The memoirs below form a prepublication version of a special memorial edition of Thesis Eleven celebrating the life and work of our close friend and colleague Keith Tester. Contributions by: Peter Beilharz, Kieran Flanagan, Mark Davis, Jack Palmer, Trevor Hogan, Sian Supski, Izabela Wagner, John Carroll, Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Arne Johan Vetlesen.
You can find the final published versions of these papers here
Remembering Keith Tester 1960 – 2019
Peter Beilharz, Sichuan University
Keith Tester died a year ago, 14 January 2019. On the first anniversary of his death, Thesis Eleven offers memories from friends and colleagues of Keith.
Is there anything to laugh about in the death of a friend? Keith Tester liked to laugh. He had a finely honed, subtle yet powerful sense of humour, partly in result of his acute sense of the absurd. Think up the craziest thing that might possibly happen today, and chances are it will. There are East European echoes and intuitions here, as well as the contemporary, not least in the convulsions of the Anglo world. Laughter, in this context, can be loaded: it should be. First news we had of Keith’s death last year, I thought he might be pulling our leg.
But no. He was gone, leaving Linda and Maddy, and all the rest of us behind. The memorial pieces collected here lament his departure and seek to celebrate his achievement, his friendship, patience and generosity. They reflect the spectrum of differences that different folk will pick up in their respective experience of an individual. A few: Flanagan notes that it would be misleading to subsume Tester’s legacy to Bauman’s; and observes that there was likely to be more, new adventures yet to commence. Hivid Jacobsen remembers Keith’s moments of impatience with the Bauman thing, and his constant and abiding return, repetition – to Bauman. Supski and Wagner remember the incredible kindness, acceptance, and willingness to help. Carroll remembers heart as well as head. As Davis and Palmer remember, he was an exemplar. And as Hogan remembers, he was able to connect: his remained a sociology of the everyday.
As for me, the loss is also painful. Zygmunt Bauman was many things, but he was also the best of things: a matchmaker. He introduced the two of us in 2000 at Lawnswood Gardens. This is where we two began. We collaborated for almost two decades. He read everything I sent him, and vice versa. He was a constant companion on email and in person. We shared many things, some of which are further discussed in my memoir of Bauman, which will be published later this year. A sense of critical vocation; and a sense, like Brian Wilson, of not really being made for these times. In the academic world of cutthroat self promotion, he was the rarest of things – a modest professor. When you find a friend like this, it tends to stick. Like others writing here, we stuck. A year after Bauman, he too was gone. And yet. As Vetlesen indicates, the scholarly legacy still also resonates. Keith Tester was a good person, a moral thinker, and a fine scholar. We will continue to miss him. I shall miss him as a friend in the strongest sense – one of whom I could ask anything, share anything, show my vulnerability and yet maintain my dignity. This was a lot to give , and it is a lot to lose.
Keith Tester (1960-2019)
Kieran Flanagan, University of Bristol
At a time when sociological theory in the United Kingdom is in the doldrums, the sudden death of Keith Tester from sepsis in January 2019 represents a serious loss to the discipline. Tester was a remarkably versatile theorist with a considerable range of writings, extending from painting, morality and philosophy to his work on Eric Rohmer, the French film director, to name a few areas he covered. The multi-disciplinary basis of his writings marked his sociological reach into unexpected areas but in ways where his roots in sociology were kept well nurtured. His breadth of reading was remarkable. Almost effortlessly, Tester could sink himself in some diverse areas such as veganism, and soak up their deliberations in a calm reflective style. It was this property of grazing widely and finding food for thought that marked out his distinctive sociological gifts.
A former postgraduate of Zygmunt Bauman, Tester joined a select band of sociologists who expanded appreciation of his pioneering work on postmodernity. As a foil to Bauman, Tester well displayed his talents in his searching work, Conversations with Bauman (2001). With other sociologists, he added greatly to the legacy of Bauman, being a longstanding, astute and acute interpreter of his work as it unfolded. The outcome was a number of highly significant reflections which did much to situate Bauman in a wider place within sociology, one not well recognised in the United Kingdom and the U.S.A.
It would be unfortunate if Tester was placed too much under the shadow of Bauman. Tester’s own work, to name a few, The Flaneur (1994), Moral Culture (1997), Media, Culture and Morality (2013) and Civil Society (2014), all much cited, greatly expanded the boundaries of sociological theory. His range and his sympathies with the humanities seemed diffuse to those whose expectations of sociological theory were more scientific and formulaic, hence why Tester’s talents were never brought into rightful focus. As with other theorists in the United Kingdom, the funding of its universities by research grants militated against those such as Tester whose sociological imagination operated without much need for these. With the conceptual famine disabling contemporary sociology, Tester offered prospects of replenishment which are not to be realised. He wrote clearly and effortlessly and with remarkably little sense of pretentiousness. This reflected his character as a sociologist of much moral integrity.
Modest, diffident, tactful and agreeable, with much charm, he is remembered with fondness by his postgraduate students and his sociological colleagues. As an editor, he was remarkably easy to work with. Tester had some interesting connections with Poland after 2013 and was a Fellow of the John Paul II Institute in Warsaw. This reflected his broadening sympathies for Catholicism. After a short period at the University of Hull, Tester was re-adjusting his compass points and tragically, was on the cusp of a new stage of his thought which was just beginning to unfold.
Bauman at the Movies
Mark Davis, University of Leeds
‘Bauman at the Movies’. The subject of Keith Tester’s last message to me. A new project. His sense of excitement was tangible; the screen no barrier. So softly spoken in person, his roguish sense of play was always perceptible just beneath the surface. Life, after all, is absurd. Under the paving stones, the Keith. Against the naysayers, he interpreted Bauman as a ‘sociologist of possibility’. Keith too saw only possibilities; something better and emergent, yet somehow frustrated. How to release its creative potential; how to make things better? He was remarkably generous. Keith – whose books Civil Society and Moral Culture I read avidly long before our encounter as Bauman scholars – deanonymised his review of my first book and offered to meet. Our conversation, in The Fenton next to the campus here in Leeds, was about Gang of Four’s gig in that old pub’s upstairs room (oh, and our wretched football clubs: Keith forever Brighton; me Bradford). That conversation also inspired our Bauman’s Challenge collection. Leeds meant a great deal to Keith, having secured his doctorate here. It was a constant reference point for him; still somehow home, as he wandered his own forking paths via Portsmouth, La Trobe, Kyung Hee, Dublin and Hull. Commencing my own journey at speed, his emails became helpful directions: this way to rest, to slow down, to think. Anyway, where are you going? This is the Keith I knew; the Keith he wanted me to know. Like him, I’ll try to show others the way.
Encounters with Keith Tester, personal and intellectual
Jack Palmer, University of Leeds
My sole encounter with Keith happened on June 10th, 2011. I was finishing an undergraduate degree at Portsmouth and he was professor of sociology at Hull. I wanted to continue studying, though I did not know what and where. Sophia Wood – my dissertation supervisor, Keith’s former PhD student – put us in touch and, at his insistence, Keith and I met on a sunny afternoon in Chichester. I’m not sure this meeting meant much to him, but it transformed me. I realised at the time that Keith was generous with his time and had great faith in students as torch-carriers for sociology. Now, more attuned to the vagaries of academic life, I realise how exceptional these qualities are. And then, of course, there is the work. As a student interested in the mediation of distant suffering, I was awestruck by Moral Culture in particular. It gave me the impression that this was what all sociology was like: morally-committed, urgent, beautifully-written. Alas, I now know these to be all-too-rare attributes too.
I cannot claim to have had Keith’s friendship. I feel an imposter as I write. But it is precisely his kindness to strangers like me that I wish to evoke in tribute. Since moving to Leeds, I’ve realised that there are more than a few of us who found ourselves there because of Keith. In his company, we had been quickly divested of imposter syndrome and encouraged in the gentlest of ways to continue our burgeoning commitment to the sociological vocation.
Keith Tester – memories of a friendship
Trevor Hogan, La Trobe University
I first met Keith in 2003 when he was a visiting research fellow at Thesis Eleven Centre, La Trobe University for a semester. We bonded over a common love of team sports and contemporary music; sadly, Linda, his wife, was not interested in such boysy enthusiasms but she generously tolerated our ramblings. Keith taught me all about Brighton and Albion Hove F.C. but I didn’t have to teach him much about Australian Rules Footy as he was already a rusted-on fan, thanks to the then relative novelty of global cable TV subscriptions. He had never been to a live game , so on a glorious late autumn afternoon, Keith and his daughter, Maddy, joined the Hogan clan on a walk from their digs at Ormond College, the University of Melbourne to Princes Park, Carlton. Keith and Maddy were equal parts delighted and horrified, energised and exhausted by the intensity and immediacy of the whole event. And yet Keith also managed to think critically about his experience – about the dialectics of competition and cooperation, of tactics and strategies, of notions of justice and luck, of aesthetics and violence, of crowds and spectacles – and compare these to FA football back home. Keith was ever the cultural sociologist, at play as in work.
Little did I realise that we were witnesses to the final rituals of suburban football, as the AFL corporation soon after rationalised all aspects of the game, so that only two grounds (MCG and the AFL-owned Docklands) were to be used for home and away fixtures. Keith returned again and again to watch Australian rules footy at these two stadia and reflected on the changes wrought to the democratic and communitarian aspects of suburban footy as it mutated into ever-more Americanised corporate entertainment. As much as he lamented the cultural losses these changes wrought, still he marvelled at the achievements of the dominant teams and revelled in the ingenuity, individual personalities, and skill of players of the likes of Buddy Franklin, Gary Ablett Junior, and Adam Goodes.
Sports fans can find all manner of matters of life and death and their meanings in and through the game itself. As the decade passed, so we discussed drugs, science, technology, racial and sexual discrimination, sexual violence, privacy and freedom of information and free speech etc, for all these issues were regularly matters of public debate in and through the professional team sports we followed. Keith had a brilliant book in him on the cultural sociology of professional team sports.
