The Changed World of Man-Made Mass Death

by Alan Rosenberg and Ralph W. Sleeper

Edith Wyschogrod. Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985. 247 pages.

Spinoza tells us that the wise man thinks about death as little as possible. Early in our own century Unamuno took issue with him on the grounds that if we have to discipline ourselves not to think about death, death must be something that is constantly before our minds, something we must think about if we are to understand the meaning of life. Like Unamuno, jean-Paul Sartre also thought that we do not face anything seriously unless we face it in light of the fact of death. In this remarkable new book, Edith Wyschogrod sides with both Unamuno and Sartre, in so far as she agrees that we must think about death. But for Wyschogrod Spinoza was also correct: it is not our own death that we should be thinking about, but the new phenomenon of "man-made mass death."

Wyschogrod seeks to interpret and understand the phenomenon of "man- made mass death" which is unique to the century in which we live. This phenomenon has reached global proportions only in our own time because the technological means are finally available for its development and proliferation. "Man-made" death is not new, but its scale and the frequency of its appearance in our century demand that we rethink the implications of the human propensity that results in "mass" extinction. "Though these events permeate personal and social experience," Wyschogrod tells us, "philosophers have been strangely silent in regard to their meaning.... Despite philosophers' sensitivity to specific ethical issues, the impact of man-made mass death upon larger themes of philosophical concern has gone largely unnoticed" (p. ix).

A feature of Wyschogrod's approach to the phenomenon of manmade mass death is that she does not attempt to explain the reasons why any specific instance of the phenomenon should have occurred. The differences between, for example, the causes of the Holocaust in Europe and of the destruction of Hiroshima in Japan do not concern her. Leaving such matters to be explained by others, Wyschogrod accepts the emergence of man-made mass death as a global reality, however different the specifics of time and circumstance of each particular instance may be. She directs her attention to the generic consequences of the given phenomenon as such, probing for the meaning of the whole phenomenon in terms of its impact on the "larger themes of philosophical concern."

These themes, like the events that have affected them, are anything but local or limited to any specific historical moment. They are the perennial themes that permeate the history of our philosophies and of the experiences that those philosophies reflect. "I hope to show," Wyschogrod says,

that the meaning of self, time, and language are all affected by mass death: from now on the development of these themes and the meaning of man-made mass death wax and wane together. We are in the grip of immense experiential changes which both create and reflect new philosophical perspectives. These must be brought out into the open if we are not to drift, metaphysically blind, from one concrete issue to another. Yet the map we still carry shows the world as flat even if we know otherwise. (p. ix)

Wyschogrod wants to provide an emended map in terms of which we can more effectively orient our "selves," a "metaphysical" map of the historical and cultural territory in which we find ourselves, and of the language that we use in order to move about in this territory. She wants to show how the very terms of our discourse about ourselves, in which we converse with others about our common future, are saturated with the consequences of our now having means of total human destruction, of the final extinction of humankind. The awful presence of this possibility of total annihilation provides the central and unifying substance of Wyschogrod's unprecedented analysis in Spirit in Ashes.

In the simplest terms, Wyschogrod tries to create for us in this path- breaking study a perspective of global scope, in which we can locate and better understand each and every specific event of mass human destruction at human hands. Whether our immediate attention has focused upon a relatively local event such as the Jonesville mass "suicide" or the far more extensive massacre in Cambodia, Wyschogrod wants us to understand how deeply we are affected in our own self-understanding, how much our perception of ourselves has been altered by such events although they may be remote from our immediate circumstances and concerns. She has not neglected to give all due prominence to the understanding of events which affect us, such as the Holocaust or the threat of nuclear destruction inherent in the arms race. But she argues, correctly we think, that these events are better understood when we think of them in generic as well as specific terms. Wyschogrod does not wish to challenge the uniqueness of the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust, or of the Japanese of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor does she magnify or minimize the horrors of forced famine in the Sudan or Ethiopia. Her point is that all these events comprise a single worldwide phenomenon.

