Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Muselmann

Perhaps one of the most ethically challenging, and truly heartwrenching, figures of contemporary (by which I mean, post-WWII) philosophy is that of the Muselmann. The word Muselmann literally means "Muslim" ("one who submits to God"), but is used to refer to prisoners of Nazi concentration camps who had become so destitute and dehumanized as to appear like human corpses. Some scholars believe that the term originated from the similarity between the near-death prone state of a concentration camp Muselmann and the image of a Muslim prostrating himself on the ground in prayer. Primo Levi, survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camps and author of Survival in Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved employs the figure of the Muselmann in his works to underscore the utter dehumanization of the Nazi genocidal project. Similarly, contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben references the Muselmann in his Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life in the process of disambiguating Aristotle's categories of "bare life" (zoe) and qualified, human life (bios).

Like many others, I am deeply troubled by the figure of the Muselmann, both in fact and its use as a philosophical trope. If you're interested, see the emerging debate between myself and the eminently astute AnPan over on his blog at "Interference, Coercion, Domination, Powerlessness."

1 comment:

John said...

Dr. J, I read your exchange with AnPan and while I sympathize with your view that freedom admits of nothing but degrees (and that a person without volition and therefore without freedom is not a living person at all), I wonder whether Sartre's ontology is really the best way to ground consciousness of human freedom. I suppose the issue at root for me is that I am not convinced of Sartre's own capacity to experience solidarity with others in a situation of powerlessness and suffering. Are we not dealing with a metaphysical game, a theoretical game, in which freedom and confinement are antithetical terms, in Sartre's thought? What I doubt is whether he was able to experience inwardly, and therefore render faithfully, what he attempts to capture in theory. Is not Sartre's ontology an uncommitted game when compared to a text like Gramsci's Prison Notebooks? Finally doesn't the story of Sartre's personal intersections with the political thought of his age have to be understood in order to judge whether Sartre can be an example and guide for free action, solidarity, heroism? My difficulty is that I have never trusted Sartre, I lack faith in him.

But perhaps I am just expressing the usual difficulty of the intersection of philosophy and politics? Only with Sartre it is difficult to seperate the two-- therefore difficult also to synthesize the two.