Other Voices, v.2, n.1 (February 2000)
Copyright © 2000, Sheila Kunkle, all rights reserved
The essays, commentaries, memoirs, lectures, photos, and reviews in this issue on genocide all address some aspect of the human need to master death through the torture, degradation, and ultimately extermination of others. The perspectives and questions posed here invite us to consider what's at work when entire populations of seemingly sane and ethical people commit unspeakable acts of horror and annihilation; and when individual people are passionately driven to hate and demean others. Is genocide a phenomenon somehow intrinsic to modernity? Is it related to the violence of everyday sexism and racism? How do we deal with the aftermath of genocide and bring the perpetrators to justice? And how do we remember and re-present these atrocities in order to teach young generations about what Jacques Lacan refers to as the "monstrous spell" of sacrifice, of following the desire of a "dark God," as happened in the Nazi genocide (275)?
The authors in this issue search for answers to these and related questions, from a wide variety of perspectives, ranging from critical, feminist and literary analyses of fiction, memoir and film, to the consideration of the representation of genocide in popular culture; and from the discussion of political definitions of genocide, to the advancement of new psychological therapies for survivors and the psychoanalytical exploration of victimization. Indeed, so wide-ranging are the viewpoints collected here that they are, perhaps, most intelligibly and usefully construed according to Lacan's three registers of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. For while some authors are concerned to bring meaning to the experiences of genocide through the realm of the Symbolic, by referring to morality and rational notions of the good, other of our authors are concerned to locate that which is meaningless, that which occurs in the Real, and which cannot be explained by our common notions of right and wrong, good and evil. And still other authors explore the dimension of the Imaginary where myths, deceptions, images and lures create the visual field within which human relations are structured.1
Viewed in this way, the following collection of essays and other materials serves to broaden the limits of academic discourse on the intricate issues of genocide and mass hate. In this regard, they answer Slavoj Zizek's critique of Hannah Arendt's concept of the 'banality of Evil' - possibly the past century's single most influential explanation of the uncanny dynamic of the Holocaust. In The Plague of Fantasies Zizek argues the inadequacy of Arendt's emphasis on the banality of Eichmann's concern with being a model civil servant, and following orders without considering the morality of his actions. As Zizek states, Eichmann's connection to the "purely symbolic bureaucratic logic" of the Nazi Order must be supplemented both by a consideration of the "imaginary screen of satisfactions, myths, and so on, which enable the subjects to maintain a distance towards the horrors they are involved in...and, above all, the real of the perverse (sadistic) jouissance in what they were doing (torturing, killing, dismembering bodies...)" (55). And so, the 'banality' of the Nazi Order, the very bureaucratization that allowed a sort of distance from the moralizing of actions, brought its own libidinal impact; that is, the torturers and killers experienced an enjoyment from their brutality by the very fact of its being 'meaningless'.
We can, for example, discern these three registers in an analysis of Rwanda, where in the spring of 1994 ethnic Hutus tortured, raped, and murdered over 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbors. Here we might search for answers and explanations by deciphering how the country's unique history coincided with events that drew the perpetrators into a carnival of killing. Political scientists and historians might contend that Symbolic authority after 1961 was invested in the paternal law of the colonial remnants of modern political organization, and in the intricate undemocratic machinations of power.2 Other investigators might look at the powerful myths propagated by the colonists' Hamitic philosophy, which designated blackness as evil and whiteness as beauty, and how this mythology forced Rwandans to internalize themselves, their very bodies, as the white man's 'bad object'.3 During the Rwandan genocide, Tutsi bodies were marked (as cockroaches and rats), as if they existed in another, spectral realm, as uncastratable and unable to be totally destroyed.
