Beyond Metaphysics: B'Tselem / In the Image - on Literature and the Arts in Our (Post) Secular Age
Beyond Metaphysics: B'Tselem / In the Image - on Literature and the Arts in Our (Post) Secular Age
On January 5, 1961, in his apartment on 78 rue de Longchamp (16th arrondissement), the forty-one-year-old German-Jewish poet Paul Celan wrote the first draft of his poem “Psalm”—in my view, one of the most striking poems of the era following the Second World War:
No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,
no one incants our dust.
Blessed art thou, No One.
In thy sight would
we were, are now, and ever
shall be, blooming:
the Nothing-, the
Invoking the biblical creation myth, Celan’s words express the sense that the war and the Holocaust have brought about a profound breach in our civilization. In this and in other poems, Celan tied this recognition to a broader notion of modernity as a time that forces us to rethink our most fundamental ideas about who we are and who we may become. In the words of Hannah Arendt, for Celan ours is the age in which “the past has ceased to throw its light onto the future, and the mind of [humans] wanders in darkness.” Celan’s poem is thus surely a testimony to the devastating events of the recent past. Yet, it is also futural, I believe, in the sense I explored in my recent book, Futurity. Remembering the watershed events of the mid-twentieth century, “Psalm” also prompts us to think about what may come now, in the era of “No one” and “Nothing.” The poem’s incantation—“A Nothing / we were, are now”—underscores the absence of an intervening God from our lives while simultaneously and radically questioning any other metaphysical idea we may wish to hold on to in the realm of ethics. Not only no God but also no Platonic ideas, no Kantian categorical imperative, nor any other metaphysical sovereign can serve as an authority that would validate a comprehensive ethical framework.
Rendering us sensible to this condition, the poem is, however, hardly a nihilistic manifesto. Rather, it presents us with a series of questions we need to address as we read the poem and thereafter: what or who can we trust in a time in which “No one” and “Nothing” reign supreme? How may we address the void we face, make choices, and act? What may we still relate to as we attempt to chart the course of our individual and communal lives?
I was reminded of Celan’s poem and these questions in 2015 when I visited Dani Karavan’s environmental artwork The Way of Human Rights in Nuremberg, Germany, for the first time.
Inaugurated in 1993, The Way of Human Rights comprises twenty-seven circular columns made of white concrete (each eight meters high), two columns buried in the ground, and a single planted oak tree, for a total of thirty columns.
Each column in this work presents one element of a legal code that was adopted and signed on December 10, 1948, in Paris’s Palais de Chaillot, in the 16th arrondissement, which is only a few minutes away from where Paul Celan wrote “Psalm.” The legal code Karavan’s work invokes is, of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On that day in Paris, the United Nations General Assembly accepted the Declaration as Resolution 217. In the spirit of multinationalism, Dani Karavan etched into each of the white concrete columns of The Way of Human Rights one principle of the Declaration in both German and one of the languages spoken by various victims of human rights abuse: Yiddish, Polish, and Armenian; Zulu, Hopi, Khmer, and so forth.
The choice of Nuremberg for the installation reminds us of that city’s role in the mythological construction of nation and race that resulted in the mass murder of Jews, Sinti, Roma, gays, and countless others. Drawing on a broad array of aesthetic and architectural ideas ranging from ancient Egypt to post–Second World War modernism, The Way of Human Rights moves decisively beyond the elitist aesthetics of the column in antiquity. Whereas in Egypt, Greece, and Rome columns projected the spiritual, religious, and political potency of the ruler, Karavan’s columns celebrate no tyrant, no military victory. Devoid of opulence, they present with the actual words of the Declaration the ideas we may draw on as we orient ourselves as individuals, as a nation, and as a global community in the age of “No one” and “Nothing.” They reply to Paul Celan’s challenge—”A Nothing / we were, are now”—by translating the biblical metaphor of humankind as created in the image of God (בצלם אלוהים) into the modern language of the Declaration: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (article 3); “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude … ” (article 4); “No one shall be subjected to torture … ” (article 5); “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association” (article 20).
Nevertheless, Karavan’s work hardly suggests that the Declaration has succeeded in achieving its goals. Each column calls on us, after all, to consider not only the validity of what we read but also what might be added. Walking along The Way of Human Rights and stopping like other visitors to read the articles, I had to think of Hannah Arendt, who argued a year after the Declaration’s 1948 adoption that the content of this legal framework was too abstract and unrealistic and thus was bound to fail to protect countless human beings. Given the fate of millions of people after 1948 in places such as Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Syria, Myanmar, and elsewhere, Arendt’s critique was, of course, correct. The fundamental problem, she wrote, was that the Declaration, aiming to offer a powerful reaction to the “barbarous acts” committed by totalitarian regimes of the mid-twentieth century, based its principles on metaphysics, on the abstract notion of a natural condition in which all humans are presumably equal. However, Arendt noted, only citizens of a polity have rights. The fate of Jews during the Nazi era was directly linked to the political act of depriving them of their citizenship: “The conception of human rights broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who indeed had lost all other qualities and specific relationships, except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”
In his art and as a board member of בצלם, B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, an organization whose name literally cites the biblical notion of humans as created “in the image,” Karavan strives to realize the idea of human life and dignity as fundamentally sacred. He is well aware, however, that the metaphor of humankind as created “in the image of God” hardly describes a fact or, philosophically speaking, an anthropological reality but rather designates a utopian condition we may choose to strive for.
