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Working thesis

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years ago

Thesis/Outline at end of block 4 (12/19/05) with minor corrections (01/02/06):


---- The story of the thesis ----


I first conceived of my thesis topic, in a much less detailed and generally quite different form, during the junior/senior seminar in philosophy that I took seventh block last year. In it, I read a book by Richard Bernstein called Radical Evil that included (in addition to a long section on the philosophy of Levinas, which would become important later) a quote by Hannah Arendt about how she felt upon hearing about the Shoah for the first time. She described it as an "abyss" opening in her that could never be filled. This abyss that must always remain open reminded me of Derrida's description of language as a system with an arbitrary center. Once we realize that the placeholder in the center is arbitrary, it loses its meaning and drops out. Such a description leaves me with an image of language (as viewed by post-modernists) as something we once thought of as whole that now has an abyss in it that can never be filled. This is, I understand, an oversimplified comparison that is unfair both to post-modernists and Shoah survivors, but it was an interesting comparison: the response to the Shoah and the response to post-modernism. With this vague understanding in mind, I applied for and received a Lewis Prize in Philosophy (a $500 grant to study a philosophical question in an interesting way) to go to New York and, while taking a class to fulfill the literature component of the comparative literature major, independently study the responses to the Shoah and post-modernism.


Unfortunately, Holocaust Studies is a massive field, and I became overwhelmed by the abstractness of my topic and the abundance of reading material. Concentrating on one compilation of essays (Breaking Crystal, see my bibliography), I found two related themes continually surfacing: 1) the impossibility/necessity of representation and 2) the new moral responsibility after the Shoah. (It was at this time that I first came across the quote from Adorno that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.") I was debating between these two potential themes at the beginning of this academic year and chose to work on morality at the end of the first block, mostly out of the necessity to narrow my topic somehow and by the availability of professors (I wanted to work with either Rick Furtak or Judy Genova and got a hold of Rick first, who specializes more with questions of morality than questions of representation). Asking questions of morality in the field of comparative literature led me to the most obvious connection: is creating/studying literature a moral good? This question reminded me of the quote I had read by Adorno, who - as I took him at the time - was claiming that creating poetry was not moral.


At the beginning of fourth block, I knew that I wanted to work on Adorno and expected to do some work on postmodern moral theory. I also expected to study Primo Levi because he was so often mentioned in the Holocaust Studies texts that I had read. In the first week of fourth block, I decided to create a Wiki to keep my thoughts organized, and this method of keeping notes has stuck with me throughout most of the project. I also began studying postmodern morality and Theodor Adorno. The most useful text for me regarding postmodern morality was an essay by Anne Fuchs that questions the place of representation in a moral response to the Shoah, whether representing the victims in the way we do is doing what we claim it does. Her argument is based on the Other-oriented morality of Immanuel Levinas and - to a lesser extent - on the philosophy of Jean-Francois Lyotard. I spent most of my time, though, studying Adorno and especially his essay, "Cultural Criticism and Society," in which he makes the claim that I had originally read: "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." It turned out that this was not an obviously moral claim, but a statement about the dialectical movement of culture in Western society. This reading at first complicated my original goal of studying morality, but then – as I read more Adorno – grew to inform it. Adorno, it turns out, is making a claim about how culture functions within the larger framework of his categorical imperative (which is not stated directly in "Cultural Criticism and Society") that Auschwitz should never be allowed to happen again. So, although Adorno's is, in a sense, a historical claim, it becomes an interesting question for my project in the way that it relates to his morality.


With this understanding of Adorno, I moved on to studying Primo Levi during the third week of the block. I finished reading If This is a Man, which I had started over the summer, and read some interviews with and several essays about Levi. The common themes in all of the essays, and prevalent within the texts by him, are language and memory. Each plays an interesting role in his moral goal after the Shoah, which at first appears to be the unbiased documentation of what happened in Auschwitz but becomes more complicated when memory and language fail us and their failure is itself a form of combating Fascism. The essays about Levi also addressed, briefly, the question of how Levi's modes of representation (writing memoirs, keeping the tattoo of his number on his arm, etc.) allow him to turn memories that he cannot avoid (and are thus involuntary) into voluntary memories. This issue (with the help/coaxing of Corinne Scheiner) opened a new question for me: what do the modes with which people choose to respond to the Shoah (memoir, philosophical treatise, poetry) reveal about their response? This question not only allowed me to think about Levi's texts on a new level, but also developed into the penultimate section of my paper (see my outline below), which compares the responses of each writer I examine, and specifically looks at the hope that multiple modes of representation and multiple approaches to preventing future occurrences of Auschwitz will inform each other and - in theory - addresses Adorno's worry about the historical movement of culture.