But once the genocide was set in motion and proceeded according to the strategic planning of the presidential military guard, how can we explain the participation of farmers and herdsmen, with their very efficient use of machetes, clubs and knives, and moreover, how can we explain not just the killing itself, but the unspeakable acts of torture and body mutilation? Here our notions of right and wrong, of rationality and irrationality, and even of modernity and traditional society, are turned upside down; here, as in the case of the Holocaust, it became irrational not to participate in the killing. And here we make note of the transformation of the subject who undergoes a destitution in the register of the Real, a dimension without explanation, without subjects, without the ability to feel empathy or realize and remember cruel acts.4
For months before the genocide was launched Hutus were spellbound, listening to the spectral voice emanating from the radio in all parts of the country, telling them exactly what to do in order to survive: to uncover the AIDS-carrying vermin of their society (the Tutsi) and kill them off completely. But the myths and spectral images that came to define the other's flesh during the 100 days of genocide, worked in very bizarre activities that existed beyond meaning and comprehensibility. There were instances of "forced marriages," where in strange ceremonies, Tutsi women were offered as 'prizes' to the Hutus who had killed the most Tutsis. Once held up as the object of female beauty by the former colonizers, the bodies of Tutsi women became the obverse during the genocide, when their very female parts were treated as the ugly Thing (in Lacanian terms), now out of joint and no longer re-presentable in the Symbolic. So that when Hutu perpetrators repeatedly raped and then cut out the vagina of their victims and placed the "object" on a stick for all to see, what is revealed in such an atrocity is how the perpetrators sought to deal with the Real of woman as threatening object-flesh. What was once the supreme example of female beauty (Tutsi women) in Hutu mythology and imagination, became, during the killing spree, the putrid and ugly female Thing.5 Thus it is that we can attempt to fathom how each of Lacan's registers works to locate the subject, as part of an intersubjective community of people, filled with sustaining rituals and myths, or as spellbound semblants acting according to a dark Other's desire.
So it is that each of our authors chooses mainly a certain register when they address their concerns and attempt to discern the dynamics of mass hatred and killing (with a few who see the overlap and inter-working of the three dimensions). Ian Hancock discusses the prevalence of anti-gypsism in Eastern Europe, and he looks mainly to the Law to monitor and eradicate racist anti-Romani sentiment. He suggests punitive measures and heavy financial penalties against those countries, businesses, and individuals who fail to take active steps to eradicate this racism, from the monitoring of the media, to economic boycotts, and from the active design of Roma-conscious curricula in schools, to the increasing of employment opportunities for the Roma people.
Ward Churchill considers the backlash of Holocaust exclusivism (the idea that the Holocaust was the only genocide, and one where only one group, the Jews, suffered on an unparalleled level as a people), which allows governments to disavow the possibility of genocide within their borders by "fine-tuning" their written definitions of same according to their own national and political interests. Churchill contends that genocide can be non-lethal and he presents the case of a small band of Cree Indians in the Lubicon Lake area of Alberta, Canada, whose entire way of life was threatened by a transnational paper corporation. Here, the definition of genocide re-frames both the perpetrators (and Churchill includes all who are silent and thus complicit in such injustices), and the notion of victimization. This re-framing allows us to see the negative effects of industrial development, as Churchill maintains, "on a people spiritually anchored in nature."
Gordon Rumson takes this line of re-framing genocide as an atrocity that occurs in a people's "soundscape," when larger forces change, sometimes subtly, and other times blatantly, the space within which we "hear" each other. Serbian scholar Ivan Colovic sees the interconnections between the Symbolic and the Imaginary in his analysis of the powerful mythologies that work in the service of politicians who create, through various manipulations, the notion of a "heavenly Serbia." Colovic shows how the Imaginary forces of mythologies work to link greatness to biological blood lineage, and the graves of dead Serbs to the live but "morbid geopolitics" of Serb nationalists. Importantly, he demonstrates the connection between the expansion of the "mythopolitical imagination" and increasing political crises in Serbian politics in the post-Communist era.