I see Karavan’s work as an expression of a much broader exploration of ethics and politics in contemporary literature and the arts. Taken together, the works I have in mind answer the question Celan raised in “Psalm”—what are we to turn to now, in the age of No one and Nothing?—by asserting the right to life and dignity as the foundation of a postsecular, nonmetaphysical ethics. The American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, whose literary work I see as exemplary in this regard, suggested in a recent essay: “What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God?” She continues: “this conception would rescue us from the problems that come with our tendency to create definitions of human nature that are small and closed. It would allow us to acknowledge the fact, manifest in culture and history, that we are both terrible and very wonderful. Since the movement of human history has been toward a knowledge and competence that our ancestors could not have imagined, an open definition like this one would protect us from the error of assuming that we know our limits, for good or for harm.”
Robinson does not base her vision on a direct godly involvement in the realm of human affairs. A committed Calvinist, she instead mobilizes the image of human beings as created “in the image of God” to turn our attention to what we may say and do: “What if we were to say … ?” circles back to the realm of human choices and actions. Such a metaphor, Robinson suggests, allows us to face concrete moral dilemmas with a recognition of our agency. It prompts us to acknowledge that we are not confined in our ability to act, as we often tend to believe we are; and that we have an unconditional obligation to defend human life and dignity.
I see Robinson’s words and the idea of a postsecular, nonmetaphysical ethics reflected in a broad array of contemporary literary and visual artworks. I am thinking here specifically of the prose of such writers as Arundhati Roy in her novels The God of Small Things (1997) and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), the documentary cinema of Joshua Oppenheimer in works such as The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), or Laura Poitras’s (so-called) post-9/11 trilogy My Country, My Country (2006), The Oath (2010), and Citizenfour (2014). Yet, for the sake of brevity, I would like to focus on my experience in February 2016 with one other artwork by Poitras: her 2016 exhibition Astro Noise.
In the early spring of 2016 I found myself lying on a large platform, together with other exhibition visitors, in the middle of a small hall at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
In this comfortable position, I was looking at time-lapse projected video images of a star-dotted night sky and listening to what sounded like the chatter of air traffic control. The artwork I was experiencing was Laura Poitras’s “Bed Down Location” (2016), an installation that was a part of her exhibition Astro Noise. Projecting recurring images of the night sky over Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan on the ceiling above the cushioned platform, the artwork also included the noise produced by the tiny engines of the drones that were flying the night sky and the chatter of their pilots, thousands of miles away. Together with other visitors to the exhibition, in the secure space of an exquisitely designed modern museum, I was able to gain some bodily sense of what drone warfare may feel like for countless people in the Middle East and elsewhere who are not involved in terrorism, of what they must experience as the objects of an all-embracing observation apparatus or, worse, as the potential “collateral damage” of state power.
Reflecting on the road that led her to create this artwork, Poitras noted: “By asking people to lie down and gaze upward in ‘Bed Down Location,’ I want them to enter an empathetic space and imagine drone warfare—not simply to understand it from news articles but to ponder the sky and imagine that there is a machine flying above you that could end your life at any moment. What does that feel like? … There’s a lot of conceptual art that talks about violence or power in an intellectual way, but I want to expand people’s understanding emotionally.” I see Poitras’s notion of “understanding emotionally” as marking the move we have seen in Paul Celan’s poem and in Dani Karavan’s environmental sculpture: Poitras’s work reminds us of the moral abyss implied in drone warfare as it produces immense so-called “collateral damage.” Yet, at the same time, it is much more than an elegiac work of mourning, much more than a condemnation of what has already happened. Rather, “Bed Down Location” is futural. It is a question addressed to us, visitors to the exhibition and whoever chooses to engage this work: “is your life worthier than the lives of those who are constantly threatened by drones?” To paraphrase Judith Butler: is your life more “grievable” than the lives lost when a drone strikes thousands of miles away? Or: are you living your life in light of the universally accepted idea that human life and dignity are sacred? In Poitras’s own words: “I am interested in how to humanize the war on terror for everyone, so that we understand it. So that, hopefully, you could just imagine what it would be like if your town was occupied, or if there were drones flying overhead and killing people. I think that if you could imagine another country was flying drones over Texas and killing people, people would be angry. They would be upset. Somehow there is this hierarchy of viewing other people’s lives in the world. … Trying to shift those hierarchies is how to make it more level. That human life, loss of human life is tragic. It is life.”
