Thursday, 16 June 2011

One Essay - Matthew Spriggs

The Viral Extermination of Meaning:
The Holocaust, Kitsch and The Postmodern Situation.

            Kitsch is defined as “Art or objets d'art characterized by worthless pretentiousness” (Oxford English Dictionary). Kitsch then is a prehensile form of representation that seeks to reach in to history and draw out a “cold event” (Baudrillard 50) in order to rekindle it through the forgery of meaning. Its role is one of manipulation rather than guidance and, in this sense, kitsch is also prehensile because its effects are to reach into the mind of the observer and jerk out a desired response, which, as posited by Baudrillard, can only be a “tactile thrill [or] a posthumous emotion…[and] will make [the masses] spill into forgetting with a kind of good aesthetic conscience of the catastrophe”. The reductive and counterfeit force of Kitsch towards the artistic memory of the holocaust will be explored and juxtaposed, through the course of this essay, against the invaluable force of testimonial literature.

 In Kertesz’s “Who Owns Auschwitz?” he accuses kitsch representations of the Holocaust, such as mainstream film or as a knee-jerk plot device, of not only rendering the Holocaust “alien to human beings” (Kertesz 268), but also teaching the survivor “how he has to think about what he has experienced” (268). The choice here, however, is not between the event being either alien or unknown to the masses, but of the necessity for a reimagining to be accurate or, at the very least, informed. As such, insistence is perceived as an enemy to the Holocaust survivor because it forges certainties where there are none; it claims to lead the observer towards a conclusion by insisting its own teleology. Whereas, in reality the Holocaust can be seen as the very embodiment of death, which, of course, has no end—it is not reconciled by time. Worse still, insistence in contemporary film and television is twice removed: it is a result of observing the survivor and reconditioning his story so that it can be paraded before the masses. These sensational effigies, in their unwavering and clichéd opinions on the events that unfolded in the camps, appeal to their audiences by spoon-feeding emotion and commodifying an unimaginable experience; thus, they undermine the possibility of intelligent and meaningful studies on the subject. They insist on sentiment even though their medium, according Baudrillard, is responsible for an act of collective forgetting and so symbolizes the same “implosive radiation, [the] same absorption without an echo, [the] same black hole as Auschwitz”. Both events, the genocide of a people, and the televised aftermath, are a collapse of meaning and are swallowed by what Klüger calls “our deformed way of life” (Klüger 270).

The aforementioned “knee-jerk” reaction, referred to as the “Holocaust-Reflex” (268), is evoked through the repetition of preset formulas that demand a distinct and pre-approved moral response. Kertesz stipulates that the public is “left to dwell in the midst of Spielberg’s saurian kitsch” and consumed by “the absurd chatter emerging from the fruitless discussions over the Berlin Holocaust monument” (269). Interesting that Kertesz uses the word “saurian”, alluding to cold-bloodedness, considering Baudrillard’s frequent references to “cold” (“cold masses…cold historical event…cold medium”). Cold implies an absence of connection; it evokes the barrenness of a world without friction. Such uninformed portrayals are incapable of accurately representing their subject matter because they simplify issues that are not just complex but are virtually inconceivable to the survivor himself, and whose only hope of examination comes from empirical evidence, not fictive. Kertesz, despite being a witness in history, does choose to fictionalize his story, perhaps this is to distance himself, to detach himself, so as to minimise emotional distortion. After all, how many instances have there been of the mind splitting or creating identities in order to work through trauma?