Finally, over the last half-week of the block, I have been studying Israeli texts, since I need one in order to fulfill the requirements of a comparative literature thesis - and also because an examination of responses to morality after the Shoah would likely be incomplete without including at least one author from the Jewish State. With the goal of an Israeli text in mind, I sent a long e-mail to my father, describing my project and asking for advice on possible texts and to send something from Israel (since it will, likely, not be as easily available in the United States). On my own, I have mostly found essays - in English - about Israeli authors, which almost all mention either (or both) Rivkah Miriam and Savyon Liebrekht, so I will likely pursue one of them. The one Hebrew text that I have found looks at, and includes, the poetry of Natan Alterman, so his is the only potentially useful Hebrew poetry that I have read so far, which is why he is presently my Israeli author, though I do not have enough of his poetry to understand how he conceives of morality and/or poetry after the Shoah. At the same time, because I want to look at different modes for addressing the Shoah, and because I find his argument so interesting, I decided during this period to include Immanuel Levinas in my thesis as a final primary author, though I have not yet had a chance to read anything by or about him since making that choice. Thus, the vision of my thesis at the present moment is most detailed in its first part - looking at Adorno and Levi - and becomes more sparse in the later stages. It looks like this:



---- Basic outline (paper length: 50 pages) ----


  1. Introduction (thesis statement, introduction to authors, relevance, outline) -- 5 pages
  2. Adorno -- 9 pages
  3. Levi -- 7 pages
  4. Alterman (or someone else) -- 7 pages
  5. Levinas -- 7 pages
  6. Comparing Levi/Alterman/Levinas -- 10 pages
  7. Conclusion (the bigger questions to which my text leads and also contextualizing questions: why is this piece important for literists, those who specialize in one of my authors and those who don't? Why is it important for philosophers? etc.) -- 5 pages


---- Arguments in specific sections ----


-- Thesis --

Theodor Adorno, in "Cultural Criticism and Society," makes the claim that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." This is a claim about how culture, which is by definition non-objectified, is in danger of being objectified by an overly commercial and all-encompassing society and thus becoming the opposite of culture: barbarism. This claim, in conjunction with Adorno's new categorical imperative - that we not allow Auschwitz to happen again - and an understanding of Auschwitz as objectification to its extreme, suggests that culture has the power to protect us from future atrocities but is losing that power by becoming objectified (and barbaric). I will examine three responses to Adorno's new categorical imperative and to his worry that we are losing the power to fulfill that imperative – the responses of Primo Levi, (for now) Natan Alterman, and Immanuel Levinas – looking at which ways each one responds to Adorno's imperative and worry and how their responses overlap and inform each other; I will further argue that each of these responses is strengthened by the mode(s) in which it is most often presented: memoirs, poetry, and philosophical treatises. (Note: none of these authors respond directly to Adorno, but they all respond in various ways to his imperative and his worry.)