Several of our authors try to sort through the different meanings of memoir writing as they relate to different types of trauma and feelings of victimization. To whom are these memoirs addressed and what do they reveal? In her essay on Benjimin Wilkomirski's fake memoirs, Renata Salecl shows (through a deft critique of recovered memory therapy) that through his fantasized biography, Wilkomirski re-creates himself as a victim of the most horrific trauma of the Holocaust, not to give testimony to a big Other, but rather to "...make even with the individual others (various grown-ups who presented authorities in his life)," who might have betrayed him in his youth. In contrast, Edith Bruck's memoir, a segment of which appears in this issue, reveals she was indeed a victim of the Nazi holocaust, and her first-person narrative works to bring the hard kernel, the residue of traumatic loss, degradation, and humiliation, into the symbolic world of witnesses who will help establish her experience and her subjectivity once again.
In the excerpts of Catherine Bernard's book appearing in this issue, the author discusses the diary of Anne Frank and other female survivors' memoirs to see how modernity, misogyny and genocide overlap and/or coincide. She finds that not only is the paternal Law of modernity the law of universals, espoused mainly by male writers of the Holocaust, but also that among women there were surprising innovations to cope with trauma through memoir-writing, to make a space for themselves and shield their identities from larger and incomprehensibly misogynistic forces, like the Holocaust. As she reveals, Charlotte Salomon's artistic production of her life story in the operetta Life? or Theater? not only worked to depict reality as staged, and thus very eerie, but it also allowed the artist, in her own words, to "create a story so as not to lose my mind." In Salomon's case, then, the artistic creation allowed her a "space" from the madness, and also a space for the Symbolic to exist and keep the Real at a distance; a space, perhaps, that Wilkomirski has yet to find.
And still another analysis of memoir is presented by Rebecca Scherr, who considers the connection between the sexual perversions and erotic imagery in the film The Night Porter and the novel The White Hotel, and the absence of sexual references in Holocaust memoirs and testimonials. While Scherr concludes that these fictional devices work to debase the horror of the reality of the Holocaust and sensationalize it by using the vehicle of perverse and paranoid sexuality, her analysis nevertheless also allows us to see the ambiguous boundaries between authentic and fictional testimonials, between the experiences of the victimizer and victimized, and between sexual pleasures, perversions, and resistance, even in the traumatic events of the Nazi death camps.
Is there an appropriate way to represent and/or recreate the experience, the feelings of humiliation and hate of genocide, especially in this late stage of capitalist mass consumption and increasing virtuality? Harold Marcuse describes the experience of the Jewish Holocaust museum in Los Angeles at the Beit Hashoah - Museum of Tolerance, where the subjects of intolerance and genocide are conveyed through an entertainment format. There is something rather uncanny and grotesque about Marcuse's "fun house," descriptions of this museum, until one learns that it is an extremely popular place, with thousands of visitors each week. Marcuse considers the criticisms against this media-based representation of the horrors of death and destruction, and he weighs for us, through his personal observations, the impact of historical "fact," as it is presented through visual screens and talking mannequins. He concludes that while emotional appeal is given precedence over historical accuracy, and the narrations simplify complex historical forces, visitors actually do learn something from this exhibit. Ultimately, Marcuse is able to compare the "assembly-line method of genocide" representation of the museum and the subliminal connection to the powerless feeling many of us have in the world of images outside. So although Marcuse ends his piece by considering the museum's positive impact of increasing awareness about intolerance and history among young people in particular, his description of its blatant manipulations reveals that it conveys its subject matter through an unwitting parody of our late stage capitalist relations.
Similarly, in his review of Polish pop artist Zbigniew Libera's exhibit of a concentration camp made of Legos, Stephen Feinstein finds that accuracy of representation is perhaps not as important as the experience one creates by representing art as a form of deconstruction; that is, the very materials used to create a representation of a concentration camp, can also be used to form its anti-thesis. The parody of Libera's art is lost on many critics who accuse the artist of desanctifying the experience of horror of the Holocaust, but Feinstein considers how Libera's Lego art serves as a staring point for analyzing many aspects of violence in our world: in other existing toys, in the identifiability of the product name (like many German corporations, such as Volkswagen and Krupp who also backed the Nazis), and in the manipulation that compels us to be a part of the race for market share domination, to name just a few.
