Josh Cohen (2003) Interrupting Auschwitz: Art, Religion, Philosophy.

New York and London: Continuum. ISBN 0 8264 5552 2.

Dorota Glowacka

Shortly after the first images from the Nazi death camps shocked the Western world into moral stupor, political philosopher Hannah Arendt announced, in her essay ‘Approaches to the German Problem’, that the Holocaust marks ‘the breakdown of all German and European traditions’ (Arendt, 1993: 109). With a few notable exceptions, however, it has taken decades for philosophy and theology to ‘stare into the unsayable’ (Agamben, 1999: 33) and take up the unique challenge the Holocaust has thrown at contemporary thought. Tracing the trajectory of this traumatic paralysis of thought vis à vis ‘Auschwitz’ in this thoughtful study of the writings by Theodor Adorno, Emmanuel Levinas and Edmond Jabès, Josh Cohen opts for a way of ‘working through’, and he identifies the site where this uneasy task must be undertaken at the intersection of theology and aesthetics.

Philosopher and theologian Emil Fackenheim once wrote that Auschwitz is ‘a rock on which throughout eternity all rational explanation will crash and break apart’ (Fackenheim, 1987: 102). In Cohen’s study, the eponymic name ‘Auschwitz’ emerges as a powerful figure of Nazism’s irreversible interruption of Western rationality and its investment in the paradigm of representation. However, the name ‘Auschwitz’ has also become a commandment, an imperative to salvage and reconstitute thought through ‘interrupting Auschwitz’, a practice that must be unyielding, incessant and courageous.

Cohen is not unaware of the problematic nature of the idolatrous evocation of the name ‘Auschwitz’ to stand for the totality of the Nazi evil, and indeed it is the very notion of totality as epitomized in the Nazi regime that he seeks to disrupt. The reference is made, albeit only in an endnote (2003:146), to the debates surrounding the naming of the Event: Auschwitz, the Holocaust, Shoah, Churban and other appellations have all been tried on and subsequently discarded or at least rendered problematic. Taking a cue from Adorno, Cohen cautiously settles on ‘Auschwitz’: the synecdochic quality of that name allows for a self-reflective disclosure of its inevitably substitutive nature.

In the ‘Preface’, Cohen describes his project as an inquiry into the possibility of Judaism after Auschwitz. He cites his dissatisfaction with the theodical tendency of recent theological thinking on Auschwitz and its propensity to construct redemptive frameworks (both covertly collusive with the Western metaphysics of presence) as the factors that have given his project a spur. Theodicy, inextricable from the attainment of the absolute and reconciliation of good and evil in the name of a higher purpose, is complicit with the logic of totalitarianism. Reclaiming theological thought from the danger of theodicy thus requires a radical rethinking of the Absolute, the task which Cohen believes can be most solicitously undertaken at the intersection of religion and art, or Judaism and writing. Cohen traces the possibility of such renewal of thought through the engagement with the writings of three Jewish post-Holocaust thinkers, all of whom construe of the Absolute as always already interrupted. He argues that, under the Nazi regime, the Western determination of the Absolute as ultimate substance or Spirit found itself grotesquely mirrored in the biological absolute of the Aryan body. Thus, as the final guarantor of knowledge – and here Cohen refers us to Zygmunt Bauman’s influential critique of enlightened reason in Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) – the Absolute has been found complicit with technological rationality, which the Nazis yoked in the service of their ‘irrationality’ (2003: 2).

In contradistinction to the Absolute which is animated by the telos of completion and totality, Cohen argues for a need to structure thought according to an interrupted Absolute, which alone has the potential to counter Auschwitz – the evil that has befallen the West, collapsing its entire conceptual framework. On this ground, Cohen disagrees with three important contemporary Jewish theologians, Richard Rubinstein, Eliezer Berkowitz, and Emil Fackenheim: he finds their respective attempts to transform the theological horizon ‘after-Auschwitz’, however novel and unorthodox in their own right, to be caught up in the metaphysics of the dichotomy of transcendence and immanence, whereby the Absolute, as securing the meaning of historical experience, finds its determinate realization in Zionism. Cohen’s interrupted Absolute, however, is marked by incompletion and non-fulfilment: on one hand, it is ethically ‘ab-solved’ from its very concept by a radical, unassimilable alterity and, on the other, evoked as a certain practice of literature. The absolute otherness or sublimity of God is announced, within Judaism itself, in the imperative of the interdiction of graven images (2003: 21). The provenance of the interruptive literary practice is traced to Jena Romatics, whose works were radically committed to ongoing incompletion.[1]

