The banality of the camp

On the first day of the year, Newsweek re-published a piece from the conservative Hoover Institution glorifying the war machine of the 1930s. The author bemoaned the fact that “the collective ethos of the World War II generation [what Brokaw dubbed the “greatest generation”] is fading”. On the recent 74th anniversary of D-Day, we were reminded that few living survivors of WWII still exist and that we should honor their memory and sacrifice.

The only way to do so, of course, is to ensure that what happened in the 1930s and 40s never happens again. The latter half of the twentieth century certainly witnessed further economic devastation and genocide. So we ought to ask what exactly it is to which we should say “never again”.

This phrase, which has recently been adopted from its original use by survivors of gun violence in schools, has fallen victim to two contradictory impulses in the collective western conscience. On the one hand, we are told we must never forget the Holocaust (or Columbine or Sandy Hook or Parkland or …) and yet, on the other hand, we repress these memories to the status of a mythology that has reduced the names “Holocaust” and “Hitler” from being rigid to free-floating signifiers: they have become metonymies for simply “evil” or “genocide”. The historical, cultural, material, and ideological conditions that resulted in Auschwitz have contracted to a dimensionless point called “the Holocaust” that happened at some vague place and time (“Germany during World War II”) whose only definiteness is that it is “in the past”.

What has been forgotten is that the Holocaust was not only an event that can be localized to particular sites (i.e., the camps). While Agamben has been criticized for his analysis of the camp that makes it ubiquitous — in his words, the camp is not merely “a historical fact and an anomaly that … [belongs] to the past, but rather in some sense [it is] the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we still live. … The camp … is the new biopolitical nomos of the planet” — the caricature that, according to this analysis, “everything is a camp” misses the point. The camp is not simply a place. The places that become Konzentrationslager are the physical and material localizations of an ethos or a way of (non-)thinking.

As Agamben reminds us, along with a recent book by the historian Aidan Forth, titled Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain’s Empire of Camps, 1876-1903, the modern camp, which first appeared at the end of the nineteenth-century, is the prolongation of the juridical regime of prisons as well as the colonial-imperial regime of managing unwanted populations in the empire. The collaborationist Vichy* government in France, for example, managed their own camps for Jews but also for homosexuals, the Romanis, Spanish refugees, left-wing activists, and other unwanteds or undesirables.

*We today have our own Vichy government dedicated to “national regeneration” and “France alone” (“MAGA”, “America first”), the reversal of the progressive movement of the Third Republic (including hostility to labor unions), an anti-democratic and authoritarian return to “traditional culture”, the repression of dissent, the de-naturalization of foreigners, and of course collaboration with the Nazi genocide.

What made the camps possible was not only the genocidal and sadistic Gestapo. In 1955, the journalist Milton Mayer published a book, titled They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45, in which he interviewed ten ordinary German citizens over the course of a year. They referred to themselves as “wir kleine Leute, we little people”. Among the ten, only one after the war still believed in Nazism as a “democratic” project. “The other nine, decent, hard-working, ordinarily intelligent and honest men, did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we [non-Germans] knew and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it” (emphasis added). When one of the ten men, a baker, was asked why he supported the National Socialists, he said it was because they had promised to solve the unemployment problem “but I never imagined what it would lead to. Nobody did”. But what was it that Nazism led to? “‘War,’ he said. ‘Nobody ever imagined it would lead to war.’” But even after 1939, all then said that their lives

“were lightened and brightened by National Socialism … And they look back on it now — nine of them, certainly — as the best time of their lives; for what are men’s lives? There were jobs and job security, summer camps for the children … What does a mother want to know? She wants to know where her children are … There were horrors, too, but these were advertised nowhere, reached ‘nobody.’ … None of the horrors impinged upon the day-to-day lives of my ten friends or was ever called to their attention [emphasis added]. … The real lives that real people live in a real community have nothing to do with Hitler and Roosevelt or with what Hitler and Roosevelt are doing.”

In a widely-circulated but apparently apocryphal quotation, we are reminded that the Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers. In the supposed origin of that quotation, R. v. Keegstra, which upheld the Canadian prohibition of hate propaganda, Chief Justice Dickson noted that it is true that Germany enacted and enforced similar anti-hate speech laws just prior to the rise of Hitler and that “no one is contending that hate propaganda laws can in themselves prevent the tragedy of a Holocaust … The experience of Germany represents an awful nadir in the history of racism, and demonstrates the extent to which flawed and brutal ideas can capture the acceptance of a significant number of people”.