-- Adorno --

In Negative Dialectics, Theodor Adorno claims that humankind's new categorical imperative is to never allow Auschwitz to happen again. For him, Auschwitz had many social causes, several of them still prevalent in our post-Shoah societies. In "The Meaning of Working through the Past," Adorno argues that at the root of Fascism (as a social institution that led to Auschwitz) is lack of reflection, which is still apparent in our society and is even exhibited in responses to the Shoah. We might think of the dramatized versions of the Shoah, like "Schindler's List," that elicit a gut response from us (of - say - despising Nazi Germany), but to not induce us to think. In "Cultural Criticism and Society," Adorno argues that, although culture (including literature) is by definition that which cannot be objectified, as Western society becomes increasingly commercial and affects our life in increasingly pervasive ways (with movies, then television, and now the Internet), culture is becoming just an element of commerce and thus an quantity whose value we judge. The process of objectification and quantification is what Adorno calls "reification." At the same time, the critic, and especially the cultural critic, has a unique relationship with society - she has the potential to question society's roots and make people aware (and wary) of society's reification of everything (including the people), but because criticism itself is now a part of commerce, it is losing that power. In short, our society is becoming more and more reifying, and we are increasingly losing the power to notice and care. The Holocaust is an extreme example of reification, in which the victims were not only treated inhumanely, but turned into numbers, so it represents for Adorno his worst fear: a society that is so overwhelming and so objectifying that it has turned everything into an object of more or less value. He thus claims that, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," which is to say that culture (poetry) and the opposite of culture (barbarism) have become the same thing. Culture is no longer cultural; it has become objectified, like everything else, by Nazi Germany. This view is more pessimistic than the one in "The Meaning of Working through the Past," but it holds the same goal: that Auschwitz should never be repeated. Together, they suggest that in order to fulfill our new categorical imperative, we must somehow induce thought in ourselves and the other members in our society, and we are losing our only methods for inducing such thought. This worry is exemplified by an example that Rolf Tiedemann uses in his introduction to the collection of Adorno's work, Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader. He claims to have heard a joke often told in New York: "there is no business like Shoah business" (xii). This joke suggests that representations of the Shoah have been reduced to a business, which is not concerned with depicting truth but (thoughtlessly) making money, which would be problematic for Adorno on both above counts. First, if representing the Shoah is a business, its goal is not to create thought but to flourish commercially. Second, if representing the Shoah - which is a cultural activity - has the goal of flourishing commercially, then culture has taken one more step towards complete reification.


-- Levi --

Primo Levi, in his essays (especially "The Memory of the offense"), argues for a continuing conversation about the Shoah and the memories of it because those memories are fading. This argument suggests that memory and communication play a vital role in both doing justice to those that died and preventing future atrocities like the Shoah. The importance of memory and communication for Levi can be seen by his concentration on memory throughout his texts (which have the goal of communicating). In "The Memory of the Offense," he claims that his memory is not fading (although memory, in general, is). His most common mode of writing (including four of his books) is the memoir, a mode whose name comes from the same root as "memory."


Yet, as Bryan Cheyette shows in his essay "The Ethical Uncertainty of Primo Levi," Levi's relationship with both memory and language is ambivalent. He claims that some people from his camp life are indescribable and that certain aspects of his life have faded from his memory. These claims seem to directly contradict Levi's goal (and even his claims in "The Memory of the Offense"), but this seeming contradiction is what Cheyette calls Levi's "ethical uncertainty." Levi's position on memory and communication is ambivalent. Memory is not all-powerful; it is not itself enough to fulfill our moral obligations; but, it is still important and necessary. Cheyette claims that this ambivalence is in direct conflict with Fascist thinking, which relies on stark systematic binaries: us and them, good and evil, etc. These binaries are, if we look at them from an Adornan lens, other examples of the key binary on which commercial society runs: valuable and not valuable. Thus, when Levi himself betrays what appears at first to be his system (in which memory and communication have the ultimate, unquestioned places in the post-Shoah moral Universe), he does not allow for a system in which memory and language are the simple measures of everything's value. In other words, if memory and communication have an ambivalent relationship with our moral goals, we can no longer blindly call ourselves "good" simply by going to the Holocaust Museum and talking about the horror that our relatives or our friends' relatives must have undergone, and we can no longer dismiss a text as either good or bad based only on whether or not it includes a true story about the Shoah. Levi's most common mode - memoirs - is perfect for this ambivalence, insofar as it allows him to problematize both memory and language from within a text (a linguistic entity) that deals directly with memory. When he claims, in If This is a Man that the events of the day just described "is completely forgotten" and "leaves no trace in anybody's memory" (133) after claiming that "none of the facts [in this text] are invented" (10), what it means to invent a fact comes into question. If Levi himself has completely forgotten this day, just like everyone else, how can he possibly have related it to us in a memoir that purports not to invent facts? Here, Levi's ambivalent attitude towards memory takes on an even more ambivalent quality when it itself is placed within a story from Levi's memory.