Placing visitors to the New York exhibition on the cushioned platform and allowing them to physically feel “this could be you,” Poitras’s “Bed Down Location” suggests, as an artwork, what critic and architect Eyal Weizman painstakingly argues: what we see as “the moderation of violence” (e.g., in the argument of “the lesser evil” or “the surgical strike”) in our reaction to real or perceived terrorism “is part of the very logic of violence”; “humanitarianism, human rights and international humanitarian law … , when abused by state, supra-state and military action, have become the crucial means by which the economy of violence is calculated and managed.”
Poitras’s “Bed Down Location” and her work as a documentary filmmaker (she is behind such films as Citizenfour, on Edward Snowden) resonate with the work of others, such as the documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, who explores the circumstances behind the 1965–66 mass killings in Indonesia. These writers, artists, and filmmakers also ask, with Celan, Karavan, Robinson, and Poitras, “What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God?” This question has, of course, always been of great importance. Yet, in my view, it has gained urgency in recent decades given the decline of the metaphysical rationalist-secularist framework by which most Western societies have sought to justify their institutions and their policies in the wake of the Second World War. This framework was based on the belief that humans would gradually accept rationality as an anthropological reality, that they would thus adopt an international political system based on the liberal-secular creed. The civil war in Yugoslavia and then 9/11 and its aftermath have shaken this belief to the core. The metaphysical rationalist-secularist framework, as we have seen in recent decades, hardly serves as a common ground for our highly diverse modern humanity. Rather than addressing the future through metaphysics of various sorts, the artists I have mentioned suggest that we need to seek metaphors rather than abstract concepts to help us protect ourselves without harming others. In various ways, they turn to the biblical myth of humankind as created “in the image of God” without propagating a return to traditional religion or a new reliance on the divine as the source of political and moral authority. Rather, they suggest this metaphor as a common ground for our diverse humanity, as a shared perspective on humankind through which we may choose to defend human life and human dignity in an uncertain, all-too-often absurdly brutal world.
Paul Celan, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, trans. John Felstiner (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 157. ↩
Hannah Arendt, “On Hannah Arendt,” in Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, ed. Melvyn Hill (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), 336. ↩
On the history of columns, see Joseph Rykwert, The Dancing Column: On Order in Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996). ↩
(accessed June 7, 2017). ↩
The German version of her scathing critique of the Declaration appeared as Hannah Arendt, “Es gibt nur ein einziges Menschenrecht,” Die Wandlung 4 (December 1949): 754–70. An English version (from which I quote) appeared as “The Rights of Man: What Are They?,” Modern Review 3, no. 1 (1949): 24–36. For a detailed consideration of Arendt’s position on the concept of human rights, see Peg Birmingham, Hannah Arendt and Human Rights: The Predicament of Common Responsibility (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006); and Christoph Menke, “The ‘Aporias of Human Rights’ and the ‘One Human Right’: Regarding the Coherence of Hannah Arendt’s Argument,” in “Hannah Arendt’s Centenary: Political and Philosophical Perspectives, Part I,” special issue, Social Research 74, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 739–62. ↩
Menke, “The ‘Aporias of Human Rights’ and the ‘One Human Right,’” 740. ↩
Arendt, “The Rights of Man: What Are They?,” 31. ↩
In an interview with journalist Akiva Eldar, Dani Karavan stated: “At the center of my work, above all else, is man, his viewpoint and his connection to the environment. Everything is created for his sake.” There is, of course, some irony if not contradiction in these words given that Karavan seems to endorse here the idea that the world was “created” for humans, but Karavan often states his principled secular worldview, and thus, we may want to give him the final word on the question of his convictions. Akiva Eldar, “‘The Stones Cry Out,’” Ha-aretz, December 24, 2010, (accessed January 19, 2017). ↩
Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 158–59. ↩
This information is taken from the leaflet that was distributed at the exhibition. The same description appears on the Whitney’s website; see . ↩
Spencer Ackerman, “41 Men Targeted but 1,147 People Killed: US Drone Strikes—the Facts on the Ground,” Guardian, November 24, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/nov/24/-sp-us-drone-strikes-kill-1147 (accessed July 5, 2017). ↩
Jay Sanders, introduction to Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living under Total Surveillance, ed. Laura Poitras, Jay Sanders, and Weiwei Ai (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 33 (emphasis added). ↩
Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (New York: Verso, 2009). ↩
(accessed May 22, 2017). “In real-time,” noted Jordan Carver for the Avery Review, the screen near the exit drives home “the treacherous moral landscape in which the entire drone program sits. Here people are not necessarily people, they have been reduced to a data stream that only accounts for basic biological functioning.” (accessed July 5, 2017). “It is an exercise in table-turning,” wrote Steven Zeitchik for the Los Angeles Times: “Visitors believe they are safely distanced observers—only to suddenly learn they are the subject.” Steven Zeitchik, “Filmmaker Laura Poitras Turns Her Anti–Big Brother Activism into Fine Art with ‘Astro Noise’ Museum Installation,” (accessed July 5, 2017). ↩
Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza (London: Verso, 2012), 3–4. ↩