But sport was not the only matter we Anglo-Aussie males yarned about ad infinitum. Talking contemporary music was also a favoured pastime for us online and in person. For Keith the 80s was the period he returned to most – and we shared a common appreciation of The Smiths (Manchester), the Go-Betweens (Brisbane), and the Triffids (Fremantle) – all gawky, awkward, clever, funny, camp, ironic but deadly serious and aspirational pop bands with a rock n roll encyclopedia to hand – or should that be rock bands with a pop encyclopedia to hand? These were provincial independent bands that seemed to be the last lights of intelligent rock ‘n’ roll life as counter culture and critique – comets that flashed across our antipodean night skies long after the emanating spirit had died.
There was one British 80s band that Keith loved that we did not talk about; not until Linda so kindly shared the memorial order of service did I learn of his love of Jesus and Mary Chain. Jesus and Mary Chain as performance were a politics of despair – they not only condoned crowd violence, they positively incited it as part of their own performance. Rarely did a concert finish as planned and this was the artistic statement as endpoint. ‘No future for you or me’ in situ. As a cultural phenomenon they made perfect sense in class-riddled, depressed Thatcherite England, but nihilism begets its own little monsters in a social order. While I liked in principle the anarchist principles of the first wave of punk – the energy and the anger of cultural political protest and DIY principles of creativity, production and ownership were all powerful messages of hope for a generation after the failure of the 68ers change the world programs – I was charry of any mob violence and laddish culture in general. Growing up in working class suburbia and seeing how pubescent males behave in large groups – of drunkenness and brawling – left me allergic to bands that played to their audiences accordingly.
I missed the music itself and stayed well clear of little England. I can hear it all now though in the safety of years and recordings – strident and angry guitar shredding and feedback, post-rock noise that disguises and then delays the release of beautiful sweet, cloying melodies. This was a dialectic of drugged pain and pleasure where the social order is turned in on itself and the young are left to dissect, pillorise and celebrate their own ‘psycho-candy’. A music that provides the critique and the cure to those youth most alienated – a promise only of temporary oblivion. Charles Shaar Murray once likened them to ‘barbed wire kisses’. Sounds like Keith: ambivalent about almost all aspects of contemporary life – inscribed, ascribed, and expressive culture alike. Ambivalence, melancholy, wistfulness all marked Keith in the core of his intellectual life but it also affected him personally as he was a caring, ethical, compassionate person, and his attraction to the psycho-candy of bands like The Smiths and Jesus and Mary Chain make sense in this context.
That Keith liked Jesus and Mary Chain or at least some of their songs made me look them up and I discovered (thanks Wikipedia) that they purportedly chose their name after a plastic giveaway in a popular breakfast cereal at the time of a Papal Visit to England by Pope John Paul II. Keith, the cultural sociologist, would have loved such a detail – he was one to spot the tragic-comic inversions of popular culture and see the sublime and transcendent in the muck and plastic of mass production and consumption. Keith was one of the few cultural sociologists in the Anglo-American world that I know of who had this sensibility in his thinking – in this he was a good student of Ziggy – Bauman not Bowie.
Keith, we will keep looking out and listening in for you – it is the least we can do for one who was such a fine friend and gifted cultural avatar and critic.
The absent presence of friendship
Sian Supski, University of Melbourne
Keith Tester was my friend. He became my friend long before I met him in real life. Keith was an extraordinary correspondent, as others in this memoriam have also commented. I began my epistolary friendship with Keith in 2011, via our mutual friend Peter Beilharz. I now can’t recall why Peter suggested that we should be in touch, but it was an important moment for me. Keith had been Peter’s confidante during a difficult time for him, and he also became mine.
Peter and I had fallen in love.
Keith showed an exceptional generosity and openness to me, at a time when my other friends had chosen to withdraw their friendship. They felt I had betrayed them. I did not share my loss with Keith, but I think he understood that my letters to him, where I could speak openly about my friendship (and love) for Peter, were a salve for my soul.
We discussed books we were reading, films we had watched and all aspects of the everyday and mundane. We had a long conversation over many days about Eurovision, which started as a joke, but turned into a discussion about what it means to be European and English. Keith had a longstanding project on the idea of ‘Englishness’. We discussed the proper way to pour tea – milk first, then tea, never the reverse. He loved the Downs and its old stone churches. Keith also loved the Italian café in Melbourne, Brunetti’s. I often took photos of the extravagant and elaborate cakes for which they are famous and sent them to him. He loved Nick Cave, but I found him too maudlin, although we agreed that the song with Kylie Minogue was excellent.
I finally met Keith in 2013 in England. Peter and I went to Worthing and stayed with him and his family. We walked to the Worthing Pier on a windy evening. I have photos of us, blurred, but now treasured. I picked up a white pebble from the Worthing beach to remember our time together. It sits on our bookshelf. I wanted a place-making memento, a habit acquired over the years – sticks, rocks, pebbles, shells. It is now a memento mori.
Keith visited Melbourne to work with us in 2014. We all met together in London in 2015 – we walked Carnaby Street in early December when the Christmas decorations were lit up. It was the last time I saw Keith. Over the years our correspondence slowed too. But he was a constant presence in our lives. We talked about him often in relation to Thesis Eleven, or to get news of Bauman, and to canvas his views about the English riots or Brexit. We valued his insight – calm, assured, thoughtful.
Peter and I married in 2018. Keith sent his congratulations and love. Then there was no news , then bad news.
His death was shocking and so untimely. I dreamed of him a number of times in January after we received that news. His absent presence lingers. I never told him how important his friendship was. I hope he knew.
In Friendship with Keith Tester
Izabela Wagner, University of Warsaw
It was May 2016, after a year in which I began work on my biography of Zygmunt Bauman.
Speaking about this project with an American sociologist, he advised me to be in touch with the best “Baumanists”: Peter Beilharz and Keith Tester.
I hesitated. Several months before (2015, November 1st) when for the second time I interviewed Bauman in Leeds, informing him that I would write his biography, Bauman responded: “it is probably unproductive – Tester is doing it already.” Tester was his former PhD student, co-author, widely recognized sociologist and Bauman’s friend.
I hesitated to contact Keith Tester… After all, in this academic world, which I had studied for years investigating careers of scholars, the sense of competition is so strong, that safe cooperations are rare. On the other hand, I was already conducted the interviews with Bauman’s friends, in order to collect my data. I wrote to Peter Beilharz, who responded immediately, offering his help and confirming that Keith was the official biographer of Bauman for Polity.
Peter also sent my letter to Keith and the response was immediate too:
“Many thanks for this – yes, I’m very happy to help in any way I can. The more the merrier on the Bauman Bus!”
And that was all typical for Keith – he was very happy to help in any way he could.
I was surprised and glad, but our connection was not working quite yet. I needed first to do my work focused on the “Polish” period, so I “scheduled” Keith for the second stage of the work – for 2017.
Zygmunt Bauman died in January 2017. Some scholars from my networks who knew that I was working on Bauman’s biography pushed me to find a publisher. I sent to Peter Beilharz my book proposal asking for advice. Peter forwarded it to Keith.
There the whole process accelerated. Keith sent immediately proposal to his editor, who contacted me and offered serious help and support. Without Keith’s help my proposal would never be sent to Polity Press – Bauman’s publisher.
Some months later, when I finished the first chapters, I decided to send them to Keith asking for his feedback. He was so enthusiastic and supportive, that working on the next chapters was only a pleasure. I became addicted to his e-mails, which brought me the sense of security and huge self confidence. An extremely rare feeling that authors (especially scholars) experience during their work. Keith offered immediate help making some corrections and trimming. We discussed the issues, which were not yet explained clearly enough – he was fascinated by what I presented and completely available for this first reading, which is so important. I was completely in trust with this relationship that became quickly a deep intellectual friendship. We have been close souls. Such a situation never happened to me in over 20 years of my scholarly activity. I felt as though I had known him for years…
After those first exchanges, he wrote me that he worked on Bauman’s biography but lacking the resources of an academic post, his working conditions were insufficient for writing a biography. Moreover, he considered the “Polish period” as crucial for understanding Bauman’s life. The lack of knowledge of Polish language, which was the basic condition for understanding the complexity of Polish history, literature and culture, made him resign from the pursuit of the project. He encouraged me to continue my work, repeating several times that I had the best tools for writing this complex piece of our history.
Keith not only “coached me” in a very gentle way but also forwarded me all his correspondence with Bauman. Keith’s excellent questions, Bauman’s elaborated responses – other questions… several pages that I was able to partially include in my book – referring to Tester was so helpful.
This material was very precious but it was much more than this that Keith offered. What I received, miraculously was Keith’s inestimable help, endless trust and unique support. I was immersed in a creative flow that he had won through mastery.
He waited for the next chapters to read and frequently I was trapped myself thinking about his reaction to this or that “discovery.” We exchanged letters between sending chapters.
Not only about Bauman’s life but about politics (a lot of our exchanges were about this- Keith was deeply preoccupied by the rise of fascism), family (for him his family was very important and we perfectly tuned in on this area too) and animals (it was another our important topic to share – he appreciated my family engagement in saving our large animal family).
We planned the meeting in our home this summer… with his family. In Sardinia our familial home, he promised to come with his family. We discussed visiting Gramsci’s places, exchanging our vegetarian recipes and testing Vermentino – Keith loved white wine .
We planned… and discussed all that by e-mails exchanged sometimes several times in a day…
We developed this unique deep friendship, that made my writing both possible and extremely productive .
He dealt with my worries about everything: linguistic insufficiency (the chapters were corrected by my friend-writer Arthur Allen but not my long letters full of grammatical errors), lack of knowledge in some areas of Bauman’s intellectual production, and about my limited understanding of the British context of Bauman’s life. I was in his confidence and at ease with my writing flow – the comfort was provided by such logic: “I am writing and if I am wrong – Keith will help to fix it. I am writing and if it is too long – Keith will help with trimming!”
I waited impatiently for our meeting – he was one of my privileged interviewees and a best friend that I had not yet met. There was such long list of topics and questions for a single meeting.
We met in London the 2nd of November 2018 at his preferred place – in the Public Library.
We spent four hours speaking mainly about Bauman and Keith’s relation to him.
