Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #1


Last fall, while reading Jean-Luc Nancy’s three works on the “deconstruction of Christianity”–Corpus, Noli me tangere, and Dis-Enclosure, which have been the topics of my three immediately preceding posts–I was also reading psychaitrist Robert J. Lifton’s important study The Nazi Doctors:  Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York:  Basic Books, 1986; with new introduction by the author, 2000).  Today is the first of a series–one of my most lengthy series–of posts on Lifton.  The entries below from my philosophical journal were first written on the dates indicated.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, p. 3 (opening of the book’s introduction):

I gained an important perspective on Auschwitz from an Israeli dentist who had spent three years in that camp.  We were completing a long interview. . . . He looked about the comfortable  room in his house with its beautiful view of  Haifa, sighed deeply, and said, “This world is not this world” [which Lifton takes as the title of this introductory chapter].  What I think he meant was that, after Auschwitz, the ordinary rythms and appearances of life, however innocuous or  pleasant, were far from the truth of human existence.  Underneath those rythms and appearances lay darkness and menace. . . . [We resist this truth:] For to permit one’s imagination to enter into the Nazi killing machine–to begin to experience that killing machine–is to alter one’s relationship to the entire human project.  One does not want to learn about such things.

That again raises the crucial question I tried to raise in this journal a month or so ago, in conjunction with reading Jean Améry.  That is this question:

What is the truth of Auschwitz?

Not:  “What is the truth about Auschwitz.”  Rather:  What “truth of human existence,” as Lifton calls it, flashes forth at and as “Auschwitz”?

As I also noted when writing about Améry:  Is the truth that Améry sees the same as this Jewish survivor dentist in Haifa [as Lifton reads his words]–“darkness and menace”?  Or is it the truth of resistance, as Améry himself also suggests at places.

Alternatively worded, from Lifton:  Precisely what “alteration” in “one’s relationship to the entire human project” does encounter with Auschwitz call forth and call for?


Lifton is close to [Zygmunt] Bauman, whose book [Modernity and the Holocaust, which has been the subject of some of my earlier posts] appeared three years later [than Lifton’s on the Nazi doctors].  For one thing, Bauman would agree with this, from p. 14 in Lifton:

In Nazi mass murder, we can say that a barrier was removed, a boundary crossed:  that boundary between violent imagery and periodic killing of victims (as of Jews in pogroms) on the one hand, and systematic genocide in Auschwitz and elsewhere on the other.  My argument in this study is that the medicalization of killing–the  imagery of killing in the name of healing–was crucial to that terrible step.  At the heart of the Nazi enterprise, then, is the destruction of the boundary between healing and killing.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lifton, on the early stages of the Nazi “euthanasia” program, when children were subjected to “medical killing,” as Lifton correctly names it, p. 55:

Th[e] structure served to diffuse individual responsibility.  In the entire sequence–from the reporting of cases by midwives or doctors, to the supervision of such reporting by institutional heads, to expert opinions rendered by central consultants, to coordination of the  market forms by Health Ministry officials, to the appearance of the child at the Reich Committee institution for killing–there was at no point a sense of personal responsibility for, or even involvement in, the murder of another human being.  Each participant could feel like no more than a small cog in a vast, officially santioned, medical machine.

As I’ve long maintained, here lies the whole key and secret to contemporary organization/statehood/sovereignty/government/ administration.  The telephone company again!  Why, as I wrote [the chair of my department] a few days ago, the worst conceivable form of government/administration is one by committee.

In contrast, there is AA, [for example,] in which [the principle of] responsibility for the “whole” is brought home to each and every individual member at every step, everywhere.

