Paul Eisenstein. History and Memory. Volume 11, Issue 2. December 1999.
“The finite has always to be maintained and made into an absolute.” ~ Hegel
To invoke the name Hegel in the context of the Holocaust—and what it means to remember it—will surely seem to some to strike a discordant tone. As cardinal spokesman for German Idealism and its version of absolute subjectivity, Hegel is usually more frequently aligned with clearing a conceptual space amenable to the commission of Holocausts rather than with ensuring against any future recurrence of them. Few may be as explicit as Karl Popper—for whom Hegel is the decisive link in the emergence of modern totalitarianism—but the lion’s share of contemporary critical-theoretical positions (especially those informed by post-structuralism) still depend fundamentally on a rejection of Hegel on ethical grounds. This rejection has primarily to do with the sense that the historical fate of particular groups and identities do not fare so well within and as a consequence of the Hegelian system and the position of Absolute Knowledge reached by Spirit. Indeed, today, for many Hegel’s grand dialectic of History—in which every immediacy, every experience, every particular is already and automatically swallowed up by the whole—points up the violence of master-narratives at their worst. As it entraps and subsumes so many different material markers of identity (bodily, ethnic, gender, class, etc.)—markers which for Hegel gain their apparently singular bearing solely by means of what is universal (i.e. consciousness and the activity of thinking)—Hegel’s master-narrative, it is said, lets nothing go free. One need only recall Hegel’s paean to the “cunning of reason” in his introduction to the Philosophy of History, in which he claims quite explicitly that “the particular is for the most part of too trifling value as compared with the general,” and thus its sacrifice is nothing to lament. Moreover, Hegel is said to erase the very principle of difference itself, since every advance within Hegel’s dialectic appears to represent an achievement of meaningful knowledge which disavows the very condition of meaningful knowledge—that condition being the “play” of nonmeaning which even allows meaningful knowledge to be constituted in the first place. As Derrida says of Hegel’s phenomenology, “It does not see the nonbasis of play upon which (the) history (of meaning) is launched.”
This is, of course, part of the now-standard deconstructive critique of Western metaphysics and the “transcendental subject” on which it relies, the subject who erases within his own mind the divide between spirit and matter and thereby realizes a fictive unity between the two. It is Hegel who theorized this subject more thoroughly than anyone, insisting that every material reality experienced by this subject is always and only the product of his or her mediation; as Hegel put in the preface to the Phenomenology, “everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.” The radicality of German Idealism indeed concerns precisely its theses pertaining to the status of objectivity as such—that is to say, its claims that objectivity itself is the product of subjective mediation, that what counts as an object can only be determined by a subject. In this respect, objectivity is in a sense an illusion: it does not exist “out there” but is rather the result of a distinction between subject and object made by the very subject in question.
For Hegel, this very distinction is a structural feature of consciousness or selfhood itself. According to Hegel, there is a fundamental “disparity which exists in consciousness between the `I’ and the substance which is its object.” Moreover, this disparity—what Hegel refers to as the “negative in general”—is absolutely critical for the survival of subject and object. This is why Hegel says that the distinction, conventionally thought to be a “defect of both,” is in fact “their soul, or that which moves through them.” The key point of Hegel’s phenomenology is to recognize that the disparity between the “I” and its objects is at the same time the disparity of all substance with itself, and it is this latter disparity which even clears the way for the subject to emerge and for substance to be known or to exist for us at all. This is but another way of saying that our knowledge of the world and ourselves can never be an immediate one because something substantial must be given up if there is even to be anything at all to be gotten back: the consistency of reality itself, then, depends upon the sacrifice of substance and the process that sacrifice commences whereby reality itself depends on the subject’s ability “to appropriate and subdue it to himself.” As Hegel puts it in the lesser Logic,
The “I” is as it were the crucible and the fire which consumes the loose plurality of sense and reduces it to unity … This view has at least the merit of giving a correct expression to the nature of all consciousness. The tendency of all man’s endeavors is to understand the world, to appropriate it and subdue it to himself: and to this end the positive reality of the world must be as it were crushed and pounded, in other words, idealized.
As the imagery here makes clear (so much so that one is tempted to cringe), Hegel does not simply recognize the process whereby the object world (i.e. positive reality) is created. On the contrary, he urges this process on, insisting that the subject exercise his mediation of material reality without reserve. What Hegel is after, of course, is the identity of identity and nonidentity, the seemingly oxymoronic “concrete universal”—that is to say, the universal thought that is nonetheless universal despite its existence within a particular consciousness. To this end, Hegel insists that the subject “crush and pound” his way toward a totalizing vantage point vis-à-vis material reality, a position Hegel baptized Absolute Knowledge or Spirit. Nowhere more than here, however, does Hegel’s philosophy appear to be guilty of that trespass for which contemporary philosophy—with its emphasis on pluralism and localism, its privileging of the particular over the absolute—is ever on the alert. Here Hegel would seem to run afoul of today’s antifascist ethical categorical imperative: never represent your particular interests as universal ones; always maintain a tension between the two. Ignoring this imperative, Hegel would seem indeed to be implicitly on the side of the fundamental fantasy of fascism, urging on the achievement of a final Identity between subjects and the object world that stands over against them, imagining a state in which the subject has rid himself of all difference by so many acts of conceptual appropriations.
