Violence and Contemporary Thought:
Antisemitism, Racism, and Historical Memory After Auschwitz
Like the Pyramids or the Acropolis, Auschwitz is the fact, the sign of man. The image of man is henceforth inseparable from that of the gas chamber.
— Georges Bataille
[Europeans] are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe.
— Frantz Fanon
Intellectuals in the bloody twentieth century were confronted with a distressing question: were the phenomena of mass violence they witnessed merely deviations from the arc of modern humanist progress, or did “Western civilization” contain these destructive tendencies within itself? This course explores intellectual and artistic attempts to diagnose and respond to what the political theorist Hannah Arendt called “dark times.” We will read and reflect alongside thinkers who worked at the margins of the Western intellectual tradition, figures whose work responds and bears witness to two central forms of violence rooted in modern Europe: fascism, culminating in the Holocaust, and colonialism and its aftermaths.
The power structures that underlay both fascism and colonialism depended directly upon systems of knowledge production to create and maintain relations of domination. In both cases, particular forms of “rationality” were used to promote destructive, irrational ends. The figures we will examine sought to grasp this logic by situating their specific experiences in relation to broader historical processes in the development of Western modernity. Moreover, they analyzed how the catastrophes of the recent past were all too easily erased from the public’s collective memory or used for strategic political purposes. Justice, for them, was inseparable from the problem of remembrance, both for the sake of the victims and for those who lived on. Through comparative analysis, we will consider how the “multidirectional” or shared construction of memory of specific forms of oppression might be mobilized to promote solidarity against different forms of social injustice, such as antisemitism and racism. If historical memory is defined simply as the “past made present,” then the voices that are heard—or silenced—determine what it means to live “after Auschwitz.”
Major readings include Sigmund Freud, Theodor W. Adorno, Art Spiegelman, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, and Angela Davis.