Zymunt Bauman, Modernity, and the Holocaust


Today and in my next post, I will be sharing entries from my philosophical journal that pertain to sociologist’s Zygmund Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust.  The entries were first written on the dates indicated below.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, New York:  Cornell University Press, 1992), “Appendix:  Social Manipulation of Morality, Moralizing Actors, and Adiaphorizing Action” (originally a lecture given in 1990), [gives a good, succinct statement concerning Emmanuel Levinas’s moral/ethical philosophy on] p. 214:

Moral behavior, as . . . Levinas tells us, is triggered off by the mere presence of the Other as a face, that is, as an authority without force.  The Other demands without threatening to punish or promising reward; his demand is without sanction.  The Other cannot do anything; it is precisely his weakness that exposes my strength, my ability to act, as responsibility.  Moral action is whatever follows that responsibility.  Unlike the action triggered off by fear of sanctions or promise of rewards, it  does not bring success or help survival.  As, purposeless, it  escapes all possibility of heteronomous legislation or rational arguments, it . . . elides the judgment of “rational interest” and advice of calculated self-preservation, those twin bridges of the world of . . . dependence and heteronomy.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Bauman, back to main text, “Preface,” p. xii:

The overall effect [of standard scholarly accounts of the Holocaust in terms of its causes, and making it either a uniquely “Jewish” or a uniquely “German” affair] is, paradoxically, pulling the sting out of the Holocaust memory.  The message which the Holocaust contains about how we live today–about the quality of the institutions on which we rely for  our safety, about the validity of the criteria with which we measure the propriety of our own conduct and the patterns of interaction we accept and consider normal–is silenced, not listened to, and remains undelivered.  If unravelled by the specialists and discussed inside the conference circuit, it is  hardly ever heard elsewhere and remains a mystery for all outsiders.  It has not entered as yet (at any rate in a serious way) contemporary consciousness.  Worse still, it has not as yet affected contemporary practice.

Like 9/11, the Holocaust never happened–at least not yet.  But, also like 9/11, it will happen?

Has the Christian Crucifixion happened yet?  The Resurrection?

Aren’t the same issues involved in all these cases?

Might the example of ongoing Christian conversion and liturgical time/community provide a clue here?


Bauman, pp. 6ff, articulates the idea that the Holocaust is neither an aberration of modernity, nor its “truth,” but is, rather, a definitive aspect or potentiality within modernity, one that can be actualized–and will be actualized–under certain circumstances (just as, under pressure of calamity, both the worst and the best in individuals can be actualized–the one in one, the other in the other–and where it cannot be predicted which will be which in advance).


Pp. 17-18, Bauman: 

This is not to suggest that the incidence of the Holocaust was determined by modern bureaucracy or the culture of instrumental rationality it epitomizes; much less till, that modern bureaucracy must result in Holocaust-style phenomena.  I do suggest, however, that the rules of instrumental rationality are singularly incapable of preventing such phenomena; that there is nothing in those rules which disqualifies the Holocaust-style methods of “social engineering” as improper or, indeed, the actions they served as irrational.  I suggest, further, that the bureaucratic culture which prompts us to view society as an object of administration, as a collection of so many problems to be solved, as “nature” to be “controlled,” “mastered” and “improved” or “remade,” as a legitimate target for “social engineering”, and in general a garden to be designed and kept in the planned shape by force (the gardening posture divides vegetation into “cultured plants” to be taken care of, and weeds to be exterminated), was the very atmosphere in which the idea of the Holocaust could be conceived, slowly yet consistently developed, and brought to its conclusion.  And I also suggest that it was the spirit of instrumental rationality, and its modern, bureaucratic form of institutionalization, which had made the Holocaust-style solutions not only possible, but eminently “reasonable”–and increased the probability of their choice.


In Le Monde on-line this morning, there was a piece by [Alain] Badiou on the current global finance/credit crisis.  Basically, his argument was that the “real” is nothing of the market, but is, rather, the misery of the excluded masses, excluded by the “barbarity” that is capitalism, as Marx already saw 160 years ago.  The only real solution/response to the present crisis of “capitalism-parliamentarism” (and “democracy”) is,  in effect, the parallel, autonomous coming together of the excluded themselves.  Therein lies an altogether new politics–or, rather, the point of breakthrough for the genuinely political as such, no longer reducible to, or peripheral to, the economy.

