May 23rd, 2011 / 4:58 pm
Word Spaces

The Nazis & Our Critical Consciousness

I just got done reading Piotr Uklanski’s monograph, The Nazis. Reading here, of course, simply refers to the act of looking, as there are no words in the book (until an index at the end). Uklanski is an artist, a Polish photographer. Although, similar to my own approach to photography, Uklanski doesn’t take photos per se. Rather, he’s sort of a curator, a collector, highlighting, as the New York Times says, “Conceptual attitudes” (the superfluous capital letter on conceptual is NYT, btw).

The Nazis is a book that bears 247 pages of appropriated images of Hollywood, and prevalent European, actors decked out in Nazi regalia. What I’m interested in probing here are the following things: 1) why are there enough stills for this collection to be possible? and 2) why was I interested enough in this book to go through the process of requesting it from WorldCat?

To get the honest and maybe uncomfortable answer to #2 out of the way: the promotional image on the Amazon product info page for the book is Clint Eastwood dressed as a Nazi. My initial response to this image was “holy shit, Clint Eastwood looks stupid hot as a Nazi.” Upon that reaction I went to google and image searched “Clint Eastwood nazi.” There are few results.

The interesting thing is that the specific image used on the Amazon product page is not in the book (though publicity material for the movie, Where Eagles Dare, is). Looking through the book, there were two things I immediately realized: there are a lot more high-profile actors that have played Nazis in films than I realized, & the type of Hollywood hunks that I drool over, apparently, often take on roles as Nazis (Gregory Peck, Dirk Bogarde, Brad Davies, Tom Selleck, Buster Keaton, Clint Eastwood, Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, James Coburn, etc). Many of these men sit in the hegemonic cultural conscious as hunks. This immediately posits a seduction to a character who is often indicative of, really, pure evil.

A while ago I read Heimrad Bäcker’s transcript, which was released, and is arguably presented, as poetry. The construction of the book presents the poems first, and the end notes at the end (of course). This is not anything new. But the reason that this is particularly effective here is that many of the poems are numbers. Various numbers in lists. As we read them, if we read the book linearly, we cannot identify what these numbers mean. Because of the context of the book we can understand that these are numbers that in some way relate to the Shoah, but it’s not until the end notes, which precisely define what these numbers are standing for, that the horror of the numbers strike us.

I imagine that everyone is at least somewhat aware of Adorno’s quote regarding poetry and the holocaust:

“The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.”

Of course, the fragment “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric” is what most often gets taken from this, often interpolated into the idea that “it is impossible to write poetry after the holocaust.” Even in its extrapolated forms, Adorno basically reneges the sentiment, but that doesn’t stop people from (mis)quoting him at any and every opportunity.

What Bäcker’s book does, as the Dalkey page itself points out, is “serve as a reminder that everything about the Shoah was spoken about in great detail, from the most banal to the most monstrous.” This responds to both the idea that seems to be inherent in Adorno’s quote (and yes, I recognize the fact that I am not giving the Adorno quote the scrutiny it deserves, that I’m ignoring the larger context of the essay– the entire essay is not what is present in the critical consciousness of this post’s title) & the fact that the Shoah is often described as an “unspeakable” horror, an “unspeakable” evil.

Artist Roee Rosen has a project that was turned into an artist’s book titled Live and die as Eva Braun: Hitler’s mistress, in the Berlin bunker and beyond : an illustrated proposal for a virtual-reality scenario. There is an article at the end of the book that contextualizes this project into the larger set of “holocaust art,” made, arguably, in opposition to Adorno’s (now disowned) statement that there can be no poetry (art) after (about) the holocaust. This seems to hold true, even in terms of holocaust art, as most works tend to proclaim nothing more than the inexpressive nature of the experience of the holocaust, silence, a loss for a semantic signifier or mean, because no meaning can be found. The author of the article aligns this lack of expression with Freud’s interpretation of melancholy. However, in Freud’s article he also addresses mania, which sits, ostensibly, opposite melancholy but is based out of the same neuroses. Rosen’s project can suitably be declared manic, forcing the spectator into a position of empathy with the woman who was the most despised man on earth’s lover.

I like Rosen’s visual art on it’s own accord just fine, but it is the narratives that he throws his visual arts into that make them something truly engaging for me. In this project, the text offered in this book was originally presented on large column between varieties of artwork around the gallery walls. In this was Rosen present a “virtual-reality scenario” without having to actually deal with technology: the art work is offered as an experience in that it asks for an active participation, one might say, with one’s imagination. Addressing the holocaust by asking the spectator to “imagine” events tangential (causal?) to the holocaust are in direct opposition to the traditional mode of refusing a method of expression.