This global reality is termed by Wyschogrod the "death event." It comprises three distinct categories: 1) the mass destruction of persons by means of the weapons of war that are designed for the purpose; 2) the intentional use of famine, dislocation, and deportation for the destruction of persons; and 3) the creation of "death worlds" simulating the "imagined conditions of death, conferring upon their inhabitants the status of the living dead" (p. 15). In the world of the "death event" the meanings of the self, of time, and of language are radically altered; Wyschogrod argues in Hegelian fashion that the "death event" itself constitutes an "historically conditioned a priori" of such power and magnitude that we must re-assess what we mean by these terms, for whatever they may have conveyed to us in the past can no longer be relied upon to have bearing or relevance. New meanings force themselves upon us, Wyschogrod claims, and are already emerging along the fringes of our consciousness. It is to the difficult task of elucidating these emergent changes in meaning that this study is dedicated.

Wyschogrod brings to her subject an astonishing variety of evidence. She supports her thesis not merely by drawing liberally upon Hegel's powerful vision of philosophy as historico-cultural criticism and upon Heidegger's influential determination to employ the tools of classical philosophical analysis in the discovery of the meaning of being and time in our own world. She augments these admittedly speculative insights with empirical evidence drawn from the whole range of the social and psychological sciences, as well as from poets and artists whose aesthetic vision often runs far ahead of them, and often more accurately reflects the cast and tenor of human experience. Spirit in Ashes extends the work in philosophy of culture that she has already done: The Phenomenon of Death: Faces of Mortality (1973) and Emmanuel Levinas: The Problem of Ethical Metaphysics (1974), and a wide-ranging series of articles since then. In all of these Wyschogrod has consistently demonstrated her capacity to transcend the limits of philosophical fashion. Her writing belongs neither to the "analytic" school that has so long dominated Anglo-American philosophy, nor to the "phenomenological" tradition of continental European thought. She does not ignore the contributions of these dominant styles of philosophizing, but draws upon them, as she draws upon the great classical thinkers who have done so much to shape the character of our Western philosophical tradition, and as she makes full and fruitful use of those thinkers who strive to re-shape that tradition, like John Dewey, or those, like Jacques Derrida, who seek to deconstruct it.

If, in the present work, Wyschogrod draws chiefly from Hegel and Heidegger, the reader should not be misled into thinking that her purpose is merely to expound or to extend their respective "philosophies of death," or even critically to assess their respective contributions to the philosophy of culture, although she does both. Nor can her work be consigned to the genre of such familiar writers on the phenomenon of death as either Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, or her satyrical counterpart, Jessica Mitford. This important book does not belong to the literature of what has sometimes been called the "death industry." For although Wyschogrod never wanders far from her central theme of man-made mass death, her philosophical sights are set far higher and upon a far more crucial objective than comprises the norm in such literature.

The difference of Wyschogrod's approach to her subject is demonstrated when we compare her work with another genre. There has grown up in the years since the Holocaust a distinct type and style of writing about that epochal event in which the horrors of the extermination camps are taken as centrally problematic for our time and for the future of our civilization. This literature asks us to think about the "unthinkable", at it is so often called, and to probe for the meaning of the unique event that resulted in the summary and systematic extermination of such a vast number of human beings. This genre includes the work of theologians and historians, of psychologists and anthropologists, as well as Hebraicists and specialists in the circumstances of minority populations everywhere. But it is a genre that, as Wyschogrod herself remarks, includes few works of importance from the studies of philosophers. The significance of the Holocaust, she argues, will be lost to us so long as we segregate it as a unique subject-matter, isolating it from the context of those other events that comprise the whole phenomenon of man- made mass death in our world. Without diminishing either the uniqueness of the Holocaust or its awesome scale and importance, Wyschogrod maintains that we will miss the most profound lessons and meanings of this event unless we can see it as integral to a much larger context, to the historically conditioned a priori of the "death event" itself.