[Naomi] Klein’s closing pages [in The Shock Doctrine–see my recent posts on her work] about disaster victims taking recovery in their own hands, despite and independent of government, points to the same conclusion.

So does my own thoughts on AA and the reply to addiction [it represents].

It is all  a matter of the dispelling of the illusion of the reality of the capitalist world–a waking from the dream, to dismiss the vanishing phantoms.

The irrelevance of the economy, and everything tied to it (e.g., “electoral politics”).


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bauman, p. 64: 

Heterophobia [which he wants sharply to distinguish from racism] seems to be a focused manifestation of a still wider phenomenon of anxiety aroused by the feeling that one has no control over the situation, and that thus one can neither influence its development, nor foresee the consequences of one’s action.  Heterophobia . . . is a fairly common phenomenon at all times and more common still in an age of modernity, when occasions for the “no control”experience become more frequent, and their interpretation in terms of the obtrusive interference by alien human groups becomes more plausible.

Borrowing the distinction [Gilles] Deleuze makes focal in his reading of Nietzsche, I’d say “heterophobia” is a reactive formation, which fits with Bauman’s characterization, in this part of his book, of ressentiment.  In contrast, I’d say addiction [for one] is an active formation in response to the same ” ‘no control’ experience.”

The Economics of Trauma: Naomi Klein on “Disaster Capitalism,” #3 of 3


This is the last of three posts addressing Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.  Below is an entry I made in my philosophical journal last fall, on the date indicated.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Klein, p. 518:  “Katrina was a tragedy, but, as Milton Friedman wrote in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, it was ‘also an opportunity.’ ”  Compare John McCain after 9/11.   [McCain viewed “9/11” as just such an “opportunity”–namely, to settle the score with what he took to be the United States’ enemies, using the umbrella of protecting the U. S. against “terrorism” to cover the operation of wilfully launching supposedly pre-emptive wars and the like.   Although perhaps not quite in the wide-open way McCain himself would have done it,  that was pretty much just what the Bush administration did, of course.] 

[Compare, as well, Michel] Henry, Du communisme au capitalisme, p.211:  We today are

subjected to the most extraordinary censorship that has ever existed.  For in the time of the king of Prussia, of Stalin, or of Hitler, at least one knew that there was censorship, while today, under the reign of freedom, one no longer knows that.  Thus does the formidable ideological conditioning of the totality of society accomplish itself at each instant, in the bombardment of the media and publicity which imposes on everyone the quasi-totality of one’s mental contents, even to one’s desires and fantasies, in everyone, even infants, without criticism, without any power to contest it having the possibility to manifest even its simple existence.


Klein, p. 522:  “Not so long ago, disasters were periods of social leveling, rare moments when atomized communities put divisions aside and pulled together.  Increasingly, however, disasters are the  opposite:  they provides windows into a cruel and ruthlessly divided future in which money and race buy survival.”


Pp. 540-541:

Given the boiling temperatures, both climatic and political, future disasters need not be cooked up in dark conspiracies [because they have now been built into the economic system itself–compare the current financial/credit crisis].  All indications are that simply staying the current course, they will keep coming with ever more ferocious intensity.  Disaster generation can therefore be left to the market’s invisible hand.  This is one area in which it actually delivers. . . . [A] new consensus is emerging.  It is not that the market has become immune to instability, at least not exactly.  It is that a steady flow of disasters is now so expected that the ever-adaptable market has changed to fit this new status quo–instability is the new stability.

Above all, [I’d say this can be seen in] the emergence and installation of the global surveillance-security corporate private industry.


Pp. 585-586:  “All shock therapists [in the negative sense of disaster capitalism] are intent on the erasure of memory. . . . Memory, both individual and collective, turns out to be the greatest shock absorber of all.”

