The witness. The archive. The guilt. Before reading Giorgio Agamben’s ‘Remnants of Auschwitz’, I have to admit these terms, for me, summoned hazy reflections of the Second World War. Stubbornly opaque, they mirrored the silence that surrounds 1940’s Germany and the Holocaust, a period only partially visible in remade films and documentaries. Sepia-hued and shrouded in secrecy, the outing of arguably history’s greatest mistake left more than a little to the imagination.
Agamben’s attempt at unfolding the multiple meanings of the Holocaust was one that sought to clarify what really happened inside those gates. Using Auschwitz as an overarching metaphor for the concentration camp, the site of the travesty, he treads on ground that is both sacred and kept in thoughts, important but dangerous. However, Agamben’s study was a journey that he must have made: to keep what really happened a secret, he argues, would be to fulfill what Nazi Germany had wanted all along: to pretend that that history had never happened.
Spread into three main parts, Agamben’s argument is solid; at least, as solid as it can be on such uncertain ground. In typically philosophical tradition, he begins with defining a term in several ways, later integrating it into the argument. His definitions span a vast array of well-known fellow academics, which strengthen his arguments indefinitely. His research into what material is available on the largely silent subject is also quoted nicely within the piece, offering subjectivity to his study and demonstrating his careful entry into unspoken territory.
The greatest merits, in my opinion, of the study are Agamben’s definitions of phenomena otherwise largely ignored. Shame, guilt, and the witness are key exemplaries of this, and he executes their place in the tract beautifully. They are, after all, simultaneous pillars of Holocaust literature and ones that are hardly ever explored – a definite addition to the confusion and silence that surrounds such trauma. Yet these phenomena are also ones worth exploring for their own merits, as, according to Agamben’s argument, they are key parts of our own humanity. They show what it is to be human, what it is to have limitations, and how we can use our knowledge of them to overcome those same limitations. Most importantly for the main subject, the final aspect of the witness offers a key to overcoming the silence and shame imposed by history.
A rare look into the inhumanity of humanity, Agamben’s tract illustrates more than just an insight into Auschwitz: it shows us just what simple terms that frame our lives, our history, and our natures actually might mean. Auschwitz is a portrait of what it means to be inhuman and how our worst features, combined, can turn; a bio-political nightmare-turned-reality that Agamben’s first steps will hopefully help decipher.