breach" in the tradition of philosophical thinking or that either Hegel or Marx could be held accountable for Auschwitz, my thesis is that the illegitimate authority of the Tradition held as legimitate by the religious canons is in fact no explaining Auschwitz after its collapse, but rather stresses very acutely the inability to actually grasp of Auschwitz stands for. I would define Auschwitz to be a "Sei-endes", instead of a "Sein-des".

With the rise of Modernity (neither as a historical period or as a philosophical tendency, but rather as a preoccupation) two parallel concepts originated, firstly the "Absolute Spirit", namely the most extreme form of abstraction of "Beings", and then later the concept of the "Self" which is another no less extreme form of "concretization" of "Being". The former represented by Hegel and the long tradition of Hegelian and Marxist thought and the latter by Kierkegaard, Schelling, Schleiermacher and the philosophical school known as Existentialism. "Being" and "Intellect" fought each other fiercely since the Middle Ages and encountered major breakthroughs in thinkers such as St. Thomas and Master Eckhart, yet with the rise of Cartesian doubt and the collective strength endowed to "Anxiety" but particularly with Kant but only fully realized in the middle of the 19th century, philosophy set on a pilgrimage from "Intellect" and "Reason" to a previously deserted land in which "Self" and "Being" fought one another no less fiercely. This process was triggered more than anything by the philosophers of the Rennaissance and Enlightenment; the first in returning to classical values (and in Germany the Classicism of Goethe) and the second by initiating a process of secularization that set a "firm" foundation for human rights, citizenship and national states within the frame of that "protestation" against the illegitimate authority, which in increasing autonomy also exponentially boasted anxiety and decreased happiness, what one finds presented in a rather extreme fashion in the political philosophy of Kant.

It is my opinion however, that the secularization didn't achieve its aim in "overcoming the religious past" but rather "translated" the same old dogmas into a different language and handed over the mythologies of creation and destiny from the hands of the organized churches to those of the princes and rulers, but the myth didn't disappear altogether because the Western world by the force of necessity from within a sense of anxiety over its own history (perhaps rooted more than anything in St. Augustine) necessitated the myth more than anything else. The nation state with its ethos (as seen in political philosophy of Hegel) became the standard of ethical life and its foundational origins the new myth of creation. "Dasein" is the nation state.

Auschwitz becomes "Dasein" only when we speak of it in terms of a city, both earthly and heavenly, and this has become possible through the investigations carried out by Robert Jan Van Pelt (A Dutch architectural historian) in that the Nazis had indeed planned Auschwitz to be a major German city from which they would establish themselves to dominate the Slavic world, the plan to be carried out resembled almost with exactitude those of medieval German towns and in itself the "Greek polis". In fact Auschwitz has become something more than a concentration camp, it is matter-of-factly a city, a city to fulfill the messianic Utopia of National-Socialism. I shall never adhere to the opinon that it is the tradition of metaphysics and theology (opinion held by Eveline Goodman-Thau among others) that has led to Auschwitz, I will argue with Ernst Cassirer that it is actually the secularization or translation of the old mythology what has in fact produced that breach in history known as Auschwitz, but not Auschwitz itself that was produced without the help of much metaphysical thought or theodicies - it rathers springs in midst of a very very weak and childish ideology. A certain colleague of mine has produced a rather innovative explanation to which as a philosopher I can't entirely adhere to: That it was the functionalist architecture that took away man's feeling of being at home in the world that led him feverishly to embrace Nazism as a way to be in touch with "reality" through the rather comic "theatre" of war.

Auschwitz doesn't speak for the whole of German contemporary history or the larger context of Second World War or even modern Antisemitism, but as a concept (memory-wise) it becomes a creation story because it nonetheless produces a groundless form of existence and it becomes the foundational principle of Identity, or the search for it and the despair caused by the rational reality of this Unidentity is what I would call Postmodernity, without forgetting another version of postmodernity that comes with the reflection over this despair; this I shall term "Mourning". Unreflected Postmodernity and Mourning, which I shall not place in the "aftermath" of Modernity but as the second phase of Modernity in which we shift from the Modern imagination into the Modern consciousness (and this includes a teleological version of technology).