In Wyschogrod's unusual analysis, a distinguishing feature of the "death event" is that it cuts across all of the familiar ethnic and religious boundary lines. Man-made mass death cannot be sorted out by such distinctions. The "death event" may be paradigmatically exemplified by the inhabitants of the death camps of the Holocaust, or by the victims of the "disappearances" in Argentina. But these are examples of a single phenomenon, one that transcends both geographical and cultural boundaries. The "death event" is a social and cultural phenomenon, but it is not confined, nor can it be confined, to any particular society or cultural "tradition." Wyschogrod's steadfast refusal to reduce her analysis to anything less than this "total" approach comprises both the uniqueness of her analysis and its philosophical strength. For only by such an approach can we hope to reach an understanding of the self adequate to survival in a "death world" that threatens total extinction.

Events such as the Holocaust, with their inevitable "body count," transform our very conception of the finite self. They remind us that we are finite not merely as individuals, as "monadic selves" in Wyschogrod's terminology, but as "human selves." Her point is that we are becoming conscious of the finitude of humankind as such, of the real possibility that human life on this planet may be extinguished. This growing consciousness is an important component of the "death event" that emerges from the unrestrained practice of man-made mass death. "No contemporary thinker has made this phenomenon thematic, much less tried to assess its relevance for developing a conception of the self to which this phenomenon is integral" (p. 20). Spirit in Ashes is dedicated to remedying the absence of such an assessment.

The central argument of the book states that the ways in which we have come to terms with the phenomenon of death in the past are now obsolete because of the advent of the "death event" created by the rapid proliferation of man-made mass destruction of human lives. Wyschogrod refers to these obsolete ways of grasping the inevitability and meaning of personal death as exemplifications of what she calls the "authenticity paradigm." In accordance with this "paradigm," or interpretive model,

a good death, even if not free from pain, is the measure of a good life. If we can face our own eventual non-existence, if not affirmatively at least without fear that our lives have been moral failures we have come to terms with "last things." And this coming to terms is a necessary though not sufficient condition for assuring ourselves that our exit is free from that worry which casts a blemish not only on our final hours but on all of life: fear of pain, anxiety over the loss of self, and terror before the unknown. (p. 2)

It is the inadequacy-indeed, the irrelevancy-of this paradigm to the experience of death in the twentieth-century "death event" that is the central claim of the book.

Linked to that claim, and comprising what is clearly a fundamental "metaphysical" thesis, is the boldly asserted postulate that the authenticity paradigm itself embodies a certain perception of the acceptability of finitude. The finite, including our self understanding that we are finite beings, becomes acceptable when we understand it as a part of what is not finite. This embodiment of the finite in the infinite reality of time blunts the edge of death's finality and makes possible the age-old hope of a future that will somehow be better than what we have experienced in our brief time in this world. This enclosure of the finite in the benign embrace of the infinite both morally and spiritually justifies the acceptance of finitude that is reflected in the "authenticity paradigm."

We have, of course, long thought of our ways of dealing with death as if they were simply functions of our particular belief systems. And we have long assumed that the differences in these belief systems were the results of differences in the histories of the particular religions, or ethnic compartments of global culture, that sponsor them. But Wyschogrod's analyses of these differences demonstrates their underlying identity. Whether we hold with the tradition of the survival of the self in some form of "immortality" after death, or whether we hold with the belief that the self is somehow absorbed into some more inclusive and "selfless" reality after death, authenticity is a generic trait of all such conceptions, the unique determinant of the meaning and value of that self's own life and death. It is precisely this conception of the self that the universal "death event" has destroyed.

Selves as individual persons no longer exist in the "death world" but are reduced to the ontological status of "things." The numerical language of the "death world," which "names" its victims by their numbers, perceives them merely as disposable objects. The impersonal technological vocabulary that acknowledges objects only in terms of their utility not only invades the "death world" but is essential to its creation. This vocabulary, which has been abstracted from the "life world" vocabulary of qualitative objects, Wyschogrod argues, is a legacy of the Enlightenment conception of rationality. It represents the phenomenological reduction of the apprehended object to its purely utilitarian status, so that the object is removed from the "life world" of ordinary human experience and enstated as the object of scientific knowledge and technological manipulation. Any uniqueness that the object may have had in the "life world" is eliminated; such qualities as it may still possess are merely those which it shares with all other objects of its kind. The reification of the self in the death camps, for which the term "de- personalization" is scarcely adequate, exemplifies the universal technique and language of the "death world."