The violence that marks these appropriations—even though they take place at the level of the conceptual—is precisely what evokes the sense that there is something dangerous about Hegel’s philosophy. Hegel’s insistence on totalizing, in view of the appropriations he places at the core of his Idealism and the subject’s being-in-the-world, appears to clear a path for a kind of totalitarian or imperialist mind-set and the scapegoating visited upon those on the margins who resist or cannot fit within the whole. The instant that Universal Spirit is in fact given material attributes—i.e, is said to manifest itself in an embodied form—an exclusionary, antidemocratic imaginary would seem to ensue. Within Holocaust Studies and Jewish Cultural Studies, these concerns have been especially trenchant and have raised important questions along the following lines: Does not Hegel’s Idealism take to its very extreme a longing for the univocal and the universal initiated by the Greeks and made the foundation of anti-Judaism (via the discourse of Paul) in Christian Europe? Does not Judaism, for Hegel, represent merely an “adolescent” stage in the progressive life of Spirit coming-to-itself—a stage soon eclipsed by and incorporated into Christianity? Is there not some affiliation, even if unwitting, between the racist/nationalist fantasy of an organic, transparent society which fueled the Holocaust and the sort of universalist thinking whose clearest philosophical underpinning rests with Hegel? And must we not, in our attempt to bear witness to the Holocaust itself, avoid reproducing a certain Hegelian gesture whereby the horror is overcome—that is to say, made to serve the advance of a meaningful System?
In his ruminations apropos the Holocaust on conscience and memory, Harold Kaplan notes the almost inevitable ethical trespass constituted by the systematic attempt to achieve some Identity between subjective and material reality. According to Kaplan, “Those lumbering abstractions of the German philosophic tradition—Fichtean, Hegelian, Marxist, then Fascist—sought immanence and became deadly, perhaps because immanence could be found only in violent form. History mounted a stage and demanded sacrifice.” Emil Fackenheim, pointing out the superiority Hegel lends to his own standpoint (the “elevation of selfhood to infinity”), can only ask this question: “[W]hat of the `Lord’ of Judaism and His otherness?” According to Fackenheim, Hegel’s role in the context of Holocaust memory is to “instruct only by way of contrast,” since the “transcending comprehension” that is the distinguishing feature of Hegel’s Absolute Spirit cannot but meet its match in the horror of the Holocaust.
Perhaps no thinker articulates the above-named concerns more consistently than Emmanuel Levinas, who in his essays on Judaism continually hints at the specter of the Holocaust as he indicts Hegel’s notion of Spirit for presiding over a philosophic operation by which (and this phrase cannot help but give us pause) Jews are made to vanish. In Levinas’s reading of Hegel,
The particularity of a people is identical to its finitude. It is Hegelian logic that presides over this announcement of disappearance. The particularity of a thing has significance in fact only in relation to a whole; and from that point on, in the name of Hegelian logic, the necessary disappearance of a people is announced, for everything that is finished must finish.
From the standpoint of Hegelian logic, Levinas notes, any claim by Jews to some independence from history, some existence apart from the universal History Hegel advocates, is simply illusory. The Jewish claim to be an “eternal people,” for example, cannot survive what Levinas sees as a less than just (Hegelian) litmus-test for legitimation:
The exaltation of the judgement of history, as the ultimate jurisdiction of every being, and the affirmation that history is the measure of all things. The judgement passed by a conscience on events that succeed, that have an efficacity, an objective visibility, would, you know, according to the exaltation of history, be merely a subjective illusion that vanishes like smoke in the face of the judgement of history. For this conception, there is no eternal people liable to live free in the face of history. Every people is part of history, bears within it its determined essence, and contributes in its way to the universal work that incorporates and surpasses it—into which, consequently, it is finally absorbed and disappears. What would be eternal is the universal history itself which inherits the heritage of dead peoples.
That such “dead peoples” whose own judgements are made to vanish like smoke (again, phrases that give us pause) might insist on a kind of vitality is, according to Levinas, from the standpoint of Hegelian logic chalked up to a mere “subjective belief [whose] purely subjective significance is denounced at the very moment at which the real curve of events is drawn.” For Levinas then, the “progress” of history, under the pressure of Hegel’s “synoptic gaze,” is in this way given a prestige that depends fundamentally on the fact that no one locate him or herself in opposition to the meaning and direction of history. For this prestige to be thus maintained, Judaism (or any other particular ethnic or cultural tradition for that matter) faces two choices—integration into Christianity or a judgement of insignificance:
Philosophy, as it is summed up and crowned by Hegel, would precisely end up by integrating the individual and collective wills to the extent that they are real—that is to say, effective—into a reasonably structured totality, in which these living totalities are represented by their works, but in which these works derive their true—that is to say visible—significance not from the subjective intentions of their authors but from the totality, the only one to have a real meaning [sens] and to be able to confer it. The intentions of the authors and, consequently, everything that—to return to Judaism—the Jews think themselves, the whole of our Aggadah and Halakhah, would be just an old wives’ tale, a theme for a sociology or psychoanalysis of Judaism. Judaism would not be true in what it wished, but in the place where the universal history would have left it.
As Levinas suggests here, the very desires of Judaism—the will and wishes of Jews themselves—are seriously threatened by universalizing or totalizing narratives of whatever stripe (e.g. Hegelian, sociological, psychoanalytic) that claim to possess the real meaning of these desires. These narratives, functioning as reasonably structured totalities, might claim to operate in an ostensibly neutral fashion, but in their claim to comprehensiveness, Levinas argues that their interests are far from merely objective or neutral. This is the case because their versions of history do not allow for alternate narratives, laws and desires to have a kind of autonomous significance in the face of Hegel’s self-realizing absolute. According to Levinas then, the Jew today is not one who merely believes in Moses and the prophets; on the contrary, to be a Jew is to insist on and be granted a kind of prior philosophical ground which permits and enables that belief. To quote Levinas again,
To wish to be a Jew today is therefore, before believing in Moses and the prophets, to have the right to think that the significance of a work is truer in terms of the will that wished it into being than the totality in which it is inserted; and, even more brutally, that will in one’s personal and subjective life is not a dream whose death will allow us to draw an inventory of the work and the truth, but that the living willing of will is indispensable to the truth and understanding of the work.
In Levinas’s key qualifier (“even more brutally”), it is clear that the terrain of philosophy is one with ramifications of violence for real, live Jews—the prevention of which would seem to be predicated on a clear rejection of Hegel.