For those of us who reckon with the "factuality" of Auschwitz it becomes a negative creation story because as soon as we enter the reflection over our form of Modernity in our pilgrimage we find Auschwitz to be the stumbling block in between the New Jerusalem of the Existential philosophers with their anti-reason and the old deserted Athens, modern philosophy is indeed a rather touristic tale of three cities. This exodus towards Jerusalem that according to Gillian Rose started with Nietzsche's Judaica and that I would place as far back as Spinoza once again. Auschwitz is the central point of self-reflection, because it doesn't challenge philosophical structures at all but the actual concept of men, of humanity... which ever since the Bible and the Greeks was believed to be the requirement not even of philosophy but of thinking and of worldly activity; Lessing defined this humanity was the ability to experience the world in anger and laughter which are per nature biased. A world that can't be too much sure about being human, can hardly engage in philosophical reflection, certain not rational reflection. The irrational despair from within the antinomies of reason to find an explanation, but in sight of a collapsed metaphysical structure one can't glimpse into the totality of the system anymore; but rather follow Benjamin in his interpretation of Kafka as he thought the Czech writer to be looking at the world in his novel "The Castle" from a multitude of redeemed and unredeemed vantage points but never by any means from all of them.

In this sense we can only start reflecting from the perspective of the "metaphysics of everyday life" which are in my opinion theology and aesthetics in their hermeneutic version, because Auschwitz has proven history isn't necessarily progressive or linear, Auschwitz is the breach but as people living our lifetime in terms of worldtime it is necessary to trace back somewhere and to the same extent that the working myth of the Nation provided the ground for Germany's "Lebensraum" in the Nazi period, the "city" of Auschwitz provides us with a working myth of our intellectual origin not too far distance from what Romulus has been to the Romans. Only in a myth of origin can the human person reveal any self-understanding, similar to Nietzsche's "Becoming what one is" and the "Verwandlung" of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus that is taken up by certain contemporary Heideggerians in terms of "Daimon" as the postmodern God, whereby death and life have met each other with uncanny similarity and the antinomies of the political and the anti-political in the tale of three cities for Gillian Rose (Auschwitz, Jerusalem, Athens).

This metamorphosis contains the truth which is the pre-condition for thinking, but the inherent difficulty in the myth and creation story of Auschwitz is that Auschwitz IS, sense in which it's not necessarily true or false but a concomitant living reality and truth, it is the mirror of Western humanity and certainly for the Jew it is not just a mirror but the basket of Moses, without Pharaoh and without Miriam. Moreover Auschwitz is not the spirit of Auschwitz, and it is sheer luck that we no longer live in that world, what means by no means one can reconcile with it altogether; at the same time looking back into the tradition of philosophy one can never start anew without circumventing the essential reality of the concentration camp and the fabrication of corpses.

The possibility of a new beginning lies not in a pessimistic tent-building over piles of shoes and glasses but on the turning upside down of the diluvian waters to their former calm, that constitutes in itself what Levinas called the "impossibility of possibility". Auschwitz is a ground to stand that is no ground at all and in this sense it befriends Modernity as a mirror, a self-image on which modern men and women can actually engage in a quest for the beautiful and the good and returning to the very beginning of the cultural sciences but with a strong ethical and philosophical foundation, one containing the other - this is Jewish hermeneutics (I'm indebted in this to Eveline Goodman-Thau). If we're to believe that the history of beauty has come to a premature end and that it exists only by accident, then naturally the good must exist as well only accidentally, eliminating the possibility of choosing oneself for the good and the sources of all possible morality, of whichever kind, altogether... in a time with the Platonic dicta of the ethical life seem to work no longer. And here we don't speak about the ability to speak of ethics, which of course had never been more imperative than nowadays, "we're not speaking of isolated little acts by which, as with a needle, a person can pierce through the desolation of his everyday life, of his sham existence, to reach the absolute... This will not savage his dignity. We speak rather of a life form which is determined - and therefore, able - to bestow nobility upon a person's everyday life" -Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Theological Aesthetics).

This "jump" into morality (borrowed from Angel Prior in his book about Agnes Heller's Kierkegaard) depends entirely in our ability to unearth the beauty, and therefore of living a dignified life whose main driving force isn't an ideology but a concern with everyday judgement as our stumbling block, reason for which Auschwitz must be always the territory that defines the philosopher's origin, and his definition of himself as being entirely in the present, to use the Biblical word.

