“Glaubt ihr etwa auf einmal, daβ ihr so, wie ihr seid, gefallt?” Bertolt Brecht.
You should never be polite to Prussians: they tend to take it personally. Being polite threatens their sense of moral superiority because it suggests you’re more civilized than they. Plus, it’s asking them to have reciprocal feelings, and feelings are something a Prussian would prefer not to have, let alone the reciprocity. Much better, from their point of view, that you yourself stoop, if possible, to their own level of contempt. Prussians love those toilets that allow them to contemplate their own shit; unfortunately, this means everybody else has to contemplate the Prussians' shit as well, thereby allowing the Prussian to relieve himself of responsibility.
I have to confess I fell for it when I plopped down the admission fee for the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin. But then, isn’t what museums are there for: to grant you the privilege of contemplating someone else’s shit? Or did you think maybe the Jüdisches Museum was a museum devoted to the history and culture of Jews in Germany?
You might imagine for starters that a museum like that would be in a central location, maybe close to the other major museums in the Museuminsel, say, or even on the site of any number of old Jewish sites in Berlin; but that might lead to the assumption that Jewish Culture is on a par with, an integral part of, and a continuing contributor to the culture of the Kulturnation; instead the Jewish Museum has been positioned as an ethnographic museum devoted to the culture of a dead or dying people, much as the Nazis intended when they planned their own Jewish Museum.
As it is the Jewish Museum is in a ghetto all it’s own, or rather, in somebody else’s ghetto: it’s in Kreuzberg, the poorest and most ethnically varied areas of Berlin, with a Muslim population comprising about a third of the population. Kreuzberg is one of those perpetually gonna-be hip areas with going-going real-estate values, and the Jüdisches Museum is another attempt to reproduce the “Bilbao Effect,” meaning you set down some kind of postmodernist building in the middle of what you’d like to think is some kind of ahem ghetto and watch the whole nabe improve by free-market magic—not improve in the sense of improved housing or services, mind you, just improved access to Kultur if that's your thing.
You know how when you reproduce a copy from a copy the product is not so sharp? Wandering through Berlin you begin to see how the great post-reunification cultural and architectural boom has begun to fuzz up. Those once-daring monuments to the New Germany turn out to be dull, decaying modernistic hulks that wouldn’t be out of place in East Berlin—oh, right. The monuments and museums of Berlin could use a good cleaning; the infrastructure is a mess. Half the inhabitants are in ex-Stasi: conquered East Germany has culturally conquered her conquerors, except for the Capitalism. When a city’s infrastructure is funded through bonds and museum construction is also funded through bonds, the museum-sponsored bonds are usually a better sell because of special exemptions, so it’s the museum bonds that get bought because they’re a better deal for the people who do the buying, who are usually the people who’ve endowed the museum to begin with; in the post-modern museum the holdings are an afterthought, it’s the speculation in bonds and real-estate and construction costs that counts.
Plus, there’s an added bonus to building a Jewish Museum instead of any other; that is, there’s an added bonus to building it next to a largely Muslim community mixed in with a bohemian community: Opposition to the Museum can be dismissed as a form of antisemitism—you know, the famous antisemitism of the Left; once more, Jews and Muslims are played one against the other. In Berlin as elsewhere you can’t help tripping over some museum director or curator lecturing us all about inclusiveness, meaning the need for us unkultured Volks to bow down before the insidious policies of exclusion that are built into the very physical fabric of museums.
Because the building that houses the Jüdisches Museum says it all, even if it’s not the only part of the Museum that says it: I’d call it your standard post-Gehry pile, except the thing I’ve grown to appreciate about Gehry is his genuine sense of architectonic empathy; he’s the only one of the lot who doesn’t remind you that the starchitect style originated with that other Nazi-lover, Phillip (“Jump off my Building”) Johnson. You won’t find much empathy at the Jüdisches Museum, though, either from the staff or the architecture, inside or out. It’s a prime example of what Fredric Jameson calls the Post-Modern Duck: physically removed from its surroundings and emotionally distant. That other Friend-to-the-Jews, Baron Front-de-Boeuf, would have cracked a self-satisfied sneer.
In terms of symbolic functions, the Jüdisches Museum is the second-worst contemporary structure in Europe, the first being, of course, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Hegel argued that the meaning of Architecture is Meaning itself, but in the jargon of postmodern authenticity there can be no meaning of meaning, just the formal facts whose meaning is presented as transcendent. The exterior of the Jüdisches Museum is a blatant copy of Jacob van Ruisdael’s painting, The Jewish Cemetery (c. 1650): big blocks with zig-zags running through them like lightning, and a lot of overgrown vegetation in case you miss the reference; the Nazis intended the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague to function as a Jewish Museum of their own, once they’d exterminated the owners. In the pretense of a projected objectivity of architectural form (the building’s discursive formalism), the death-wish against the Jews of Europe is made to present itself as a factual statement, a historical self-evidence. The same is true of the interior: to get to the displays you have to pass through a rat’s maze of angular passageways meant to reinforce your distaste and self-loathing; patterned very closely, in fact, on the ways the Nazis themselves liked to depict the Jews: as subterranean, tight-packed horde. I’d call it an invitation to German self-hatred, except the invitation demands one first identify as a Jew, and therefore as non-German vis-àvis the norm of Germanness; this is what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distancing”. The definition of cultural dominance is that it defines the culture of the dominated through the norms of the dominant; and the Jüdisches Museum from the outset defines these norms, outside and in. As Frantz Fanon put it, the oppressor is not interested in whether or not you have a past; he wants you to have no future. To the Prussian the eternal future of the German Jews is to have been exterminated.