Cohen’s argument derives its impetus from Adorno’s declaration, in Negative Dialectics, of a new categorical imperative: to ‘arrange. . . thoughts and actions so that Auchwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will ever happen’ (quoted in Cohen, 2003: XVI). This formula, which reiterates through Cohen’s text with the force of an ethical injunction, orders his discussion of the intellectual trio of Adorno, Levinas and Jabès. Cohen finds Adorno’s reflection on post-Auschwitz aesthetics to be informed by ‘a certain construal of Judaism’, which stands in an inverted parallel to Levinas’s ethical and religious thought, as it has been in turn informed by a certain aesthetic. It is in Jabès’ poetic reflection that both poles are engaged with equal force: Jabès equates Judaism with writing as ‘the same waiting, the same hope’ (quoted in Cohen, 2003: XVII). Cohen’s intricate engagement with the philosophical threesome, across the double plane of art and religion, evokes, in and uncannily beautiful way, the Star of Franz Rozenzweig, the early 20th century secular Jewish philosopher, whose theses, according to Cohen himself, have influenced all three writers, however unobtrusively that influence may have been expressed in their texts. Yet, it is no longer the same Star: Cohen’s textual triangulation of the three thinkers is in itself a performance of interruption, a deconstructive gesture aimed at the Western imperative of figuration. The structure of the book imitates the tripartite movement of irreconcilability: art and religion constantly move toward each other, coming into close proximity in the chapter on Jabès, but they never become reconciled or subsumed under each other.

The chapter on Adorno, entitled ‘”The Ever Broken Promise of Happiness”: Interrupting Art, or Adorno,’ proceeds from Adorno’s announcement, in Minima Moralia, that, after the war, ‘philosophy can only be practiced “in face of despair”‘ (quoted in Cohen, 2003: 25) and in the form of ‘micrologies’, that is, through involvement with the particular that resists subsumption into the universal. For Adorno, art is the carrier of thought after-Auschwitz, since only art is sufficiently self-reflective to recognize its unbridgeable separation from the divine, toward which it gestures nevertheless. Maintaining the contradiction and continuously restating itself as a question, the artwork is also the site of the unfolding of messianic promise, in which the irretrievable past and the unrealizable future converge (62). These parameters of the aesthetic as traced by Adorno betray, according to Cohen, a displaced religious imperative in the philosopher’s work.

Considering a large number of spurious misinterpretations of Adorno’s famous dictum about ‘poetry after Auschwitz’, one is grateful to Cohen for having followed a different path into the Adornian aesthetic project.[2] Entirely circumventing Adorno’s Marxist roots, Cohen focuses instead on a certain Judaic idiom pervading the philosopher’s discussion of aesthetics, the prohibition of images in particular. Within the parameters proposed by Cohen, Adorno’s entire project of negative dialectics can be reinterpreted as radical abstinence from pronouncing the divine name, that is, preserving the truth of religion by refusing any religious claim or experience; only by resisting any determinate expression of the Absolute can its ungraspability to finite experience, its irreducible difference, be revealed. Adorno’s aesthetics is thus marked by a fidelity to the (non)logic of contradiction. Post-Auschwitz thought must remain dedicated to the task of voicing the irresolvable contradiction, as a form of resistance to the modern, totalizing logic of identity, while at the same time acknowledging its own inexcusable implication in the violence of that logic. The demand that Auschwitz imposes on contemporary thought is, indeed, contradictory: ‘at once to think the Absolute and to respect the “image ban on it”. Or, better, to achieve the former through the agency of the latter’ (Cohen, 2003: 43).

For Adorno, and apparently for Cohen as well, Paul Celan’s poems are an exemplar of hermetic, iconoclastic art that shuns aesthetic rupture and instead expresses ‘the shame of art in the face of suffering that escapes both experience and sublimation’ (Cohen, 2003: 66). Only through such negative expression of the absent truth content can ‘the space of the unspoken’ be unlocked (68). Celan’s poetry of ‘counter-words’, unburdened of meaning and rooted in ‘the grave in the breezes’ (Celan, 1988: 61)[3] reveals the true horror of the conjunction between writing and the silence of death. In Adorno’s later writings, a recurrent example of art that strikes against itself, refusing understanding and representation, are the plays of Samuel Beckett, Endgame in particular. Celan’s poetry and Beckett’s theatre of the absurd exemplify, in Cohen’s reading, Adorno’s conception of post-Auschwitz aesthetics as bespeaking ‘the blocked religious content after Auschwitz’ (69).

