As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Charles Kollmer looks at Kai Evers’s “The Holes of Oblivion: Arendt and Benjamin on Storytelling in the Age of Totalitarian Destruction” from Telos 132 (Fall 2005).
A central concern of critical theory revolves around the difficulty of communicating in the wake of modernity’s crises. Unprecedented trauma and violence obliterate tradition, which historically formed the necessary context for lucid and comprehensible stories. Walter Benjamin famously observed that veterans of World War I returned “not richer but poorer in communicable experience.” In the wake of the war, he notes, the word bekanntlich, or “as everybody well knows,” lost its currency, leaving only Erfahrungsarmut, “the new poverty of experience.” In response to this situation, Benjamin valorized the anti-aesthetic manifest in the works of Karl Kraus and Berthold Brecht, concluding that “all that remains is the discipline of those who destroy.” A similar current of thought underpins many of the philosophical and aesthetic developments in postwar culture, from the Frankfurt School’s critique of Enlightenment empiricism to the Dadaist rejection of canonical artistic authority.
In “The Holes of Oblivion,” Kai Evers traces the influence of Benjamin’s insight through several instances of Hannah Arendt’s political theory, noting an apparent reversal of her position on the viability of storytelling between the writing of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). An important phrase in Arendt’s work, “holes of oblivion,” describes the ways in which totalitarianism’s concentration camps rendered “human beings ‘superfluous’ and [let] them disappear . . . as if they never existed.” In some ways, this notion mirrors Benjamin’s grim prognosis of the modern storyteller; the schematic brutality of fascism creates an inescapable abyss of victimhood, obliterating both “facts . . . and [those that] prove reluctant to forget them.” Yet Arendt differentiates her position on storytelling from Benjamin’s, looking to the narrative form to “imperfectly” fill the role of theory during “dark times” that test the veracity of traditional analysis. Though both would seem to agree on the immense difficulty of coming to grips with the mass death of modernity, Arendt eschews Benjamin’s aesthetics of negativity and reaffirms the importance of the “properly narrated story.”
Yet Arendt’s position on first-hand accounts of the concentration camps reveals nuanced caveats on the viability of narrating oblivion, emphasizing the difference between recording and communication:
Arendt judged survivors incapable of storytelling. Indeed, she cautioned in the strongest terms possible against the expectation of gaining any significant insight into totalitarian domination from them. She greeted their accounts with the same suspicion with which Benjamin had greeted the stories of the soldiers who had returned from the war in the trenches. While Benjamin took the soldiers’ inability to communicate their experiences as indicative of the demise of storytelling, Arendt reclaimed a central . . . position for the storyteller in the age of unprecedented catastrophe—a position whose tenability Benjamin had considered impossible—by revisiting Benjamin’s insistence on the interdependency of experience and storytelling.
Benjamin linked storytelling to personal experience. Not every detail and every event had to be experienced by the storyteller, but without grounding it in his or her own experience, storytelling would be impossible. For Arendt, however, the proximity to the event and to personal experience poses a threat to storytelling in the age of unprecedented destruction. In her essay “The Concentration Camps” (1948), she distinguished “three possible approaches to the reality of the concentration camp”: (1) immediate experience, (2) assimilated recollection, and (3) fearful anticipation. Her criterion to distinguish these approaches is the distance of the observing individual from direct experience. The closer the accounts remain to the experience, the less useful they are for understanding the events. Arendt follows here the same logic that led the prosecutors of the Nuremburg trial (1945–6) to disfavor the use of survivor testimony in court. Consequently, immediate experience is the most limited and least productive approach to an understanding of totalitarian domination in Arendt’s account. She finds it “quite understandable” that only a few of these accounts have been published since “they all leave the reader cold, that is, as apathetic and baffled as the writer himself.” Rather than inspiring “outrage and sympathy” they cause “repugnance and hatred.” Arendt faults these survivors for their refusal (not their inability) to communicate the experiences because their reports are marked by the “insane contempt for those ‘who never went through it,’ that in the direct reports so often substitutes for communication.” These reports “record but do not communicate.”
Evers explains that the narratives of brutality and violence require a social context in order to properly address the phenomenon of totalitarianism, thus gesturing toward the importance of “fearful anticipation,” which grounds narrative in the larger social project of avoiding future catastrophe.
However, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt explicitly recognizes a particularly poignant testimony from survivor and witness, Zyndel Grynszpan, seemingly undermining the hierarchy deployed in “The Concentration Camps.” Evers offers two possible interpretations of this turn. The less challenging of the two is that Grynszpan is the “exception that proves the rule,” since Arendt pointedly praises only his account while retaining skepticism towards that of the other survivors. A more difficult interpretation concedes that one can communicate effectively from the depths of oblivion, suggesting that there are aspects of totalitarianism that pervade our culture, and thus are bekanntlich. Arendt eschews theories of violence, writing that it is “a marginal phenomenon in the political realms,” since in its most radical forms, violence silences. Yet, if a witness to the radical violence of twentieth-century totalitarianism could effectively break this silence, it would seem incumbent on political theory to attempt to account for even the most heinous of modernity’s crimes.
Read the full version of Kai Evers’s “The Holes of Oblivion: Arendt and Benjamin on Storytelling in the Age of Totalitarian Destruction” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.