You are Eva Braun. You make love with Hitler, you wait for him, he kills you, you die, but you wake up. You are reminded that this is not real. But you know this is not real, as you are walking through a gallery (or flipping through the pages of a book). But the experience can never be real, and a sub-sub-title to the book (following the “illustrated proposal for a virtual-reality scenario” is the line of text “Not to be realized”) refuses to let it be real. The experience of the holocaust will never be real for anyone who has not already experienced the holocaust, and Rosen knows that any attempt to do so inherently cheapens an “inexpressible” event.

So this awareness, perhaps, is where we’re left. I’m comfortable with giving the audience of art the benefit of the doubt that having never personally experienced the Shoah, they will never fully understand than experiential affectations. The pain, the struggle, the entire context is so specific, that the futility of representation is entirely transparent.

But what to make of Piotr Uklanski’s project? What to make of the fact that so many recognizable, high-profile actors can be found in images striking the pose of an icon of terror? what to make of the fact that these icons of evil have been, ostensibly, culturally sexualized?

When I was in high school I found myself watching a lot of movies that would fall under the umbrella sub-genre of “SS-sploitation,” or “nazisploitation” if you will. This meant cheap, over-sexed exploitation films that took the second world war, the gestapo, the terror of the Nazis. The key films of the trashier side of this genre, of course, include Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (shot on discarded sets from MASH, arguably launching the sub-genre), and Luigi Batzella’s notoriously in-poor-taste SS Hell Camp aka “The Beast in Heat.” I was watching them because I was watching every exploitation/horror film I could at the time, and I really wanted a thorough education.

I hadn’t even considered the offensive nature of the sub-genre until one of my friends encountered my DVD collection for the first time & found himself offended by what was a small section of SSPloitation flicks. I, honestly, perhaps in a jaded ignorance, had not considered the political implications of the films. The films themselves, perhaps in their low-budget nature, were so distanced from any sort of reality I could imagine regarding WW2 that it was impossible for me to even read the films as offensive. This was simply an appropriated iconography, a cheap way to signpost evil in a genre dedicated to the idea of such.

The essay in the Rosen book, combined with the fact that I had earlier in life, without even realizing it, encountered & accepted such a remarkable divide between art & life, made me a bit unprepared to my reaction to Uklanski’s book. I think, really, Uklanski’s book highlighted the fact that I at least encounter things in culture without giving them a second thought. Like, seriously, this book is 250 pages, almost 200 different actors, of which most I imagine most readers to this site have heard of, of Nazis. Nazis are a very popular thing to make movies about, it seems.

But if we understand that the experience is literally inexpressible, completely opaque to those not present, why do we keep trying? I imagine there is nothing more offensive to an actual survivor of the holocaust than to be in your 20s and say to them, “I understand what you went through.” That’s total bullshit, of course. So what’s the appeal?

I think there is an appeal in the evil. Nothing in the 20th century indicated the true & pure evil that humanity was capable of like the Shoah. This is not new information to anybody reading this. Evil is one half of the guiding conflict of “good versus evil” that, jeez, the history of literature falls under. This idea of conflict.

But I think that our constant re-appropriation of these symbols of evil is successfully removing them from what they mean. Lars von Trier say he “understands” the Nazis in an attempt to, who-the-fuck-knows, carry on his European-art-bro-shock-rock persona. Children in grade schools color “Hitler mustaches” onto images in order to deface them. Laughing. None of this means anything any more.

What’s even going on? Representation, our image-culture, is fizzling to a moot point. Images no longer hold power. We’re fucked. Are we? Or is culture as communication just fucked. Who knows.

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  1. Blake Butler

      I don’t think von Trier meant what he said the way it was construed hysterically. I think he was trying to express the possibility of empathy for even the worst possible of people. Which isn’t necessarily something you should say at a press conference in broken english, but it’s certainly not a new, or controversial, thought.

  2. deadgod

      I can ‘relate’ to the attractions for a stupidly humiliated community of the howling rancor of National Socialism a lot more than I can to those of the cold malice of fiscal ‘conservatism’ to a stuporously spoiled middle class.

  3. deadgod

      I can ‘relate’ to the attractions for a stupidly humiliated community of the howling rancor of National Socialism a lot more than I can to those of the cold malice of fiscal ‘conservatism’ to a stuporously spoiled middle class.

  4. Roxane

      That’s probably the most rational, lucid response I’ve seen to the whole thing. 

  5. shaun gannon

      kiss me i’m nazi

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  11. Omar De Col

      Lars was just being Con Trier-y

  12. M. Kitchell

      I actually haven’t watched the footage (as the only time I think about it is when I’m at work where I have no sound), so I make my comment here more out of responding to the hype I’ve read about it & LvT’s ‘tactics’ he’s used in the past.  Also, I am still definitely excited about his new movie, all positive & negative press aside. 

