What remains of Auschwitz

Jackson Pollock, The Flame, c. 1934-38


Commentary on the book by Giorgio Agamben

Theodor Adorno once claimed that it was not possible to write poetry after Auschwitz. In Shadows on the Hudson River (Companhia das Letras), a character by Bashevis Singer claims that it is not possible to sustain the existence of God after Auschwitz. In the work of Hannah Arendt, we find several times the suggestion that the fabrication of the systematic destruction of men made it impossible to think about politics after Auschwitz.

The book What remains of Auschwitz, by Giorgio Agamben, shows that Auschwitz, instead of demonstrating the impossibility of philosophy, poetry or politics, opened a new possibility of thinking about each of these dimensions, which would be thinking about them on the limit, on the limit between life and life. death, the human and the non-human, dignity and non-dignity, politics and fabrication.

In a set of four essays – “The Witness”, “The Muslim”, “The Shame or The Subject” and “The Archive and the Testimony” – Agamben addresses the issues that can found a political philosophy of limits: the testimonial without experience or the human condition between life and death. It is based on these questions that he intends to discuss what is truly human in the extreme situation. We intend here to accompany the author in two of his main essays to try to face the following question: what would be the possible conception of politics after Auschwitz?

The essay on “The Witness” begins with an observation by Primo Levi. When asked what his profession was, he unhesitatingly claimed to be a chemist. He had become a writer just to witness the experience he had in Auschwitz. Agamben recalls, when discussing Levi's statement, the two meanings of the word witness: the one who poses as a third party in a process and the one who experienced something.

However, at the same time that Agamben classifies Levi in ​​the second category, he poses an important question, which points towards the relationship between Auschwitz and the limits of philosophy. It is possible to say that all those who witnessed Auschwitz in its entirety were killed. From the perspective of the completeness of the experience, Auschwitz left no witnesses.

As Agamben tells us, “in this case the testimony is worth what it lacks; contains, at its center, something unwitnessable. Agamben thus establishes a new concept of witness. On the border between life and death, the holocaust was an event without witnesses and, therefore, words are insufficient to describe what was experienced. This would be a first element of a philosophy of the limits of experience.

Some men and women at Auschwitz were already beyond life, but not yet dead. They were walking corpses whose physiological functions no longer functioned and who had already lost control of language. These men and women were known as Muslims. It is not known, for sure, what was the reason for designating as Muslims individuals in this condition.

But it is not possible to underestimate the consequences of this condition and its designation. According to Agamben, “before being the death camp, Auschwitz is the place of an experiment still unthought of, in which, beyond life and death, the Jew becomes Muslim and man in non-man”. The Muslim in Auschwitz is a being in a very particular situation, in which the categories of respect and dignity cease to make sense. Also the language no longer makes any sense to the Muslim. In Auschwitz, all communication was replaced by the rubber stick, the truncheon, which, surprisingly, received the nickname “the interpreter”. Thus, the philosophy of the limit is the one that theorizes life and death using the experience that can do without the word.

Once again we reach a limit situation for philosophy and politics. Muslims, or the walking corpses of Auschwitz, raise the question of the relationship between politics and life in modernity. The medieval concept of politics is one that links sovereignty to the prerogative of those who hold the power to decide on the life and death of their subjects. All modern politics is founded on the limits to this prerogative. Auschwitz redefined politics by changing the terms of that relationship.

The State not only regains control over life and death. Auschwitz means the very redefinition of the concept of life and death. As Hannah Arendt reminds us, there was no death in Auschwitz, but the fabrication of corpses by the state, a concept that disconnects death from the experience of human finitude. The only way to overcome Auschwitz politically is to rebuild the concept of human plurality. What is surprising about this attempt is the ambiguity of the use of the term Muslim. It expresses, at the same time, the non-human present in Auschwitz and its ambiguous continuity in the attempt to reconstruct human plurality in the post-war period.

*Leonardo Avritzer He is a professor at the Department of Political Science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Impasses of democracy in Brazil (Brazilian Civilization).


Giorgio Agamben. What Remains of Auschwitz – The Archive and the Witness. Translation: Selvino J. Assmann. São Paulo, Boitempo, 168 pages.


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