There is a deeply moving monument in Washington DC, the Vietnam War Memorial. It’s not the kind of architecture that presumes to speak for itself. Instead, there’s a table set up outside, staffed by Vietnam veterans. Anyone is welcome to hang and chat, or possibly get a hug—I myself, a war resister, was close to tears. This is psychic reparation, not the vicious repetition of trauma you’re subjected to at the Jüdisches, Berlin. Reparation is about positive affect, and affect is not something Prussians like to consider: too hard to flush. One would expect no less from a country that has made itself united, not through reconciliation but by a process of savage and ongoing ideological witch-hunts.
In a capital-oriented society the museum is just another instrument for the reproduction of civil society as a whole: it divides under pretense of uniting. And in case you didn’t get that point, the Jüdisches is patrolled by blonde BDM-boys in tight black pants whose function is to selectively decide who, among the visitors, is worthy to be admitted, and who must be turned back as unworthy to bring in the coats or bags that they had been allowed to bring in with them to begin with. As Nietzsche put it, “resentment is a plant that thrives best among anarchists and anti-Semites;” anarchist anti-Semites are the worst. The Nazis were master-splitters, and their grandsons and -daughters have kept up the tradition: In every single Berlin museum I visited the only person in my group who was systematically turned back was the person with strong semitic features. And of course there’s no point trying to change them, argue with them, or try to make them understand one’s outrage, as I tried to do at the Jüdisches Museum: it would be like trying to teach a cat. The Übermensch, as Nietzsche pointed out, is one who has made a commitment to believing himself hard-wired. At least the cat has some justification for believing it. To a Prussian (as to most fascists) his Prussianness is not so much a birthright as a Dasein. To quote the Cold Duke of Coffin Castle, “We all have our little faults, and mine is being evil.”
On the one hand, just as Jews were told traditionally that each of us must think of him- or herself as having been physically present at Mount Sinai, so, too, each of us must think he/she was physically present at Auschwitz. Theodor Adorno was very much aware of that, he felt it in his survivor’s bones.
On the other hand there is the Kabbalistic tale of the White Torah and the Black Torah: the Black Torah is immutable, a metaphysical presence; the White Torah, which is constituted of the space that surrounds the Black Torah, changes all the time, and with it the reading of the Black Torah.
“We cannot say any more that the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance.” Adorno, no dialectical slouch himself, devoted a segment of Negative Dialectics to these two questions: the relationship of praxis to reification, and the possibility of praxis after Auschwitz: “It may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.” Or, for that matter, visit museums or paint pictures:
In a world whose law is universal individual profit, the individual has nothing but this self that has become indifferent.
What troubled Adorno was the ever-present sense of a duty to some kind of cold-blooded „objectivity“ in a world in which objectivity itself has become highly suspicious—a world where it would be much more satisfying (if not more productive) to scream instead:
After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims; they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.
While the fascists raged against destructive cultural bolshevism, Heidegger was making destruction respectable as a means to penetrate Being. Metaphysical reflections that seek to get rid of their cultural, indirect elements deny the relation of their allegedly pure categories to their social substance. They disregard society, but encourage its continuation in existing forms, in the forms which in turn block both the cognition of truth.
Tellingly Adorno never uses the words Holocaust or Shoah, with all of their metaphysical implications, the same way Hebrew and Yiddish speakers nowadays, if they’ve thought about it, prefer the word “Churbn,” a purely historical term referring to the Second Destruction of the Temple: to fantasize the failed extermination of a people as some kind of transcendent event is to let the perpetrators off the hook. This is the same metaphysical logic that guides the meaning intended by the Jüdisches Museum, its architecture, its staff. Adorno goes on to suggest ways in which painting, and museum-going perhaps, and maybe criticism might be possible after Auschwitz: a certain ironic yet empathic detachment, a mix of “désinvolture and sympathy.” To say you will get neither at the Jüdisches Museum would be an understatement: its purpose is precisely, to deny you both.
Désinvolture and sympathy, with a solid splash of contempt: those are as good a way as any to paint what must be painted and say what must be said: a slow dance on the head of the heart-dead and the depraved, a resounding Schweik You! in the face of Administered Culture.
Have a joyous Yom Kippur!
October 11-12, 2016.