It was a unique and very important – crucial – interview, that help me to catch some aspects of Bauman’s personality I had not expected… He was full of passion and extremely respectful about what I had already done… I could not imagine at that moment, that it was also to be our last meeting.
Two and half months later, in Leeds, the eve of a Bauman Symposium in 2019, I received the message from his daughter. I could not accept that he had died. He left a huge empty space, even if we knew each other such a short period. I am still thinking about him and his family, who he loved so much.
Keith signed his last letters “in friendship”…
I owe him a great deal. Through all his deep support and involvement in my writing; but what is more important, is that he made me believe that in our academic universe such deep collaborative relationship is possible. However, most importantly, thanks to Keith, I recovered my faith in deep friendship and trust in the human.This is the great, yet simple legacy of friendship.
Keith Tester: In Memory
John Carroll, La Trobe University
I first met Keith in 2008, when he came to visit me in Cambridge, where I was a Visiting Fellow at Pembroke College. I met him at the station, and we walked to a pub thirty minutes away, The Eagle, in the centre of town, talking all the way. We spent three or so hours there deep in conversation, then walked back to the station. My strongest memory is of Keith reflecting on his conversion to Catholicism. The life of the spirit was much closer to his heart than the life of the mind.
I always imagine Keith on trains, criss-crossing England. From the south coast to Hull, to Leeds, back to London—I met him this way. His was a soul both restless and melancholy, and I imagine the long stretches spent sealed in carriages speeding across the country, watching the landscape pass by, served as a metaphor for his persistent searching on the journey of life. There is also something soothing about the rhythms of a train hurtling purposefully through anonymous landscape, leaving the day-dreaming passenger free from the cares of the world.
On Keith’s most recent visit to Australia—was it 2014?—we spent some time together. I took him to a football match at Docklands, where he graciously supported my team—indeed, he had developed a serious interest in Aussie Rules over the years, and followed some of it on the Internet. He was particularly taken at Docklands that day, as we queued for tumblers of beer at half-time, by the friendly, good-natured relations between fans of opposite teams, swapping jokes and idle banter. Such conviviality was unthinkable at soccer in England, where opposing fans, given the opportunity, were much more inclined to murder each other. In an email exchange, as recently as two months ago, we swapped notes about our teams. He lamented that his had just had the best side ever on paper, but in 2018 it had played, to quote, ‘the most boring and turgid football ever.’
Keith was a rare, a unique talent—in Sociology, in the Academy, and to my mind across the broad span of intellectual life. He was finely tuned into the vicissitudes of culture and meaning in the modern world. He was also a very shrewd judge of the work of others, and in recent years, in his role as an editor for Routledge, a generous supporter of new manuscripts of high quality. Two of our students here today benefited from this Keith—Sara James and Scott Doidge—whom he published in very handsome volumes.
Keith’s passing has been so untimely! I think there was unfinished business in his own work—a book or two he might have written, books of importance. His gifts had more to offer. I remember refereeing one project of his on the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and a type of distinctively modern, secular Protestantism that underscored his films. This extremely promising project sadly never came to fruition. Also, he was contemplating a homage to the old England as he knew it.
In relation to my own work, Keith was brilliantly insightful. An interview he scripted on The Existential Jesus, for the journal Cultural Sociology, opened up new areas of thought for me. That joint exchange was one of the most enjoyable collaborations of my life.
Keith was strongly drawn to Australia. He almost took a job at La Trobe a decade ago, facilitated by Peter Beilharz and myself, as Professor of Media Studies—how the university would have benefited from that! But Keith stood back at the last minute. Was this an enduring reticence in his character, or attachment to his beloved England, or a bit of both? In his last email to me, he confided that the only thing that had buoyed him up since his retirement from Academia had been the people he knew in Melbourne, led by Thesis Eleven (and, by the way, it was Peter who discovered Keith, and first brought him to Australia).
Keith was a warm and generous friend, open in his thoughts and feelings. I treasured a particular quality and intimacy of understanding in my relations with him. This is not to replace. I find it inconceivable that it has gone; that Keith has gone. If there is some eternal resting place, may he find comfort there.
The English Twin – Reflections on Keith Tester
Michael Hviid Jacobsen, Aalborg University
The first thing that struck me about Keith Tester was his name. I had never heard that particular surname before (finding out later that it was perhaps not all that uncommon) and immediately associated it with a flacon labelled ‘Tester’ intended for customer trial in a perfume boutique. I thought it was a funny name, and also a name difficult to forget. By the time I first read some of Keith Tester’s work in the mid-1990s – perhaps this was his book on animal rights from 1991 or his book postmodernity from 1993 – little did I did know that he was later to become my friend, confidant and collaborator. When I myself started working more focused on Zygmunt Bauman’s ideas in the early days of the new millennium, I was looking for someone sympathetic to Bauman’s work with whom to discuss ideas and develop international connections. Hence I decided, bold as only such a young scholar can be, to send Keith an email suggesting that we perhaps do something together on Bauman. I was quite sure that he would decline – after all, he had never heard of me, and at the time my list of publications was on the short side. To my surprise, he did not. In fact, he responded very positively, admitting that he himself at the time felt somewhat lonely in his Bauman studies. Since then we stayed connected and wrote quite a few things together, to which I will return below.
At some point in our professional relationship, Keith began calling me his ‘Danish Twin’ and wrote the personal dedication ‘To my Danish twin’ in his wonderful book The Social Thought of Zygmunt Bauman (2004a). To me he was thus my ‘English Twin’. Not that we were all that similar – in fact, Keith was more than ten years my senior and personalitywise we were very different, and had lived very different lives. We agreed on many things regarding the discipline of sociology, but disagreed on just as many things as soon as we moved outside the realm of sociological research. For example, he called my predilection for the 1980s British progressive rock band Marillion downright ‘wrong’, and we did not even support the same football team. Despite this, his suggestion that we were somehow ‘twins’ was not far off the target, as we both shared a concern with what I would term ‘humanistic sociology’ – the understanding that sociology is about real people (even sociologists themselves) as living, reflexive and self-interpreting creatures, who are desperately trying to make sense of and create meaning with their lives, and not abstractions constructed through the measurement of averages, medians or normal distributions. This joint interest in sociology as a humanistic enterprise had led us both, independent of each other, to the work of Zygmunt Bauman.
Our many personal differences aside, our admiration for and inspiration from the work of Zygmunt Bauman was what united us. However, this interest for Bauman’s work and ideas was often unsynchronised. When I was on a ‘Bauman high’, Keith would normally be on a ‘Bauman low’, not being bothered to read or write any more about Bauman. When I felt that I needed a rest from Bauman, Keith all of a sudden seemed to be very assertive that we as soon as possible needed to do something ‘on Bauman’ together. In this way, we kept each other continuously engaged with the work of Bauman, but also with so many other unrelated topics that every now and then popped up. We had plans on doing many different books together, however most of them never materialised – we wanted to do something on film, something on metaphors, something on irony, something on humanism and so on. The list of intended work was almost as endless as it was at times unfortunately also fruitless. We often seemed to talk more about ‘doing things’ together than actually getting them done. We did, however, manage to get some stuff done. Throughout the years, Keith and I wrote and published quite a few pieces together on Bauman’s sociology from the early years in Poland to his postmodern and liquid-modern turn in the new millennium (see, e.g., Bauman, Jacobsen and Tester 2013; Jacobsen and Tester 2006a; Jacobsen, Marshman and Tester 2007; Tester and Jacobsen 2005). We conducted and published several either face-to-face or email-based interviews with Bauman, who was almost always a willing victim of our inquisitiveness (see, e.g., Jacobsen and Tester 2006b, 2007, 2013). In other pieces of published work, we also ventured into exploring evil (Jacobsen and Tester 2008) and utopia (Jacobsen and Tester 2012). Contrary to me, someone believing in the academic right to rehash your own ideas time after time, Keith disliked repeating himself or ‘copying and pasting’. It had to be new stuff to him – the discovery of virgin territory. When we met up somewhere, we always sat down with a drink or mostly a few and talked about what we now wanted to do together. As mentioned, most of it remained in our minds, as we were both busy with the more mundane academic assignments of teaching, supervision and external examinership, but just talking about what we could do together for me constituted a tremendous source of energy.
Keith Tester seemed somehow to pop up in my life, often when I least expected it. For example, some 7 or 8 years ago I was invited to Zygmunt Bauman’s house in Headingley just outside Leeds to conduct a planned interview. I had been there a few times before and, as I remember it, expected it to be just me and Zygmunt. When I showed up with my usual gift bottle of liqueur, my written questions and a Dictaphone, Keith suddenly – as if out of nowhere – smilingly appeared in the doorway to the living room together with a Polish camera crew. Although I was obviously glad (or perhaps rather surprised) to see him, I also remember feeling a bit annoyed that he was there to ‘steal’ my special moment with Zygmunt. He did not, of course, and we had a very fine interview session, each treated, as always, by Zygmunt with a plate of food, a cup of tea and a glass of cognac. Some footage of this event later appeared in an early unedited version of the film The Trouble with Being Human These Days (2013) by Bartek Dziadosz.
In many ways, Keith Tester was a man of emotions. First of all, he was a funny man – but it was always a kind of serious funniness. He liked to tease and to be teased, but always within certain limits. For example, he detested when someone called him ‘Keefie’ or when students in emails addressed him with a ‘Hi Keith’ or similar – hence I always started my emails to him with ‘Hello Keefie’ or ‘Hi Keith’. He liked to joke, but I sensed that even when in the jesting mode, Keith always kept a bit of himself out of it, in order to secure a sense of seriousness. In my experience, Keith was also a modest man – much too modest when looking at what he had in fact achieved throughout his academic career. Despite his modesty, I do vividly remember some of his rare openly expressed moments of pride. For example, he seemed very proud and felt recognised when visiting our university here in Aalborg in 2003 and giving a series of well-attended lectures to colleagues and students. These lectures were later published in a local working paper titled Fragments of a Human World in which he explored topics such as evil and bystanding, terrorism, honour and dignity, moral action as well as humanitarianism (Tester 2004b). His illuminating and thought-provoking ideas on these topics so much deserved to have been spread well beyond the limited reading audience of a local working paper series. Keith was also immensely proud of be appointed a visiting scholar with what he called the ‘Thesis Eleven crowd’ in Melbourne, and he often told me how glad he was that we had the opportunity to go ‘down under’ and meet up with likeminded people. But besides that, he seemed to be too modest a man when taking into consideration the originality and importance of his work. In many ways, coming to think of it, his humility reminds me of Zygmunt Bauman who was also a man who just ‘did his thing’ with a sort of self-effacing graciousness about it. In this way, Keith and Zygmunt went well together. And just as Zygmunt had argued that sociology was to be understood as something as unpretentious as ‘an ongoing dialogue with human life experience’, so Keith argued for a ‘principled sociology’ that ‘seeks to engage us in a conversation that inspires free and autonomous action, and it thereby demonstrates that actually the world could become very different from what is currently is’ (Tester 2008:167). I always found this Baumanesque understanding of sociology a beautiful statement but also a testimony not only to be preached, but also practiced.
