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Visualizing Atrocity

Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thoughtlessness

Valerie Hartouni

Publication Year: 2012

Visualizing Atrocity takes Hannah Arendt’s provocative and polarizing account of the 1961 trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann as its point of departure for reassessing some of the serviceable myths that have come to shape and limit our understanding both of the Nazi genocide and totalitarianism’s broader, constitutive, and recurrent features. These myths are inextricably tied to and reinforced viscerally by the atrocity imagery that emerged with the liberation of the concentration camps at the war’s end and played an especially important, evidentiary role in the postwar trials of perpetrators.  
At the 1945 Nuremberg Tribunal, particular practices of looking and seeing were first established with respect to these images that were later reinforced and institutionalized through Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem as simply part of the fabric of historical fact. They have come to constitute a certain visual rhetoric that now circumscribes the moral and political fields and powerfully assists in contemporary mythmaking about how we know genocide and what is permitted to count as such. In contrast, Arendt’s claims about the “banality of evil” work to disrupt this visual rhetoric. More significantly still, they direct our attention well beyond the figure of Eichmann to a world organized now as then by practices and processes that while designed to sustain and even enhance life work as well to efface it. 

Published by: NYU Press


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p. v

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p. vii

At the University of California, San Diego, I am especially fortunate to share a world with a remarkable group of individuals, deeply committed to teaching and the rich pleasures of intellectual exchange. Members of this seriously eclectic community to whom I am hugely indebted for their insights and steadfast support as well as good humor include Carol Padden, Mike Cole,...

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pp. 1-22

Rare is the case that the end we imagined at the beginning of a project is the end that we find or that finds us once all is at least provisionally said and done. It might be life or the world, each with its often unpredictable, surprising, and sometimes shocking turns; the work or critical interventions of like-minded (or not) scholars; it might be the unanticipated but unavoidable demands of narratives internal to the text itself that upset the particular trajectory one...

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1 Arendt and the Trial of Adolf Eichmann: Contextualizing the Debate

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pp. 23-37

Evil in its total banality: this is what Hannah Arendt claimed to have seen in the figure of Adolf Eichmann when she observed him in an Israeli court in 1961. Eichmann was considered a core member of the Nazi leadership and would have undoubtedly been tried at Nuremberg in 1946 alongside Göring, Speer, and Hess among others for war crimes had he not fled Europe following the collapse...

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2 Ideology and Atrocity

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pp. 38-63

Eichmann claimed to have been only a “transportation officer” in the elaborate bureaucracy that was the Third Reich. The details of his story and the nature of his position as he set out both for the Court in Jerusalem appeared only to frustrate the judges, mock the suffering of survivors, insult the memory of the dead, and enrage the prosecution, so inadequate was his account of the phenomenon...

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3 Thoughtlessness and Evil

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pp. 64-91

What makes judgment possible, Arendt argued, are the purging effects of critical thought, the disassembling of received customs, rules, opinions, codes of conduct, and established values that may otherwise come to function as banisters of a sort to which we grow habituated and on which we may depend, not as the cultural conventions they represent, but as part of the given architecture of...

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4 “Crimes against the Human Status”: Nuremberg and the Image of Evil

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pp. 92-113

We saw in chapter 1 that the Eichmann trial was made to bear a host of burdens well beyond the otherwise highly choreographed spectacle of criminal prosecution. Whether by chance, opportunity, or design, the proceedings were put in the service of a number of consequentially distinct agendas for regionally distinct audiences, with the focal point throughout being the “story of the great...

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5 The Banality of Evil

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pp. 114-124

At the beginning of chapter 3, I began the discussion of Arendt’s understanding of thoughtlessness by recounting an exchange she had with Christian Bay at a conference devoted to considering the import of her work. This exchange was precipitated by a general discussion of what “thinking is and is good for” but also, more specifically, by Bay’s insistence that with the exception of Eichmann...


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pp. 125-163


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pp. 165-185


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pp. 187-198

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About the Author

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p. 199

Valerie Hartouni is Professor of Communication at the University of California, San Diego, and author of Cultural Conceptions: On Reproductive Technologies and the Remaking of Life (1997).

E-ISBN-13: 9780814738993
E-ISBN-10: 0814738494
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814738498

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 809846968
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Visualizing Atrocity

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Subject Headings

  • Arendt, Hannah, 1906-1975. Eichmann in Jerusalem.
  • Arendt, Hannah, -- 1906-1975 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Arendt, Hannah, -- 1906-1975 -- Political and social views.
  • Eichmann, Adolf, -- 1906-1962 -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • War crime trials -- Jerusalem -- History -- 20th century.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945).
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Atrocities -- Germany.
  • Genocide -- Germany -- History -- 20th century.
  • Good and evil -- Political aspects
  • Good and evil -- Social aspects.
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