As the arbiter of genuine significance, Hegel’s suprahistorical Subject might be said to oversee a “final solution” of the tension between our idea of reality and reality itself and, as such, is something of which, in today’s climate, we can only be wary. After Auschwitz, our interests, to paraphrase Foucault, must lie not with solutions but with problematics. That is to say, we must everywhere avoid the exercise of mastery in the name of some abstract Master-Principle; instead, we must work to keep the problem of knowing alive, because problems, not solutions, reverse the usual domination of the particular by the universal. This has been nowhere more evident than in the way we regard the attempt to learn about and memorialize the Holocaust. Given the magnitude of the horror of the event itself, it now goes without saying that it is not possible for our thinking to be adequate to the “way it was.” After the Holocaust, our thinking about history has, in a way, become condemned to particularity. Every historical narrative appears now, to use Hayden White’s familiar term, an emplotment, and every artistic representation must be regarded not as the product of an essential, transhistorical vision but rather as the product of a limited, discursive, subject position. History, so the saying goes, has become memory. Michael Marrus, who notes this very shift in historiographic encounters with the Holocaust, has registered this very point. According to Marrus—invoking Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction—we have moved away from the attempt to know history in terms of master-narratives (i.e. the province of the hedgehog) and toward the encounter with history via the production and proliferation of a plurality of narratives (i.e. the province of the fox). Marrus writes,
We have passed from a historical literature conditioned by a few grand visions to a body of writing shaped by discrete, not necessarily interconnecting perspectives. By and large, it seems to me, in the first two decades after the Holocaust writers were preoccupied with the search for a single key—something that would unlock the mystery of the massacre of European Jewry. Since then, historians have moved more cautiously, guided by a variety of research agendas. With significant exceptions, historical writers today are uncomfortable with the frameworks they have inherited. They spend much of their time pointing to variety, paradoxes, complexities, and contradiction. Their writing is less informed by single, unitary perspectives than it was with their predecessors, and they have advanced our knowledge on many smaller fronts, in contrast to the massive, coordinated campaigns of those who went before.
In noting the unease historical writers have with their own frameworks, Marrus is in fact noting the ascendancy of a postmodern/poststructuralist sensibility when it comes to the encounter with history, and the primary feature of this sensibility is precisely the avoidance of totalizing—i.e, the refusal of any position of supreme mastery. This is why so many historiographic accounts now seek to foreground their own inadequacy and why a sense of minimalism or understatement pervades so many memoirs and literary representations of the Holocaust. Rather than setting up theories, most of us spend our time deconstructing them, and this latter gesture is taken by poststructuralists, new historians and pluralist humanists alike as the ethical position. In short, the totalizing gestures that are part and parcel of the Hegelian subject appear to replicate a certain fascist gesture and to evade the fundamental trauma of the Holocaust by recouping some meaning from it. As Dominick LaCapra suggests, every good historian today, far from being a universal subject, occupies only a “subject position” into which he/she must continually inquire and reflect upon critically and self-critically. The result is a practice of memory that is decidedly against totalizing and the closure presumed to come with it. Instead, memorialization is for LaCapra a perpetual effort at “working-through” the Holocaust in an “attempt to counteract the projectire reprocessing of the past through which we deny certain of its features and act out our own desires for self-confirming or identity-forming meaning.”
In this climate, Hegel appears to have little to offer. Even devotees of Hegel, even those who clearly see themselves as working in the tradition of Hegel, have been hard-pressed not to associate him with theHolocaust. The case of Adorno is perhaps paradigmatic in this respect, for despite Adorno’s praise of Hegel, there is for him nonetheless something in the philosophy of the latter that, in the last instance, is complicit with the mentality of fascism and anti-Semitism. This “something” is, of course, Hegel’s commitment to the whole or the universal, and this is why if Hegel survives at all in discussions of how best to comport ourselves in our thinking about (i,e. bearing witness to) history, he survives by dint of a key separation between method and system. In his notion of a “negative dialectics,” Adorno thus keeps Hegel’s dialectical method—which works according to the thesis “that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder”—but rules out any arrival at some absolute position, some position of unity between universal and particular. Dialectics is, for Adorno, “the consistent sense of nonidentity.” Thus unity is for Adotoo always and only complicit with domination and cruelty. “No universal history,” he writes, “leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb … It is the horror that verifies Hegel and stands him on his head.” This is precisely why Adorno advances a “negative” dialectics—the idea that any advancement of knowledge is always plagued by negativity, by some “extremity” that eludes our conceptual frameworks and ways of knowing. Negative dialectics is always faithful to this “remainder” that eludes our ways of knowing. Hegel, for Adorno, “cut short” dialectics in his positing of some final position of reconciliation, and this, for Adorno, is likened specifically to the attitude of the Nazis: “If thought is not measured by the extremity that eludes the concept, it is from the outset in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims.”
Adorno’s line here returns us yet again to the prescription for self-referentiality that stands today as an ethical maxim overseeing all historical inquiry. The question, however, is this: must self-referentiality stand as the bedrock of what it means to bear witness to history? Does self-referentiality ensure that we are not exercising a kind of mastery so as to recoup something meaningful from the Holocaust? Does self-referentiality guarantee the place of trauma in the act of bearing witness to the Holocaust? That is to say, is self-referentiality the only way to remain faithful to that aspect of history which eludes all of our ways of knowing? Might not self-referentiality sometimes function as a way to maintain the self in its encounter with the object/other of history? And in this way, doesn’t it always lead to a deferral of an encounter with the real of history, that unsymbolizable dimension that cannot (yet) even be called other? It is here, in my view, that Hegel and the category of the absolute, is crucially relevant to, and deserving of recovery for, an ethics of historical memory. Because all of our memorial efforts are rooted in thinking—in that which is universal about any intelligible phenomenon—it is perhaps time to recognize that we cannot avoid universalizing insofar as we think and speak about the past at all. When we follow Hegel on this point, however, we don’t arrive at the position of comfort we might imagine. Far from being a position of self-satisfaction or supreme mastery, Hegel’s totalizing position leads us toward the experience of difference not between something and something but rather between something and nothing. Hegel’s absolute is thus not be regarded as a means by which we would “know all” about the Holocaust and thus mitigate a traumatic encounter with it, but rather entails the experience of realizing the way in which all of our knowledge—and indeed our very way of knowing itself—only takes us to the point where we traumatically encounter the real of history.