Klein ends her book with accounts of how some natural-disaster survivors have taken reconstruction (i.e., recovery) into  their own hands–to learn, as one Katrina victim puts it (p. 586), “to say, ‘What can we do right now to start to bring our neighborhoods back in spite of the government [and its “shock therapists”], not because of it?’ ”

Pp. 588-589:

Uniting all  these examples of people rebuilding for themselves is a common theme:  participants say they are not just repairing buildings but healing themselves.  It makes perfect sense.  The universal experience of living through a great shock is the feeling of being completely powerless in the face of awesome forces. . . . The best way to recover from helplessness turns out to be helping–having the right to part of a common recovery.

That is the principle of AA and for recovery from addiction, as well, it is worth noting.  As Klein sees, that points to the way out.

“I passed by again, they were not there.”

“Like a dream one wakes from, oh Lord, when you wake you dismiss them as phantoms.”


Remnant Communities and the Trauma of Sovereignty


Today’s brief entry from my philosophical journal, an entry which I first wrote last May, concerns once again the thought  of Jenny Edkins, whose field is international relations, and about whom I have written before in this blog.  What is at issue in the entry below, as it is at issue in the essay by Edkins I address, is a question raised by the work of contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben on the concept of sovereignty.  Agamben argues that modern sovereignty grows from a seed planted long before modernity by the ancient Greeks when they distinguished–in Aristotle’s thought especially–between bios, or life in the fully human sense, such as can be captured in “biographies,” which literally means “life-writings,” on the one hand, and zoe, or life in the purely “zoological” sense, on the other.  

Following Carl Schmitt, the right-wing political theorist who eventually used his thought to provide the Nazi state with legal justification, Agamben defines modern sovereignty as that power that draws the line between supposedly fully human life and what Agamben calls “bare life.”  Agamben goes on to argue that the emergence under the Nazis of the concentration camp system, above all the death-camps where the Nazis carried out the “extermination” of the Jews, was the culmination and flowering of sovereignty, so defined.  What is more, he argues that insofar as everyone today is subject to  such sovereignty everyone today is at least potentially, by virtue of the decisions of whoever holds the position of sovereign over one–the position of being “the decider,’ as George W. Bush notoriously identified himself in his role as President–an inmate in “the camps.”

The question that Professor Edkins raises in the article I am considering in the entry below is, in short, that of the form that resistance to such sovereignty can take.  If resistance to sovereignty, as Agamben analyzes sovereignty, is still possible at all, then just how might we make our resistance effective?  Or are we in fact doomed henceforth to trying merely to continue surviving, eking out as best we can one day at a time the “bare life,” as Agamben names it,  to which sovereignty reduces life in “Auschwitz,” “the camps”?

My own very brief remarks interspersed below within and between citations from Edkins point toward what I have come to call “remnant communities” as places where such effective resistance may occur.  My selection of that name is indebted to Agamben, Franz Rosenzweig, and German and Jewish studies scholar Eric L. Santner, each of whom makes use of the term remnant in a way that has become important for me in my own thought.

One of the  key books in which Agamben himself works his thought of sovereignty and “bare life” is tellingly called Remnants of Auschwitz.  Not only were the inmates of Auschwitz remnants–cast off by-products, as it were–of the Nazi state, but all we have for testimony from those inmates themselves are remnants of what would constitute full testimony to the horror in which so many perished, a testimony that could only be made by those who so perished themselves, but who in being exterminated were denied any possibility of bear their own witness.

Then in The Psychotheology of Everyday Life:  Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (University of Chicago Press, 2001) Santner makes central use of the idea of the “remnant,” the “useless,” “good for nothing” cast-off remainder of the processes wherein we establish our “identity.”   It is only as such remnants, or at that level of ourselves where each of us is just such a good-for-nothing, ready-to-be-discarded remnant, that we can be encountered in our pure singularity, our “ipseity” as Santner calls it, to distinguish it from our “identity,” which is always a matter of social construction and what he calls “symbolic investiture” (for example, such investitures as establish my own  identity as a philosophy professor, father, husband, etc.). 