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  15. Patrick

      I really enjoyed this essay. But I wonder about the consternation at the end regarding the power of the image. We don’t expect a particular image to mean the same (or hold the same power) forever, do we? 

      It’s true that particular images don’t hold as much power, or the same kind of power forever, but at the same time other images are gaining power. When an image becomes a “cheap way to signpost,” we’re probably just in the late stages of that particular image’s ability to effectually coordinate meaning. 

      But I don’t see how you’re making the leap from a particular (albeit hugely important) image to ALL images. Or am I misunderstanding that? 

  16. deadgod

      What, then, is imagery?  A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphism–in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people:  images are illusions about which one [can forget] that this is what they are; metaphors which [can become] worn out and without sensuous power; coins which [can lose] their pictures and now matter only as metal.

      – the “metal” of an image being what it looks like generally, and its “picture” being a specific referent.

      (For “imagery/images”, Nietzsche wrote truth/truths; he wrote that a “metaphor” decays into a “truth”.)

  17. David

      Accidental or otherwise, Von Trier’s self-appointed “Nazism” is nothing but a bore. I’d be much more interested if he actually meant it, rather than just laying yet another LvT sized egg full of insincere bullshit about how we all lack requisite sincerity. Anyhow, Mike, you should check out an essay by Belgian-Jewish Holocaust survivor Jean Amery called ‘Resentment’ in his collection At the Mind’s Limits – not only is it a great read but it touches very rawly, even bitterly, on this issue of the surpassing of the Holocaust, culturally and chronologically. This reminded me of it. Personally, though, I feel the exploitational depiction and glamming up of Nazism and the SS terror apparatus doesnt really detract from the gravity of that whole epoch, or undercut it or sell it out, precisely because that genre, in no way, ’empathizes’ with the Nazis. SS-ploitation is in no way about picturing yourself as a Nazi in a sympathetically identificatory way: it’s about picturing the ludicrous titillation of our sleaze in Nazi costumes, or, in other words, finding a way to uniquely represent the trashiness of our obscenity to itself. It might be argued that this somehow desolemnizes the Holocaust but, to my way of thinking, understanding the Holocaust is something that is constantly desacralized and ruined by the grotesque piety of films like Schindler’s List with their sentimental manipulations and bastardization of the abstractions that made themselves so viscerally and physically present in the camps. The SS-ploitation genre, as well as the whole “Nazi villian” stock character generally, reminds me of graffiti in some ways, scrawled not on the walls of Auschwitz or its memory as much as drawn off the ludicrous excess only the full Nazi embodiment of itself in its own propaganda truly allows. So, in that sense, it’s always seemed ridiculous to me to think that you’re implicitly a Nazi-sympathiser or sapping affect out of the Holocaust by liking SS-ploitation films, not least because anything even remotely like that genre would have been ruthlessly suppressed by the Nazis themselves, or, in other words, would have been considered Jewish perversion, punishable by incarceration in the camps themselves. The fact is not taking the Nazis seriously as icons is not the same as not taking the Holocaust seriously. A tiresome “iconoclast” like Von Trier is as suspect in that regard as the dubious “moral seriousness” of those he provokes: it’s all about superior ethical comportment in regard to villianry, not a real grappling with the ethics of villians themselves. But whatever. Great stuff, dude, very thought-provoking.

  18. M. Kitchell

      Yeah, I think the really strange thing about the SSploitation films & things of that ilk (pornography, SS uniform fetish, etc) is just how distanced they are from any of the ideas that within the context of War & the Shoah et. al. would signify this Evil with a capital “E”.  In terms of aesthetics I am specifically invested in ideas of appropriation and decontextualizing symbols/icons/signifiers, because I actually think that’s a really interesting approach to art, art being communication of a message. 

      The sentimentality of, for instance, Schindler’s List reads to me, certainly, as more offensive, but I also feel like there is a hegemonic idea, undoubtedly due to a sort of investment within the systemic production of capitalism & control, that the SSploitation needs to be read as morally offensive while the saccharine tint of Spielberg’s money-grubbing film works as a defense against amorality?  Like it seems impossible, at least for American culture (which I’m sure is worlds apart from European culture, to some extent, in response to Nazism), in American culture to pass this surface, the top literal level.  I don’t know. 

      I actually just realized a sort of aside that I meant to include within this post that I managed to skip:  Klaus Kinski, who is outfitted in Nazi gear in at least three different movies depicted within Uklanski’s project, was drafted into Hitler’s army as a youth entirely against his will, and defected (is that the right word?) as soon as possible.  But, I mean, in my complete ignorance it wasn’t until reading Kinski’s autobiography that I had even encountered the idea that there were people who were ostensibly thrown into the Nazi party against their will.  As someone who is the result of the American school system and has had little interest in expanding their knowledge of past wars until recently, it was not a consideration I had ever made.  Which of course lead me to realize that oh hey not everybody in the Nazi party wanted to be a Nazi, etc.  I feel like that plays into this somehow but I’m not sure where.

