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Amor Mundi: To Think What We Have Done

To Think What We Have Done

Stelae, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany – By N0TABENE – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Alex Cocotas worries about the culture of Holocaust memorialization. He is particularly bothered by Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe that has become a tourist destination in Berlin. ” Visitors arrive, take photos, take a little stroll, take some more photos and leave. Popular poses include: wedged body in between stelae; stacked bodies wedged in between stelae; solitary subject sitting on a stele, back to the camera, looking out on the monument—all those murdered Jews, so sad—in stilted reflection; the album cover, for groups of four to six, one on each stele, arms and expressions spread wide, intimating a moment of spontaneous excitement, photographed seven times. According to the Israeli sociologist Irit Dekel, who had studied the memorial, many visitors don’t even know they are at a Holocaust memorial, which is believable. It is, for them, an Event, spreading from Instagram to Instagram, an item on the itinerary, somewhere between currywurst and the East Side Gallery, tethered to intention by a geotag.” Cocotas is not only worried by the commercialization of the Holocaust, however. He also argues that Holocaust memorials today are misdirected in their focus on the victims instead of the perpetrators.

“In fostering identification with the victim, Holocaust memorials and exhibitions also foster identification with victimhood. This is particularly true in Germany, which has used identification with victimhood as a unifying principle for confronting its history, not only for the Holocaust but for all victims of war and tyranny. This approach, however, entails serious risks and unforeseen ramifications, especially in our current environment. It is all too easy to become a victim. Not only how we commonly understand the word, someone who is a victim of crime, discrimination, state violence, and so forth; that is, as a victim of history, incident, and acute societal circumstance, entailing a relatively clear demarcation of perpetrator and victim, a relatively clear apportionment of culpability. This is the victimhood we associate with minorities, those who are most vulnerable to its threat. But many others, whole communities, sometimes whole countries, are falling victim to intangible economic forces, no less calamitous, that are so swift and severe they would have once required theological exegesis; the human reality behind unhelpful terms like outsourcing, austerity, shock therapy, systemic risk, secular stagnation, financialization; unfathomable suffering caused by circumstances beyond the narrow realm of personal efficacy, what formally marks out those affected as victims. The problem is that very few people can cogently explain exactly who or what, in our absurdly complex economic system, is to blame for their misfortune, and even if the metonyms we use—“Wall Street,” “elites,” “Brussels”—are broadly correct, it is rather difficult to be mad at a metonym; the rage can easily drift or be directed onto less-savory targets, turning victims into perpetrators.

The dangers of the prevailing approach to popular Holocaust education and memorialization is exemplified in the way we speak about victims. Victimhood is now a hereditary attribute. Descendants of Holocaust survivors often identify themselves as such or are identified as such in the press, as though this confers extra moral weight to their statements, reveals some inherent and inherited virtue of character. I recently read an article that went out of its way to identify its subject as the great-grandchild of Holocaust survivors. This widespread practice points to a broader truth: A victim can never be anything but a victim. This is why some in Poland—among the worst victims of WWII, a tragedy amplified by the world’s general ignorance of its scale—have a difficult relationship with the work of Jan Gross, whose book, Neighbors, documents an appalling, unprovoked massacre of Polish Jews by their, yes, neighbors. Or why some in the Jewish community seem incapable of understanding that Jews can inflict harm on others. A victim is cognitively incapable of being, or becoming, a perpetrator. When everyone is a victim, no one is a perpetrator.

“What victims have in common is a lack of responsibility for their fate,” the historian Brian Ladd writes in The Ghosts of Berlin. When the most notorious crime of recent history becomes a prism to primarily identify with its victims, when its collective memory is staked on victimhood, it subtly inculcates the idea that we are passive observers of history; that our actions are fundamentally ineffectual; and, ultimately, it obscures the perpetrators. It is easy to imagine yourself powerless; it is much more difficult and not a bit disquieting to imagine why “ordinary men,” not all rabid anti-Semites, volunteer to shoot thousands of Jews in the head from close range. The purpose of Holocaust education is to imagine yourself the perpetrator, not the victim, lest the culprits become a perversely comforting parable of pure evil, detached from history and humanity, closed to our comprehension; and the Holocaust a mere tragedy, a fatal inevitability.”