Améry, in “At The Mind’s Limits”, explicitly states that nothing was learnt at Auschwitz. In light of this, one can infer that it is the opinion of at least one survivor that no edifying teleology can be drawn from the event, therefore only candid duplicates or witness reports are acceptable mediums. In other words, testimony is the gold standard because it bears the least distance from the truth, regardless of whether that central truth is empty or not. It is these televisual illusions that leave the public wholly detached from the important issues and allow the commodification of Holocaust events to proceed by lulling the masses into a sentimental reverie while the reality—exemplified by the “sadistic mania…[of] SS Unterscharführer Boger” (269)—is overlooked for the very same reason that there are Holocaust-deniers: because the truth cannot be assimilated. Deconstructed to its basest level, the Holocaust does not contain a message, so kitsch representations are developed, like viruses in a lab, to infect the tragedy with cartoon meaning. Klüger addresses the nature of this virus when she claims that “the museum culture of the camp sites” (Klüger 66) is essentially self-indulgent because it allows its viewers a prideful satisfaction at recognizing their own “stirrings of humanity” (66). She relates this feeling to the effect a haunted house conveys: we pay to be reminded that we are real and capable of feeling because there is a dearth of experience to remind us of this in modern society. Kitsch wishes to convince us that these emotional responses can be bottled-up-and-labeled for distribution with a kind of didactic logic, and then can be readily dismissed as recognized and overcome. Society prevails and “Plague”, in keeping with Camus’ analogy, is quelled! Ostensibly, though, this plague has been absorbed by another omnipotent digital and commercial plague. The result, in Klüger’s words, is that the observer turns away from the “ostensible object and…towards oneself. It means looking in a mirror instead of reality” (66). We disregard the real in favor of these Platonic individual reactions, which can be easily and explicably gauged. And so, hitherto, the Holocaust has been stolen from the survivor, as Kertesz says, and claimed by selfishness and narcissism. This virus propagates a hallucination of the past that is ignorant of solidarity and celebrates a false empathy. In truth, it is sympathy towards oneself for attempting to bear the plight of others.

For Klüger, the names of the camps will suffice. For her the stranger’s act of visualizing camp life is superfluous because memory relives what reproduction cannot, and imagination falls short here. She believes the tourist excursion of visiting Dachau or Auschwitz is an utterly false portrayal of what life in the camps was actually like: “The simple barracks of stone and wood suggest a youth hostel more easily than a setting for tortured lives. Surely some visitors secretly figure they can remember times when they have been worse off than the prisoners of this orderly German camp.” Thus, because Klüger believes place does not capture time, the commercial reopening of camps cannot be considered anything but kitsch due to the impossibility of a “timescape” (67). That is, the buildings are just buildings, not entities that are forever inextricable from the bygone misery. They do not embody the horror that transpired within. Only the memories of horror can connect the two, and those memories are accessible only to those who possess them in the first.

For Kertesz, there are select few works of Holocaust literature that he truly ranks as having “world importance” (268). That only a handful of artists have achieved a breakthrough of catharsis, he asserts, is of fundamental importance because the only significance there can be in expounding on Holocaust experience is with a responsibility to truth, not didacticism. In Kertesz’s words: “The artist hopes that through a precise description, leading him once more along the pathways of death, he will finally break through to the noblest kind of liberation, to a catharsis in which he can perhaps allow his reader to partake as well.” (268). This process of division is, ostensibly, the closest the masses can come to comprehension. In short, the survivors can distribute their experience and the masses can contribute portions of knowledge to propel us, as a whole, towards some form of reconciliation, but the raw material can come only from the survivors. Baudrillard seems to shun this possibility because, for him, the only chance society had at capturing “the artificial heat of a dead event to warm the dead body of the social” has ben swamped by the medium of television.

 The overarching question in Kertesz’s work is why should he “as a Holocaust survivor and as one in possession of a broader experience of terror, be pleased when more and more people see these experiences reproduced on the big screen—and falsified at that?” (269). Quite simply, Kertesz sees no reason for these fictional representations because even when drawn from authentic experience there is very little to be concluded from the Holocaust. Thus, what is the point of a fictional account that only conveys a general sense of horror? What can the masses learn from that? Surely it is the case, though, that in an ocean of facsimiles the masses cannot distinguish between testimony and kitsch, therefore nothing is learnt from either. (How many people have seen Schindler’s List compared to how many have read Survival in Auschwitz?)

Since the liberation of the camps on May 8th 1945, American cinema alone has produced over fifty feature-length films that deal, directly or in part, with the Holocaust. Although television is mostly to blame for this endless procession of simulations: in the media, as documentaries, as dramatizations, etc. Other uses of the Holocaust show how the events have been absorbed into America’s moral landscape. The very word has become an instrument of sensationalism, a way of saying “if you disagree, you’re as bad as Hitler,” I was recently confronted by a religious fanatic who told me that was precisely his belief regarding all evolutionists. In essence, the term has come to represent “something evil and destructive”, at the discretion of its speaker. For example, anti-abortionists call the practice a Holocaust of potential human life and the annihilation of Cambodian intellectuals by the Khmer Rouge has been given the same label. Ironically, this is not dissimilar to the political sentiment of Hitler’s era regarding the struggle of the Aryans against peoples considered to be inferior. Lueger, leader of the Christian Socialists, once said, “I decide who is a Jew” (Bullock 40). The process of Othering garners its strength in this manner because it allows blame to be focused on a unified group, a consolidated enemy, which, in turn, reduces problematic conflicts to a black-and-white issue.