Wyschogrod cites the testimony of Alexander Donat, who writes of his experience of the "death world" as follows:

We had arrived in the kingdom of death, in the Third Field of the Maidenek concentration camp.... Maidenek was hell. Not the naive inferno of Dante but a twentieth-century hell where the art of cruelty was refined to perfection and every facility of modem technology and psychology was combined to destroy men physically and spiritually. (p. 26)

In such a world, Wyschogrod points out, "The totality of language is exhausted by . . . the expression of relations of utility and the interpretation of the given in quantitative terms" (p. 27). In such a world, moreover, it is not just that the self becomes a mere object. It becomes an object without either a past or a future. The temporality of the "lived world" with its "present" time delicately balanced between an ever receding past and an oncoming future no longer exists. Not only is the delicate balance destroyed, but even the 11 present" no longer exists. It disappears in the timeless, senseless meaningless presence of the "death event" itself. For what the presence of the "death event" forces upon us is the discovery that a "good death" may no longer be possible at all. This discovery undermines and makes obsolete the authenticity paradigm, the conceptual foundations of which have been destroyed by the "death event" and the "death worlds" comprising it.

In Heideggerean fashion, Wyschogrod reaches back into the past for an understanding of the structure of "death event." As Heidegger so often does, she finds a conceptual model in the work of the pre-Socratics, which she employs to explain the content of the historically conditioned a priori. For the meaning of the global "death event," the model is discovered in the famous "paradox" ascribed to Zeno. Wyschogrod suggests that this "paradox" provides a conceptual structure that helps us understand all the individual "death worlds" of man-made mass destruction that make up the global "death event" as such.

Wyschogrod does not try to revive this "paradox" in relation to the metaphysical issues that Zeno himself was addressing; i.e., the disagreement between the Pythagoreans and Parmenides over whether the nature of being is a "multiplicity" or is "one," and its consequences for the problem of the reality of "motion" and "change." But she finds in Zeno's "logic," his style of reasoning, a model for understanding the "death event." What she takes as paradigmatic in the structure of Zeno's "paradox" is the assumption of the infinite divisibility of a finite reality. Wyschogrod points to a parallel assumption underlying the structure of the "death world"; i.e., that "there exists an infinite and inexhaustable reservoir of persons to be consumed without end" (p. 56).

Wyschogrod does not argue that this assumption is consciously made by the managers of the "death world," but she does argue that this is the basis of what that she calls the "sorting myths" that invariably play a central role in the administration of the "death world." These "myths" distinguish the targets of destruction as expendable. As Wyschogrod puts it: "A generative or sorting myth is required, a principle by means of which the whole is to be divided" (p. 39). The "sorting myth" supplies the abstract logic of Zeno's paradigm with a system of classification that determines its concrete content by designating those who are to be consigned to the "death world." Wyschogrod points out that there are two dominant types of "sorting myth" employed in our century in the practice of man-made mass death. One makes use of a principle of selection based upon race; the other bases its classification upon ideological considerations.

The managers of the "death world" rely upon the "sorting myth" to remedy some radical defect that they perceive as a flaw in their life world. Wyschogrod underscores the perceived radical character of such defects by using the phrase "broken cosmos" to indicate them. She points out that such a "broken cosmos" is so radically torn that it can be put together or "healed" only by means that are proportionately radical; i.e., by the creation of a "death world." The irony is, of course that, as the logic of Zeno's "paradox" indicates, such a solution to the "broken cosmos" cannot work. There simply is no "infinite reservoir" of candidates for extermination. Even humanity itself, in toto, could not supply the requirements of the "death world" forever.

It may not be easy for those of us who are unfamiliar with Heidegger's use of such classical paradigms as Zeno's "paradox" to accept such models as illuminating the character of our modem world. It is, however, clear to us that Wyschogrod has deployed this strategy in an imaginative and creative manner. Whether we fully agree with the importance that Wyschogrod acribes to Zeno's "paradox" or not, there can be little doubt of the fact that her analysis does define the common features of the occasions of man-made mass death that have proliferated in our century.