Given these thoughts, we should be careful not to forget that Levi is not advocating complete skepticism either. Memory does have an important place in preventing a future Auschwitz, and preventing a future Auschwitz is an important goal. It is only blind following that Levi eschews, be it the blind following of memory or of Hitler.


-- Alterman (or whoever) --

Alterman responds to the Shoah by putting emphasis on the destructive power of letters. Letters have the power to express rage but also to harm one's people, and specifically one's family. Alterman repeats the line, "האחים, האחים, האחים" (“The brothers, the brothers, the brothers”) three times in the poem “Hamakhterit” (“The Breaking-in”) and “,אמי, אמי” (“My mother, my mother,”) twice in "על הילד אברם" (“On the Child Avram”). This ambivalence with the power of language is reminiscent of Levi and complicated in the same way as Levi's ambivalence with memory; Alterman – despite his claims about them – is using letters in a literary form that is famous for its concentration on the most basic elements of language. (The Russian Formalists, we remember, discuss poetry as being that which defamiliarizes first by the sounds expressed by its letters.) Letters are also the basis for making a text permanent, according to Walter Ong, who discusses the ephemerality of a primarily oral language. How do we reconcile Alterman's image of letters as destructive with the fact that he uses them to create a construction that, above all other modes, holds the letter in such high regard (I realize that I would need to do a lot of work to back up a claim like this) and at the same time gives his text permanence (the temporal opposite of destruction)? Should we reconcile these contradicting positions?


-- Levinas --

Levinas's moral philosophy concentrates on the way that we relate to the Other. For him, Western philosophy has concentrated on questions of finding similarities between myself and the world around me. But, the world outside of myself is infinite, and I am finite, such that the world can never fit into categories into which I also fit. More, everyone other than me has something infinite about them, in that they are Other - not me. Once I see this infinity within each person, I realize that I have an infinite moral obligation to that infinite. That which is not me, by virtue of being something I cannot master, is that to which I should devote myself, and thus, I should devote myself to those around me, helping them not because I expect similar actions in return (why should the infinite have an obligation to help me, the finite?), but simply out of respect for that infinite within each other person. Granted, we might never fulfill this infinite imperative, but it is our imperative nonetheless. This argument has obvious similarities with Adorno's: a moral imperative that we are failing to fulfill. More, if we were to fulfill Levinas's imperative, Auschwitz would become impossible, so Levinas's imperative also fulfills Adorno's.


Is Levinas's argument informed by the way he presents it? His text is distinctly void of Others. Are Others within a text somehow made finite? (Perhaps, one could argue that the commercialization of texts has made all textual Others objects, such that the inclusion of one would run contrary to Levinas's point.) What can a philosophical treatise do to answer the questions Levinas wants to answer that a memoir and a series of poems cannot? Here, Martha Nussbaum makes interesting claims, though she makes them towards a different end: the inclusion of literature within philosophy. She claims that the traditional philosophical mode strives for generality and disinterestedness. Is Levinas's philosophy related to these two stylistic goals?


-- Comparison --

I will need to read more of the texts before I really start thinking about this section.


-- Conclusion --

This paper addresses issues within the larger field of comparative literature in two ways. First, by examining a philosopher (Levinas) alongside a poet and a (mostly) prose fiction/autobiography writer, my paper raises the question of what we should be investigating in a comparative literature paper, and thus of what counts as literature. My paper suggests that Levinas can be made meaningful in a partially literary way and that literary questions can be asked of his texts. This broadened understanding of literature might frighten certain literists in a similar way to how the study of cultural studies does, and my paper would thus make these literists even more uncomfortable by using a scholar of cultural studies (Adorno) as my critical lens. These same issues are reflected in the philosophical component of this paper. Although Martha Nussbaum argues that literature should be included in philosophical investigations, this view is not very well accepted, so – again – comparing Levinas alongside Levi and a poet has forced me to take a stand in an as yet undecided debate.