Cocotas is not against Holocaust memorials. In fact, he celebrates a different kind of memorial to the Jews of the Holocaust, the Stolpersteine, those brass bricks inserted throughout the streets of Europe in front of houses where Jewish victims of the Holocaust once lived. Began by the German artist Gunter Demnig, there are now more than 50,000 “stumbling stones” across Europe. Cocotas writes:

“Every time I pass a Stolperstein—sometimes one, sometimes a family of two, three, or four—I stop and linger on the sparse information, the immensity of the lives that lay behind a handful of letters and numbers. Which apartment did they live in? How long had they lived here? And did Alfred Rosenberg whistle a tune every night (the same tune, perhaps) as he fumbled for his keys, anticipating the comforts of home? I have often seen others do the same, suddenly seize up from a meandering pace and hover over a plaque, momentarily dissipate into involuntary confabulation. And this is the true power of these brass cobblestones: They force you to think. Not just the production of a superficial thought—wow, dead Jews—but a basic philosophical definition of intellectual thought: to experience that sparse information from another’s perspective.”

Hannah Arendt understood her lifelong effort to be “To think what we are doing.” In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, she twice describes her aim to comprehend the novelty and horror of totalitarian government, by which she means the attentive and unpremeditated facing up to, and resisting, of reality, whatever it may be. Towards that end, she sought to understand both the victims of totalitarianism, and those who carried it out. Which is why she read, and cited, texts by antisemites and by Stalinists. To think what had happened meant facing up to the reality of totalitarian and racist thinking.

When Arendt came to write about Adolf Eichmann, she again sought to understand those who carried out the Holocaust, an effort for which she was, again, roundly criticized. Her argument, that Eichmann was thoughtless, that he never stopped and thought from the perspective of those whom he was sending to their deaths, suggested, as she later speculated, that thinking may be the one activity that could prevent the doing of evil in modern mass societies.

Cocotas may be too critical of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a memorial I have always found deeply provoking. But Cocotas is right to insist that we judge memorials not simply on their celebration of victims. Public memorials can and should do more, they should make us think about what happened and why.

—Roger Berkowitz

Charging Girl

Greg Fallis has an exciting discussion of the controversy surrounding the Fearless Girl statute facing down the bull on Wall Street. His effort to understand and evaluate the opposition to the statute by Arturo Di Modica, the sculptor of Charging Bull, is thoughtful and well worth considering. But so too is his preliminary argument, that even if one disagrees with Modica and wants Fearless Girl to stay, Modica’s argument is meaningful and worthy of respect.

“I got metaphorically spanked a couple of days ago. Folks have been talking about the Fearless Girl statue ever since it was dropped in Manhattan’s Financial District some five weeks ago. I have occasionally added a comment or two to some of the online discussions about the statue.

Recently most of the Fearless Girl discussions have focused on the complaints by Arturo Di Modica, the sculptor who created Charging Bull. He wants Fearless Girl removed, and that boy is taking a metric ton of shit for saying that. Here’s what I said that got me spanked:

The guy has a point.

This happened in maybe three different discussions over the last week or so. In each case I explained briefly why I believe Di Modica has a point (and I’ll explain it again in a bit), and for the most part folks either accepted my comments or ignored them. Which is pretty common for online discussions. But in one discussion my comment sparked this:

Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.

Which — and this doesn’t need to be said, but I’m okay with saying the obvious — is a perfectly valid response. It’s also one I agree with. As far as that goes, it’s one NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio agrees with, since he said it first (although, to be fair, probably one of his public relations people first said it first).

But here’s the thing: you can completely agree with the woman who responded to my comment AND you can still acknowledge that Arturo Di Modica has a point. Those aren’t mutually exclusive or contradictory points of view.”

Hearing Together, Listening Apart

Eric Harvey considers the way that the iPhone has changed personal listening habits, which in turn is transforming how we understand what it means to be alone:

“Privacy can be defined in many ways — as a moral concept, a state of being structured by varying notions of “public,” or a legal claim for the self or property — but in all these forms, it manifests itself through the material practices of everyday experience, like listening to music. However defined, the idea of privacy has also always reciprocally structured the experience of listening.

