Visu­al­iz­ing Atroc­i­ty: Arendt, Evil and the Optics of Thoughtlessness

Valerie Har­touni
  • Review
By – May 14, 2013
Tak­ing Han­nah Arendt’s con­tro­ver­sial account of the Adolf Eich­mann tri­al in Israel and her report on the banal­i­ty of evil” as its point of depar­ture, Visu­al­iz­ing Atroc­i­ty chal­lenges the myths that Har­touni believes have shaped and lim­it­ed our under­stand­ing of the Nazi geno­cide and total­i­tar­i­an­is­m’s broad­er and recur­rent fea­tures. These myths are tied close­ly to the atroc­i­ty imagery that sur­faced with the lib­er­a­tion of the camps and played an impor­tant role in the evi­dence pro­duced for the post­war tri­als of the per­pe­tra­tors. 

At the 1945 Nurem­berg tri­als cer­tain tech­niques of look­ing” at geno­cide were estab­lished and these were lat­er rein­forced dur­ing the 1961 Eich­mann tri­al in Israel. These are mark­er events for Har­touni for they con­sti­tut­ed the para­me­ters for how we view and under­stand geno­cide and that dri­ves con­tem­po­rary myth­mak­ing about what should be includ­ed as geno­ci­dal events as such. Her par­tic­u­lar project in this book is to decon­struct what she sees as the dis­course of unique­ness that has sur­round­ed Holo­caust schol­ar­ship and reflec­tions, a dis­course of rad­i­cal rup­ture that sees the Shoah as a sin­gu­lar phe­nom­e­non out­side of his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence and that is cen­tral to how the Holo­caust has been expressed in pop­u­lar cul­ture and con­scious­ness. This approach, or myth mak­ing as she under­stands it, has been writ­ten into the his­tor­i­cal record, its per­pet­u­a­tion a mat­ter of sacred oblig­a­tion” and/​or nation­al iden­ti­ty with the stakes being very high. Arendt’s con­cept of the banal­i­ty of evil,” of the thought­less­ness and moral obtuse­ness of the per­pe­tra­tors rather than the notion of their rad­i­cal evil, worked to dis­rupt the con­sen­sus devel­op­ing around Holo­caust dis­course. This is espe­cial­ly impor­tant now because it draws our atten­tion to the social and cul­tur­al forces that are still oper­a­tive in soci­ety includ­ing instru­men­tal think­ing, the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of the oth­er” and tech­niques of con­trol and reg­u­la­tion that expand the realm of fear so crit­i­cal for main­tain­ing a com­pli­ant pop­u­la­tion. It may also allow us to bet­ter appre­ci­ate genocide’s con­tem­po­rary con­di­tions of possibility. 

This is an ambi­tious con­tri­bu­tion of intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry that attempts to reclaim the work of Arendt there­by mov­ing away from a Holo­caust-cen­tered approach to geno­cide stud­ies, open­ing up new vis­tas of geno­cide recog­ni­tion and reflec­tion of a world orga­nized now and then by prac­tices and process­es that are life-deny­ing and threat­en­ing. What it lacks in his­tor­i­cal ground­ing and con­text it cer­tain­ly makes up in orig­i­nal­i­ty and open­ness to the pow­er of visu­al cul­ture effect­ing moral and polit­i­cal judgment. 
Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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