What I perhaps liked most about Keith was the fact that he was and remained a true gentleman, in an academic game that most often seems to benefit those aspiring to steal the limelight. Besides being modest, he was however also an honest man – speaking out whenever something or someone really bothered him, but always in a very gentle and gentleman-like manner. I do recall one exception to this rule of thumb when a colleague and I did a presentation at a conference in Hull some years back – the topic of our presentation being ‘Positive Sociology’. Keith approached us afterwards before the usual trip to the pub to talk about football, music, sociology and life in general, saying that our ideas were ‘preposterous’ and ‘dangerous’. He did not mean this in any disrespectful way, but it was a sincere recording of his sentiments towards the notion of sociology being in any way associated with a positive (as opposed to a critical) outlook. This whole idea seemed to infuriate him.
After Keith had left academia, disappointed as he said with the way things were developing within the British university system in general and sociology in particular, we did not have much contact. I missed our frequent email dialogues and face-to-face conversations, but at the same time I was busy with so many other things that our close collaboration and friendship for a few years somehow faded into the background. Then, all of a sudden, once again, Keith popped up unexpectedly in my life, when I suddenly received an email from him only a few months before he passed away, and we were suddenly, once again, engaged in talking about ‘doing something’ together on either film, morality or sports (but not Bauman!) – as long, we agreed, as it was ‘fun’. Here we briefly returned to the aforementioned topic of ‘Positive Sociology’, when I daringly suggested that we could do a volume together for the book series he was editing at Routledge on ‘Positive Sociology’. His response was a ‘typical Keith’ – short, precise and dry: ‘To be honest Danish brother, it is hard to be positive about very much here in the UK – Brexit, rising poverty, decimation of the welfare state and so on’. In our last conversations, I sensed an unmistakable disillusion but also a shimmer of hope that things might, after all, perhaps at some point in time turn out for the better.
Throughout the more than 15 years I had the privilege of knowing Keith Tester, I can in all honestly boil it all down to the fact that he was a thoroughly kind-hearted man, he was a clever and original scholar (in many ways of the old-school, still believing in principles, values and that kind of stuff), and even though he certainly had some edge, he was always polite, interesting, considerate and compassionate company. I miss him as a friend, as a confidant and as a collaborator.
Bauman, Zygmunt, Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Keith Tester (2013): What Use Is Sociology? Cambridge: Polity Press.
Jacobsen, Michael Hviid and Keith Tester (eds.) (2006a): Zygmunt Bauman – Special Issue of The Polish Sociological Review no. 3 (155).
Jacobsen, Michael Hviid and Keith Tester (2006b): ‘Bauman Before Exile – A Conversation with Zygmunt Bauman’. Polish Sociological Review, 3 (155):267-274.
Jacobsen, Michael Hviid and Keith Tester (2007): ‘Sociology, Nostalgia, Utopia and Mortality: A Conversation with Zygmunt Bauman’. European Journal of Social Theory, 10 (2):305-325.
Jacobsen, Michael Hviid, Sophia Marshman and Keith Tester (2007): Bauman Beyond Postmodernity: Critical Appraisals, Conversations and Annotated Bibliography 1989-2005. Aalborg: Aalborg University Press.
Jacobsen, Michael Hviid and Keith Tester (2008): ‘Ondskabens senmoderne svøbe – en sociologi om passiv observation og aktiv overvindelse af ondskab’, in Sara Normann Thordsen and Helle Dam Sørensen (eds.): Ondskab – et politisk begreb. Århus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, pp. 71-100.
Jacobsen, Michael Hviid and Keith Tester (eds.) (2012): Utopia and Social Theory. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.
Jacobsen, Michael Hviid and Keith Tester (2013): ‘Talking Sociology: An Interview with Zygmunt Bauman on Sociology, Celebrity and Critique’. Thesis Eleven, 114 (1):103-113.
Tester, Keith (2004a): The Social Thought of Zygmunt Bauman. London: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Tester, Keith (2004b): Fragments of a Human World: Wild Sociology, Dark Times and the Postmodern World – A Sketchy Introduction to the Sociological Spirit of Keith Tester. Sociologisk Arbejdspapir, no. 20, Aalborg University.
Tester, Keith (2008): ‘The Media as Public – The Appearance of Sociology in the Media Environment’, in Michael Hviid Jacobsen (ed.): Public Sociology. Aalborg: Aalborg University Press, pp. 155-176.
Tester, Keith and Michael Hviid Jacobsen (2005): Bauman Before Postmodernity: Invitation, Conversations and Annotated Bibliography 1953-1989. Aalborg: Aalborg University Press.
The intellectual in Auschwitz: between vulnerability and resistance – In memory of Keith Tester
Arne Johan Vetlesen
When a freshman in philosophy at the University of Oslo, one of my senior professors was known to have been sent, along with hundreds of other Norwegian students, to the German concentration camp Buchenwald during the war. Categorized as political prisoners, they endured conditions largely favorable to those suffered by, say, Jews sent to Auschwitz. They all survived.
As far as I recall, the professor would rarely mention his wartime experiences. With one exception, though. Sometimes he would relate how, when prospects seemed particularly grim, he would recite to himself verses by Schiller, Goethe and Hölderlin, or by Norwegian poets. Given the reality of suffering and war surrounding him in the camp, why turn to poetry? What could it possibly offer in such circumstances?
I don’t know how the old professor would have answered this question. What I assume, though, is that the contrast between the two worlds – that of the camp and that of poetry – is precisely what conferred a particular significance upon poetry, upon keeping up a bond with it, instead of giving it up. Giving up on the world of poetry, as envisioned by poetry, would mean to surrender to the insistence of the Nazis that their vision of reality as an eminently physical such in the form of the camp is the only reality there is, the only one worth attending to. Confronted with the Nazi endeavor to define, dictate and exhaust reality, to render the world of their making and subject to their control the sole reality of everyone, friend or foe, the reciting of poetry became an act of defiance. If as a camp inmate one could not physically revolt, one could at least undertake a “spiritual” act of resistance, an inner and private one at that, but a sign of resistance nonetheless. While forced to be compliant on the outside, one could try to sustain a spiritual inner life of sorts, one hidden from the Nazi masters yet of invaluable importance in the yearning to survive their reign, to remain in some minimal sense “true to oneself” and one’s pre-catastrophic values and ideals in a situation of suffering and death.
I mentioned that the professor had made a point of reciting German as well as Norwegian authors. Why? Presumably to protest against the Nazis’ attempt to co-opt everything German, be it the poetry of Schiller or Hölderlin, so as to Nazify it, putting their ideological stamp on it and claiming symbolic dictatorship in addition to physical such, expressing the totalitarian ambition to seize control of symbolic reality as well as the material one. To persist in holding the giants of German spiritual achievement in high regard, in the face of the Nazi effort at total appropriation, was an act of resistance: one showed the inner strength required to defy that effort, regardless of the crushing brutality that accompanied it. Another Germany – another German spirituality – than the Nazi one had once existed, and it would hopefully exist once again; and to help ensure that it could do so, there needed to be individuals willing and able to preserve it, to save it from being either spoiled or forgotten. In other words, one could at one at the same time fight Nazism and endeavor to save the “best” of German spiritual heritage; one could do so regardless of whether one happened to be oneself German or non-German, say, Norwegian.
Yet there is a deeper layer to the importance of turning to poetry while a camp inmate than that bearing on ideological or political resistance. Having mental access to poetry, and being intent on keeping it intact, was a source of inner strength. It was not only a matter of ensuring that one’s pre-camp identity not be harmed, let alone crushed. It was also a matter of avoiding that it be changed in a manner desired by the Nazis.
To appreciate the importance of the latter point, one must know that according to the Nazi Weltanschauung, Norwegians were considered as part of a “superior” race: in terms of “blood”, the Norwegians were part of the Aryan family, being just as superior over against the “sub-human” Jews as were so-called pure Germans. For this partly racial, partly ideological reason (the two of course being inseparable in the Nazi case), Norwegians who considered the Germany led by Hitler as an enemy, and who accordingly put up a fight against the German presence in Norway, were regarded as simply mistaken. Sending Norwegians to a camp was a consequence of the acts of the individuals in question, hence a matter of punishment. By contrast, sending Jews to a camp was a matter of destiny, of seeing to it that every single member of the Jewish race receive the fate meant for him or her – death as what follows from the racial laws, the laws of nature, whereby the convictions and actions of the individual Jew make no difference: their group identity, racially conceived, seals their destiny as “lebensunwertes Leben”.
This then is the context required for understanding what was at stake in the Norwegian student’s stubbornness in remaining loyal to his “original”, pre-camp-life self and in employing an allegiance to the spiritual world of poetry as a means of doing so. To the extent that political conviction – or more broadly, intellectual orientation – was a chief reason for him having been sent to the camp, holding fast to that orientation, not allowing it to be set aside or replaced by another orientation, say, a Nazi one, was proof of individual resistance; it made sense as precisely an act of resistance, not only to the individual himself and to his fellow inmates, but to the Nazis as well. And who knows – perhaps showing the Nazis that one did not give in to their efforts of “re-education” would command a certain degree of respect.
The case of Jean Amery is very different. Like my professor, he was a camp inmate, only the camp was Auschwitz and, eventually, Bergen-Belsen, not Buchenwald.
