In a memorable and much cited passage in Cultural Criticism and Society (1949), Theodor Adorno, the eminent German philosopher who spent a good portion of his life in the US following the Nazi takeover of his homeland, famously said: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.”
Later in his thinking, Adorno reconsidered the assessment, but the power and shock of this thinking has endured.
What did Adorno mean, exactly, by that phrase? How could writing poetry after a calamity such as Auschwitz, and by extension a horror like the Holocaust, be something barbaric? Doesn’t poetry console in moments of mourning and despair? And more to the point today: Is writing poetry after Gaza also barbaric? What would that mean?
The preeminent Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish is no longer alive. But were he alive today, how would he react to the carnage in Gaza? He would have either committed suicide like the magnificent Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi who did so in protest against the brutish Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, or he would respond with his poetry.
So how would we read Adorno’s pronouncement today – after the barbaric slaughter of Palestinians by Israelis in Gaza?
First, let’s put what Adorno said in context. In his essay, Adorno asserts that “the traditional transcendent critique of ideology is obsolete”, meaning “there are no more ideologies in the authentic sense of false consciousness, only advertisements for the world through its duplication and the provocative lie which does not seek belief but commands silence”.
We have, he is saying, hit a narrative cul-de-sac in our critique of ideology, for we are integral to that ideology. The insularity of that ideology has now metastasised into shades upon shades of advertisements, which engulf and transmute the very nature of our critical faculties. Ideology has become amorphous.
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Adorno is after a critic of what he calls “the total society”, a society where everything, including cultural criticism, has been brought into being, concretised, the critic and the subject of his or her criticism indistinguishable.
“The more total society becomes,” Adorno suggests, “the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own.”
In other words, you cannot save a society via a cultural critique that in its critical language continues to exacerbate that reification.
It is right here that Adorno suddenly adds: “Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.”
Why that is the case? “Through the crudity and severity of the notion of causality, [cultural criticism] claims to hold up a mirror to society’s own crudity and severity, to its debasement of the mind. But the sinister, integrated society of today no longer tolerates even those relatively independent, distinct moments to which the theory of the causal dependence of superstructure on base once referred.”
Therefore it is near impossible for the cultural critic to find a moral space outside the culture it wishes to criticise. We are here in a hall of mirrors, where culture and cultural criticism keep reflecting each other, generating the illusion of defiance, consolation, liberation – but in effect plunging us ever deeper into the abyss.
An open-air prison
It is here that, in an uncanny sentence written in 1949, Adorno uses a metaphor that points decades forward to Gaza:
“In the open-air prison which the world is becoming, it is no longer so important to know what depends on what, such is the extent to which everything is one.”
By “open-air prison”, he of course means a society in which everything is totalised, homogenised, and has become one – and thus the fusion of the moral and the material, the ideological and the political, the superstructure and infrastructure has become a concrete totality.
But hasn’t Gaza, as a camp – a concentration or internment camp – also become that reified totality of the world the way Adorno diagnosed it?
In his Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1999), the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben examined the literature of the survivors of Auschwitz, dwelling on the ethical questions they entail. But the testimonial distance between Auschwitz and Gaza is precisely where Adorno’s cul-de-sac rests its case.
This much is all known and familiar to students of Adorno. Now the question is when we fast forward from 1949 when he wrote that essay to today, when we are witness to the Israeli slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza, what do we see? Today how are we to read Adorno’s phrase that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”?
Look at Israeli society today, when it has unleashed its gargantuan military machine against a mostly defenceless population. Rape their women, cries one Israeli to his comrades-in-arms, kill their entire population so they won’t breed more “little snakes”, echoes an Israeli member of parliament. Burn them alive and watch them die, then go on a hilltop to watch even more of them slaughtered by your army.
Kill them as they play on the beach, kill them in the playground, kill their crippled, kill them as they pray in their mosque. Destroy their homes and flatten an entire neighbourhood, maim and murder them in UN school shelters and then gather gleefully to sing: “Tomorrow there’s no school in Gaza, they don’t have any children left.”
Just for good measure, so no one could misinterpret any of this, one Israeli newspaper published a a reader’s blog openly calling for the “permissible genocide” of Palestinians.
What does all of this amount to? Doesn’t it come together to define what Zionism actually means today, as compared with its original potential? They said there were no Palestinians. Today, Palestinians are Palestinians, if by nothing else, by virtue of a history of unconscionable suffering and heroic defiance. What are Israelis? Who are Israelis? They are Israelis by virtue of what? By a shared and sustained murderous history – from Deir Yassin in 1948 to Gaza in 2014. Is that not Zionism, the ideological foundation stone of being an Israeli?
This macabre chorus of death is the poetry that Israelis are singing upon the graveyard of Gaza. “Death to Arabs”, cry mobs in Tel Aviv – for this is the poetry of Zionism for Gaza. This is what Adorno meant when he said, “after Auschwitz poetry is barbarism”. This is what he had diagnosed, this is what he had anticipated. Israel is the puerile poetry after Auschwitz. It is barbarism manifest – and in that it is the microcosm of the world it inhabits, from Saudi Arabia and Egypt that support it, to Iran and Turkey that feign to oppose it, from the US and Europe that arm it, to China and Russia that look for lucrative business within it. And it is precisely this world at large, crystallised in Israel, that Adorno saw, diagnosed, and feared.
But the terror of that barbaric poetry is heavy. After Gaza, not a single living Israeli can utter the word “Auschwitz” without it sounding like “Gaza”. Auschwitz as a historical fact is now archival. Auschwitz as a metaphor is now Palestinian.
From now on, every time any Israeli, every time any Jew, anywhere in the world, utters the word “Auschwitz”, or the word “Holocaust”, the world will hear “Gaza”. That is the sublime truth of Adorno’s phrase, for, as Primo Levi saw it as early as 1982, in the aftermath of yet another Palestinian slaughter: “Today, the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.” Thus today Zionism – as sung by these murderous thugs in the streets of Tel Aviv – is the barbarism Adorno warned after Auschwitz.
But what about Gaza? What about poetry after Gaza – the poetry of Palestinians, of Arabs, of any human being bearing witness to the slaughter in Gaza? The answer to this daunting question is no longer with Adorno but with another Jewish thinker of his time, who saw the dark clouds of Nazi terror gathering much sooner than all of them combined and ultimately opted to end his life before they flooded his world with their dreadful and deadly rain.
Between Walter Benjamin’s suicide in 1940 on the border between France and Spain, running away from the banality of Nazi evil, and Khalil Hawi’s suicide in 1982, in protest against the Zionist invasion and occupation of his homeland, the fate of all our metaphors and allegories after Gaza was written and sealed.
Where Adorno saw concrete totality, Benjamin saw ruinous fragments, and from the shattered concrete blocks of Gaza under the mighty bombs of the US and Israel, Benjamin anticipated the messianic rise of earth-shattering allegories for our future fears, foretelling our fantasies of freedom. While in Adorno the vile and diabolic Zionism that Netanyahu interprets and exercises is the confirmation of his thought that after Auschwitz all poetry is barbaric, in the very same ruins of Gaza, right next to the broken skulls of dead Palestinian children, dwells the rising seeds of our future world – fearful, phantasmagoric, deadening, inaugural.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.