Santner’s use of the idea of the remnant is itself based in part on Agamben’s just mentioned text.  Even more crucially however, Santner’s thought and terminology is grounded in Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption.  In that work Rosenzweig traces what he argues is an essential connection between Judaism and the  idea of “the remnant.” For him, the Jewish diaspora community is just a “remnant community” as I have in mind:  a community alongside and within the dominant–we can say the “sovereign”–society, one which does not set itself up as any alternative to that society, any competitor for sovereign power, but which instead lives out its own rich life as a community without reference, we might say, to that environing, dominant,  sovereign society, outside its laws, in that sense, though the individual members of that remnant community continue to play their various roles in that same sovereign society. 

Another model of a “remnant” community is provided by Benedictine monasticism, which is an insistently “cenobitic” form of monasticism–that is, the monastic life lived out in communities of monks, which is to say communities of solitaries, who live “alone together,” to use a formulation I find helpful.  Each Benedictine monastic community lives out its communal life in a certain, definite “withdrawal” from “the world,” yet a withdrawal in which the monastery–in the sense of the monastic community as such–always remains connected to, and interactive with, that same “world” in various complex ways.  The monastery is a community “in the world, but not of the world,” as one common formulation has it.  It is a place where the irrelevancy of what in medieval Christian discourse is called “the world” is made known, simply by the fact of communal  life being lived at such a place “outside” yet “in” that same “world.”

Yet a third example of what I would call  a “remnant community,” providing yet a third model of the formation and continuance of such a community, would be a “Twelve Step fellowship,” such as Alcoholics Anonymous, as I suggest at the end of the entry below.  Interested readers might wish to refer back to some of my earlier posts, in which I offer further remarks, all relevant to the topic of today’s post, about AA and other such fellowships.

 This is a topic that, in one way or another, will occupy me in many of the entries I will be posting here in the future.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Jenny Edkins, “Whatever Politics,” in Matthew Calarco and Steven DeCaroli, editors, Giorgio Agamben:  Sovereignty and Life (Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 70-91.  Page 73:  “Sovereign distinctions [especially between bios and zoe] do not hold; to refuse them, and to demonstrate being in common, is  not to make a new move but only, yet most importantly, to embrace that insight [namely, the insight that such sovereign distinctions do not hold], and to call sovereignty’s bluff.”  Then, page 76:  “Sovereign power is happy to negotiate the boundaries of the distinctions that it makes; what it could  not tolerate would be the refusal to  make any distinctions of this sort.”

Compare [Alain] Badiou’s summation of the truth that comes to pass/takes place as the Sparticist uprising [in ancient Rome–which Badiou discusses in Logiques des mondes]:  [the simple but incontrovertible truth–incontrovertible even by the eventual rout of the Sparticist troops by the Roman legions sent against them, and the crucifixion of Sparticist and his followers–that, as Spartacus was just the first among the slaves of Rome to realize,] “We can go home.”

Compare, also, Yossarian in [Joseph Heller’s novel] Catch 22 [who finally just does “go home,” which in his  case means to check out of the insanity of the World War II Allied war enterprise by deserting to a neutral country].

Trauma and Sovereignty — and Alcoholics Anonymous


After the entry posted yesterday, the next entry of significance pertaining to trauma in my philosophical journal occurs almost a month later. As was also true of the first posted entry and will be true for subsequent entries overall, the entry below was occasions by my reflections on the literature about trauma that I was reading at the time. Just as there is something appropriate, as I mentioned in my previous post, about both the delayed posting of these entries from my philosophical journal and the episodic nature of the entries themselves, so is there something appropriate to the general subject of this website–trauma–about the typically responsive character of all the entries: their being occasioned by reflections engendered by earlier experiences, in this case, earlier reading. The truths carried to us in trauma always require just such response for their reception. What is more, if, as I will be arguing in a variety of entries for future postings, truth itself is unavoidably traumatic, then the coming of truth itself must always take place in such responsiveness.

