Benjamin and Remembering

Guy Yasko guyy at
Sun Mar 12 19:00:33 MST 1995

In  the context of the recent flap over Mitterand's participation in French
fascism, I think it's difficult to claim that Europeans, and the French in
particular, have handled the problems of mourning and remembrance any better
than others.  Without the shroud of silence that covers the subject, I doubt
that such a controversy could have risen.  The Enola Gay controversy has been
truly disgusting, but its structure has not been that different from the
Historian's debate in Germany in the 1980s.  In either case, national identity
has come to face with its horrific past, with conservatives choosing  to ignore
the past for the sake of preserving national identity, despite the fact that it
is the past which makes such an identification impossible.  Public debates
within the great powers has an international circularity: one nation's citizens
point to another's as having done or not done the work of remembering and
mourning, and these point to a third nation's debates, and so on.  Looking at
the US-Japan case, the suffering and death of Asians on the mainland falls out
of equations like Pearl Harbor = Hiroshima (which is ridiculous enough in
itself; one need not be an Imperial Fascist to question the equivalence between
an attack on a military institution on territory that even US politicians
considered to be illegally held and the total destruction of a city.  And in any
case, how does one then explain the destruction of Nagasaki?).  I think the same
has happened in Europe, where neo-conservatives of all stripes have made the
destruction of the Jews a secondary issue.

Unlike Jon, I think "Lyotard" is more of a problem than a solution.  In his
_Heidegger and the "jews"_, (sic) he does his best to obliterate the specificity
of the Holocaust by equating it with a number of other horrors.  Lyotard
transforms the wretched of the earth into what he calls  "jews," in a stroke of
a pen obliterating the specificity of both the Holocaust and other oppressions.
Jews died precisely because they were Jews.  There are contexts in which it is
possible to make such an equivalence, as say, an expression of solidarity.  For
example, in response to anti-Semitic attacks on Daniel Cohn-Bendit, French
students responded that "we are all German Jews."  Obviously, such a response
would have been appropriate inside Nazi Germany as well.  In the context of the
French Heidegger debate however, Lyotard's dubious orthography does not confront
a problem with solidarity so much as it retreats from history with dubious

Since this is a list about Marxism and not a Lyotard list, I'll bring in
Benjamin.  I have noticed that  neo-conservative revisionism has often used
Walter Benjamin for it's dubious ends.  I'm thinking of the Syberberg (I'm not
sure if I've spelled that correctly) film "Our Hitler" in particular.  Here
Benjamin's "Work of Art..." gets pressed in sevice to mourn not the Jews, but
German national identity.  Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe also uses Benjamin's ideas
on aesthetics and politics to obscure the issues in his otherwise forgettable
_Heidegger, Art, and Politics_.  LL finds an aestheticization of politics at the
origin of the West which culminates in Auschwitz.  LL sounds profound and
serious, but he has dissolved the problem; he cannot explain why the West should
have culminated at Auschwitz and not somewhere else at some other time.

The question here is whether the fault originates in Benjamin or a misuse of
Benjamin.  I suspect that Benjamin's ambiguity allows the misuse.  If one
considers that Nazis themselves emphasized the political dimension of art in
their exhibition of "degenerate painting" or if one looks at Jesse Helm's
career, it seems that Benjamin's formula doesn't really separate fascists from
their opponents in any consistent way, hence his popularity among those who
would rather obscure the issues.

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