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Visualizing Atrocity

Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thoughtlessness

Valerie Hartouni
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 205
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  • Book Info
    Visualizing Atrocity
    Book Description:

    Visualizing Atrocitytakes Hannah Arendt's provocative and polarizing account of the 1961 trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann as its point of departure for reassessing some of the serviceable myths that have come to shape and limit our understanding both of the Nazi genocide and totalitarianism's broader, constitutive, and recurrent features. These myths are inextricably tied to and reinforced viscerally by the atrocity imagery that emerged with the liberation of the concentration camps at the war's end and played an especially important, evidentiary role in the postwar trials of perpetrators. At the 1945 Nuremberg Tribunal, particular practices of looking and seeing were first established with respect to these images that were later reinforced and institutionalized through Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem as simply part of the fabric of historical fact. They have come to constitute a certain visual rhetoric that now circumscribes the moral and political fields and powerfully assists in contemporary mythmaking about how we know genocide and what is permitted to count as such. In contrast, Arendt's claims about the banality of evil work to disrupt this visual rhetoric. More significantly still, they direct our attention well beyond the figure of Eichmann to a world organized now as then by practices and processes that while designed to sustain and even enhance life work as well to efface it.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-3899-3
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    Rare is the case that the end we imagined at the beginning of a project is the end that we find or that finds us once all is at least provisionally said and done. It might be life or the world, each with its often unpredictable, surprising, and sometimes shocking turns; the work or critical interventions of like-minded (or not) scholars; it might be the unanticipated but unavoidable demands of narratives internal to the text itself that upset the particular trajectory one had thought one would or needed to traverse to turn a set of curiosities into questions and questions...

  5. 1 Arendt and the Trial of Adolf Eichmann: Contextualizing the Debate
    (pp. 23-37)

    Evil in its total banality:this is what Hannah Arendt claimed to have seen in the figure of Adolf Eichmann when she observed him in an Israeli court in 1961. Eichmann was considered a core member of the Nazi leadership and would have undoubtedly been tried at Nuremberg in 1946 alongside Göring, Speer, and Hess among others for war crimes had he not fled Europe following the collapse of Germany’s Third Reich. He was living in relative obscurity in Argentina when he was captured by the Israeli Secret Service and clandestinely returned to Jerusalem to stand trial for his central...

  6. 2 Ideology and Atrocity
    (pp. 38-63)

    Eichmann claimed to have been only a “transportation officer” in the elaborate bureaucracy that was the Third Reich. The details of his story and the nature of his position as he set out both for the Court in Jerusalem appeared only to frustrate the judges, mock the suffering of survivors, insult the memory of the dead, and enrage the prosecution, so inadequate was his account of the phenomenon he was being called on to explain. His job, he said, was to organize and coordinate the movement of bodies and trains across Europe. That the trains were transporting human beings for...

  7. 3 Thoughtlessness and Evil
    (pp. 64-91)

    What makes judgment possible, Arendt argued, are the purging effects of critical thought, the disassembling of received customs, rules, opinions, codes of conduct, and established values that may otherwise come to function as banisters of a sort to which we grow habituated and on which we may depend, not as the cultural conventions they represent, but as part of the given architecture of the world. Critical thought is the undoing of the ostensibly given, the perpetual scrutiny of “fixed habits of thought” and of “entrenched moral beliefs and cultural standards ossified into inflexible general precepts.” This scrutiny creates, in turn,...

  8. 4 “Crimes against the Human Status”: Nuremberg and the Image of Evil
    (pp. 92-113)

    We saw in chapter 1 that the Eichmann trial was made to bear a host of burdens well beyond the otherwise highly choreographed spectacle of criminal prosecution. Whether by chance, opportunity, or design, the proceedings were put in the service of a number of consequentially distinct agendas for regionally distinct audiences, with the focal point throughout being the “story of the great destruction.”¹ In the presence of the world and the one man said to have been responsible for overseeing the whole monstrous affair, this brutal story was rehearsed to shame, educate, and inspire. Its telling was also finally in...

  9. 5 The Banality of Evil
    (pp. 114-124)

    At the beginning of chapter 3, I began the discussion of Arendt’s understanding of thoughtlessness by recounting an exchange she had with Christian Bay at a conference devoted to considering the import of her work. This exchange was precipitated by a general discussion of what “thinking is and is good for” but also, more specifically, by Bay’s insistence that with the exception of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt’s writings on politics lacked “a certain seriousness about modern problems.”¹ In his reading, her trial report was a noted exception in an otherwise disengaged corpus of work—an exception because Arendt had provocatively...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 125-164)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 165-186)
  12. Index
    (pp. 187-198)
  13. About the Author
    (pp. 199-199)