The whole of Hegel’s place at the cornerstone of historical memory rests, of course, on the fundamental thesis of Hegelian phenomenology—that the particular is already universal. At first glance, the radicality of this proposition appears to lie entirely in a conservative direction. That is to say, Hegel’s proposition appears on the face of it to grant an equally legitimate position to any individual formulator of the proposition itself, thus opening up a universe of radical relativity and/or aggression in which every particular interest is given license to believe its interest to be in fact universal. In the case of Holocaust memory, this would appear to be a recipe for disaster; one can imagine all sorts of apologists invoking this thesis of Hegel’s to justify the truthfulness of their particular interpretation or memorialization of history. What if, however, at a deeper level, this is not Hegel’s aim at all? What if, on the contrary, Hegel’s insistence on the universality of every particular interest is designed not to secure the legitimacy of all particular interests (and thus of a radically conservative philosophy of relativity) but instead to point up the insufficiency/inadequacy of any and every particular interest? What if Hegel’s aim is finally to grasp the source of this insufficiency at its most genuine level—as pertaining not to the realm of particularity but to the order of the universal itself?. If this is the case, then Hegel is far from granting license—without regard to truth—to any and every particular approach toward history; he is far from writing a blank check to fascism which would enable the latter in fact to regard its particular interest as universal and thus carry out whatever barbarity might be necessary to realize a palpable universality. On the contrary, when Hegel instructs us that our particular is already universal, he forces us toward an encounter with a more primordial form of difference—not that between two particular interests but rather between the order of something and the order of nothing, between that which can be thought and that which cannot. In other words, Hegel’s claim shifts radically the direction of our inquiry: the difficulty lies not in finding a way from the particular (i.e. a starting point) to the universal but rather from the universal to the particular.
Hegel’s insistence on a universal ground for everything, then, might be seen to undo the fundamental fantasy of fascism by reversing the way we conceptualize our memorial efforts. For Hegel, it is not the universal or total account (i.e. master-narrative) that is just outside of our reach and must remain so; rather, it is the particular. It is not, in other words, the universal that lies in some nonhistorical domain but rather the particular. Indeed, for Hegel, it is the universal that is all the time with us and must be taken up resolutely if we are to confront the traumatic real of history—the particular that eludes the whole of the symbolic order. Hegel makes this point by insisting on a fundamental truth concerning our being as speaking beings: that every time we open our mouths to designate this or that particular entity, every time we think the particular, every time we reduce it to sense, we are all the time speaking and thinking from the position of the whole. This is, in Hegel’s lesser Logic, the basic insight of phenomenology: “thought is the universal in all acts of conception and recollection.” It is, as Hegel says, “the agency of thought [that] gives universality to particular contents.” This is clearly the most crucial of Hegel’s claims concerning universality: thought, or the universal, is thus not that which harms or threatens to engulf the particular—as it is for Adorno and others—but is, rather, the absolutely real ground for everything meaningful in our world. The very designation of something particular is merely an instance of universality. The universal is thus not to be repudiated as that which acts violently toward particulars; the particular emerges only in so far as it has always already been touched by what is universal, in so far as it has reached the level of thought.
Hegel makes this clear at the close of the “Sense-Certainty” section of the Phenomenology. There, he says that the sensuous particular cannot be reached by language, because language—which is for Hegel always inseparable from thinking—enjoys no unmediated relation with the raw material encountered by our senses. Even the Kantian recourse to unmediated intuition does not manage to escape dependence on that which is universal. As Robert Pippin explains, “We must admit that there is no way in which the intuited particular, or formally characterized domain of intuited particulars, can play a cognitively significant role except as already minimally conceptualized particulars. Always involved in such judgements is my having taken this to be this-such, even in a quite minimal or highly abstract way.” When we speak or think about some particular sense-experience, then, we do so only because paradoxically we are not/no longer experiencing it an unmediated way. There is always—even if only minimally—a dimension of universality to our meaningful utterances. This is why Hegel can say in the “Sense-Certainty” section of the Phenomenology that language has “the divine nature of directly reversing the meaning of what is said, of making it into something else, and thus not letting what is meant get into words at all.” This is the case because language belongs to consciousness, which is inherently universal: whenever something is thought or spoken about, then, we are already in the domain of universality. The attempt to actually “say” or “think” a particular entity would result in either that entity’s crumbling away or in the speaker’s inability to complete his description. Again, Hegel’s point is this: that any reference to a particular—even the particular that eludes our finite mind—is still the product of the whole. This is the thrust of Hegel’s critique of empiricism which holds that sensory objects (i.e. concrete particulars) “ha[ve] absolute truth for consciousness.”
In their own way, empiricists would seem to be good pluralists: they counter the egoistic tendencies of Idealism by recognizing the unique inviolability of every particular. As Hegel points out, they “speak of the existence of external objects, which can be more precisely defined as actual, absolutely singular, wholly personal, individual things, each of them unlike anything else; this existence, they say, has absolute certainty and truth.” But to say that these external objects have “absolute truth for consciousness,” for Hegel is to make an assertion in which one does not “know what one is saying, to be unaware that one is saying the opposite of what one wants to say.” Any meaningful designation of a particular only indicates what is universal about it: “When I say: `a single thing,’ I am really saying what it is from a wholly universal point of view, for everything is a single thing.” Thus, the sense of the unsaid that pervades so many memorializations of the Holocaust might in fact be regarded in a different light—not as the inability of the particular to pass itself off as the universal but rather as the inability of the universal (i.e. the order of thought, the order of language) to render intelligible the particular. And when one urges a notion of respecting the particularity of the particular, of foregrounding the inadequacy of language by claiming to avoid universalizing or taking one’s rendering of a given phenomenon as absolute, it is the case that one is unaware that one is saying the opposite of what he/she wants to say.