  19. Madison Langston

      everyone looks stupid hot as a nazi

  20. Madison Langston

      everyone looks stupid hot as a nazi

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  22. deadgod

      I think your discussion makes sound sense, to the degree that SSploitation is knowingly “ludicrous titillation”. 

      – but I’d gotten the sense from Mike’s blogicle that he was raising the issue of what happens among people not gigglingly (or any other way) ironic in their adoption/appropriation of Nazi ‘gear’:  a trivialization insinuated under cover – constitutive enough image? – of forgetting.

      ‘The solemnity of the Shoah is ultimately impervious to misdirection, dilution, or erasure by atrocity kitsch.’  — That, to me, is a tough sell.  Two questions:

      1)  Do appeals themselves to the exceptionalism of the Jewish near-extermination risk decaying into, or sometimes actually decay into, kitsch-driven forgetfulness?

      2)  Who are the solemn rememberers?  I mean:  what forms of remembrance (and prophylaxis or even ‘progress’) will succeed in being ‘important’ in the light of, say, the compulsion of Hollywood trivialization?

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  24. deadgod

      I thought Shitler’s List was actually somewhat unencumbered by “sentimental manipulations and bastardization of abstractions” – at least with respect to portraying uncontroversially evil Evil as conflicted.  (I think it’s the “abstractions” themselves that are often “bastardi[zing]” and kitschy about Shoah kitsch.)

      To me, the efforts Spielberg, Neeson, and Fiennes put in to make the two main Gentiles complicated was pretty successful, glib as it was.  Okay:  not in the league of Celan or Levy or See under:  Love, but, to me, pretty good for a kiddie flick.

  25. M. Kitchell

      In full disclosure I recognize that my ending here is weak as hell.  However, I don’t mean to suggest so much a desensitization as much as a sort of distancing from the power of the image in general; a sort of post-ironic image-culture in which everything and nothing are leveled into a flat plane of meaning.  There’s been the recent hubub lately regarding Barnes & Noble bagging the cover of a magazine in which a shirtless man, made up to look like a shirtless flat-chested woman, ostensibly takes the cover.  I think the only inherent responses built into an image culturally are those responses built into a hegemonic sense of morality.  There’s too much of a graded control guiding how these things are moving through our consciousness:  commercial media is too calculated; i’d offer up the idea that the internet has taken the power away from the Nude in America, and the only people that still object, that suffer this moral positing, are those who are not enveloped within our accelerated internet culture. 

      I think my jump was just a casual lead into an idea that I’ve been sort of thinking about lately without going too far into anything (as I’ve said, not the best way to end an article where most of my focus is on a cultural appropriation–or something– of Nazism). 

      I’d almost suggest that our image culture has removed all significance, all coordinated meaning from the image itself.  All that’s left is Barthes’s punctum?  This is why contemporary art, I think, is occasionally post-aesthetics.  Why the things that get written about critically have to address a curator, not an audience.  If the audience finds a subjective pleasure there, then that’s just an added bonus.

  26. c2k

      I agree here re Shatler’s List – “pretty successful, glib as it was.” Not an admirer of Fiennes’s work. But his character well-portrayed was far more interesting than the title one, in fact, and the main storyline – as I remember it. 

  27. M. Kitchell

      but part of my point is that portrayal is futile, the image is empty of significance.  this is [part of] why the idea of ‘good acting’ is entirely superfluous to me.

  28. shaun gannon

      i try to make myself believe that i’m purely basing my decision on aesthetics when i think ‘US army uniforms are waaay uglier than nazi uniforms’ but unfortunately i don’t think that can be the case, although i know it has at least a bit to do with it because i think Army Green and Army Blue are ugly as hell and don’t even get me stahted on that  desert camo

  29. M. Kitchell

      i feel like desert camo should be a lot more awesome that it actually is

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  31. shaun gannon

      imagine if they could do for desert camo what they’ve done for regular/jungle camo with the 3d stuff, be it netting or leaves or whathaveyou. what would it even be. it could be like a controlled sandstorm covering everything but their heads so they can still shoot. or maybe it would be a mirage generator so it makes a wave of troops look like a nice refreshing oasis.

  32. deadgod

      well then there’s nothing to worry about

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  34. c2k

      Indeed. I wish good acting were superfluous to me.

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  42. Patrick

      Thank you. There’s lots to think about there. But I feel sad about the audience.

      (my mom was in an audience once)

  43. I haven’t posted in like a really long time so I’m just going to bite on something that’s already been done but anyway here are all the books I’ve read so far in 2k11 with notes on each and yeah this is basically just my goodreads

      […] Wrote about this here. […]