On the more important level of this paper (for me), however, these problems become less important. My paper is attempting to approach the question of whether literature is morally good (in its creation and its analysis) and what morally good literature does. Such a question side-steps, in a sense, the “comparative” vs. “literature” debate by asking first what we as literists (and artists) are doing for the world around us. If literature is failing its function in our society, then neither broadening our field of analysis to include all culture nor expanding our task to include different forms of comparison will likely be a magical elixir to cure the inefficacy of literature. In other words, before we ask what we are doing or how we are doing it, this paper asks why we do what we do and, more, why we should be doing it.



---- Timeline for completion ----


-- Winter Vacation and Half Block --

Finish: Night (Wiesel)

Reread: If This is a Man (Levi).

Read: The Drowned and the Saved (Levi) and as much of The Periodic Table (Levi) as I can.

Also read: as much of Can One Survive After Auschwitz? (Adorno) and Negative Dialectics (Adorno) as I can.

Also read: a little bit from either Totality and Infinity (Levinas) or Basic Philosophical Writings (Levinas).

Find: a definite Israeli author, get her/his texts.


-- Block 5 --

Finish: The Periodic Table (Levi), Can One Survive After Auschwitz? (Adorno), and Negative Dialectics (Adorno).

Read: as much of my Israeli author's texts as I can.


-- Block 5, Break --

Finish: reading my Israeli text and Totality and Infinity (Levinas).

Find: Criticism of Levinas (specifically his conception of morality) and Levi.

Try to find: criticism of my Hebrew text.


-- Block 6, Week 1 --

Reread: "Cultural Criticism and Society," "Meditations on Metaphysics," and "Commitment" (the three texts by Adorno that explicitly talk about writing poetry after Auschwitz - "Meditations" also makes explicit Adorno's new categorical imperative)

Read: As much more Adorno and criticism of Adorno as I can (especially Problems of Moral Philosophy), interspersed with his biography to keep me sane

Talk to: Rick Furtak and hopefully James Reid

Write: 10 pages on Adorno that address the following questions: Does he believe that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric? Does he change his mind (in "Meditations")? What does the claim "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" mean? Why would someone hold that position? Why would someone not? What is the relationship between this position and Adorno's categorical imperative? What is the categorical imperative and why should one hold it? Do I have any critiques of Adorno's argument? What kinds?


-- Block 6, Week 2 --

Reread: interesting sections of If This is a Man, The Drowned and the Saved, and the criticism of Levi I have already read.

Read: as much of If Not Now, When?, The Voice of Memory, and new criticism about Levi as I can.

Try to talk to: Susan Ashley

Write: 10 pages on Levi that address the following questions: What does he think about memory? Is it fallible generally? Is his fallible? Is it important to remember the past generally? To remember the Shoah? Why? What does memory have to do with communication? What does communication have to do with language? Is communication important generally? Is communication about the Shoah important? Why? Are these claims reflected in the way the Levi writes? In his chosen media and modes? What does all of this have to do with Adorno? With Levinas? With my Israeli text?


-- Block 6, Week 3 --

Reread: interesting/confusing sections of Totality and Infinity.

Read: as much of Basic Philosophical Writings as I can and the criticism I found earlier.

Talk to: Rick Furtak and hopefully James Reid.

Write: 10 pages on Levinas that address useful and interesting questions. Some ideas: What is our central moral obligation for Levinas? How does it relate to Adorno's claims? Is his argument informed by his chosen medium and mode (an abstract, philosophical, literary text)? How does it agree/disagree/complicate/simplify Levi? The claims that come from my Israeli text?


-- Block 6, Week 4 & first part of Spring Break --

Reread: interesting/confusing sections of my Israeli text.

Read: any criticism I have somehow found on it.

Talk to: Barbara Mann and my mother via e-mail about the issues in the text and whether I am understanding it correctly

Write: 10 pages on my Israeli text that address wonderful and insightful questions. Regarding my present choice (Natan Alterman): What do letters signify for him? Can we read his poems as making moral claims or only expressing rage? Is his relationship with morality and words ambivalent, like Levi's, or is it more set? What are the places of children's poetry and political songs (which Alterman writes, in addition to his other poetry) in his understanding of morality and writing? Do they relate to Adorno's claims about education after Auschwitz?