The entirety of Hegelian phenomenology rests exactly on this point: for the particular to be grasped, thought must have already gone beyond it. As Hegel puts it, “The Here that is meant would be the point; but it is not: on the contrary, when it is pointed out as something that is, the pointing-out shows itself to be not an immediate knowing [of the point], but a movement from the Here that is meant through many Heres into the universal Here.” Were this not the case, any utterance designating a particular could never complete its task; its very capacity to designate is thus linked precisely to its universality, because were an utterance really to correspond to an “immediate knowing”—i.e, really to be truly singular—it would simply be another particular which exists—like those entities it is to designate—only at the level of sense and not at the level of meaning. The exercise by which sound emerges from our mouths would thus not be a “pointing-out,” but rather a purely mechanical gesture, and without meaning because the meaning of our words is inseparable from the whole, or universality, of the discourse in which they are put.
The totalizing practice that might follow this recognition, then, would do nothing to confirm the superior position of the Absolute Spirit. It would, on the contrary, make explicit what has been implicit all along: the precariousness of the universal and the ridiculous desperateness that underwrites its securing of particulars. In other words, when the universal subsumes individual particulars, the universal is telling us by this very process something about its ontological status as well—that sense always eludes it, that it is in the first/last instance without an intelligible ground. Exaggerated acts of totalizing make this message unmistakable: the universal itself is not all, is external to itself. Even the universal is lacking and looking for that which might make it complete. Try as it might to symbolize an external cause responsible for its lack, its project is doomed to fail because that cause is in fact internal to the order of signification itself and cannot be symbolized. This is why, though we speak all the time from the position of the absolute, it is significant whether or not we take it up absolutely: to take up totalizing in this way is to counter the use made of totalizing within the fundamental fantasy of fascism.
We are here at the point of making the crucial claim that every position taken up absolutely is a radical one, and that paradoxically, the fascist position is not absolute enough, for it fails to take its very own conceptualization of history and the present far enough so as to confront the lack or split that is the condition of possibility for its very capacity to conceptualize at all. Indeed, to take up an absolute position is to expose the manner in which even the universal Law that structures the order of language depends on its own primordial self-rupture and thus constitutionally lacks stability and substance; to occupy the position of the absolute without taking it up, however, is either to believe in the natural, essential universality of that Law or to postpone the recognition that the Law has no ground. In both cases, the Law is spared a traumatic encounter with the real. Gilian Rose is thus right to note the disservice done to Hegel by those who would separate his method from his “system.” Absolute Knowledge, Rose argues, means only this recognition: that what are “apparently `universal’ laws turn out to be the fixing of particularity.” What eludes the Law, then, what stands in the way of a harmonious, whole, transparent socius is recognized finally for what it is: not an actual object to be acquired, incorporated or eliminated but a condition of the whole of the symbolic order itself. Though he has been routinely misread on just this point, Hegel is the one who makes this clear. “The self-knowing Spirit,” Hegel says on the final page of the Phenomenology, “knows not only itself but also the negative of itself, or its limit.”
This is the Absolute Spirit’s point of “reconciliation”: not an experience of harmony but rather the realization that the lack of completion that is our condition humaine is due not to external factors but to the constitution of the subject itself. This sort of reconciliation might go a long way toward undoing the paranoid construction of the Jew at the heart of fascism’s fundamental fantasy as that “external” figure who is fingered as the embodied cause of an individual’s or society’s inability to constitute itself as a closed totality. Anti-Semitism, then, would have nothing to do with Jews, per se. When in the lesser Logic Hegel claims that “the consummation of the infinite End, therefore, consists merely in removing the illusion which makes it seem yet unaccomplished,” he articulates a truth which drives a stake through the heart of fascist anti-Semitism: all of your projections onto the figure of the Jew as that which must be eliminated for your identity/society to become an organic, harmonious whole in fact only mask a negativity internal to identity itself. What Hegel calls the consummation of the end—the position of Absolute Spirit—is thus not a static, transcendental position of substantial knowledge. It entails not a pure comprehension of the object. Nor does it portend the resolution of all contradiction in some final synthesis. On the contrary, it represents that position wherein one finally comes clean about the impossibility of total knowledge, wherein one experiences the abyss between all that we are able to conceptualize and the real itself. Only by showing the manner in which a universal system arbitrarily organizes the meaning of particular symbols, is it possible to dramatize the defects of that system and to place it at risk against that which bars its consistency: the real of history.
Absolute Knowledge is the subject’s knowledge of the impossibility of its self-coincidence: the subject only gains consistency in its opposition to itself. Absolute Knowledge does not thus subsume all particularity; it recognizes particularity as its very lifeblood—not some element alien to its consciousness and to be overcome. The result is a ceased quest for some unchangeable Being—i.e. the real—as an actual existence, as something capable of cementing the social contract against contingency. In short, one gives up the notion that the recovery of the vanished “real” can become a socializing entity. In the Phenomenology, Hegel again makes this clear:
Consciousness, therefore, can only find as a present reality the grave of its life. But because this grave is itself an actual existence and it is contrary to the nature of what actually exists to afford a lasting possession, the presence of that grave, too, is merely the struggle of an enterprise doomed to failure. But having learned from experience that the grave of its actual unchangeable Being has no actuality, that the vanished individuality, because it has vanished is not the true individuality, consciousness will abandon its quest for the unchangeable individuality as an actual existence, or will stop trying to hold on to what has vanished. Only then is it capable of finding individuality in its genuine or universal form.