While Cohen’s insistence on the irreducibility of the Absolute to concepts brings out the Kantian dimension of Adorno’s argument, it is balanced with a simultaneous emphasis on the Hegelian critique of Kant, which points out the need for incessant self-reflection. Such self-reflection is imperative for Adorno in order not to lose from sight thought’s own complicity in the violence of identitarian politics. Because of this double thrust of Adorno’s critique, Cohen objects to a one-sided Kantianism supposedly voiced by Jean-François Lyotard. While Cohen’s Adornian objections to Lyotard are sound, as is his criticism of an unacknowledged proscriptive impulse in Lyotard’s call to respect the heterogeneity of the genres of discourse, he is too hasty in dismissing Lyotard’s own important project of ‘phrasing after Auschwitz’.[4] Lyotard’s injunction to thought that it search for a way of expressing the silence of the total destruction thus amounts, for Cohen, to merely ‘a describable practice’ (Cohen, 2003: 48). Perhaps it is this wholesale dismissal of Lyotard that in the end also disallows Cohen to engage with the problematic of the sublime (of which Lyotard, as we know, has been the main ‘postmodern’ proponent), even if Cohen’s own language resounds with the idiom of sublimity. It seems that Cohen purposely avoids that idiom (other than in quoting Hegel’s references to the sublime Jewish God), which is striking if we consider that ‘the ban on images’ in the name of which he makes his argument is named by Kant in Critique of Judgement as the most sublime sentence (Kant, 1951: 115). Further, Cohen sidesteps, even if perhaps necessarily so, the important critiques of mimesis and of the paradigm of representation initiated by Heidegger and continued by, for instance, Jacques Derrida and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Thus, although he promises a ‘rethinking [of] the aesthetic'[5] alongside Adorno’s understanding of mimesis as ‘the semblance of the impossible’ (56), whereby art rids itself of any likeness to object, he is led to repeat both Adorno’s and Levinas’ either negative valuation or silence on the place of visual arts in post-Auschwitz aesthetics; for Cohen, only poetry is the privileged artistic object ‘after-Auschwitz’. Siding with Adorno’s scorn, in Aesthetic Theory (1997), at ‘a photograph of the disaster’ (Cohen, 2004: 64), he constructs an ‘either/ or’ model of post-Auschwitz aesthetics: art that ‘assimilates the horror by subsuming it under representation’ versus ‘art that turns against itself, against the very concept of art’ (64). While this is consistent with Cohen’s overall argument, his model disallows an engagement with a huge variety of post-Holocaust visual arts and cinematography, whose frequently self-proclaimed main preoccupation – from Christian Boltanski to Bracha Lichtenberg-Ettinger, to Claude Lanzmann — is the investigation and deconstruction of the representational paradigm vis à vis Auschwitz in the visual medium itself.

If, for Adorno, art undertakes the difficult task of reconstructing thought after Auschwitz, for Levinas, as Cohen argues in the chapter “‘Absolute Insomnia”: Interrupting Religion, or Levinas’, it is religion through which one is obligated to respond to Auschwitz. As he observes, religion in Levinas is indistinguishable from the ethical structure of irrecusable responsibility for the Other, who remains radically absent, ab-solving itself from ‘the relation in which it presents itself’ (quoted in Cohen, 2003: 72). If Adorno’s writings are haunted by the pervasive absence of religious content, Levinas’s ethics, conversely, is infused with an undercurrent of ambiguous reflection on art, from his early, vituperative renunciation of aesthetics in ‘Reality and Its Shadow’ (1948) to his much more nuanced interpretations of literary works by Blanchot, Leiris, Celan, Jabès and others in Proper Names (1976) and elsewhere. As Cohen aptly notices, the very terms that Levinas employs in his early essays to condemn art, such as passivity, obscurity, and impotence, will be used in his later writings, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (1974) in particular, to describe ethical subjectivity. This marks a discernible shift in the philosopher’s work, toward abandoning the juxtaposition of ethical clarity and aesthetic obscurity that he posited earlier. Cohen concurs with Jill Robbins that ‘when Levinas speaks positively about art, it always has the relation to the Holocaust’ (quoted in Cohen, 2003: 80);6 thus it is Levinas’ more direct confrontation with Auschwitz that accounts for this shift (even if the need to respond to the horrors of Nazism has always been the unspoken imperative in all of his writings).[7] In his later texts, Levinas adopts the psychoanalytic language of trauma to describe the ethical relation; at the same time, he argues that, after the Holocaust, art has lost its claim to aesthetic autonomy, passing into the vulnerability of responsibility in a heteronomous relation with the Other (80). Responsibility is thus no longer opposed to art but describes the very essence of art.