While Feinstein and Marcuse offer us ways to critique both the representation of the Holocaust and our capitalist society, in both the museum installation and pop art, Aaron Levy's project in "small receptacles," disturbs the meaning we attribute to photographic representations of the Holocaust through their captions (or in Lacanian terms, to create a rupture at the juncture of the Imaginary and the Symbolic, where meaning resides). In describing the photograph as a door, and the caption its handle, Levy suggests the possibility of movement through an image and thus, our own dislocation in time and place. The caption here can serve as a pathway to grasp something beyond representation; it can offer an open-ended and incomplete re-framing of the image in connection with words, so that the seemingly displaced text reveals something always missed in the image—a multi-layered and mutually shared experience of loss and incompleteness. Levy asks, "could we ever conceptualize a way to read the photograph that survives a Holocaust outside elegy and self-encircling epitaph?" For Levy, then, captions are not there merely for the sake of accurately labeling a flat and static scene (for labeling is always already a mis-labeling), or even to create an authentic meaning, but rather to signify something missed, or in Levy's words, to "embody this unfulfilling." His project is an attempt to "...figure catastrophe, and to caption it, in a manner that destroys neither us, nor that which we desire to see."
Still another group of our authors in this issue is concerned to discuss and analyze the aftermath of genocide. From a psychologist's perspective, Ervin Staub presents ways to overcome historical tendencies of devaluating others and to develop positive relations between people. He considers how best to heal the victims and help them understand, through a logical process, how and why perpetrators act the way they do. Similarly, from a psychiatric view, Stevan Weine considers his work with Bosnian survivors of genocide and how American therapists have had to adapt to the values of another culture. This has meant that the mental health care offered by American providers necessarily shifts from a focus on individuals, to the identification of social relations as a form of therapy, which, in the case of Bosnians, is the extended family, formed from several generations of kin and community. Lastly, Johanna Baum offers an elegant essay on the multigenerational effects of trauma among current generations of Jews living in Israel. Through her literary analysis of David Grossman's See Under: Love, she traces the transmission of a collective neurosis handed down to the children of survivors who settled in Israel after the Holocaust and reveals the powerful use of literary fantasy as a device for the children to confront and get beyond the silence of their parents.
One of the most interesting, albeit complex, propositions in this issue comes from Anson Rabinbach's lecture on "The Elements of Anti-Semitism," in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which traverses the terrain of Freudian psychoanalysis and, by extension, the Lacanian dimensions of the Symbolic, the Imaginary , and the Real. Rabinbach studies both the importance of the meanings of mimesis and the startling humor in the works and letters of Adorno and Horkheimer and discovers, perhaps, that in their interpersonal communications, they might have succeeded where their large objective project (leading to the publication of The Authoritarian Personality), failed. Rabinbach proposes the discovery of the power of humor and wit, as it is conveyed through these authors' letters, to create a "solidarity with nature...before language fell into the abyss of the immediateness of all communication." His presentation suggests, among other things, that Adorno and Horkheimer might have used the myth of Odysseus (who replaces Oedipus) as a model character of wit and cunning substitution, as a force (of play and unbound laughter, as blind nature domesticated) against anti-semitism, which in the words of the authors is, "the morbid expression of the repressed form of mimesis."
Finally, there remains the difficult question of what to do with the perpetrators in the aftermath of genocide. The acts of passionate hatred and violations of others' bodies in the Real, and the punishment that the Symbolic law would establish are not equal. As Maire Jaanus writes in "A Civilization of Hatred," "there is a wild dissymmetry between the enormity of the suffering and the most horrendous punishment that the law could mete out. The law is not commensurate to passion, nor fitted to desire, and it cannot redress time. The law is impotent in relation to time past. The law and the individual in historical time do not, in fact, coincide at all. There is no law for rage, just as there is none for extreme love"(346).