Amery also differs in his identity: his father was Jewish, his mother a roman-catholic Austrian. The circumstances of his arrest are related as follows by Amery himself: “In July 1943 I was arrested by the Gestapo. It was a matter of fliers. The group to which I belonged, a small German-speaking organization within the Belgian resistance movement, was spreading anti-Nazi propaganda among the members of the German occupation forces” (AML: 24). Having been caught with fliers bearing the message “Death to the SS bandits and Gestapo henchmen”, he had “no illusions of any kind” as to what would happen to him. And indeed, he was “routinely” sent to the Belgian Gestapo center at Fort Breendonk to be tortured. He was thus paying the price he had every reason to expect would be the consequence of being caught as member of the resistance.
Amery’s arrest, then, had something in common with the arrest of the Norwegian students discussed above: they were arrested – en masse, in the hundreds – for refusing to comply with the Nazification of higher education that the Germans, in alignment with the Quisling government, was undertaking at the time. The shared feature is that of partaking in an act meant as resistance, and not merely interpreted as such by the Germans. Being sent to Buchenwald in the one case, to torture in the other, are both cases of experiencing punishment – predictably so – as a result of one’s action.
But here similarities end. According to the Wikipedia entry on Jean Amery, “when it was established that there was no information to be extracted from him, he was “demoted” from political prisoner to Jew, and shipped to Auschwitz”. His being moved from the one place to the other seems to involve his identity changing from that of a member of the resistance (hence, a political prisoner) to that of being a Jew (hence, a member of the “sub-human” race doomed to die). In the former case, as we saw above, individual acts, based on conviction, make a difference, to all parties involved; in the latter case, everything to with the individual qua individual is denied any significance, effectively effaced.
It is remarkable that – lest I have missed something – Amery does not thematize the change of identity just mentioned, enormously important as it was, given his situation. To be more accurate, what he does not tell us is whether his Jewishness played a role for the Germans who tortured him, or whether their sole focus was on his actions as a political opponent.
In his essay “Torture” in At the Mind’s Limits, Amery describes the torturer like this:
“He has control over the other’s scream of pain and death; he is master over flesh and spirit, life and death. In this way, torture becomes the total inversion of the social world, in which we can live only if we grant our fellow man life, ease his suffering, bridle the desire of our ego to expand. But in the world of torture man exists only by ruining the other person who stands before him.” (AML: 35)
Having set out the way in which the torturer seeks to effect “the total inversion of the social world” of which the victim is – or used to be – a member, the world which renders life meaningful, actions predictable, thus sustaining the conditions for having a basic ontological trust in the world, Amery goes on to make an observation that speaks directly to my above discussion of the importance of the victim’s engaging (if only in foro interno) with an intellectual world:
“A slight pressure by the tool-wielding hand is enough to turn the other – along with his head, in which are perhaps stored Kant and Hegel, and all nine symphonies, and the World as Will and Representation [Schopenhauer] – into a shrilly squealing piglet at slaughter. When it has happened and the torturer has expanded into the body of his fellow men and extinguished what was his spirit, he himself can then smoke a cigarette or sit down to breakfast or, if he has the desire, have a look at the World as Will and Representation.” (AML: 35)
I take Amery’s point to be that in torture, the entire intellectual world that the victim is committed to, even – in some cases – to the point of being at the core of his sense of identity and self-worth, is being nullified: whatever importance that world used to have, no longer obtains. In other words, the destruction brought about by the violence and infliction of pain and suffering that torture is all about, is not limited to a physical or bodily dimension, to ensuring that the victim be broken in that respect – i.e., is made unable to put of a fight, to strike back. Rather, the deeper and more enduring destruction brought about in torture is of a more subtle since symbolic kind: ensuring that the victim be broken spiritually, not only physically. Not the capacity for bodily movement, for physical strength, is what is most importantly to be destroyed, but the freedom of movement of the mind, the way the mind and the peculiar world it partakes in and helps sustain marks itself as independent, as affirming that the victim possesses something all his own, out of reach of the otherwise all-powerful torturer. This being so, any sign that the mind of the victim is still, to some extent, intact, still within the power of the victim himself to command, as a source for independent thoughts, a will of his own, will be considered absolutely intolerable by the torturer, showing that the pain inflicted thus far, however devastating, amounts to a failure: what must be made to break completely is still not fully broken.
Is breaking the victim as a bearer of mind, a spiritual creature, really the declared and ultimate goal of torture, or is it rather its consequence, what it effects more or less completely in the individual case, without the torturer necessarily paying attention to it?
Presumably the answer will differ from case to case. However, as far as Amery’s experience of torture is concerned, I think the answer is anything but equivocal: for him, the very essence of torture consists in reducing a person “entirely to a body” (AML: 36), thereby confirming, significantly, the Nazis’ claim that their ideologically sought-out victims were really sub-human, less-than-human creatures, that is to say, devoid of the features that would manifest and so prove their worthiness of life, their entitlement to respect or right and everything inducing dignity and inviolability. As so many survivors and analysts alike have pointed out – including Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt – what the Nazis endeavored was nothing less than that the victims themselves give up on their humanity, on their claims to be treated as co-humans, as bearers of inviolability, and as lovable (worthy of being loved), as Jay Bernstein adds (2015: 265ff.). In Arendt’s terms, there is first the destruction of the juridical person (i.e., the Nuremberg Laws); followed by the murder of the moral person in man; followed finally by the destruction of unique identity, the spontaneity through which a person can call an action “mine”, expressing his subjective will and freedom (see Arendt 1951: 447ff.). In the “reduction of the many to the one” that this three-stage sequence of destruction is meant to bring about, the prisoners’ reduction to mere bodies would precede their actual death, meaning that their spiritual death – their ceasing to be spiritual beings, to aspire to partaking of the life of the mind – would precede their physical one.
The point I just made is borne out again and again in the title essay in Amery’s book. “The reality of the camp”, Amery never tires of telling us, “triumphed effortlessly over death and over the entire complex of the so-called ultimate questions.” Indeed, here “the mind came up against its limits” (AML: 18). Amery’s description is worth quoting in full:
“To reach out beyond concrete reality with words became before our very eyes a game that was not only worthless and an impermissible luxury but also mocking and evil. Hourly, the physical world delivered proof that its insufferableness could be coped with only through means inherent in that world. In other words: nowhere else in the world did reality have as much effective power as in the camp, nowhere else was reality so real. In no other place did the attempt to transcend it prove so hopeless and so shoddy. […] Where the philosophic declarations still meant something they appeared trivial, and where they were not trivial they no longer meant anything.” (AML: 19).
It follows that, as expressed by a practicing Jew Amery met in Auschwitz, “here your intelligence and your education are worthless” (AML: 14). In his discussion Amery does allow for a certain differentiation: believers and committed communists did manage to “transcend themselves” and to project themselves into the future; both Christians and Marxists “stood open, wide open onto a world that was not the world of Auschwitz” (ibid.). But with these two exceptions, the intellect according to Amery “was of no help, or of little help. It abandoned us. It constantly vanished from sight whenever those questions were involved that were once called the “ultimate” questions” (AML: 15). Amery’s overall claim is unambiguous, and it is meant to apply to the majority of intellectuals, understood as a person “who lives within what is a spiritual frame of reference in the widest sense”, a person who believes in “the reality of the world of the mind” (AML: 2, 8): for all such persons, their trying, in some sense and to some extent, to remain intellectuals, to retain a relationship with the world of the mind, considered as a real and a meaningful – or meaning-sustaining – world, proved of no worth, no help whatever. On the contrary, “the intellectual faced death defenselessly” (AML: 17), more so than any other type of victim.
But why, more precisely, is it that being an intellectual is so one-sidedly and inescapably a disadvantage according to Amery?
To answer this question, we need to appreciate how strongly Amery puts his claim: the point is not simply that being an intellectual was not of any help; it made things worse, being an independent source of vulnerability, of helplessness in the face of violence-driven destruction in general and of torture in particular, a vulnerability not found in the non-intellectual victim.
Amery is eager to explain with is at stake here in no uncertain terms. “Not only”, he reiterates, “was rational-analytic thinking in the camp, and particularly in Auschwitz, of no help, but it led straight into a tragic dialectic of self-destruction” (AML: 10). He offers the following explanation:
“First of all, the intellectual did not so easily acknowledge the unimaginable conditions as a given fact as did the non-intellectual. Long practice in questioning the phenomena of everyday reality prevented him from simply adjusting to the realities of the camp, between these stood in all-too-sharp a contrast to everything that he had regarded until then as possible and humanly acceptable. As a free man he always associated with people who were open to humane and reasonable argumentation, and he absolutely did not want to comprehend what now truly was not at all complicated: namely, that in regard to him, the prisoner, the SS was deploying a logic of destruction that in itself operated just as consistently as the logic of preservation did in the outside world.” (AML: 10)
Many people would perhaps assume that being an intellectual in the encounter with Nazi brutality, with violence and everything physical gaining the upper hand, would grant the prisoner a ballast of resistance, of a counter-force, if you will, precisely on grounds of the profound way in which the intellectual’s world contrasts with the Nazi world as depicted by Amery. On such a view, the intellectual, as opposed to his non-intellectual fellow prisoners, would have an alternative frame of reference, of what is truly important in life, to fall back upon, implying that one’s very identity as intellectual, with the values, ideas and ideals going with it, would give the lie to the Nazi version of reality, falsifying its insistence to be the only reality possible, the only one truly real and valid.
True, Amery does allow that the intellectual prisoner in Auschwitz would typically start out thinking that his partaking in a spiritual world, one deeply at odds with the Nazi Weltanschauung and its anti-intellectualism, would be an asset to him in the camp; an asset in providing him with access to an alternative framework for understanding and assessing things – ultimately, what makes life worth living, existence worth pursuing – that not only differed from his Nazi guards, but from the other prisoners as well. What Amery grants, that is, is the intellectual’s conviction that even if all others adjust to the new circumstances and give up on any alternative, anti-Nazi framework for thinking and acting, he – emphatically – will not. He will be the odd one out, finding comfort and support in staying assured that “another world is possible”: an anti-Nazi world, the kind of world that preceded the current triumph of Nazism and that will one day succeed it and again become the predominant reality. He will take it upon himself to be adamant that his non-ceasing allegiance to such a world is a matter of the greatest importance: only as long as there are individuals who have the inner strength to keep the flame of that anti-Nazi world does that world stand a chance of becoming real. To abandon it would therefore be no mere personal matter, no purely private defeat; it would make a difference on a much higher plane, jeopardizing the prospects of a humane world for everybody, the world the Nazis are hell-bent to destroy, spiritually no less than physically.