An example par excellence for Levinas of the artwork that preserves the trace of the other as ‘pure signification’ by abstaining from positive content are the writings of his lifelong friend Maurice Blanchot. What Blanchot calls ‘writing’ is a movement of language’s unremitting withdrawal from communication, its absolute passivity through which it escapes intentionality. The convergence of Levinas’ ethics and Blanchot’s writing occurs at the point of self’s dispossession, where both the ethical and the writerly seek their own non-fulfillment (Cohen, 2003:106). The significance of the dialogue between Blanchot and Levinas lies also in the fact that Blanchot’s poetic reflection provides an important corrective to Levinas’ insufficient attention to language: despite his own distrust of language’s ‘plasticity’ that draws the Other into a theme, his writings, earlier texts in particular, rely on traditional philosophical vocabulary and are marred by logocentrism (the face of the other is disclosed in the immediacy of speech).

Just like the divine voice can trace itself only through the detour of human exegesis (Cohen, 2003: 98), the other can only be revealed in the form of its erasure from the plastic surface of language. Levinas thus underscores not merely the Said’s (language as communication) inadequacy to express Saying (the ethical content of language) but also its ethical necessity, that is, its being the condition of my response to the Other (2003: 99). To be in language is to continuously undergo (subir) this dichotomy and thus experience the suffering in the exposure to the other, without the possibility of dialectical reconciliation or overcoming. Thus a redemptive passage into the Absolute is blocked. According to Cohen, this aporetic tension, this ‘indistinction’ or proximity between the goodness of the divine Other and the evil of suffering prevents Levinas’ ethics from being assimilated into theodicy.

Levinas’ religious project is to wrest God from positive religion; religion is what puts meaning into question. My relation to God is bearing witness, that is, pure receptivity prior to any contract or ascription of meaning. Since God is always withdrawing from presence, I can only approach him in turning away from him and thus directing myself toward another human being. Levinas attempts to forge a religious language that resists conceptualization or contamination by positive content. Recalcitrant to any eschatological finality, this language is forged in untiring watchfulness, restlessness, vigilant insomnia. In that sense, the philosopher follows the tradition of rabbinical commentary which ‘upholds the inviolable exteriority of transcendence’ (Cohen, 2003: 94) and maintains absolute difference between the self and the Other.

For Levinas, the goodness of transcendence and the evil of suffering converge in the vulnerability of the body; the self’s restless assignation to the other (substitution) is the body’s exposure to pain. In the ethical relation, language itself is traumatized and marked by suffering which is ‘neither ennobling nor redemptive because the Good does not justify it’ (Cohen, 2003: 87). In “Useless Suffering’, from the volume Difficult Freedom (1995), Levinas names Auschwitz directly as the paradigm of useless suffering; it is useless in the sense of having no meaning, and it signifies only in this meaninglessness, as madness in the very core of meaning (Cohen, 2003: 88).

Chapter “‘To Preserve the Question”: Interrupting the Book or Jabès’ is an extended commentary on Jabès statement, in The Book of Margins (1984), that ‘[y]ou cannot tell Auschwitz. Every word tells it to us’ (quoted in Cohen, 2003: 108). The convergence of art and religion in Jabès’ texts is what prohibits that Auschwitz be told in the form of a narrative while simultaneously demanding that it continue to be written. As the paradox of the impossibility and necessity of testimony, Auschwitz marks the crisis of speech as well as of the human subject. Jabès engages with both traditions, Judaism and writing, by drawing out what in both of them is most resistant to comprehension or resolution; both convey the same passion of the impossible, the ‘same torments of the ancient word’ (quoted in Cohen, 2003: 109), which, however, does not cancel their differences as distinct modalities of thought.