Yet, despite the inadequacy of the Law, humans continually set up institutions and tribunals to address injustices and right the wrongs of genocide - to mete out the appropriate punishment to the perpetrators, and offer aid and comfort to the victims, while scrutinizing the behavior of the bystanders, as if they had a definite choice to make in the killing. As several authors believe, there is no real choice in the matter of genocide, it is a "forced" choice that calls forth uncanny behavior, and victim and perpetrator alike lose their former identities (their status as subjects) when atrocity is committed.6
Each author represented here has his or her own means of continuing the effort to keep the space for discursive constructions open, to symbolize (through photographs, psychological therapies, political investigations, art, critique, lectures, and other means) what is important; to give voice to the loss, pain, violation, and unspeakable suffering endured by so many in so many places: Armenia, East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Germany, Cambodia, and China, among many others in this past century alone. The words and images are, in a sense, a shield to ensure that we keep a distance from the Real, that we do not find ourselves in that uncanny place where we are unable to resist sacrifices to a dark God. The analyses, the memoirs, the debates, the critiques, all continue in order to help us understand the meaning of the horror, and to isolate the meaninglessness of atrocity, so as to uncover the passions that have made ours a civilization of hatred.
1. For a more detailed account of these three Lacanian registers, see: Dylan Evans' An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis.
2. See Niel J. Kressel's chapter on Rwanda in Mass Hate: The Global Rise of Genocide and Terror.
3. For an analysis of the Lacanian "bad object," in terms of colonization see Juliet Flower MacCannell's "The Post-Colonial Unconscious, or the White Man's Thing."
4. Slavoj Zizek, in his many works, discusses Lacan's term "aphanisis," whereby the subject, while in the mode of the death drive, is able neither to realize nor remember acts; he, in a sense, disappears from the scene. This phenomenon is seen, for example, in the many cases of "lost memory" of perpetrators after acts of atrocity. Robert Jay Lifton in his The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide finds the same aphanisis at work in the case of the Nazi doctor, or as he labels it, "the Auschwitz self." He writes: "Part of the schizophrenic situation was the ability to mobilize the Auschwitz self into perverse actions in which it could not itself believe. The feeling was something like: 'anything I do on planet Auschwitz doesn't count on planet Earth'..." (447).
5. For a detailed account of this type of activity see: Binaifer Nowrojee's Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath. And for a further Lacanian analysis of the Rwandan genocide and genocide generally, see Kunkle, "The Ugly Jouissance of Genocide." In addition, Philip Gourevitch's We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families is an excellent account of the genocide from a journalist's perspective.
6. See Zizek's The Plague of Fantasies for elaboration of this point; and Juliet Flower MacCannell's "Facing Fascism: A Feminine Politics of Jouissance," for an analysis of the Symbolic and sacrifice in the case of the Holocaust; and Kunkle, "The Uncanny Effects of Cruelty," for a discussion of how the uncanniness of genocide works to obliterate the ego in the presence of the superego.
Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Gourevitch, Philip. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1998.
Jaanus, Maire. "'A Civilization of Hatred': The Other in the Imaginary." In Reading Seminars I & II: Lacan's Return to Freud. Eds. Richard Feldstein, Bruce Fink, and Maire Jaanus. Albany: State U of new York P, 1996.323-356.
Kunkle, Sheila. "The Ugly Jouissance of Genocide," In JPCS: Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society 4,1 (Spring 1999): 119-133.
________. "The Uncanny Effects of Cruelty," In Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres, "The Return of the Uncanny" 3,3-4 (1997): 556-570.
Lacan, Jacques. Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1987.
Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 1986.
MacCannell, Juliet Flower. "Facing Fascism: A Feminine Politics of Jouissance." In Lacan, Politics Aesthetics, Ed. Willy Apollon and Richard Feldstein. Albany: State U of New York P, 1996. 65-100.
________. "The Post-Colonial Unconscious, or the White Man's Thing," JPCS: Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society 1,1 (Spring 1996): 27-42.
Nowrojee, Binaifer. Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath. Human Rights Watch/Africa. Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project. Federation internationale des ligues des Droits de l'Homme. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. New York: Verso, 1997.
Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (6)