Clearly then the problem is not etymological; it is semantic. The word Holocaust is derived from several languages—Greek, Yiddish and Hebrew—and generally denotes either burning, calamity or destruction. The point is that the word carries a moral weight that makes it a powerful coercive tool. Directors and screenwriters use it in exactly the same manner to ensure their films are moving or affective.

For Baudrillard, the truth of the Holocaust is inaccessible and, thus, exists only as a televised event— a transference that represents an extermination of meaning rivaled only by “the camps themselves” (Baudrillard 49). In this way, the notion of kitsch representations of the Holocaust is the symptom of a much larger process of erasure, an erasure that is proliferated by the “cold medium” of television rather than “exorcized” (49) by it. Through the creation of “imaginary memories”, and due to the very nature of television, there is a subsequent viral spread of “forgetfulness, deterrence, and extermination” (49); the Holocaust event enters into a self-replicating virtual destruction, not of people but of understanding, that began the very instant the camps were liberated. He states: “One no longer makes the Jews pass through the crematorium or the gas chamber, but through the sound track and image track, through the universal screen and microprocessor” (49). This televised event operates under the ruse of “immediate polls sanctioning the massive effect of the broadcast, the collective impact of the message—whereas it is well understood that the polls only verify the televisual success of the medium itself. But this confusion will never be lifted” (51). What happens, then, is that the medium celebrates its ability to function effectively and the “heated discussion” that transpires as a result of the broadcast is thought to counteract the “cold monster of extermination” by reinvigorating the “dead body of the social” (50).

In truth, the impotency of television— the desensitized nature of its viewers, who have been left numb after decades spent transfixed by its cold glow—embodies both the detriment that it inflicts on the Holocaust and the harmlessness. Television simultaneously strips the event of meaning and importance by rendering it quotidian, stereotypical, and allows the masses to step over this carcass on the path of history. Quite simply, unlike cinema, television is “no longer an image”. Cinema is still laced with the power of “myth” (51), a quality that allows it “something of the double, of the phantasm, of the mirror” (51). A film is an event that you observe, television is located “in your head— you are the screen, and TV” (51) plays through you. Furthermore, because we have become a filtration device for the Holocaust we have also been immunized against it, we have mitigated the horror of the event and empowered the kitsch by passing it through the monotony of our lives, which is the only locus where it still has a presence. Here the need for a “timescape” becomes hauntingly apparent.
             Klüger voices the sad irony that the “hard currency which Jewish pilgrims, especially the American variety, bring to Poland…has presumably made the Auschwitz museum into a lucrative venture for nearby Cracow.” (Klüger 68) The underlying message being, of course, that the world is incapable of understanding by way of this “museum culture” but their desire to try is a fruitful and potentially unending source of capital. The deeper issues, such as the “organic connection between our deformed way of life…and the very possibility of the Holocaust”, are reduced to the kitsch realm of “a simple matter concerning Germans and Jews…a fatal incompatibility” (Kertesz 270). The result being, according to both Klüger and Kertesz, that Auschwitz is diminished “to whatever ‘hits the eye’” (Klüger 270). This is a proliferation of superficial understanding that, once again, overlooks the intricate threads of the tapestry in lieu of a general picture of sorrow.

In the end, the Holocaust is obscured amongst the incessant march of televisual reproductions, “the social inertia of cold systems” (Baudrillard 50), and the sequence of elimination goes unnoticed because forgetting “finally achieves its aesthetic dimension in this way—it is achieved in retro, finally elevated to a mass level.” The Holocaust of Meaning is ongoing and the possibility of true acumen is destroyed by the very medium that claims to inform. Can we, as a collective, profess to have learned anything? I would venture a guess to say, yes, we have learned that excessive information leads nowhere. We have confirmed what we already knew: that an overload of data always ends in a collapse of the structure, an “implosion of meaning” (Baudrillard 79). We should remember though, like Dr. Rieux, “that history might once again claim the price of such testimony; that the experience of survival is by no means in itself immune to future plague” (Camus 322) because once we allow ourselves to forget and we lose sight of that meaning so begins another cycle of victimization and abhorrence that indelibly ends in bloodshed. Providing a nonviolent world for posterity is not a part-time occupation, it is a process of insistence—not an insistence of meaning that is inimical to the survivor—but an insistence upon every individual to recall the facts of the past and allow them to guide us into the future. In 1928 the social and political mood in Germany was one of desperation that followed in the wake of world depression and the post-war climate, the masses turned to extremism in their desperation and in the space of one year “the Nazi vote leaped from…810,000 to 6,409,600, and their numbers in the Reichstag from 12 to 107” (Bullock 144). This fact speaks for itself and it calls for an acknowledgement of individual obligation so that these decades of history might never again become our present.
Works Cited 

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulation and Simulacrum”. “Holocaust”. United States of America: University of Michigan, 1994.