Jabès’ proximity to Celan is remarkable since for both the interruption of art occurs from within ‘the abyssal silence’ (Cohen, 2003: 112), and after Auschwitz, ‘the silence of the dead as the abyssal condition of language’ (108). Jabès asks, in La Mémoire des Mots (1990): ‘Would the language of silence be that of the refusal of language or on the contrary, that of the memory of the first word?’ (quoted in Cohen, 2003: 113). Similarly to Mallarmé, his poetic predecessor, Jabès is consumed with the impossibility of pronouncing the first word, of expressing language qua language. It is Auschwitz, however, that exposes the violence and the inevitability of this dilemma. Auschwitz is radically untranslatable into words, and it ‘can only be told in the paradoxical manner of the erasure of its content’ (2003: 113).

Jabès also draws on Mallarmé’s figure of the book, or rather the unrealizable ideal of the Book, its necessary non-fulfillment. For Mallarmé every book is born from the desire to be consummated in the ultimate Book. Jabès radicalizes this poetics, however, purging it from any residues of teleology: Mallarmé’s ‘explosion of the book’ now means that any book can only write itself through its own destruction. The Book that always erases itself and that can only write itself ‘in the guise of the texts that repeat it’ (Cohen, 2003: 22) is the ruin of Hegelian certainty which insists on the reconciliation of disparate elements. The Book, as Jabès writes in The Book of Questions (1991), is a link ‘with exile, with death, that is, the link with Word’ (quoted in Cohen, 2003: 117): the Word that has always already dispossessed the Jew, who, to quote from Jacques Derrida’s essay on Jabès, is the autochthon ‘only of speech and writing, of Law’ (Derrida, 1969: 66).

This is also why Jabès privileges the disordering modality of the question over the positivity of the narrative. The question maintained as a question, the very question mark prior to quiddity, is the condition of writing. Hence Jabès’ fascination with the blank page which founds writing; white spaces that make ‘nothing’ visible, signify the impossibility of truth’s presentation (2003: 122). Jabès’ writings expose the implication of the logic of representation in the Nazi terror. While Jews attest to the groundlessness of resemblance, epitomized in the ban on images, the Nazi grotesque paradigm encloses the Jewish body in the regime of visibility (2003: 131), leading to its annihilation.

Is writing inevitably violent, even murderous, and is it even more so after Aushwitz? Does religion, therefore, or writing that resists figuration and which Cohen construes as religion, mitigate writing’s murderous propensity?

As for Levinas, for Jabès, every attempt to approach the absolute takes the form of a detour toward the absolutely other who is yet to come. In that sense, Jabès’ text maintains itself in the proleptic modality of à venir. Since it would only be annulled by its realization, it can only extend itself into the unattainable, unforseeable future. It is, however, this constitutive unknowability that always exposes thought to risk and renders it vulnerable, that assures the Absolute’s exteriority to the order of knowledge.

Toward the end of Interrupting Auschwitz, Cohen brings out the ethico-political implications of his project: it is in Adorno’s paradoxical injunction of the ‘necessity and impossibility of redemption’ (one can add that it was anticipated already by Walter Benjamin in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’) that he detects the possibility of post-Auschwitz politics, reclaimed from the totalitarian logic of the nation state. He also takes up the question (frequently expounded by Derrida in his later writings) of the relation between ethics and justice, that is, between the singular responsibility to absolute alterity and the realm of all ‘other others’, or the third. Cohen concurs with Derrida that Levinas’ ‘the third’, the realm of co-existence in the visible sphere of the political order, always haunts the ethical relation rather than being antecedent to it. Justice, which Levinas defines in Totality and Infinity (1964) as ‘the right to speak’, even if it remains irreconcilable with the order of the ethical, is necessary; without it, the ethical would dwindle into the solitude of the two. In his writings on Zionism in Difficult Freedom, Levinas points out the contradiction inherent in the name ‘the State of Israel’: the state is a finality, a violent totality, while Israel is a possibility of truth beyond the state, separated from any concrete determination of land, race, or history, and always interrupting the State’s totalitarian logic. The State, animated by the goal of attaining a political good, is always the temptation to forget the other; ethics, on the other hand, is the patience ofwaiting for the Good (Cohen, 2003: 105). One can extrapolate that, just as religion is the essence of art after Auschwitz, it is also what should guide post-Auschwitz political thought. It ensures vigilance and insists on a political structure which is conditioned by what is irreducible to the political (102). Not unlike Rozenzweig’s former reflection on Jewish participation in history in Star of Redemption, it allows to construe a model of participation in history that resists the totalizing terms of participation.