Third Reich is merely a non-sensical, purely performative Master-Signifier that does nothing to confer essence upon his symbolic identity and the identity of his countrymen. Overidentifying with this Signifier is thus perhaps the attitude that most undermines the point where fascism takes hold: it exposes the ridiculousness or stupidity of the principle which enables us to make any sense of the world. It reveals the Law as something that we institute, but whose ultimate ground cannot be found within the domain of reason. Brought out in this way, we see the “universal” Law for what it is: a contingent institution that marks the defect of the whole. If our memorial efforts are truly to combat the paranoid fantasies of fascism, this is precisely the (Hegelian) realization they must seek to bring about.
We might exemplify these Hegelian insights by looking at David Grossman’s Holocaust novel, See Under: Love. The first three sections of Grossman’s novel are decidedly postmodern in their refusal to exercise mastery apropos the Holocaust. Indeed, Grossman’s aim in these three sections appears precisely to dramatize the impossibility of ever arriving at or narrating from a totalizing position when it comes to bearing witness to the Holocaust—an impossibility that necessitates so many breakdowns at the level of narrative. Indeed, if one were to take the first three parts of Grossman’s novel as exemplary, self-referentiality would appear to be the only ethical option open to novelization. In section one, we meet Momik Neuman—a nine-year-old boy living in Jerusalem whose parents are Holocaust survivors. Privy only to bits and pieces concerning the fate of European Jewry, Momik is desperate to concretize the whole of the Holocaust—he wants all of its parts to be meaningful—and we see his extraordinary imagination at work as he continually attempts to interpret the behavior of the survivors in terms of the heroic forms of popular adventure stories with which he is so familiar. Momik doesn’t have much to go on: his parents will not speak of their experiences, referring to Europe only as “Over There”; his grandfather Anshel Wasserman, who comes to live with the Neumans on the novel’s opening page, was once a great storyteller, but the story that now comes out of his mouth is a story Momik cannot make sense of; and the behavior of the other survivors in his neighborhood lies equally outside the domain of Momik’s understanding. Despite all the tales Momik is able to fashion, he is nonetheless dissatisfied, feeling that “so much was missing. The main thing was missing.” All of Momik’s narratives, in other words, break down, and this leads him to go as far as to reconstruct a “Nazi Beast” (this being a phrase he has picked up) in his basement. This project, too, fails, and we are left with the clear sense—even if Momik is not—that any attempt to know the whole of history is doomed to fail.
This same dynamic is dramatized in the second and third sections of the novel. In his attempt (in section two) to recover the lost manuscript of Bruno Schulz, a Polish writer and artist murdered by the Nazis in the Drohobycz ghetto in 1942, we see Momik attempting to achieve as an adult what he was unable to achieve as a child: some unmediated access to the whole of history. The value of Schulz’s manuscript (entitled The Messiah) for Momik is clearly tied to what it might do for his ability to come to terms with the problematic of Holocaust memory: in what form is mass death to be conceptualized so as to bear witness both to the individual victims and the enormity of the loss? By way of an answer, Schulz’s lost manuscript offers Momik a return to some original language capable of resolving this tension, but it is a language which Momik ends up rejecting because it grasps the whole at the expense of the particular. The “Age of Genius” ushered in by the Messiah in Schulz’s imagination is quite simply a world in which all otherness has been eliminated, a world marked by some primordial unity, and Momik sees it as the world of the dictator. The result is a kind of renewed fidelity to the particular in section three as Momik tries again to grasp the story told by his grandfather Anshel Wasserman. Once again, however, the narrative breaks down as Momik and his character fight over the direction that the retelling should take. Wasserman wants his grandson to tell the story so as to point out the inviolability of something universal: the nugget of humanity he believes to lie at the core of the human heart. Like the Nazi Beast and Schulz’s Messiah, Wasserman’s story is designed apparently to mediate the tension between particular and universal, and this is the tension that Grossman foregrounds in his own character’s struggle with the crux of his grandfather’s story. What Grossman would seem to deny is the symbolization of anything that might bring out more complete relations with history and rid Momik of the sense of his incompletion in the face of what happened.
But if this is Grossman’s aim, then what are we to make of the fourth section—the story of baby Kazik’s life told in the form of an Encyclopedia? If in each of the three quests that make up Grossman’s novel we have seen Momik’s failure to produce and identify with those figures who would seem to contain in their very being the real of history, who would seem to promise a scenario wher by language and thought would be adequate to history, these failures have also had the effect of revealing to us the fundamental finitude that dooms his efforts. As long as Momik is trying to symbolize these “real” (particular qua particular) figures, his project must fail because of this finitude: the real cannot be known within the symbolic, within the finite. A story, then—any story—is thus inseparable from the whole of the finite world (i.e. the symbolic structure) that sustains its meaning. And if Momik wants truly to open himself to the otherness he encounters in the fact of a little boy’s death—of an individual victim of the Holocaust—it is at the level of this whole that this little boy’s death will have to be faced. The finite is not, as Bruno Schulz might have maintained, what must be eliminated in order to encounter the real but is rather, as Hegel suggests, to be maintained and made into an absolute. In opting for a form that overidentifies with its object—the life and death of a little boy in the Warsaw ghetto—Momik would appear to have reached the point of Absolute Self-Knowledge, which is, in the ultimate line of the Phenomenology, far from the experience of self-transparency or self-possession. Hegel writes, instead, that “the self-knowing Spirit knows not only itself but also the negative of itself, or its limit: to know one’s limit is to know how to sacrifice oneself.”