A primary “phonograph effect” (to use Mark Katz’s coinage for the ways recording has shaped the impact of sound on our lives) is to constantly shift the idea of the sanctity of domestic space, the possibilities for public social communion, and the sense of what is pleasurable and morally acceptable with respect to sound recordings. New means of playing and circulating recorded music have always modulated our understanding of publicity and privacy, whether we’re spinning a record at home, tuning in a radio broadcast, or downloading mp3 files through a peer-to-peer network. Listening, purchasing, collecting, downloading, streaming and sharing all entail opting into a vaster sociotechnical system and forging connections to others engaging in the same activity, whether through co-presence or via the metaphysics of imagination.

As digital-music commerce is now being re-routed from the chaotic global swap meet of mp3 files to neatly tiered and deeply curated streaming services that collect vast amounts of personal data about their users, a new scenario of networked listening has emerged, changing the publics we might imagine and the privacy we might seek in what we hear.”

Bright Lines

Jonathan Hunt gives the historical background behind the US missile strike in Syria a couple of weeks ago:

“The American foreign-policy establishment is fond of punishing those who threaten to use weapons of mass destruction against innocents. For CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, all it took was a Tomahawk missile strike on the Syrian air base suspected of sending jets to bomb the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun with sarin gas to make Donald Trump “presidential.” The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza questioned neither the moral nor the strategic purpose of strike, only its legality. Former Obama staffers like Anne-Marie Slaughter struck positive notes in response, grateful that some message, any message, had finally been delivered to Bashar al-Assad. Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks both praised the country for standing up for the taboo against chemical weapons that arose among European nations after World War I.

Since the 1960s, categorical opposition to weapons of mass destructionbiological, chemical, and nuclear—has been a hallmark of American foreign-policy thinking. John F. Kennedy recast the American president as a protective father to the world. So when reports noted that images of “young children and babies being gassed” reportedly moved Trump to action in Syria, they were echoing a long tradition, one that has both helped to justify international cooperation to combat the most terrible weapons of war, and given license to presidents to strike out in humanity’s name.”

Honoring The Dead

Alejandro Merlín mourns for those buried in mass graves in Mexico:

“A mass grave was discovered near my mother’s home in Durango. When I say near, I mean two blocks away. As far as deaths are concerned, all estimates are illusory, so I am forced to give the official number: eighty-nine corpses. In that place alone. There is little difference between these bodies and the dismembered woman inside the chest Haroun Al-Rashid and a fisherman found in the river. But there was only one person in that chest. According to the prosecutor, 331 bodies have been found in mass graves in the state of Durango alone. As far as we know, no one has been identified as directly responsible: notable among those imprisoned and linked to the crimes are the Pacific Cartel bosses M-10 and M-14, and some members of the Sinaloa Cartel. Those few identified as connected with the crimes have been given sentences of varying lengths, and kept out of sight.

The crimes linked to or unleashed by drug trafficking may seem abstract to us, until eighty-nine bodies are unearthed and brought to light in a city that was hitherto oblivious to their existence. If we still believed in the Delphic Oracle, or for that matter in any religion, when we asked her to explain drought, scarcity, or hardship, she would tell us we must atone for the death of Charila, the girl who hanged herself. Which is to say that the deaths of all these people must be atoned for. We must atone for the deaths of those buried in secret. But how? What does it mean to atone for a death? Even the word atonement has lost its referent..

Our situation is very different from an updated and symbolic interpretation of a classical scenario. Without an understanding of ritual and sacrifice, the King of Delphi has no understanding of the oracle, and therefore of higher laws. When we bury corpses in mass graves, we no longer believe ourselves deserving of drought or catastrophe: we give other explanations for our misfortunes. Perhaps no higher power will punish us, but we certainly deserve our misfortune and degradation as a society. It is a collective shame none of us should forget…”

The Rewards of Unthinkability

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Masha Gessen details the nature of the new brinkmanship between President Trump and Vladimir Putin:

“For years, Putin has cultivated the image of someone who will say the unspeakable—whether it’s an off-color joke told at a summit meeting or the oft-repeated threat to use nuclear arms—and do the unthinkable, like occupy Crimea and launch the occasional bloody and pointless war against an intimate neighbor. Putin’s madman-on-the-world-stage shtick forced saner world leaders to devise strategies for minimizing the damage Russia can do. But now that Donald Trump has demonstrated that he will not only speak without thinking but also fire missiles without interrupting dessert, he has one-upped Putin.