-- Spring Break --

Read: biographies of Levi and Levinas, a brief overview of the Shoah (perhaps Hannah Arendt's in Eichmann in Jerusalem).

Write: the introduction to my thesis.


-- Block 7, Weeks 1&2 --

Review: my writing from Block 6 to make sure that it makes sense.

Write: the last 10-page segment (seeing how the different texts inform each other and/or disagree with each other), transitions between sections, and the conclusion.

Revise/condense/expand: the 10-page segments of my paper.


-- Block 7, Weeks 3&4 --

Revise/condense/expand: the entirety of the thesis.


-- Block 7, Break --

Celebrate: my first free block break this semester.

Sleep: a lot.


-- Block 8 --

Take: a class that is too hard.

Present: my thesis.

Graduate: from college (hopefully).


An e-mail I sent my father on 12/18/05 (early):

Up until now, I've spent most of my time working on Theodor Adorno and Primo Levi. Adorno argues that the culture (which includes literature) is that which cannot be objectified, but as Western society becomes increasingly commercial and affects our life in increasingly pervasive ways (with movies, then television, and now the Internet), culture is becoming just an element of commerce and thus an object whose value we judge. At the same time, the critic, and especially the cultural critic, has a unique relationship with society - it has the potential to question society's roots and make people aware (and wary) of society's objectification of everything (including them), but because criticism itself is now a part of commerse, it is losing that power. In short, our society is becoming more and more objectifying, and we are increasingly losing the power to notice and care. The Holocaust is an extreme example of objectification, in which the victims were not only treated inhumanely, but turned into numbers, so it represents for Adorno his worst fear: a society that is so overwhelming and so objectifying that it has turned everything into an object of more or less value. He thus claims that, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," which is to say that culture (poetry) and the opposite of culture (barbacy) have become the same thing. Culture is no longer cultural; it has become objectified, like everything else, by Nazi Germany.

Behind all of these claims is what Adorno calls a new "categorical imperative" (I don't know how much Kantian moral philosophy you've studied, but the "categorical imperative" in Kant is the central law from which all morality follows): to prevent something like the Holocaust from ever happening again. If Adorno is right in claiming that the one of the aspects of our world that allowed the Holocaust to happen is the increasingly objectifying and pervading nature of Western society, the fact that culture and cultural criticism are becoming objectified is deeply problematic. If culture becomes objectified, then a major idealogical force to prevent future atrocities like the Holocaust is no longer available to us.

My goal is to see how Adorno's problem is approached by different thinkers and different modes of thought (autobiography, poetry, philosophy, etc.). I'm looking at Primo Levi, maybe at Emmanuel Levinas, and at at least one Israeli author. One of Primo Levi's goals with his writing is to help create a montage of testimonies about the Holocaust so that people will be aware of and never forget how terrible the Holocaust was, and thus will never allow another atrocity like it to occur. It runs along somewhat similar grounds as Adorno's argument, insofar as it links culture with the ability to prevent future atrocities, but it is (in one sense) more hopeful, and it concentrates entirely on the creation of literature, not on how it is received, which is a major issue in Adorno's work. Levi is also at least partly ambivalent about memory. He consciously chooses to remember and write about the Holocaust, but it also torments him, and at times his memories become so real that his life after the Holocaust starts to feel like a temporary dream. I don't know exactly what this means for his moral project, since I haven't read enough Levi yet, but it sounds like it could problematize it. If Levi has an ambivalent relationship with remembering, then his goal of ensuring that future generations remember has to involve a more complicated form of remembering, one that does not involve the torment that he is himself experiencing. We can see this ambivalence partly in his shifting of tenses (half of "Survival in Auschwitz" is in the present tense and half in the past) and also by his shift in modes of literature: from autobiography to fiction to essays and back to autobiography.


From class on 11/29/05:

I will compare the writings of first generation and second generation post-Holocaust writers as they explore Theodor Adorno's claim that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" and argue that, while all of these writers look at the ethicality of literature through the lens of an obligation to remember, as writers get temporally further from the Holocaust, they make more claims for the ethical justification of literature and make them in more abstract terms.

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