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If This Is a Knowledge System: Thinking about Primo Levi and Martin Heidegger

Below is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting at “The Critical Blot: Opacity and Meaning in German Language, Literature, and Culture,” a conference at Indiana University, on February 26, 2011.

In “The Age of the World Picture,” Martin Heidegger writes, “Science as research is an absolutely necessary form of this establishing of self in the world” (135). Inhabitants of the modern era, according to Heidegger, finds the world ably categorizable, giving humankind the opportunity to assume an unprecedented degree of agency as they execute or perform this categorization across disciplines. How, though, can the notions expressed in Heidegger’s text illuminate the reportage by his contemporary Primo Levi, who depicts a science or compulsion for classification that has gone too far?

The very title of Levi’s memoir If This Is a Man indicates the distinct overlap of his interest in delineating or questioning man and his constitutive abilities with Heidegger’s own concerns, but Levi’s portrayal of Auschwitz is one in which the dominant class’s pursuit of extreme (social) order is constantly subverted. (if not necessarily in ways that always counter the continuation of the Nazis’ monopoly on power). Levi describes, for example, the eating equipment of a fellow inmate who “shows me his bowl. Where others have carved their numbers, and Alberto and I our names, Clausner has written: ‘Ne pas chercher a comprendre,’” the French for “Do not seek to understand” (109). In a perverted sense, Clausner maintains individual identity by the simultaneous effacement of his name, the signifier without which he cannot be easily differentiated from others—but these are others who have all kept some connection to the names given them at birth or the numbers given them by the SS upon their arrival at the camp.

Not only does Levi describe the Nazi horrors that so quelled any attempts at resistance on the part of the Jews and others persecuted by Nazi Germany, including those in the form of borderline survival, but, as if dramatizing these persecutions, If This Is a Man also portrays altered identities that resist the orderly taxonomies Heidegger (in many ways, a thinker of opposite beliefs than Levi) finds characteristic of modern science in “The Age of the World Picture.” This disagreement between the different systems of knowledge Levi and Heidegger describe is perhaps most noticeable in the dissolved relationships between signifiers and that which they originally signified in If This Is a Man, a slippage not allowed for in Heidegger’s conception of modern science. The physically altered human bodies that recur in Levi’s text further diminish the authority of a strict and unforgiving science. Interestingly, Levi also presents the reader with cultural tradition in the form of stories and inherited knowledge that is perhaps counterintuitively flexible as it alternately adapts or acquiesces to and subverts the insufferable circumstances of the camp.

Primo Levi's "If This Is a Man" {Se questo è un uomo)

Posted in abstract, Beyond Human Rights?, Holocaust, Indiana University, literature, Martin Heidegger, Primo Levi.

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