Trump’s rewards are readily evident. War is far more gratifying than domestic politics. After weeks of humiliating commentary about his chaotic administration and incompetent leadership, Trump has forced the world—including Putin—to listen to him and his surrogates. The president’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, who was booed and virtually laughed off the stage on Wednesday evening at the Women in the World Summit in New York’s Lincoln Center for sounding like she had just discovered that the world outside Oklahoma existed, had the screen to herself on CNN. The New York audience had outright laughed when she said, “We don’t do soft power.” Now that it was clear what she had meant, no one was laughing even as she struggled, incoherently, to express a policy that was itself incoherent: “Regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.”

War is consistently good for the Trump brand. When Trump compelled members of Congress to stand up and applaud the widow of a Navy SEAL, his CNN critic Van Jones said that Trump had become “president of the United States.” After the Syria strike, an even better-known CNN personality, Fareed Zakaria, repeated the phrase word for word. Zakaria managed to find logic in Trump’s inconsistency, likening him to presidents past, who also shouldered the burden of becoming the world’s policemen. So Trump dropped the “mother of all bombs”—the largest  non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal—on Afghanistan, because, surely, the reason ISIS has not yet been defeated is that America has not used a big enough bomb. The enormous bomb overshadowed even the Russian-election-conspiracy story. The Trump presidency finally looked good on TV.”

Voracious Intellectual Curiosity

Marshall Berman/Writer Pictures

Andy Merrifield profiles the intellectual historian Marshall Berman, who died in 2013:

“After our Metro Diner encounter, Marshall invited me back to his apartment. I schlepped slowly around the corner with him, up the gentle incline of West 100th street, past the Ansche Chesed Synagogue he sometimes attended, and the Morningside Montessori school Danny would go to, then right on West End Avenue, to a building older than most of the neighborhood’s, constructed in 1901, frayed yet with a strikingly ornate façade.

The first thing that hits anybody entering Marshall’s crammed apartment was books. Copies and assorted translations of All That is Solid were stacked overhead in the coat closet; novels filled shelves in the main passageway; a hidden revolving bookshelf contained a voluminous Marx and Freud collection, “needing security clearance for access,” he’d joke.

Books burst out of the cupboards, lined the walls of an adjoining room, where, in a little niche in the far corner, adjacent to a window, peering down onto the street, lurked Marshall’s work desk, his intellectual cockpit, arm’s length away from a vast stock of books on New York. (In later years, as he wrote, he could see Danny playing down below in the school yard, on the synagogue’s roof.)

Marshall took off his shoes and socks and encouraged me to hang out with him on the living room floor, next to the sofa — not on it. Soon his curious mind was gently pumping me full with questions: who was I? What did I love? Whom did I love? It was our own secret little be-in.

I was thrilled. I’d read him for years; now, I was slouching next to him on the rug, in his world! It was a newfound land for me. He’d made each little room an everywhere.”

I Am Not Tsundoku (I hope)

Katherine Brooks analyzes my and maybe your darkest fear, that we are Tsundoku, people who buy books and never read them.

“The desire to buy more books than you can physically read in one human lifetime is actually so universal, there’s a specific word for it: tsundoku. Defined as the stockpiling of books that will never be consumed, the term is a Japanese portmanteau of sorts, combining the words “tsunde” (meaning “to stack things”) and “oku” (meaning “to leave for a while”).

We were reminded of the term this week, when Apartment Therapy published a primer for those looking to complete book-hoarder rehab. Several blogs have written on the topic before, though, surfacing new and interesting details about the word so perfect for book nerds everywhere.

While most who’ve written on the topic of tsundoku use the word to describe the condition of book hoarding itself, The LA Times used the term as a noun that describes the person suffering from book stockpiling syndrome, or “a person who buys books and doesn’t read them, and then lets them pile up on the floor, on shelves, and assorted pieces of furniture.”

Tsundoku has no direct synonym in English, Oxford Dictionaries clarified in a blog post, defining the word as “the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books.” An informative subreddit provides even more context, explaining that “the tsundoku scale” ranges from just one unread book to a serious hoard. “Everyone is most likely to be ‘tsundokursed’ one way or the other,” it warns.”

Posted on 23 April 2017 | 9:30 am

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