Yet it is precisely this sort of “rejection of the SS logic”, that is, the notion of a “revolt turned inward” insofar as it is made impossible as turned outward, that is doomed to failure given the circumstances of the camp. “After a certain time”, Amery assures us, “there inevitably appeared something that was more than mere resignation and that we may designate as an acceptance not only of the SS logic but also the SS system of values” (AML: 11). Once again “the intellectual prisoner had it harder than the unintellectual. For the latter there had never been a universal humane logic, rather only a consistent system of self-preservation” (ibid.). For such a person, clearly taken by Amery to constitute the large majority of prisoners, the logic that the camp imposed on them “was merely the step-by-step intensification of economic logic, and one opposed this intensification with a useful mixture of resignation and the readiness to defend oneself” (ibid.). By contrast, the intellectual, who was forced to realize that what may not be, according to his lofty ideals and high hopes for humanity, very well could be, indeed was the paramount reality imposing itself on him around the clock and accompanying his every move, had nothing to fall back upon after this realization set in. There was now nothing to prevent a state of affairs where the “absolute intellectual tolerance and the methodical doubting” that he qua intellectual had so thoroughly internalized “became factors in his autodestruction” – the conclusion being that “Yes, the SS could carry on just as it did: there are no natural rights, and moral categories come and go just like the fashions” (AML: 11).
Amery substantiates his grim assessment of the intellectual’s predicament in Auschwitz by drawing attention to the relationship between intellectuals and power: “More than his unintellectual mates in the camp, the intellectual in the camp was lamed by his historically and sociologically explicable deeper respect for power; in fact, the intellectual always and everywhere has been totally under the sway of power”. To be sure, Amery acknowledges, the intellectual is accustomed to doubt power intellectually, “to subject it to his critical analysis”, and yet – this being the point – “in the same intellectual process to capitulate to it”. Why? Amery’s answer is that “the capitulation became entirely unavoidable when there was no visible opposition to the hostile force” (AML: 12). Being a prisoner in a camp like Auschwitz meant that one always and everywhere was confronted with the undeniable and insuperable reality that was the power structure of the SS state, the reality of which no act of thinking, no engagement with abstract ideas in one’s inner mind, and hence no “spiritual” protest or denial could possibly change; insofar as this Nazi-designed and -controlled reality became reality tout court it became inescapable in every sense, spiritually no less than physically, as far as the mind is concerned no less than the body. As such this reality “seemed reasonable”, claims Amery, adding that “no matter what his thinking may have been on the outside, in this sense here the intellectual became a Hegelian: in the metallic brilliance of its totality the SS state appeared as a state in which the idea was becoming reality” (AML: 12).
Having looked at the main features in Amery’s analysis of the predicament of intellectuals in the Nazi concentration camps, it is time to examine how well it holds up.
We recall that for Amery the essence of torture lies in the torturer’s endeavor to “reduce a person entirely to a body”, to see to it that “the fellow man is transformed into flesh”, thereby “nullifying” the social world as well as the spiritual one. To put it in philosophical terms, the torturer seeks to realize his own total sovereignty, his complete control over his victims, by ensuring that what starts out as an ideological claim – the intellect counts for nothing, flesh counts for everything – be made into empirical reality: at the end of the day, when the killing of the targeted opponents of the Nazi vision is completed, there is nothing in the resulting “real world” that would possibly falsify the claim about flesh and physical strength being supreme, spirit being null and void.
We also saw that it was incumbent on the Nazi perpetrators to see to it that the individual victim be spiritually broken before dying physically: the moment of death, indeed dying as such, would then be void of any “metaphysical” – religious, philosophical – import; it would be devoid of any “meaning” in the pre-Nazi sense of attesting to the spiritual nature of the human beings being killed. Denying any trace of meaning to the death of their victims was a way of showing them, even proving to them, that their life was – had been – equally meaningless, equally devoid of any transcendent and transcending import: having been brought to abandon the very notion of being a spiritual being, of being a creature holding spiritual values and ideas in a sense crucial to one’s very identity, the Nazis hoped not only to show how meaningless was the life as well as death of the individual victim to himself, but also to all others – not only to the Nazis, but to fellow inmates as well.
So if we ask why it was so important for the Nazis to break their victims spiritually prior to their death, the answer – I suggest – has to do with the Nazi endeavor to impose conditions on their victims that would force them to be indifferent to the difference between life and death: both would be equally devoid of meaning, not only of the sort that would make a difference for the individual himself, but also of meaning that would transcend – survive – the individual being killed. Nothing would be left from a life that had, before ending, been rendered completely meaningless.
But how can the Nazis be sure that this endeavor is successful? How can they know, in the individual case, whether or not the victim has given up on being a spiritual being, in addition to a purely physical one, endowed with a mind and not only with a body? How to gather the sought-for proof that the victim is broken spiritually before death sets in?
Well, by witnessing that the victim accepts his transformation into flesh – not only accepts that such a transformation is taking place, that his Nazi perpetrators are successful in bringing it about, but also accepts the transformation in the deeper sense of conceding that it is right, that it bespeaks the truth about his (the victim’s) being: that in essence he is nothing but flesh and as such a completely non-metaphysical, non-spiritual being, one whose time on earth accordingly is completely without any “higher” meaning whatsoever, any claim to which now appears ridiculous, a piece of sheer fantasy wholly lacking in reality orientation, indeed flatly contradicted by reality as it is.
In the final essay in At the Mind’s Limits, entitled “On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew”, Amery describes how it came to be that he became a Jew – because that it what he tells us happened: he became one, and his becoming a Jew wasn’t up to him and of his making, wasn’t to do with his own thoughts or actions at all. Quite the contrary: it was something that was totally a matter of Fremdbestimmung, of being made into something, defined as something – someone – from without, and so violating – or more precisely, cancelling, nullifying – his autonomy rather than following from and manifesting it.
“I must be a Jew and will be one”, Amery tells us, “with or without religion, within or outside a tradition, whether as Jean, Hans, or Yochanan” (AML: 84). Only in 1935, at the age of 23, did Amery realize that henceforth he was a Jew, would always be considered one, carrying consequences for his life and death that he was completely unable to influence. His Jewishness would forever mark his essence, notwithstanding it coming not from within but being imposed upon him from without, sealing his status and fate as an object as opposed to being, and being allowed to live as, a free and autonomous subject.
Why 1935, exactly? Because that was the year, the month, the day, “when I was sitting over a newspaper in a Vienna coffeehouse and was studying the Nuremberg Laws, which had just been enacted across the border in Germany” (AML: 85). Immediately Amery understood that the Laws applied to him and in effect decided his fate. From this moment on, he writes, to be a Jew meant for him “to be a dead man on leave, someone to be murdered”. The death threat included “the methodic “degradation” of the Jews by the Nazis”; or put differently, “the denial of human dignity sounded the death threat” (AML: 86).
The question to ask, given my above discussion, is this: what role, if any, did being an intellectual play in the Nazis’ decision to murder every individual regarded as a Jew according to the Nuremberg Laws?
I take it that the answer will be considered to be very simple: being an intellectual played no role whatsoever. Why? Because nonintellectual Jews would be killed just as effectively and unhesitatingly as intellectual ones, the peasant and the factory worker just as decisively as the professor, the doctor and the composer. To bring intellectuality – be it defined by leaning or ability, be it defined by education and profession, be it “to believe in the reality of the world of the mind” (AML: 8) – into the picture as a “relevant” criterion and defining mark for Jewishness would be to allow for an internal differentiation among the category of Jews as a whole, thus violating the biological essentialism Nazi race ideology adhered to – race understood generically, so as to render, from the moment they are born and regardless of the life they will come to lead, all Jews alike as far as their status as “sub-human”, as being “unworthy of life”, is concerned. The one Jew may be a peasant, the other a world-famous psychoanalyst, physicist, novelist and what-not: it makes no difference; the ideology couldn’t care less, be it in theory or in practice.
Consider now the following episode related by Amery: “A comrade [in Auschwitz] who had once been asked about his profession had foolishly told the truth that he was a Germanist, and that had provoked a murderous outburst of rage from an SS man” (AML: 8). Why?
Amery does not say: he offers no explanation, no further reflection. He does not even tell us whether the comrade in question was a Jew or not. Perhaps it wouldn’t have made any difference: this person was in Auschwitz and he was not meant to survive.
Nevertheless, questions remain unasked. Not only are we not told why the SS man reacted by rage when being told that the prisoner before him was a Germanist – as thought the SS man’s responding in this manner is obvious, self-explanatory. We are also not told why it was foolish of the prisoner to tell the truth about being a Germanist. The simple answer, of course, is that he ought to have known that saying so would enrage the SS man, predictably so, as the only possible response under the circumstances. But again, why?
The implicit message in Amery’s remark is that it was elementary among the prisoners that if one was an intellectual, one should endeavor to hide it, and if asked, deny it. Whence this significance? Why should being an intellectual be hidden or denied when Nazi ideology insists that being or not being an intellectual makes no difference – Jewishness being what does, being the sole – and as such sufficient – identity mark to impose the death sentence Amery experienced in his own case that day in the Vienna coffeehouse in September 1935? Wasn’t hiding or denying one’s Jewishness, and not one’s being an intellectual, the only thing worth paying attention to and being concerned about?