The entry posted below also introduces the reader to another of my long-standing philosophical and personal interests, that of the philosophy of addiction and “recovery.” Readers unfamiliar with my earlier work and interested in pursuing some of my writing on that topic may consult my book Addiction and Responsibility: An Inquiry into the Addictive Mind, which was originally published in 1993 (New York: Crossroad), and which I have recently made available chapter by chapter online at

Below is the newly posted entry from my philosophical journal.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Reading Trauma and the Memory of Politics, by Jenny Edkins (Cambridge U. Press, 2003).

Pp.188-189: Very good, clear, short summary of [contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio] Agamben [in such works as Homo Sacer] on how, in the [Nazi concentration/extermination] camps, the zone of indistinction between zoe [Greek for life in the minimal zoological sense] and bios [life in the full, human sense, as involved in a person’s “biography,” for example] is reached. And, even better, she grasps and presents how, for Agamben, testimony bears witness to the inseparability of the two. As she sees it, it is that testimony/witness to their inseparability that truly contests “modern sovereignty.” But she ends by throwing away her own insight, it seems to me, when she goes on to write (p. 189): “The distinction between zoe and bios underlies sovereign power–is fundamental to it.” Her whole analysis shows, on the contrary, that it is not distinguishing between the two that founds sovereignty, but is, rather, the self-dissembling of that very distinction–the engendering of the myth of the natural or original givenness of the distinction, as it it were, rather than the acknowledgment of the artificiality and conventionality of the distinction, [such a mystifying mythification of the distinction being necessary] to get sovereignty up and running in the first place. What testimony/witnessing does is point to the fictional “nature” of the distinction–its non-“naturality,” as it were: the emperor [of Hans-Christian Anderson’s fairytale story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”] never has any clothes! (She ends up saying the same herself, in effect, on p. 232.)

Related: Right after that (pp. 190-191) she discusses the processes whereby the status quo appropriates testimony/witnessing through such devices as memorialization (narratives of rescue and hope), mediatization, etc., thereby diverting, in effect, the potentially disruptive power of such testimony. Well, I’ve long been aware of that precisely as it applies to AA. It could certainly be plausibly argued that AA itself functions as just such a diversion of otherwise potentially disruptive power, by diverting the addict from the angry manifestation of anger itself–that disruptive power–in substance/practice abuse, into “peaceful” channels, so that the addict gets “set straight,” back on the road of socially useful and productive behavior.

Such an analysis is not without power of its own. However, there are two factors about AA, concretely taken in the context of addiction and society in interaction, that tell me the analysis along those lines needs to be thought through into a different analysis, if the analysis itself is to serve any liberating potential. Those two factors are:

1) It is addiction itself–e.g., alcoholism–that actually serves the status quo as a diversion of the potentially disruptive power that the potential addict could otherwise become. Precisely by giving all us social malcontents, us “restless, irritable, and discontented” people [a reference to a well known line from “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the book Alcoholics Anonymous], something to keep us occupied, as it were, the power that is–the “status quo”–effectively neutralizes us. That’s why truly to hear [someone in an AA meeting say, as someone often will, especially if there is a “newcomer” present], “You never have to drink again [if you don’t want to],” is [potentially] so liberating for the alcoholic, but also carries a hidden potential to liberate the socially disruptive power that till then had been so successfully neutralized.

2) That newly liberated potentially disruptive power, in turn, works–not by encouraging/propelling recovered addicts to organize/mobilize for direct political action. That would not accord with the 10th AA tradition, against having any “opinion on outside issues,” as well as the 5th tradition, on keeping “singleness of purpose” (“but one primary purpose” [namely, “to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety”].  Rather, the revolutionary potential is AA itself! It is “life together” in AA that marginalizes the very things that, outside AA, marginalize segments of the [larger] society (blacks, gays, women, whomever). In AA [AA members] live together in such a way that all such divisions are set aside. Thus, it is at the level of AA as a border-less, place-less place in the social landscape–a place where, whenever one comes into that place, the fictions of sovereignty are swept away as the fictions they are–it’s as such a place without place that AA simply lets free life occur.