This is, in fact, Momik’s recognition and the crowning achievement of his formal decision in the last quarter of Grossman’s novel. Prior to this point, Momik’s attempts at memory have all taken place inside the realm of symbolization and for a nameable, symbolizable force. And despite the fact that they have been driven by a sincere desire to bear witness to the Holocaust, they have had the covert consequence of conferring a substantial integrity upon the Law or Master which guarantees the consistency of our symbolic identities. If every sacrifice is for a something that is meaningful (e.g., the Beast, Schulz, Wasserman) then the order of signification—the order of the symbolic—truly is comprehensive. But if one sacrifices oneself for nothing, if that sacrifice cannot be accounted for, cannot be made sense of, then the symbolic is shown to be lacking. Holes in it become visible, and the order of the real emerges. When Hegel says that the self-knowing Spirit has learned “how to sacrifice oneself,” he points in just this direction: knowing “how to sacrifice oneself” means sacrificing oneself not for any mere symbolic entity but for the real itself. Momik’s sacrifices, in the various declarations of war that occupy him for much of the novel—against the Beast (the presumed possessor of knowledge pertaining to Over There), against the Sea (the presumed possessor of Bruno Schulz), against Grandfather Anshel (the presumed possessor of the last of the Children of the Heart stories)—appear, then, to mistake the “real” import of sacrifice in the ethics of memorialization. Sacrifice is an ethical position when it is nothing—i.e, something non-sensical, the particular qua particular—that one is sacrificing oneself for.
By the end of the novel, Momik appears to have reached this ethical position: he seems to have grasped the manner in which his repeated “wars” have in fact met a decisive covert need. In the “Absolute Knowing” section of the Phenomenology, Hegel exposes this need: self-consciousncss does not wish to know the nothingness of the object, which is in fact knowledge of itself. Hegel calls this the “uncultivated consciousness” of religion and claims that “not until consciousness has given up hope of overcoming that alienation in an external, i.e. alien, manner does it turn to itself, because the overcoming of that alienation is the return into self-consciousness; not until then does it turn to its own present world and discover it as its property.” The function of Momik’s “wars,” in other words, is to keep consciousness from reaching the position of Absolute Knowledge that Hegel envisions for the subject—i.e, from recognizing the way that all of our thoughts and feelings and stories about the past, in a radical sense, have themselves (qua acts of conceptualizing) as their object. For Hegel, Absolute Knowledge is simply the point wherein one recognizes the groundless pure positing—the thought that is its own ground—that is prior to whatever support we find for our conceptualizing in the object world. Absolute Knowledge is thus nothing but the movement—the restless process of the self superseding the self—in which consciousness takes itself as object. This is why the Subject, the “I,” is for Hegel not a substance but rather a relation or an identity, which always indicates a lack of wholeness: “The `I’ is not merely the Self, but the identity of the Self with itself’ (489). If Momik has before always named his “enemy,” and in so doing kept himself from recognizing that the source of his conflicts rests in the deadlock of his self-alienating, self-identity, he now rightly sees that act, and the sacrificial economy that undergirds it, as a sign of the “little nazi” in every one of us: “the disease at the very root of our nature which we proliferate with every move. The Nazis merely outlined it and gave it a name, an army, workers, temples, and sacrificial victims.” For Momik, the Nazis only tapped into an already-extant willingness to participate in such sacrificial economies—economies that solve, for the human subject, the radical deadlock of Absolute Knowing and the recognition that it is only by way of our own acts of groundless self-positing that we produce those meanings we find in the object world. It is, then, a willingness to sacrifice ourselves for nothing (i.e. to show that from the beginning, we are without support in the Other) that must be engaged in the project of historical memory, and Momik engages it in a novel way—not by advancing a simple dismissal of sacrifice but by exaggerating it to such an extent that its entire economy is unmasked and exposed to nothingness itself.
If the Nazi sacrifice may seem itself already sufficiently exaggerated, it is, for Momik, never more than the slave’s sacrifice for the name of the Master. It is not “absolute” (in the Hegelian sense) because it is a sacrifice for something; it freezes the subject at the point where the essentiality of the Master’s name is maintained. The Nazi sacrifice, in other words, is one colossal attempt to preserve the illusion that the symbolic is all. All of its activity—its work, its battles, its building of temples, its genocidal acts—points to this end. “The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s Life,” however, represents a different sort of activity. Here, self-knowledge involves the subject’s encounter with the historicity of the symbolic order at every instant. The real war, Momik realizes, is against nothing that can be made sense of, and the others have been but attempts to occlude this fact. Wasserman’s prayer on the final page of the novel, in this context, articulates the larger, formal message of Grossman’s novel:
Wasserman raised his eyes to Niegel and said, “All of us prayed for one thing: that he might end his life knowing nothing of war. Do you understand, Herr Niegel? We asked for so little: for a man to live in this world from birth to death and know nothing of war.”
The war to which Wasserman refers resonates beyond the world war he survived and to the paranoia that structured it. His prayer, then, appears as a prayer for the sort of artistic form in which he has ultimately landed—a form that has given up its belief in the essence of the alterity of the Other or of that kernel of non-sense to which we are subjected. “The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s Life,” we might say, as a form that knows nothing of war, is an attempt to arrest the use made of totalizing within the fundamental fantasy of fascism—i.e, the exercise of totalizing in order to secure the integrity of nation or individual against unsymbolizable forces—and by the survivors and their children. Against this use of totalizing, a totalizing which reasserts some way of stitching up the fissure that marks our individual and collective identities, Grossman offers a different (Hegelian) inheritance, one that understands something new about the nature of our wars. This new understanding is wrapped up at its deepest level with ideas concerning life, love, contingency and the necessity of (symbolic) death: “He was finished in this war. This war was finished in him. There was nobody to fight for. For him it was over. He was dead now. He was ready for life.”
