Wednesday, January 16, 2008


A scene from the film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle:

Kumar: How were Katie Holmes' tits?

Goldstein: You know the Holocaust?

Kumar: Yeah?

Goldstein: Picture the opposite of that!

Kumar: Nice!

This is, if one turns it around as one must, a voyeuristic image of the camps produced by a voyeuristic culture. It might also fairly be called juvenile. If the opposite of juvenile is mature–words like "experienced" and "wise" also spring to mind, perhaps unfairly–what is the opposite of voyeuristic?

Jean-Luc Nancy, the French philosopher, wants us to think of the Shoah as "an ultimate crisis of representation" ("Forbidden Representation," in The Ground of the Image, p. 34). He presents us with a particular understanding of representation (or rather two entwined ways of understanding representation). He notes that, "The re- of the representation is not repetitive but intensive (to be more precise, the intitially iterative value of the prefix re- in Latinate languages is often transformed into an intensive or, as one says, 'frequentive' value)" (p. 35). I'm sure I'll be returning to this idea at a later time. Here I'll just paraphrase Nancy's argument about what representation is not: it is not the repetition of a thing, or the reintroduction of a thing in a context that differs from its original context; it is not recontextualization. He says that it is essentially the "presentation of an open absence within the given itself" (p. 33). He continues:

Representation is not a simulacrum; it is not the replacement of the original thing–in fact, it has nothing to do with a thing. It is the presentation of what does not amount to a presence, given and completed (or given completed), or it is the bringing to presence of an intelligible reality (or form) by the formal mediation of a sensory reality. The two ways of understanding it do not exactly coincide with each other, neither in the divisions they afford nor in their intimate entanglement. Nonetheless, they must be taken together, and the one taken against the other, in order to think the dispute, or the secret, of "representation."

(ibidem, Nancy's emphasis)

Nancy's description of Nazism utilizes some familiar tropes, including the representation of the Aryan body.

The figure of the "Aryan" is the very principle of this [Nazi] vision; it entails nothing less than the presentation of man regenerated as super-man. I propose that we call this regime "super-representation" to emphasize that it is not simply a matter of representing triumphant humanity as a type (as is also the case, in the same era, with Stalinist art). Rather, what is involved here is the (re)presentation of a type that is itself a (re)presentative, not of a function like the hammer and sickle, but of a nature or an essence (the Aryan body). It is in this body that the presence of a self-creating humanity would truly consist (a humanity that is, in this sense, divine, but with no separation of the divine, that is, with no "sanctity"). The Aryan body is an idea identical to a presence, or it is the presence of an idea without remainder: precisely what the West has, for centuries, thought of as the idol. In the terms employed by Hitler, moreover, it is called "idealism": the idealism of the founder of civilization (Kulturbegr√ľnder), whose supreme virtue is that he gives himself over to the service of the community upon which he has bestowed "the civilizing spirit." "The Aryan alone can be considered as the representative [Vertreter] of the race of the founders of civilization." "Civilization," here, has no other meaning than the conformity of a world to its representation. The Aryan is the representative of representation, absolutely, and it is in this precise sense that I propose the term "super-representation."

(pp. 38-39, my bold)

Why aren't representation, idolatry, iconograhy or propaganda adequate to describe Nazi imagery? The inadequacy of these terms follows from Nancy's casting of Western civilization. If Western civilization is a representation its excess can only be superrepresentation, and excess is one of the tropes one uses to talk about Nazism, especially if one is a French intellectual writing in the last twenty-five years. (Kristeva showed us an example of this, to give just one name.) But I'm using shorthand, which means I may well end up putting my foot in my mouth. Nancy actually calls the West an event and a configuration. He says it's a "configuration whose history is rushing toward its completion before us, having already undergone the total crisis that beset the order of representation" (p. 35). Is there a question here of a world conforming to its representations? (I'm aware of playing on two senses of "its," and also pointing "its" in different directions, i.e at the West, at its iconography, and at Nancy the iconographer– how many ways are there for a representation to belong to a world?)

