Gillian Rose: Fascism and representation

‘Not in my name’ is and is not in my name. 

In her essay ‘The Future of Auschwitz’, Gillian Rose describes two obvious reactions provoked by the exhibitions at the ‘sites’ of the death camps. On the one hand, an identification with the ‘infinite pain’ of the victim, and, on the other, an intense self-questioning along the lines of ‘could I have done this?’. Both involve a ‘conscience-stricken’ response; a sentimental leap into the imagined suffering of the Other in the former and a melancholic imagining of oneself as perpetrator in the latter. Both reveal the agon of contingency in the modern consciousness, that ‘it is possible to mean well, to be caring and kind, loving one’s neighbour as oneself, yet to be complicit in the corruption and violence of social institutions’. This tension between intention and complicity has its origins in the Kantian diremption of law and ethics/morality. I am bound by my duty to the universality of law regardless of subjective interest and I am free in being an autonomous self-determining agent. 

This ‘diremption in our agency and in our institutions,’ she writes, is the ‘simultaneous possession of inner freedom and outer unfreedom’ in the modern consciousness. The opposition between them impoverishes us because it leaves us unable to think through the reality of our violence and guilt in the public political sphere even when we mean well. Rose asks, what if there is currently no available form of politics or knowledge that can represent this dilemma. What if the Holocaust is not philosophically unique (Fackenheim) or sociologically ‘normal’ (Bauman), but instead provokes an, as yet, unconceptualized questioning of identity and agency?  In the background of all this Rose warns that the borders between critique and complicity are ‘changeable and obscure’. ‘Not in my name’ is also already in my name. This is how we experience the diremption between morality and legality. And the real education to be found here is that attempts to mend this broken middle do not fix it. They repeat it, engendering new pieties that leave the complicities untouched.  Hence the slippage from ‘cognitive passivity’ into unreflective consent for authoritarianism as the ever-present threat to modern democratic states.  

However, if we are tempted now to make ‘overdramatic statements’ about the fascism of populist politics, far-right movements, or even the ‘endemic’ fascism of the administered world structuring the continuities of everyday life, Rose warns that this will only serve to ‘defamiliarise [those] modern familiarities’ which reproduce our implication in the changing shapes of rationalised domination. Labelling the everyday as fascist may well operate in opposition to its intention and make us less familiar with the everyday not more so. 

Amidst these thoughts, the question Rose invites us to ask instead is ‘how easily could [I] have allowed this to be carried out?’. This would initiate discussion into the relation between morality and the corruption of political life. It would allow us to investigate the ways in which power and authority might allow any of us to become, collectively, complicit in violence, murder and untruth. Moreover, it would return us to the representation of Fascism and the fascism of representation in and across the production and reception of cultural works and rituals.  

Exploring these questions in the context of the book and the film Schindler’s List, Rose asks to what extent are we, the audience, spared the crisis of identity, the ‘indecency’ of our position in relation to the narratives and events represented. To what extent does the representation of Fascism protect us from understanding that the Shoah is ‘all too easily continuous with what we are – human, all too human’. Where the film makes us voyeurs, argues Rose, the book invites us to examine our continuing collusion in the atrophy of public and political morality. The complacent sentimentality of the former position leaves us ‘emotionally and politically intact’ but ‘the dry eyes of a deep grief’ in the latter recognises ‘our ineluctable grounding in the norms of the emotional and political culture represented’.   

The concern in the background of all this, for Rose, is that aesthetic, philosophical and political fantasies or mythologies of a new and innocent ethics capable of overcoming the imperial tendencies of representation, risks a return to Fascism or to fascist characteristics in various aspects of the state or society. But the awareness of our always ‘fallible and contested’ representation helps us to experience, explore and reconfigure the actualities of power and authority. Therein we can recognise the illusory oppositions of law and ethics which would cement ‘the inner and outer boundaries of our self-identity and lack of self-identity,’ those oppositions which would turn us ‘into strangers to ourselves as moral agents and as social actors’. Rose asks us to risk the uncertainties of modern subjectivity, to risk its struggles against a seductive and deformed politics which protects us in our innocence from taking responsibility. 

Dr Rebekah Howes