How is it that a kind of death readies one for life, and what does this have to do with remembering the Holocaust? This paradox is critical for an understanding of Momik’s progression in See Under: Love and the Hegelian undertones to the ethical progression of memory that Grossman’s novel attempts to chart. For Grossman, historical memory is an undertaking in which we come to experience our own death, the groundlessness of our being. What Momik comes to realize is that our very access to language entails a kind of death we cannot seek to escape. The Beast, The Messiah, the “eternal” story of Anshel Wasserman—these form the basis, as I have said, of such an escape, but this is not life, only the paranoid form of coping with it. To be “ready for life” is, on the contrary, to fully assume the symbolic order’s incompletion (and in the process, assume one’s death) and to take on a project of memory whose object is not symbolizable. One’s act of memory, in this context, would thus be a sacrifice for nothing, a sacrifice that would appear to make no sense. Is it not for this reason that the Reader’s Preface to the “Encyclopedia” speaks of removing any and all tensions likely to create the “extraneous illusion of a purpose, as it were, at the root of all things, toward which all `life’ is supposed to flow.” Does not a similar “purposelessness” pertain to our act of reading an encyclopedia in its entirety—a work that is explicitly not a narrative? Purpose appears to be what the experience of reading an encyclopedically arranged story appears to lack: the very headings have been selected in the most arbitrary of ways, and our “reading on” is robbed of the enjoyment of believing that we are progressing toward some end (e.g., the “Reader’s Preface” reports the fact of Kazik’s death before we even encounter it in the narrative proper). In the opening section of the novel, an Encyclopedia promised comprehensive knowledge to a nine-year-old boy:
Momik loves to hold the big books in his hands, and it makes him feel good all over to run his fingers down the smooth pages that seem to have a protective covering that keeps your fingers away, so you won’t get too close, because who are you, what are you compared to the Encyclopedia, will all the little letters crowded in long, straight columns and mysterious abbreviations like secret signals for a big, strong, silent army boldly marching out to conquer the world, all-knowing, all-righteous…he likes to touch the pages and feel deep in his stomach and his heart all the power and the silence, and the seriousness and the scientificness that makes everything so clear and simple.
Then, it required shrewd and methodical detection strategies—i.e. purposeful activity. Now, it is that form which in true Hegelian fashion arbitrarily organizes the imagined life of a victim of the Holocaust so as to suggest the stupidity of all our ordering efforts, the impossibility of achieving complete relations within language with history or with those we love. The Encyclopedia reveals its order while at the same time revealing the complete contingency of all order, its dependence on a tautological, idiotic, performative act of pure positing.
The activity that results in the “Encyclopedia” is the product of an ethical realization that the acts in which one must engage are the ones that appear to be without purpose. The most radical act of bearing witness is for Grossman the act that makes no sense. Those who expect our memorial efforts to do just the opposite—to wrench something meaningful from the catastrophe, something capable of reasserting the deepest ground for our individual and collective identities—are certainly bound to object to this gesture of Momik’s, and Grossman has staged precisely this objection in the character of Ayala. Ayala’s rejection is aimed fundamentally at the exaggeratedly total form, but it testifies to the truth of Momik’s enterprise in her very condemnation of it:
This whole encyclopedia business is utterly worthless. It doesn’t explain anything. Look at it: you know what it reminds me of? A mass grave. That’s what it reminds me of. A grave with limbs sticking out in every direction. All disjointed. But not only that, Shlomik. It’s also a documentation of your crimes against humanity. And now that you’ve gotten this far, I hope you see that you’ve failed, that your whole encyclopedia is not enough to fully encompass a single day or even a single moment of human life.
Momik’s crime is the crime of his form—an Encyclopedia that explains nothing. Ayala tells him that she doesn’t expect a “happy ending” from him—”I know your limitations,” she says—but what she does expect are stories which affirm the symbolic order that sustains their meaning. Momik can thus reverse his disaster and earn her forgiveness if he writes her a “new story. A good story. A beautiful story”—a story “with MERCY [q.v.], with LOVE [q.v.]! Not See under: Love!” In Ayala’s view, crimes can be committed in novels, but novels ought not to commit crimes. The artist, for her, must write with mercy and love in order to suspend the gap between symbolic and real. On the level of form, at least, art is not to disclose its disability: it is not to take on the shape of a mass grave.
Ayala’s analogy is apt, for Grossman seems to have found the only way to treat a “local” facet of the Holocaust without being accused of trying to mitigate its enormity. The attempt to know absolutely an individual’s life and death under the Nazis gives shape to a form which corresponds to that enormity. Taking his positing abilities to their extreme, Grossman’s goal is finally to open the subject up to that feeling which is outside all positing. Aaron Marcus is here perhaps our guide, the apothecary who declares “open war on the limitations of human feeling.” Wasserman tells us that Marcus “longed to clear a way for himself into unknown territories, the abracadabra realms we feel inside, which nobody dares to touch.” And Marcus is not one who shies away from the most ultimate of sacrifices. To know certain feelings, Marcus often undergoes the very dissolution of his identity. It is not so much Marcus’s desire to develop a new language of feeling—his “Sentimo” is an attempt to give a name to various shades of feelings, because people are trained to feel only what they can name—as much as it is the risk that exemplifies the truth of his enterprise. Marcus is one who has “saddened himself to death”—and the important consequence of this effort is not his new language, but his recognition that within language the most important dimensions of feeling are missing. Perhaps this is why in the very moment of Kazik’s death, everyone—except Marcus—experiences a kind of mystical moment of justice, of divine justice:
Approaching death had roused the same feeling in most of them: it was the right thing. And all of life is a free ticket, but in the end we are returned against our will to the domain of some invisible force, grave and inevitable, which collects its rightful debt, without MERCY [q.v.] or solace. To all of them, suddenly life, their own lives, seemed wrong and dreary and senseless [see under: LIFE, THE MEANING OF], and even those who weren’t religious felt a sudden awe of God, while unfamiliar thoughts of sins committed and punishments deserved ran through their minds.
Only Marcus derives a different lesson from the death of the “old boy” (Kazik)—a lesson for the perpetrators and those who refuse to take their totalizing far enough: “Only Aaron Marcus thought sadly that perhaps death was as arbitrary and inexplicable as life itself.” This is our lesson as well: the trauma of the Holocaust is not confined to it but pertains to the implicit trauma—the inexplicability of our lives and of our deaths—that it makes, and made, explicit. As the Event that attempted to eliminate this inexplicability, the nature and permanence of this trauma is perhaps its greatest, and most difficult, legacy.