Primo Levi, Giorgio Agamben, and the New Ethics of Reading
In one of his most recent books, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben comes to grips with a fundamental political and ethical problem laid bare in the Nazi death camps: the destructive effects of power on the human subject.1 Drawing heavily on Primo Levi’s testimony, especially Survival in Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved, Agamben argues that Auschwitz, which for him stands as a metonymy for the singular historical event variously named the Holocaust, Shoah, or the Extermination of the Jews, is the site where power absolutely degraded and destroyed human beings before exterminating them. Attentive to Levi’s focus on the issue of human dignity, or rather, loss of dignity, Agamben focuses much of his analysis on the figure of the Muselmann, who, Levi says, “touched bottom;” that is, lost conscious awareness of himself and his environment. The Muselmann is the figuration of a deracinated and disoriented subject who has lost awareness of himself as a thinking and sensate being. He fell below the bar of what we consider human, becoming an almost inert biomass.
KeywordsHuman Dignity Conscious Awareness Sovereign Power Political Subject Bare Life
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