We should also not forget, as James Whitman has recently documented in Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, that key components of the Nuremberg Laws were inspired by American** race laws (particularly anti-miscegenation laws). It is not the conscious, cartoonish evil of the supervillain about which we must be vigilant but, rather, the common sense of Joe the Plumber and Mom and Pop down the street who either accept the existence of the camp or who simply don’t care all that much about it because they have work in the morning and children to put to bed.

**We should also not forget that the War Relocation Authority responsible for the internment of Japanese-Americans existed for a full year after the surrender of Germany and the liberation of Auschwitz.

Arendt (and others) infamously said of Adolf Eichmann that, in all appearances, he was perfectly ordinary. The Holocaust occurs not because of the trials of Hitler but because of the banality of all the “little Eichmanns” among us.


Written in the stars

Invoking Benjamin, Agamben calls the constellation “the very place of signatures”. Yet it is not clear that Agamben’s semiotic commitments contribute to what is developed in Benjamin’s doctrine of mimesis. In an easily-overlooked sentence that is not obviously related to the usual locus classicus of Benjamin’s image of constellations, Benjamin says that the mimetic character of objects can be read, “for example, in the constellations of the stars” but that we today (i.e., we moderns) are no longer capable of recognizing these images.

All the elements of Agamben’s theory of signatures is contained in Benjamin’s theory of language, including the epistemic problems associated with the division of the sign. What Agamben lacks is Benjamin’s commitment to the objectivity of the idea according to which the only real signature is that of a proper name.


For better or for worse, Agamben has been known best to his Anglophone readers as an astute commentator and genealogist of modern politics. The cardinal merit of the first volume of Homo Sacer was to have seen that Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty was a logical or structural principle and that sovereignty was not simply the (ontological or psychological) “monopolization of force”. Then, like a spark shooting from the embers of a crackling fire, comes the latest installment of the Homo Sacer series (Il Regno e la Gloria), which provides us with a much fuller account of the topography of the theologico-political discourse of modernity. Presented at least in part as an intervention in the conceptual encounters between Schmitt and Peterson—of which American readers have generally only been privy to one side via the second volume of Schmitt’s Political Theology—Aristotle and Paul (the book is worth reading if only on the Pauline obsolescence of the Aristotelian oikos/polis distinction), Aristotle against the Latin Aristotelians, and the old problem of the two swords (nominated here as “ruling” and “governing”), Agamben shows us how—through what is more than simply what he calls a “parallelism” between the hierarchy of the angels and the administration of the state—“glory” is not simply the metaphysical or even epistemological principle it has been to the medievalists but an intrinsically political concept (the only other political theorist who comes to mind who has given us a similar genealogy is Voegelin): i.e., in slightly different terms, that the onto-theological determination of being and beings is precisely the politics of the administered state. The political question, which unites these volumes of Homo Sacer, that Agamben has attempted to answer only in his philosophical and poetic writings on potentiality and negativity is, simply: how is it possible to separate, rigorously, power not only from the state but from the process of subjectification? Of what would such a power consist?


(The following is from an e-mail sent to a colleague that attempts to make sense of Agamben’s notion of “infancy” and, more generally, the earlier works.)

At the end of Language and Death, Agamben says that the point is to conceive “of the Voice as never having been, and it no longer thinks the Voice, the unspeakable tradition. Its place is the ethos, the infantile dwelling—that is to say, without will or Voice—of man in language. This dwelling, which has the figure of a history and of a universal language that have never been and are thus no longer destined to be handed down in a grammar, is that which remains here, to be thought”. Right after this passage, Agamben mentions the Eleusinian mysteries again with respect to Hegel’s Phenomenology and says that “every beginning is, in truth, an initiation, every conditum is an abs-conditum”.

