(This post has been sitting in my Drafts folder for several days, but since it mentions The White Ribbon, which I just named 2009’s best film, I thought I might as well share it.)
I just got around to reading Timothy Snyder’s brilliantly lucid article Holocaust: The ignored reality, fittingly after recently seeing Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Snyder’s piece puts a fresh face on what we take for granted and don’t much think about anymore.
One of the things that struck me while reading it was the absolutely systematic nature of the Nazi death factory. Snyder’s analysis is like a historian flying over a war zone long after the battle, drawing connections that one couldn’t have possibly made from the ground. For those who were caught up in it, none or little of this may have been visible: glimpses of horror, and of humanity, are what make a war for those living it (which is why even the brightest individuals, like Martin Heidegger, can say they knew little of the things we know now). After the fact it’s less helpful to assign blame than it is to try to understand what happened and why it happened. Those causes have been much discussed and debated, and Haneke’s film, while not making an original argument, is probably as good a cinematic distillation of one of those arguments as any. Specifically, The White Ribbon is a kind of Freudo-Reicho-Foucauldian dissection of the repression that makes us enjoy the violence of authority and that nudges us toward the fascism in our hearts. (I say “us” and “our” because Haneke has said he doesn’t mean for the film to be just about turn-of-the-century Germany.)
The other things that struck me in Snyder’s article concern the territories, those soft pieces of dank earth, that were most bloodied by virtue of their being caught between the two great bone-crushing machines (the Red and the Brown): Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. (I have some familiarity with those areas, in addition to ancestry, and understand the difficulty of exhuming their pasts and dealing with their ghosts.)
Despite the deadliness of the Nazi machine, both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union were systematic attempts to realize a certain political ecology, that is, to organize its production of material goods (food and fuel) from the ground up so as to feed and sustain a certain organization of social power and authority. Understanding the way such a social organism, such a body politic, comes to life remains one of the challenges of our time. That understanding requires taking into account not only social processes, but affective, somatic, and ecological processes and the ways these all interact. One might think of this as a kind of golem construction, the making of an artificial creature out of production practices (the ways the earth is turned into food and fuel), somatic and affective orientations, and social structures, all of them premised on certain delineations between an inside and an outside, an us and a them, a certain identification of the enemy, and certain local and global goals. As Snyder writes:
“Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union followed a path to economic self-sufficiency, Germany wishing to balance industry with an agrarian utopia in the East, the USSR wishing to overcome its agrarian backwardness with rapid industrialization and urbanization. Both regimes were aiming for economic autarky in a large empire, in which both sought to control eastern Europe. Both of them saw the Polish state as a historical aberration; both saw Ukraine and its rich soil as indispensable. They defined different groups as the enemies of their designs, although the German plan to kill every Jew is unmatched by any Soviet policy in the totality of its aims. What is crucial is that the ideology that legitimated mass death was also a vision of economic development. In a world of scarcity, particularly of food supplies, both regimes integrated mass murder with economic planning.”
The fact that that kind of cold calculation doesn’t cut much muster these days is a credit to learning. But calculation can smuggle itself into our plans and programs in less obvious ways, and still does (as critics of global neoliberalism know). Snyder suggests that respect for the human individual must be part of the antidote against the possible re-emergence of such bodies politic. But we still need to come to grips with how we all get caught up in the force-fields of fascistic and authoritarian social machines. That’s where the study of affect and its social and political mobilization remains very important, and why the work of Connolly, Massumi, John Protevi, (the late) Teresa Brennan, and others like them is taking us in the right direction. Social movements — like the Tea Party phenomenon, the next thing we ought to figure out here in the U.S. — are complex systems that can develop in all sorts of ways, and we have yet to really understand how they do that and how we do that along with (or against) them.
A final thing that occurred to me as I read Snyder was a tiny (and hesitant) little suspicion about the relationship between the psychosocial makeup of the two authoritarian systems, the Nazi and the Stalinist, and that of those who populated the land between them (including its Jewish population, the most obvious victims, but not only them). Was there a kind of undisciplined “softness”, or “soft wildness” — the sort of thing I referred to in my post about Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are — in the latter that helped to make of them a compelling object of violence for the hardened authoritarian subjectivities of the Stalinist and Hitlerite social machines?
I know that question begs too many other questions and raises various complications, not least of them being the fact that the Red and Brown machines were very different beasts: where Nazism wound up its adherents into delirious combustion engines of patriotic affect, Stalin merely had to take advantage of the studied submission that had long been cultivated by the czars. Watching The White Ribbon back to back with The Last Station, about the final days of Leo Tolstoy, makes for an interesting experience: both take place right before the first world war, but one is about the fascism of everyday life in Germany and the other about a kind of earthy anarchism in pre-revolutionary Russia. There’s plenty of that “wild softness” to the characters in the latter film that one would never find in The White Ribbon (except a little in the teacher-narrator). The films are different in that The White Ribbon is about the underlying, supportive musculature of Nazism, while The Last Station is about lines of flight, deviant tendencies (such as Tolstoy’s anarchism) which may have contributed to the force of the Russian revolution, but which ultimately got plowed under by Stalin’s deadly locomotive.
Give me the anarchic rough/softness of Sendak’s beasts, any day.