But perhaps there is something mistaken about the very juxtaposition between the two – being an intellectual, and being a Jew – that this approach is subscribing to. For it is not as if these are two items, or properties, or attributions, that have nothing to do with each other, that belong to different universes, in mutual indifference at that. Far from it. From the Nazi point of view, the former is associated with, conjoined with, the latter, being a part of what defines the latter and so (precisely) not to be separated from it. Intellectuality and Jewishness go – belong – together, forming to sides of the same coin, the same people and its allegedly distinct way of being in the world; a conjunction regarded – again according to the ideologized Nazi gaze – as deeper, as more essential, than any differences obtaining between two concrete Jewish individuals – say, the peasant and the novelist.
Amery reminds his readers that “in Auschwitz, the isolated individual had to relinquish all of German culture, including Dürer and Reger, Gryphius and Trakl, to even the lowest SS man” (AML: 8). This helps illustrate the situation the intellectual found himself in, corroborating Amery’s earlier contention that whatever intellectual background and baggage the individual who entered Auschwitz had, this part of him would prove of no use whatsoever; best then to give up on it, get rid of any trace of it, as quickly as possible.
This makes sense as a mechanism of adjustment, being part of what it took to survive (as long as possible) under the camp circumstances. But the fact that “believing in the reality of the world of the mind” proved useless, and that such a world was rendered totally irrelevant to the situations one had to negotiate and handle as best as one could in the Auschwitz reality, only takes us so far. It does not answer the more fundamental question I have been zooming in on: Why is it that the Nazis so vehemently targeted everything to do with intellectuality in the first place? Why would disclosing your intellectuality make your situation as a prisoner worse? Why would the SS man be more furious in front of an intellectual prisoner than a nonintellectual one?
I suggest the answer has to do with envy – envy in a combination with power, with the issue of how power is distributed between the Nazi guard and the individual prisoner.
Envy, in my understanding here, relying on Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic work (1988), is a largely unconscious desire to destroy what is considered (but not openly acknowledged as) good or valuable in the other, and as lacking in oneself, making for a most unwelcome, indeed intolerable contrast. Envy is more radical, and more dangerous, than other sources of aggression precisely in that it targets the good in the other: it seeks to destroy it, to make it be no more, because it is good. Since I am not this goodness – do not have it (in me), and never (trust that I) will – the other before me shall not be it and have it either.
Thus put, the structure of envy is very primitive, psychologically speaking, and the sort of inter-personal relationships it dictates (if allowed to do so unchecked) very dangerous for the other in question.
In Auschwitz, “even the lowest SS man” (Amery) has the opportunity to do whatever he likes to his victims – including the intellectuals among them, who in most cases will have enjoyed a much higher status – along so many dimensions – than the SS man in their pre-Auschwitz lives. This being so, a crucial way of demonstrating power is to impress upon such prisoners that, from the moment of their entering the camp, nothing of what they are used to holding as distinct about themselves – who they are and their sources of self-respect – applies any longer. When the “lowest” man can do whatever he wants, in terms of humiliation, in terms of violence, against the “highest”, intellectually speaking, envy is allowed a rare chance to raise its head and be paramount, no longer something to be hidden from view, a sense of shame, a proof of inferiority since a social taboo.
Envy is not a topic singled out for discussion in Amery’s account. Yet I would claim its reality as a psychological force in the way in which the Nazi guards treated the intellectuals among their prisoners – the more conspicuously intellectual, the more so – is largely implied in his account. In their fragment “Elements of Anti-Semitism”, the last section in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer speak about “the anger against all that is different”, viewing such anger as an essential feature of anti-Semitism and Fascism alike. They observe that “[o]nly the abstract difference from the majority appears in racial ideology and class reality”, adding that “the content of the Fascist program is so meaningless that, as a substitute for something better, it can only be upheld by the desperate efforts of the deluded” (1979 : 208).
If, following this analysis, the supporters and enactors of Fascism are committed to deluding themselves, this delusion being at the core of what draws them to that ideology, the ability to see through that delusion and to expose it as such might be held to be the obvious antidote: what could be more helpful to those targeted by Fascism than being cleverer than its henchmen?
To be sure, we already know Amery’s answer to this question: the first lesson to be learned among prisoners in Auschwitz is that trying to understand is of no use whatsoever –quite the contrary, searching for a meaning or for reasons – “Why?” – will only make you more defenseless, since it will impede the quick adjustment to the camp reality that your (slight) chance of survival depends upon. Again, Adorno and Horkheimer supplement Amery, stating that “One of the lessons which Hitler has taught us is that it is better not to be too clever. The Jews put forward all kinds of well-founded arguments to show that he could not come to power when his rise was clear for all to see” (1979: 209). Their verdict, formulated in exile in California in 1944, is harsh: “The educated made it easy for the barbarians everywhere by being so stupid” (ibid.).
However, the “anger against all that is different” was more consistently and viciously directed against some markers of difference than others. In the case of Adorno, this is more clearly borne out in his autobiographical work Minima Moralia than in the reflections on anti-Semitism he co-authored with Horkheimer after having fled from Nazi Germany. The difference that was seized upon by his class comrades when Adorno was growing up in Frankfurt long before the takeover by the Nazis (Adorno was born in 1903) was not his Jewishness but his intellectuality, which we may presume was pronounced from early age. Adorno offers the following recollection, put to paper in 1935:
“…and it often seemed to my foolish terror as if the total State had been invented expressly against me, to inflict on me after all those things from which, in my childhood, in its primeval form, I had been temporarily been dispensed. The five patriots, who set upon a single schoolfellow, thrashed him, and, when he complained to the teacher, defamed him as a traitor to the class – are they not the same as those who tortured prisoners to refute claims by foreigners that prisoners were tortured? Those whose hallooing knew no end when the top boy blundered – did they not stand grinning and sheepish round the Jewish detainee, poking fun at his maladroit attempt to hang himself? They who could not put together a correct sentence but found all of mine too long?” (Adorno 2003: 77f.)
Adorno, who unlike Amery evaded the experience of torture and of life (death) in a camp, writes about the “inviolable [“unverbrüchliche”] isolation” that for the intellectual is now “the only way of showing some measure of solidarity” (Adorno 2003: 39). It is noteworthy that he can say this as someone who was spared the experiences in question. We can only assume that the loneliness of the intellectual he speaks about, clearly based on his own life experience including the pre-war one as a Jew in Germany, would have been greatly amplified had he been sent to a camp like Amery was.
Commentators on Amery one typically consider one specific passage as particularly instructive, namely Amery’s recollection of the moment when the prisoner foreman Juszek – “a Polish professional criminal of horrifying vigor” – hit him on the face for a trifle:
“In open revolt I struck Juszek in the face in turn. My human dignity lay in this punch to his jaw –and that it was in the end I, the physically much weaker man, who succumbed and was woefully thrashed, meant nothing to me. Painfully beaten, I was satisfied with myself. But not, as one might think, for reasons of courage and honor, but only because I had grasped well that there are situations in life in which our body is our entire self and our entire fate. I was my body and nothing else: in hunger, in the blow that I suffered, in the blow that I dealt. My body, debilitated and crusted with filth, was my calamity. My body, when it tensed to strike, was my physical and metaphysical dignity. In situations like mine, physical violence is the sole means for restoring a sense of disjointed personality. In the punch, I was myself – for myself and for my opponent.” (AML: 90f.)
Jay M. Bernstein, whose book Torture and Dignity takes its chief inspiration from Amery’s work, has the following to say about the significance of this episode: “For Amery, hitting back represented a mechanism for asserting his fundamental worth in a manner consonant with the general notion of dignity” (2015: 300). Amery’s self-assertion by way of returning his tormentor’s blow, Bernstein contends, “is an act of asserting his self-respect, his particular relation to self, in a manner that establishes that he expects to enjoin or demand or claim respect from another”. “If the human form”, Bernstein concludes, “all by itself, summons respect, hitting back demands it” (ibid.). Amery’s claim that in the situation he found himself in while in Auschwitz, “physical violence is the sole means for restoring a disjointed personality”, is affirmed in Bernstein’s reading: “to survive morally, [Amery] would have to physically appeal his case against the society and the world that had condemned him” (ibid.).
Consider what is at stake here. In an extreme situation like Auschwitz, Amery tells us, “our body is our entire self and our entire fate”; he “was his body and nothing else” (AML: 90). This being so, we can understand why he felt that so much was involved in returning the punch dealt him by Juszek: returning it was the only way possible for him, left for him, to maintain and manifest his dignity in that situation. Nothing he could have said, or otherwise done, would have the same effect, would carry the same message. We may paraphrase the message as follows: if you thought that I am not a human being, that I am a passive animal, devoid of everything associated with human capacities and moral features, let the punch I now give you in return for yours show you how wrong you are; in hitting back, I prove myself capable of doing something – being someone – you set out to deny me, thus proving the falsity and futility of your violence-driven endeavor.
Put philosophically, what Bernstein sees Amery to demonstrate is the notion made famous by Hegel, later to be developed by Marx, Sartre, and Honneth, namely that “it is through acts of self-respect that respect from the other is claimed; and what the other would respect, is the claim were recognized, would be the agent’s human dignity” (Bernstein 2015: 300).
Did Amery really gain the respect of Juszek as a result of returning his punch? We don’t know, and never will. Amery doesn’t say, and Juszek cannot be consulted. But that is hardly the point. The point is that responding the way he did – physically – was of the greatest importance for Amery himself: he had proved to himself that he was a subject, not a mere passive object; that he was capable of protesting what was being done to him, regardless of his undeniable inferiority, of his being – physically – no match for his adversary Juszek. To stand up for himself as a human and moral subject is what the episode is first and foremost about, the question about whether Juszek or others witnessing his protest came to respect him as a result of it of merely secondary importance.
Turn now to another commentator on this central episode in Amery’s camp experience – not another philosopher, but another Auschwitz survivor: Primo Levi. This is what Levi has to say in his essay “The Intellectual in Auschwitz”:
“I admire Amery’s change of heart, his courageous decision to leave the ivory tower and go down into the battlefield, but is was and still is beyond my reach. I admire it: but I most point out that this choice, protracted throughout his post-Auschwitz existence, led him to positions of such severity and intransigence as to make him incapable of finding joy in life, indeed of living. Those who “trade blows” with the entire world achieve dignity put pay a very high price for it, because they are sure to be defeated. Amery’s suicide, which took place in Salzburg in 1978, like other suicides allows for a nebula of explanations, but, in hindsight, the episode of the defiance of the Pole offers one interpretation of it.” (Levi 1988: 110).