It is precisely at the moment where the disparity between what is said and what is meant opens up that Hegel introduces the Eleusinian mysteries such that the impossibility of saying what is meant becomes the very condition of possibility for the power of language to (re)present reality in/as experience. This would be the “divine nature” of language as the experience of death (negativity) according to which death is both the limit of knowledge even as this horizon is surpassed by virtue of the mystery wherein the unsayable remains at the heart of language in its universality and, more importantly, also in the sense in which the divine/universal sublates death and negativity into the experience of presence in consciousness. (This is what makes the very idea of “beginning” problematic in the Phenomenology—the “initiation” into the mysteries is a “beginning before the beginning” where the condition for the conditioned is a condition precisely by withdrawing or subtracting itself as a condition.)

In Infancy and History, infancy is described as a being-silent about its knowledge, or “standing guard” over knowledge in silence (un silenzio da custodire). Here the cue is taken from Benjamin’s analysis of the poverty of experience and the problem of recuperation the very possibility of experience. The point is not a memorialization of experience/history, which would take the form of a speech or discourse (say, of the Holocaust) or a giving voice to the invisible or disenfranchised—to bring them into the totality of history, which is to say, within a conception of experience that is still transcendental or idealist, which Agamben wants to move out of by the “linguistic turn”. In this sense, I see the idea of infancy as a critique of the Hegelian-Marxist solution to the “destruction of experience” insofar as the latter’s conception of experience is basically that articulated in paragraph eighty-six of the Phenomenology. The idea of a fundamental passivity in modernity (of “undergoing” experience without the possibility of negation or critique in thought) isn’t to be resolved by recourse to dialectical or transcendental subjectivity but rather in attention to the subject of language.

But this sub-ject “of” language is one that is displaced in the abs-conditum of language, which cannot be “handed down” in (memorializing) speech because it is that which cannot be spoken and, moreover, is forbidden to be spoken of (the initiate into the Eleusinian mysteries were forbidden to speak during the nighttime ceremonies and also of what occurred during them). As long as language continues to be thought on this basis (Voice, system/structure), then we will never experience history in a way that does not result in things like the World Wars (nihilism, violence, etc). Here infancy is the silence, the non-speaking, the without-Voice that can make experience possible.

Hence this is a non-memorialization, a being-outside of history (what “has never been”), which is related to the “whatever-being” of The Coming Community: “the antimony of the individual and universal has its origin in language. … Linguistic being is a class that both belongs and does not belong to itself … The example is characterized by the fact that it holds for all cases of the same type, and, at the same time, it is included among these. It is one singularity among others, which, however, stands for each of them and serves for all”. But the example is also this particular (singular) thing at the same time. “Exemplary is what is not defined by any property, except by being-called”, i.e., in the name. “Hence the impotent omnivalence of whatever being. … These pure singularities communicate only in the empty space of the example, without being tied by any common property, by any identity. … They are exemplars of the coming community”. This might, like Nietzsche, simply be nominalism grandly stated, but I take the point to be that experience requires the possibility of a new naming (in the “infancy” analogy, it’s the fact that it’s prior to naming that the infant is an infant, i.e., one who cannot (yet) speak). But this isn’t a naming in the sense of a singular demonstrative reference (e.g., Hegel’s “diese”), since that obviously puts us back into the problem of the Voice. But this is where I don’t know what Agamben’s positive program would look like. The idea seems to be that we will always fall back into this problem of the Voice, but the point is to look for the possibility of new articulations, of new voices or radically other voices, such that we continuously face the problem of infancy, perhaps as a new mode of critique.

The only thing I can think of that might provide a clue about this “new voice” is the quasi-mysticism in Agamben’s work on poetry. In his poetics, Agamben says that the model of knowledge he’s developing is one that “has provided the frame both for an examination of human objects transfigured by the commodity [the Benjaminian point], and for the attempt to discover, through analysis of emblematic form and the tale of the Sphinx, a model of signifying that might escape the primordial situation of signifier and signified that dominates Western reflection on the sign [recalling that infancy is also cashed in terms of structure as well as history, which ultimately seem to be equivalent]”. Yet Agamben’s analysis of poetry, as far as I can tell, seems to be something like an erotic mysticism that produces something like divine ecstasy: a “topology of joy, of the stanza through which the human spirit responds to the impossible task of appropriating what must in every case remain unappropriable”, which is nothing other than the vision of God in medieval writing such as Dante (whom Agamben analyzes).

Or, on the other hand, I don’t yet see that infancy isn’t just Nietzsche’s historia abscondita (GS 34) or the child of the third metamorphosis.