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Contemporary Literature 47.1 (2006) 148-152

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Ethics after Auschwitz

University of Wisconsin-Madison
R. Clifton Spargo, Vigilant Memory: Emmanuel Levinas, the Holocaust, and the Unjust Death. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. 336 pp. $60.00.

A cottage industry has emerged in the book business on the topic of Levinas. Not only does every university press seem to be bringing out another edition of Levinas's essays (rearranging them as if clustering them together by subject will distinguish them from some other press's attempt to cluster them somewhat differently), but there are a number of studies that have appeared on the subject as well.1 All of these books take account of the beginnings of an ethical philosophy in Levinas's work and the extent to which the idea of the approach toward the other is central to that philosophy. R. Clifton Spargo's Vigilant Memory: Emmanuel Levinas, the Holocaust, and the Unjust Death is superior to these books in part because Spargo is not just making a case that Levinas's ethics are central to his work; he's arguing instead that ethics can be linked to politics, and that the [End Page 148] Holocaust is a primary (if not the single) strand that makes such a connection possible. Nor does Spargo's book succumb to the failure of a lot of books on Levinas: he doesn't sound like Levinas and doesn't fall into the trap of Levinas's style, with its accretions of phrases and (as Spargo notes) its paratactic excesses. Spargo sounds like Spargo, not Levinas (thank God), which will be a relief to any reader of this book.

Vigilant Memory provides a marvelously lucid and interesting analysis of Levinas's notion of "after Auschwitz." Rather than arguing that Levinas's work is a direct response to the historical facts of the Holocaust—and the biographical fact that most of Levinas's family was killed as a result of the Final Solution—Vigilant Memory makes the compelling case that it is the epistemological consequences of the Holocaust that have profoundly influenced Levinas's writing, particularly on the subject of how individual human beings respond to their neighbors. Those consequences are double-edged. On the one hand, the events of 1933–1945 forced writers and thinkers to reconsider the status of the victim, of the witness, and of justice in such a radical way as to bring those terms unremittingly into culture's vocabulary, so much so that—as Spargo and others have argued—everyone, it seems, is a witness, or a victim, or a sufferer of injustice. On the other hand, even these trivializations of the term have produced a kind of "excess," a mark of the insufficiency of these definitions, an insufficiency that might be seen as a remnant or a trace of the victim, the witness, and the survivor that can't be contained by even the most nuanced vocabulary. One of Spargo's key points is that the witness and the victim after 1945 share in the practice of mourning, a practice that involves not a longing after that which has been lost but an articulation of an absence that is constitutive of the victim's subjectivity itself. It is the horrifying intransigence of the Shoah that has made the fact of mourning all the more palpable: because the losses of the Shoah are clearly unredeemable, the silence that results from that lack of redemption must be something other than the silence of desire. Levinas posits that the silence is the silence of suffering, or rather—or more accurately—it is the silence of the witness's making herself visible, answerable to the other, making herself responsible for that which is absent. [End Page 149]

To put this all far less philosophically and far more practically, Spargo is not just making a strong case for a Levinasian ethics but linking that ethics to the beginnings of political thought, something a lot of thinkers have recently said can't be done. In four chapters, he patiently lays out Levinas's understanding...


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