Nancy brings a great erudition to the question of how one describes the Nazi camps. I can't match his erudition at this time, nor can I pretend to offer much in the way of a critique. I have qualms, and I will share those with you. I question what erudition accomplishes in this case. I question Nancy's strong stand against allowing for the ineffable (the "idolatorous mysticism of the 'ineffable,'" he says), and I suspect that his writing on the topic has actually scored a point for the other team. Possibly, I wonder, Nancy has misnamed the ineffable as "absence" (or absense). I don't know. There may be something to say here about female nudity in the movies and superrepresentation, but I'm not going to be the one to say it–what I have are qualms, and I'd like to talk about having qualms.

Is the qualm mystical? Is to speak of qualms to reject philosophy? Frequently a person who has qualms will keep her thoughts to herself. My inner voice warns me, Fido, just because you have a qualm doesn't mean you have something to say. Don't upset people for no good reason. Don't upset yourself. I may and probably will upset myself–after all, these are my qualms. Now here I am talking about the qualm itself and my question is, What is the proper attitude to take towards the qualm? Is it good to eliminate qualms? Can they be interrogated without seeking to dispel them, to somehow resolve them as if they were logical contradictions?

There is some uncertainty about the etymology of the word qualm, an ambiguity about the word itself. In one sense, the sense that I initially had in mind, qualm is related to an early modern German word qualm meaning "swoon, faint, half-conscious or unconscious state" (that's according to the OED). The half-conscious intrigues me. My qualms about representions of Nazi Europe's death camps may be only half-conscious, which is not to say that they aren't meaningful or can't be (half-)said. My qualms themselves may be a psychic indication of halving and its remainder. They may themselves be halved. Qualm is probably related to a Danish or Swedish word kvalm meaning "nausea, sickness, or indisposition." Is indisposition like a bad hexis? It's striking that there would be a word that implied feeling intensely an indisposition. The implication is there in a meaning that comes out of the word in later centuries, "pang" or "distress." To be qualmed is to suffer. (Ethically then it would seem that the proper course of action when confronted with a qualm is to do away with it because it causes suffering. More on that in a moment.) There is another, obsolete word qualm that goes back to Old English (and Old High German). The Old English cwealm meant, in part, "torment, pain, injury." The Old Saxon qualm meant death of a violent nature, and the Old High German qualm meant "torment, torture, (rare) downfall, perishing." The obsolete qualm meant violent death or murder. It also meant "general or widespread death or mortality; pestilence, plague," and, in an extended sense "calamity" or "disaster." Qualm appeared in the compounds qualm-stow, a place of execution, and qualm-house, "a house of torture; a prison, esp. one for those condemned to death" (Incidentally, the sequel to Harold and Kumar go to White Castle will be titled Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay).

Sometimes I feel like the world interrogates me. Language interrogates me. How do I feel about the existence of qualm houses? How do I feel about qualms? Blasé? (A word of uncertain etymology, btw.) No, that might imply that at some time in the past I actually found qualms enjoyable. How familiar am I, personally, with qualms? I say I feel them, but my feelings are half-conscious. If you said to me, "Fido, here is your chance to escape your qualms, leave them behind, be free," why on earth wouldn't I follow your lead? I am drawn to my qualms and they to me, half-drawn, half-dead, half-qualms. What is half of a violent death? The other half of a violent death? What is half a binary opposition?

It would be wise to know what saying does. Before even speaking of the ineffable, it would be wise to know what saying is and what it does. I don't even know who is saying this, and surely who is saying must figure into what saying does. I feel there must be something ineffable because I can't say it, whoever I is. Have I said too much to count myself among even the half-wise? Here is the ethical problem: there are worse things than qualms. And philosophy may yet offer worse alternatives to the ineffable.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:00 AM.


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