restricted access The Banalization of Racial Events
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The Banalization of Racial Events

A commentary on “The Time of the Political” by Wendy Brown, Theory & Event, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1997)

Returning to Wendy Brown’s “The Time of the Political” reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s comments on Eichmann’s affect, in the postscript of her report: “Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth … he had no motive at all (…) He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. (…) He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness (…) that predisposed him to become of the greatest criminals of that period.”1 More precisely, Brown’s and Arendt’s seemingly different takes on “the banal” refers to the workings of separability,2 as both rest on a double distinction, one which places racial subjugation outside of the ‘proper’ domain of political theory. Explicitly, this distinction appears as racial matters are placed in a moral (social or cultural) terrain, where affectability (emotions and attachments) rules; implicitly, however, it refers to a deep layer of modern thought, in which raciality functions among the conditions of possibility for articulating the proper subject of the Political as a self-determined (self-regulated or self-transparent) existent, while affectability is attributed to everything (bodies, minds, places, and more-than-humans) that is not white/European. These deeper layers explain why, Brown’s 1997 piece lists the beating of Rodney King, the OJ Simpson trial, and the Hill-Thomas hearings among the ‘banal events’ that do concern ‘proper’ political theorizing.

Let me begin through Arendt’s comments on Eichmann and his crime. While recognizing that “the Final Solution” was a crime that could only be perpetrated with the use of state apparatus, The Jerusalem court insisted on treating agents of the Nazi state (such as Eichmann) as “human beings” and, as such, liable to criminal charges. The statement in the verdict that “in politics, obedience and support are the same thing” indicated that he was found guilty because he did not disobey orders not because he obeyed them.3 A few pages later, commenting on the Jerusalem court’s argument that “manifestly criminal orders must not be obeyed,”4 Arendt shows why Eichmann’s “sheer [End Page 61] thoughtlessness” and his defence that he was a mere “tiny cog” in the Nazi state machinery would not exculpate him. In simple Kantian terms, Eichmann was found guilty of not acting on the principle of human dignity because he decided to act as a (dehumanized/thoughtless) functionary, as a cog in Hitler’s machinery of evil. By treating Eichmann as a rational moral agent, that is, with free will (self-determination)—with the capacity to make moral judgements and decide accordingly—the Jerusalem court displaced affectability onto the Nazi state.

The Third Reich, however, has become an exception “in the heart of Europe,” a polity defined by its moral outlook (a criminal state) and not its political stance (a modern sovereign/self-determined power). Hence because he obeyed criminal orders from his bureaucratic superiors, Eichmann failed to act as a rational moral agent. This apparent Kantian paradox—in that the (moral) subject of decision is self-determined and the (political) functionary of the modern bureaucracy is affectable—disappears if we recall the depth of raciality’s work. For, as Sylvia Wynter reminds us, the kind of rationality to which Kant attributes dignity and self-determination, said to be exclusive to the modes of being human found in Europe, should extend to mental (moral and intellectual) and juridical and economic configurations. In so far as he obeyed the orders of the Nazi state, Eichmann behaved like a Kantian rational being (as his “thoughtlessness” suggests), and as such as the kind of human being found only in Europe. Now the problem is that raciality also accounts for how, in the aftermath of WWII, the Third Reich was singled out as a pathological exception; a racist state as opposed to the other rational ones. Put differently, “prejudice” and “evil,” instead of the “acts of state,”5 have become the chosen causes for the “unprecedented” massacres that would add the crime of genocide (and crimes against humanity) to the books of international...