Levi’s verdict is unusually harsh, even damning, and now that we know that he, like Amery before him, would also end his life by committing suicide (in 1987), it is easy to point out that as a rule one should beware of using a person’s philosophical outlook – say, concerning what it takes to maintain self-respect – to explain why he committed suicide.
But there is more at issue here than the personal difference between the two Auschwitz survivors that Levi underscores in stating that “I am not able, personally, to trade punches or return the blows” (Levi 1988: 110), conveying that this is not an ability he regards as doing a real service to Amery – if anything, he views it as part of what brought him down. More important, though, is what Levi writes in his own Auschwitz memoir, If This is a Man, in the chapter entitled “The Canto of Ulysses” (Amery 1987 : 115-121). The episode in question is one where Levi, a chemist by profession (thus, incidentally, failing to qualify as an intellectual as defined by Amery, excluding as he does scientists and technicians), had a conversion with his fellow inmate Jean Samuel. The subject? Dante’s Divine Comedy. “At that time”, writes Levi, “Dante did not interest him [Samuel]; I interested him by my naive and presumptuous effort to transmit Dante, my language and my confused scholastic reminiscences to him in the space of half an hour and with the soup poles on our shoulders” (Levi 1988: 112). The memories of his pre-Auschwitz existence, of the world as he knew it before the rise of Fascism, “then and there had great value”, Levi tells us. Why? Because “they made it possible for me to re-establish a link with the past, saving it from oblivion and reinforcing my identity. They convinced me that my mind, though besieged by everyday necessities, had not ceased to function. They elevated me in my own eyes and those of my interlocutor”. What this experience throws into sharp relief for Levi, then, is what it means to be “compelled to live in a world without books and what value the memory of books would assume in this world. For me, the Lager [camp] was this too” (ibid.). To highlight his point, and clearly begging to differ from Amery’s analysis, Levi goes on to say that “the Lager was a university; it taught us to look around and to measure men”, commenting that this meant that his vision of the world “was different from and complementary to that of my companion and antagonist Amery” (1988: 114). “The aims of life”, Levi asserts in his final sentence, “are the best defense against death; and not only in the Lager” (1988: 120).
To be sure, the relationship between Amery and Levi – personally and philosophically – is a big topic in its own right, one that I cannot pursue here (see Vetlesen 2006). The question I have been leading up to is this: How are we to understand what Bernstein, approvingly, identifies as the gist of Amery’s lesson from the episode with Juszek – namely that in a situation where “our body is our entire self and our entire fate […] physical violence is the sole means” for demonstrating self-respect, the body now being the person’s “physical and metaphysical dignity” (AML: 90f.)?
I agree with Bernstein that the body is absolutely essential in the inextricably connected senses of exhibiting dignity and of commanding – as the only adequate response – the other’s respect of its integrity. Deliberate assaults on a human person’s bodily integrity – its zone of intimacy, freedom of movement, its being my body, over which I decide – are direct threats against what is at the core of human dignity. That’s why – to put the point negatively – such assaults are so important to the perpetrators: they prioritize performing them for the very reason that having one’s bodily-based and bodily-expressed dignity respected by others is of the utmost importance to a person’s ability to maintain self-respect. Showing no respect whatsoever for that bodily integrity is an efficient means of crushing the person’s sense of dignity.
This is true. But there is more. Recall that a prime goal of the Nazis was to reduce their victims to bodies, to impose upon them conditions such that they – each and every one – give up on being (even aspiring to being) anything but bodies, of being spiritual beings, namely subjects – agents – capable of transcendence as opposed to (mere) immanence, of engaging with a world of ideas, of things abstract, imagined and potential as opposed to what exists here and now, what is utterly real and concrete in a mundane and easily verified sense.
Bearing this Nazi ambition in mind, let us look anew at Amery’s statement: “I was my body and nothing else”; “my body was my physical and metaphysical dignity”. This is the condition he finds himself in as a result of what the Nazis have done to him: there is only the body and its all-too-real immanence, expressed in hunger and thirst, in pain and incapacitation. The bodily experience becomes tantamount to experience tout court, to what being-in-the-world is all about; it devours everything, allowing nothing else – nothing apart from or outside of the body – to be of any bearing.
The crucial point is this: when Amery hits back against Juszek, he demonstrates that the reduction of him to body, to perceiving himself as nothing but body, has taken place, successfully so from the Nazi tormentor’s point of view. “Physical violence” used to be the prerogative of the Nazis – their primary principle and value, as it were – against which Amery wanted to wage a battle when he decided to join the resistance, setting out to do so by way of words not violence. But now he finds himself in a situation where that kind of resistance has proven futile, has become evidence of a misguided idealism, of lofty ideas and ideals, to which intellectuals like himself are typically prone. Experience has taught him, the hard way, to see through the latter as an illusion, as completely useless given his circumstances; indeed as a source of making his situation worse, as compared with that of his nonintellectual fellow prisoners.
The “transcendence” I have spoken of to highlight the mode of being-in-the-world characteristic of intellectuals is equivalent to what Elaine Scarry designates as “having a world” in her famous account of torture in The Body in Pain. Scarry shows that only when the body is taken care of, when its functions are intact and its basic biological needs met, and the body operates within secure surroundings, can consciousness interact with all the senses and address the outside world; only then can the person have, and constantly reengage with, a world full of mental content. This outward orientation, presupposed in as well as a hallmark of human intentionality and agency, of being “thrown into the world”, and projecting oneself toward a future with so many projects (to invoke Heidegger and Sartre), is radically undermined in the event of torture in particular and of intense physical pain in general. This is how pain effects the shrinking, draining and eventually closing down of the world out there, including everything that is abstract in the sense of being not-present, not-at-hand, of being counterfactual or (merely) possible. Pain, that is, causes the body to turn in towards the person, even if, in the way in which torture is being inflicted, the bodily functions – the ability to move, hunger, thirst, defecation, the sensory apparatus – are twisted outwards, in a perverse enlargement, distortion and transformation of their distinctive nature under normal conditions. The aim of the torturer is to make the victim’s body his worst enemy: to turn the victim’s body into the most effective tool in the infliction of pain, in the absolutization as a body quite simply, and thereby in the loss – the annihilation – of the person’s world, of his very ability to “have” a world outside himself, outside the body and pointing beyond it. The body becomes absolutely present – effectively, the only thing present, the only reality that matters – because it is being destroyed, because the destruction of it is so painful that the pain forces the person to abandon all other mental content, all other objects of his attention and sensory ability. Torture demonstrates that physical pain possesses the power to annihilate a person’s world, self and voice, the person’s distinct psyche and spirituality in their entirety (see Scarry 1985: 57ff.; Vetlesen 2009: 20ff.).
The question is this: When Amery identifies himself as being his “body and nothing else”, does he thereby (implicitly) accept the Nazi depiction of him as being only a body, nothing spiritual; as defined and exhaustively definable purely by reference to immanence, thus barring transcendence from him, and him from transcendence? To put it more sharply: If the “sole means” for resisting what his Nazi tormentors aim to do to him consists in being reduced to, and duly reacting as, that very kind of being – a body and nothing else – how can one speak of resistance? Is it not a case of the opposite, of exhibiting and so confirming the success of the Nazi endeavor, aiming at the victim’s transformation in said sense?
An obvious response to this, on behalf of Amery’s perspective, is that his hitting back is in itself a negation of the attempt to deny him status as an agent and to compel him to be(come) a mere object, passive and impotent in the event of his own destruction. In hitting back, Amery asserts himself as someone, not a nobody or a nothing; a subject with a will all his own, as distinct from an object incapable of responding as a matter of choosing to do so, and choosing how to.
Is that a convincing answer? I don’t think so.
Let me make my point by asking: What would be the sort of act that the Nazi guards would perceive as showing they have failed in their attempt to transform their victims from spiritual beings to mere bodies, from subjects to objects? Would it be that of Amery hitting back at Juszek, or that of Levi having a conversation with his fellow prisoner Jean Samuel about Dante? Of Levi who was able to think, and afterwards write, that “I would give today’s soup to know how to connect “the like of any day” to the last lines [in Dante’s work]” (1987 : 120)?
I think it would be the latter. As for the former, I think the Nazi guards would see it as proof that they had succeeded: that this particular victim had been successfully compelled to accept that the level on which everything of importance takes place is that of the body, of being in the role one party or the other in the trading of blows, whereby physical violence is regarded, and respected, as the paramount reality of all concerned alike and as defining everything of importance – life and death – in their relationships.
This point recalls Keith Tester’s way of distinguishing between the hand (i.e., the body) and the face in his The Inhuman Condition. On the one hand, “the telling of the man through the face is a categorical telling of presence, of reciprocity and […] of responsibility”; hence the face commands ethical authority in the sense argued by Emmanuel Levinas. On the other hand – making for the contrast – the body-linked and body-prioritizing understanding of human beings as animal laborans (following Hannah Arendt (1958)) “stresses the practical possibilities of the hand and the body over and above the purely categorical [ethical] statements which are made by the face” (1995: 100). As Tester explains, “Animal laborans means that the being which is registered by and signified in the face is likely to be accorded much less significance than the doing that is carried out by the hand.” The ethical implication, argues Tester, is to do with the fact that “the authority of the face is exactly something which has to be overcome if animal laborans is to reign triumphant” (ibid.).
So it is not only that the victim’s quasi “acceptance” that the level on which everything of importance takes place is that of the body, has the unfortunate consequence of being perceived by his or her tormentor as a sign of giving up on the human value of being a spiritual being in addition to a merely bodily, meaning physical one. What Tester helps us see is that giving such primacy to how humans relate qua bodies – be it by way of dealing each other blows – risks cancelling the appeal emanating from the face, that is to say, from recognizing the other qua face addressing one. And when the face signifies ethically, as Levinas insisted, it does so qua exposing the person’s humanity qua soul, qua spiritual being. To hold that there is no such thing – therefore, no such quality to respect, to safeguard and protect in the other – seems to me to capture the essence of what the Nazis hoped to achieve.
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