Bullock, Alan. “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny”. London: Odhams Press Limited, 1952.

Felman and Laub, M. D. “Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and       History”. “Camus’ The Plague, or a Monument to Witnessing”. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Imre, Kertesz. “Who Owns Auschwitz?” The Yale Journal of Criticism.

Klüger, Ruth. “Still Alive”. New York: The Feminist Press and the City University of New York, 2001. Print.
“Oxford English Dictionary”. Parisian Review VI 40, 1989. Sun 24 Oct 2010.

Since returning from a year of study in San Francisco, Matthew Spriggs has been slaving away at his novel, "Quintessence of Dust", which has been his charge for almost two years and is still nowhere near completion. In the meantime, he spends his hours thinking about writing short stories and bad poetry but ends up writing essays about any subject that is unrelated to his course. After finishing his final year at UEA, Matthew plans to continue drinking, working towards publication and getting punched in the face by local poets.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Five Poems - Sam Riviere (from '81 Austerities')

The following poems are from Sam Riviere's compelling '81 Austerities' sequence, of which there is information and more poetry here. Also, Andy Spragg has interviewed Riviere here.


tour the museums and charity shops
careful not to purchase anything
in case someone interprets it as art
do not read at the pub speak
of entities in need of authentic substance
be it souls gold or blood
try not to *do* anything
especially like linger
in the butterfly enclosure for a kiss
stay instead inside the reptile house
stinking of skunk
safe in the dry warm dark
don't compare origins with anyone
but remember thinking
"peeling your jeans off each leg
is like skinning a leek"
ignore the prospective tenants
filing through your sleep
by all means make an intrigue of your partner
but remember the bedroom is a gallery
and you should draft an exit
don't remain attached to any project
but defer indefinitely the work
towards your own capture
do not stain the toilet bowl
but taste your breath
and skulk across the early park


the glimmer or grain inside an actual
person remember those blurry tears
they felt at the time like evidence
planted a sort of elaborate deception
to convince oneself later like a full day
in youth spent practicing one's signature
for the writing presumably of cheques


I shouldn't be so mean
that woman in paris wanted money for sugar
a diabetic relieved to find someone english
yes I refused her
I doubt she actually collapsed
or the spanish family on the tube jaundiced
in awful london light going the wrong way
round the circle line
I could have said something
I was playing my game with the little piece
of dirt on the window
moving my head to make it vault
the obstacles at stations
this amoebic sprite
was starting to develop some character
when it cleared the signs at tower hill then monument
the reflection I met in the tunnel
was tinted blue in its commuter's grimace
but inside inside it was rejoicing


All day I have been watching women
crush ripe tomatoes in their cleavage
whatever you can think of
someone's already done it
there's a new kind of content
pre-empting individual perversions
I've seen my missing girlfriend's face
emerge cresting from a wave of pixels
I sleep with a [rec] light at the foot
of my bed all the film crews
have been infiltrated by
militant anti-pornographers
sometimes in surfaces there is a dark
ellipse it's the cameraman's reflection


torture is when the mind
is inseparable from the body
it is the making a point of this
the heads of the massive sunflowers
weigh almost as much as human heads
I was lying in a bathtub filled with petals
and later someone touched me on the subway
perhaps the real horror is that we are used
to being able to escape I look oriental
but my grandfather was german
and I have the pinkest nipples
riding past the empty greenhouses
I was thinking of undoing my blouse
and when my blouse rode up it opened
little diamonds between the buttons and there
was my skin I imagined the greenhouses
in flames then everything was made
of little diamonds it was a unit
that felt completely natural

Sam Riviere began to write poetry while at the Norwich School of Art and Design, and completed a Masters at Royal Holloway. His poems have appeared in various publications and competitions since 2005. He co-edits the anthology series Stop Sharpening Your Knives, and is currently working towards a PhD at the University of East Anglia. He was a recipient of a 2009 Eric Gregory Award.

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