On the Holocaust, world wars and the hypocrisy of Eurocentrism

Adorno once wrote that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This statement is part of a broader focus of Adorno’s, and that of other social theorists and artists, to come to grips with the sheer horror of the Holocaust and modern suffering. Is it right, is it meaningful for art to exist after humanity’s witnessed such massive suffering? Recently, I came across a paper where the author wonders how we can make sense of reality itself after the cruelty of the Holocaust/Auschwitz. Adorno later said that suffering has a right to be expressed, and to be expressed through art.

There’s also the common refrain, if it weren’t for intervention in the world wars, “we would all be speaking German right now.” Throughout my pre-university schooling, on every 11th of November (or close to it), the school would organize ceremonies for Remembrance Day. “On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” the first world war ended, and so we commemorate the sacrifices of those who died defending our freedom.

I remember being wholly skeptical of the whole affair. I knew, see, that the British occupied South Asia until 1947. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be remembering, exactly, on Remembrance Day.

Of course, I speak English. India has the world’s largest English-speaking population. There are more Francophones outside of France than inside it, not in Quebec, but in Africa. So what’s German to us? What’s German fascism to us, when, as Césaire forcefully lays out, the techniques and methods of fascism were first practised on those colonized — the wretched of the earth — by those same, self-styled defenders of freedom and democracy?

And what is Adorno’s statement if not hubristic and self-absorbed? Was poetry not barbaric after the Belgians slaughtered up to 10 million people in the Congo at the turn of the century? Was poetry not barbaric after millions were enslaved and transported in great ships like cattle, when millions died at the bayonets of the European colonizers? If poetry is to be barbaric, it was barbaric long before the Holocaust.

The kind of barbarism perfected at Auschwitz, after all, wasn’t invented by German fascists.

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9 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    basit said,

    August 6, 2007 @ 6:25 pm

    yeah. november 11th a grand exercise in misrecognition.

    and yes, i do think adorno’s dictum is hubristic and self-absorbed, he didn’t admit the massacres in the congo at the same level as auschwitz, and so on. but i do also like where this led him in thinking about cultural forms and considering possibilities in narrative representation, etc.

    tangential: w.e.b. dubois on world war i: “[t]his is not Europe gone mad, this is not aberration nor insanity; this /is/ Europe; this seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture—back of all culture—stripped and visible today…these dark and awful depths and not the shining and ineffable heights of which it boasted”.

  2. 2

    noaman said,

    August 7, 2007 @ 2:04 am

    True, the hubris of European theorists (e.g., Hegel, Foucault, etc.) has been productive on various levels. As a professor at UofT said (Uzoma Esonwanne), the point is to enter into constructive dialogue with these thinkers, not to reject wholesale but to correct and extend the thoughts and ideas.

    I need to read WEB Du Bois. The list doesn’t ever grow shorter.

  3. 3

    basit said,

    August 7, 2007 @ 12:19 pm

    more – “if poetry is to be barbaric, it was barbaric long before the Holocaust”, yes, but it wasn’t acknowledged (in europe/the west) as barbaric, and that’s why i think adorno is important. still blindered, still excluding other(s’) tragedies, but that perhaps isn’t necessary for his ideas to be effective: he /is/ calling for the incorporation of death-life into art, he /is/ demanding artists step away from certain enlightenment rational sensibilities and reflexions of bourgeois subjectivity to include a simultaneous death-process, other expressive forms. and that itself is useful, because that exploration of other forms will itself force awareness of adorno’s own limited sight.

    hm. the ‘about’ page says you’re to york for social/political thought. its website looks exciting – the classes on the enlightenment project and postcolonial theory especially so. and the one on the ethical and political in levinas & derrida. what classes’re you taking?

  4. 4

    noaman said,

    August 7, 2007 @ 4:22 pm

    Yes, and no. I agree that Adorno’s ideas and contributions in this respect are important. But I think we have to be careful about the word “tragedy”. Tragedies happen. Barbarity is committed. And what’s bewildering about Auschwitz is precisely that it was done, that it’s nothing more or less than the logical extension of bourgeois ideology. To exclude the barbarity committed upon others (because of their races and cultures) is barbarity of the second order — adding insult to injury. Which is, I guess, what my post was about. And colonial barbarity is bourgeois ideology at its finest. (I’m approaching this not from Adorno’s musings, but more from Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon. I need to read Adorno substantially.)

    I’m not sure what courses I’m taking yet. The problem is that they all look so bloody good. I’m also reminding myself that I intend to teach and research as a political scientist (whatever that means). You have any suggestions? I think I could do a whole post wondering what courses I should take.

  5. 5

    basit said,

    August 9, 2007 @ 12:10 pm

    granted. i typed quickly, it should’ve been along the lines of “still blindered, still excluding others, /even on the level of/ tragedies.”

    people whose names escape me now write of capitalism along the same lines that foucault does of (the deployment of) sexuality in the family: as being both continuous incitement to productive proliferation and constituting its own structural limit. using a parallel model, can we say, then, that “colonial barbarity is bourgeois ideology at its finest” – but that auschwitz was /done/ because european bourgeois ideology lacked similar internal limitations? that then makes a natural segue into the tragic/ironic sensibility necessary for modernity

    hm. classes. i’d take…the power and violence – nietzsche to agamben ; postcolonial theory ; the enlightenment project ; the one on contemporary topics in social theory (on deleuze). but those aren’t necessarily geared to teaching and research as a political scientist. what’s a political scientist?

  6. 6

    noaman said,

    August 9, 2007 @ 4:01 pm

    You lost me at hello.

    Thecourses you mention are precisely the kind of courses I probably won’t be taking although, to be sure, I’m very interested. I’m going to try and read up on Deleuze & Guattari (to be more precise, to read Anti-Oedipus) in the next month and plan my following steps accordingly.

    I’m leaning more toward the political economy/sociology courses: Appropriating Marx’s Capital I, Political Economy: Major Texts, Sociologies of Global Capitalism; as well as some things gravitating toward literary/cultural studies: Literary Theory, Marxism Culture & Film.

    I’m interested in postcolonial and poststructuralist theory but I’m not sure how much more of it I can take.

  7. 7

    basit said,

    August 28, 2007 @ 2:49 pm


  8. 8

    nomes » On Marxism and Eurocentrism said,

    November 6, 2007 @ 3:57 pm

    […] means reject everything that is Western. And, I suppose you imagine that I’ve never had to wrestle with this sense of being detached from my own reality, of being detached and disgusted and even insulted because when I go into a […]

  9. 9

    J. Moufawad-Paul said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    Charles W. Mills had a great quote about this topic on poetry/Auschwitz in The Racial Contract:

    “From the clouded perspective of the Third World, the question in Arno Mayer’s title *Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?* betrays a climactic Eurocentrism, which fails to recognize that blue skies were only smiling on *Europe*. […] this represents an astonishing white amnesia about the actual historical record. Likewise, the despairing question of how there can be poetry after Auschwitz evokes the puzzled nonwhite reply of how there could have been poetry before Auschwitz and after the killing fields in America, Africa, Asia.”

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