The true horror

Heroes of the Holocaust were people just like you.
Heroes of the Holocaust were people just like you.
In Remnants of Auschwitz, Agamben writes of a soccer match between the SS and the Jewish Sonderkommando (pg. 26):

This match might strike someone as a brief pause of humanity in the middle of an infinite horror. I, like the witnesses, instead view this match, this moment of normalcy, as the true horror of the camp. For we can perhaps think that the massacres are over–even if here and there they are repeated, not so far away from us. But that match is never over; it continues as if uninterrupted. It is the perfect and eternal cipher of the “gray zone,” which knows no time and is in every place. Hence the anguish and shame of the survivors, “the anguish inscribed in everyone of the ‘tohu-bohu,’ of a deserted and empty universe crushed under the spirit of God but from which the spirit of man is absent: not yet born or already extinguished” (Levi 1989: 85). But also hence our shame, the shame of those who did not know the camps and yet, without knowing how, are spectators of that match, which repeats itself in every match in our stadiums, in every television broadcast, in the normalcy of everyday life. If we do not succeed in understanding that match, in stopping it, there will never be hope.

My gut reaction is also to find the soccer match unbelievably offensive — how, in the midst of the camps, can it occur to the guards to say, “Hey, do you guys want to play soccer”? At the same time, it may initially seem to be an obscene exaggeration to say that we’re living in that soccer match today, as though he’s indulging in the most heavy-handed version of the moralizing gesture that would ask, “How can you be writing a blog post when people are starving in Africa?!”

Yet Agamben is not finally making a moral, but a legal claim: if we take seriously his view that the camp is the limit condition of the state of exception that has become a norm, and if we understand the entire postwar era as an endless state of exception, then all our petty entertainments are versions of that soccer match, fruitless attempts to establish something like normalcy within a sphere of potentially infinite violence. Surely the Cold War was one extended state of exception on both sides of the divide — the entire Soviet project was an exceptional measure meant to preserve the revolution at all costs, while the US government engaged its own secret police and even conducted secret medical experiments on its own citzens, and of course the entire world was held under the threat of nuclear annihilation. Agamben also makes it very explicit that the War on Terror is an extended state of exception.

Within this scheme, the one period that may seem difficult to account for is precisely when Agamben is writing, the 1990s, when the Cold War had ended and the War on Terror was still a glimmer in Dick Cheney’s eye. In retrospect, of course, we can see that the state of exception was never repealed during the “happy 90s” — the nuclear weapons were trained on their targets, and the national security apparatus was already reorienting itself toward terrorism even before the Cold War ended. The fact that Clinton ordered extra-legal bombing of Iraq while the Lewinsky scandal was unfolding in the press is perhaps emblematic here.

Taking a broader view, then, we can see in this passage Agamben’s response to the widespread sentiment that things were “finally returning to normal” in the 1990s — so that we could finally settle accounts with what happened in the Shoah (is it any coincidence that there was such an explosion of interest in the topic, which filtered down even to public school curricula, at precisely that historical moment?) and could move on to supposedly “apolitical” concerns such as environmentalism, human rights, etc.

From this perspective, Agamben is not simply talking about something like Bush asking people to go shopping after 9/11 — he is saying that the entirety of Western public discourse in the 1990s was that obscene soccer match. And in retrospect, it seems clear to me that he was right.

9 thoughts on “The true horror

  1. What bothers me in Agamben and therefor in your own platitudes of self-righteousness after the fact is a smug judgment upon others for being who they are. I see in these Jewish men a certain quality of bravery in the face of monstrousness. A gesture in the face of the enemy that, yes, you may defeat us, kill us, but our spirit remains with God and is inviolable. Think on it: tens of thousands on young men and women, the old, the new born, the generation of a people being slaughtered like cattle. And, in the midst of it all a small band of men rise up undefeated in the spirit and show the people this, this is who we are… Why must we be so smug to judge the living and the dead with our cheap gestures of moralizing filth? We are all one under the Law. No one will escape the judgment of God. But humanity need not show defeat in the midst of terror, but instead stand triumphant against the adversary if even only as a gesture of the spirit which is everything.

  2. I can imagine an Oscar-winning screenplay about the Jewish soccer team that defeats the guards against all odds, and that thought confirms my gut feeling that this soccer match is indeed obscene.

  3. Of course there was a film about a soccer match between Allied POWs and Germans: Victory (starring Sylvester Stallone): And they do triumph (with a tie) and then they escape! Worlds apart from the match Agamben describes, I realize, but suggestive of the Hollywood version of such a match were it ever to become the subject of a narrative film.

    Thanks for these thoughts Adam. They are very helpful for some things I am thinking about.

  4. It’s not about the match per se for Agamben, he is using it to illustrate his notion of shame culture: “But also hence our shame, the shame of those who did not know the camps and yet, without knowing how, are spectators of that match, which repeats itself in every match in our stadiums, in every television broadcast, in the normalcy of everyday life.”

    In his sense which seems close to the old Greek conceptions we all – even if ignorant of the historical crime itself – must share responsibility for it. Not only that but that we repeat the same crime in the normal events of our live endlessly through the competitive warring sociality of our shared lives. Hamartia – or, the tragic fault that haunts all of us, the curse that will not go away.

    It is this conception that I think is not only wrong, but the way the powers that be try to hold certain events in history over our heads as control mechanisms. Yes, these events happened and we should remember them and not let them happen again, but we are not these people, and we do not continually keep repeating these same mythical patterns over and over in every generation. To me this is a false sense of consciousness and is something moralists, governments, etc. love to use to control social behavior. We should not feel shame, nor it’s corollary, guilt which is just the internalization of shame in the individual to curse and control society through some artificial normative ideology of shame no matter what the heinous event was. There are other ways to mark out this dark history of the human animal than to trap it in shame or guilt.

  5. The death match (in the original telling between Ukrainian prisoners and German troops) was a reasonably common atrocity story in post-war anti-Nazi literature/film. I didn’t know Agamben discussed it.

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