Hannah Arendt spoke very clearly about this phenomenon: "In Auschwitz, the factual territory opened up an abyss into which everyone is drawn who attempts after the fact to stand in that territory.... If the factual territory has become an abyss, then the space one occupies if one pulls back from it is, so to speak, an empty space where there are no longer nations and peoples but only individuals for whom it is now of much consequence of what the majority of peoples, or even the majority of one's own people, happens to think at any given moment. If these individuals who exist today in all the peoples and in all the nations of the world are to reach understanding among themselves, it is essential that they learn not to cling frantically any longer to their own national pasts -pasts that explain nothing anyhow, for Auschwitz can be no more explained from the perspective of German history than from Jewish history -that they don't forget that they are only chance survivors of a deluge that in one form of another can break over us again any day, and that they therefore may be like the Noah in his ark; and finally that they must not yield to despair or scorn for humankind but be thankful that there are quite a few Noahs floating around out there on the world's seas trying to bring their arks as close together as they can".

The issue at stake in this creation story in my theory (and I prefer theory over philosophy, because philosophy since Hegel is a "whole" that can hardly be seen whereas theory sees something and develops a view of it, notion secondary to none if one is to attempt a grasping of the beautiful and of himself as a good person. I owe this notions to Agnes Heller) is not that of eternal mourning -the famous "I mourn, therefore I am" of Derrida- but of the eternal morning; in which the spirit of Auschwitz is the only thing that can remind one that beyond any beyonds and posts, beauty must be sought for in the world and not in the philosophies and the bookshelves so that it can be clearly pointed out in the morning light (just like God did in the Genesis story, moreover the Jewish traditions points out that man is a co-creator with God at any given worldtime) and thoroughly experienced; this is the only channel available for a truly humanizing philosophy that can return man to a situation of dignity, when the heavenly can no longer appeal to him.

Thus the spirit of Auschwitz becomes a negative theology of world responsibility in a phenomenological sense, and paves the way through Modernity into a world that might be able to choose itself for communicability (in Karl Jaspers, or unalienation to interpolate Rosenzweig's reading of Kafka's negative theology somehow) and therefore for concrete world-models that rest not on deliberate freedom but on the assurance of man's humanity, not from the sources of "rights" (which in a Hegelian sense are intimately bound with an ethics that can only spring forth from the nation) but from the sources of humanity itself; this is what Eveline Goodman-Thau terms "the way to Monotheism", which I prefer to translate (and not to overcome) into the language of secular philosophy. Summoning a political experience of the world in terms of "Geschichtlich" and not of "historisch" that can pierce through everyman's everyday life, and not only through the lenses of the world-survivors, a experience of humanity human in every sense.

I don't want to do away with metaphysics as most of my contemporaries would, following Gillian Rose in the "metaphysical fallacy" of postmodern thinkers; but I want to argue that the equation isn't complete and that before the chickens can come home to roost, the essentially human view of aesthetics and theology must be develop as a pre-condition; I confess to be rather Idealist in the Hegelian sense at this juncture.
The spirit of Auschwitz is the only channel available in my view at present, to reach such understanding that is thoroughly resultless, namely that science should no longer act as dominant world-view (and founder of human rights) establishing truth as an end-result but rather thinking (and not philosophy alone, for I believe literature, art and politics among others enable concrete models of thinking and judgment) as a piercing experience all through the process of thought, in the same level of "to be", so that the time of modern men can be no longer out of joint. In forgetting this spirit one foregoes his sanity and the world's self-understanding, which is the unfortunate case of modern thought that has been set "free" (and being modernity's favourite paradigm) but wanders aloof hereabouts rather drunk and unaware of the nihilism inherent to its condition, being ungrounded in anything and in desperate need for the language of the tradition of thought which it has allegedly forsaken for the sake of clarity. However, it is never totally clear at twilight, only when it's already morning and after the long nights of mourning. I shall term this to conclude, the turning upside down of the diluvian waters, nearing the ark of Noah... the way from Endlösung (Final Solution, Extermination) to Erlösung (Redemption), when the chips are down.

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