It is impossible in the scope of a brief review to convey an adequate sense of the depth and range of the historical and philosophical materials that the author of Spirit in Ashes brings to her subject. It must suffice to say that her command of those mateirals is truly extraordinary. Precisely because of that command, exhibited throughout the book, her concluding vision of the self, of time, and of language merits our most thoughtful consideration. If we list briefly the components of her vision, it is not that Wyschogrod has failed in her effort to give them the rich elaboration and subtlety of treatment appropriate to such fundamental themes.

In her vision, the self is not an individual "cognition monad," as Wyschogrod puts it, and we cannot take for granted that time is neatly divisible into "past," "present," and "future." Nor can language, so long considered merely an artifact or "tool" of culture, be taken for granted. In Wyschogrod's vision our language and the uses to which we put it figure prominently as the telling factor that makes the difference between the "life world" and the "death world" of man-made mass death. Not only that the self can no longer be conceived of as reducible to the status of the "person" as an individual, although that is indeed an important consequence of the mass death episodes comprising the "death event" so brilliantly analyzed in this study. Not only that the massive technological apparatus that makes such episodes possible, and the style of discourse in which they are carried out, reveal the genuinely real possibility of "pandemic humanly contrived death." Not only that the self is revealed as finite, or even that humanity as such is finite. Rather, these disclosures show the true dimensions of the self, of time, and of language.

Wyschogrod delineates a new understanding of self by a probing analysis of the implications of Hegel's conception of the "social self." But she moves beyond Hegel in an ontological description of the self that draws upon Heidegger's analysis of the "self-world relation." Once Hegel's "socio- historical!' self and Heidegger's "self-world relation" are examined in the light of Zeno's paradox and the reality of the "death worlds," what emerges in Wyschogrod's perspective on the self-or more properly her ontology of the self-is neither Hegelian nor Heideggerian. The self is, as Hegel indicated, primarily and essentially a social entity; an historical and processive reality. But it is not an entity whose destiny is to join with some transcending "Absolute." Rather, Wyschogrod argues, the genuine "telos" of the self is union with other selves. In place of the transcendent "self" in union with the Absolute, what Wyschogrod postulates as the destiny of the self must be seen as the fulfillment of the self in transactional relation with other selves. The self is, as Heidegger indeed demonstrated, related to the "things" of this world-the phrase "lived world" or "life world" is indicative of this relation and its multiplicity-and is essentially constituted by such relations. But Wyschogrod's analysis shows that it is not exclusively so related or so constituted. Rather, the "transactional self" that Wyschogrod favors is a "bipolar unity" integrally related to other selves. In the passage that concludes her book, she sums up the implications of this new conception of the self:

This new apothegm is not a moral rule but a phenomenological datum. Since the I has become social, its demand must also be read socially. The social I demands that the whole human community, whose possible extinction is part of the formation of the I, persevere in existence. Postmodern selfhood must now be understood as living with the ambit of tensions created by this demand. (p. 216)

Spirit in Ashes is not an easy book. The extraordinary variety of sources that Wyschogrod controls and brings to her central themes in this study do not often figure in the philosophical writing of our day. But a great virtue of this work is that these sources are martialed in such a way that they elucidate her central claims and reinforce them.

The vision that emerges of the "transactional self," as much the unforeseen and unforeseeable consequence of the twentieth-century "death event" as of the author's analytical insight, commands our attention as few others have done in this generation.

This study belongs to that rare category sometimes called the philosophy of history and sometimes the philosophy of culture. This integrates the several "branches" of philosophy into a comprehensive and comprehensible whole, showing how ethics resonates with metaphysics and ontology, how aesthetics relates to science and logic, and providing a perspective on the arts and sciences of our world, and rendering the whole intelligible. The great problems of time, the meaning of being and existence, the enigmas of truth and language, are all given their due. It is a singular achievement.

When Ludwig Wittgenstein, late in life, read Frazer's Golden Bough for the first time, he remarked on the author's ability to create a "perspicuous representation" of culture by showing how things "hang together." It is just such an ability that Wyschogrod demonstrates in Spirit in Ashes. Wittgenstein would have admired it.

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