What Jews have in common is the sharing of the Nothing, of the radical withdrawal of the Absolute. As the community of the dispossessed, they are dedicated to maintaining the Nothing which Nazism – the regime of representation – sought to annihilate. Cohen argues that the Jewish belonging, which tolerates no determinate belonging, is the ruin of any communal identity, thus allowing us to imagine non-totalitarian modes of being together. In reference to the global realities of ‘post-9/11’, it is even more urgent to think the space of the political liberated from the grasp of identity.[8]

Why insist on the Absolute, why not abandon thought to radical dispersion? It seems that for Cohen, maintaining the Absolute while radically interrupting it is absolutely necessary because it is the condition of preserving Judaism (and therefore the Jewish existence) after Auschwitz.

In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot announces that ‘[t]he disaster is the improperness of its name and the disappearance of the proper name’ (Blanchot, 1980: 40). Cohen’s reflection oscillates on the trajectory between two unpronounceable names: the extraordinary name of the Jewish God, which signifies, first and foremost, resistance to naming, and the horrifying name ‘Auschwitz’. If Jews are the people obligated to God as the name of the impossible, of the ‘disjunction between the possible and its other’ (Cohen, 2003: 126), they are also pledged to the name ‘Auschwitz’; thus the ‘indistinction’ and yet infinite irreconcilability of good and evil is inscribed in this formidable coupling of the unpronounceable names.

Cohen recalls that, for Robert Antelme, the death camp’s inmate experienced the sense of belonging to the human race only in the closest proximity to the evil of annihilation, and this is why it is from that limit of what it means to be human that we must begin to rethink the human. Is then ‘the human’ the third unpronounceable name that emerges in the end of Cohen’s book, the name that has been interrupted by its own limit that it encountered in Auschwitz in the figure of ‘bare life’ (Agamben’s homo sacer)? Cohen adds that, just as the possibility of the Absolute lies in its unceasing interruption, so is the unity of the human race, the human absolute that we strive for, always already interrupted by the necessity to maintain the singularity and alterity of each human.

Unlike Agamben, however, who gives ample space to the voices of survivors of death camps in Remnants of Auschwitz, Cohen evokes the reality of the horror very sparingly, and when he does, it is mostly in reference to Robert Antelme’s L’Espèce humaine (1947). Perhaps, for Cohen, Agamben’s citation of the impossible words ‘I was the Muselmann‘ amounts to the infusion of writing about Auschwitz with the prohibited positive content.[9] While this is thoroughly consistent with the ban on the images of suffering advocated by all the three thinkers he discusses, there is a danger that a pious reader, especially if she also happens to be a Holocaust scholar, might mistake the intention of his project and see his evocation of Auschwitz as a mere pretext for a rewriting of philosophers, verging on the violation of the Second Commandment of the post-Auschwitz Decalogue — the prohibition of calling Auschwitz’ name in vain.

A careful reading of Cohen’s book, however, reveals the depth and seriousness of his commitment. Contemporary Polish writer Piotr Matywiecki once said, ‘The duty of thought stems from the following: the men who were murdered were thinking beings. The rest is only a symptom of shame because we have failed to accomplish this duty’.[10] Cohen’s study is an original and passionate example of the intellectual’s struggle with the legacy of that shame.


1 Cohen’s discussion of Jena Romatics is indebted to Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s influential study The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism. New York: SUNY Press, 1988.

2 In one of the sections of the chapter on Adorno, entitled ‘Art after Beckett’, Cohen makes a passing reference to that quote, but he helpfully reinterprets it as to mean that poetry after Auschwitz must recognize ‘the inescapable barbarism of its continuous existence’ (2003: 64).

3 The reference to ‘Todesfuge’ is mine; Cohen does not cite this perhaps too well known poem.

4 ‘Art Against Itself: Rethinking the Aesthetic’ is one of the subtitles in the Adorno chapter.

5 See Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Discussions or Phrasing After Auschwitz’, The Lyotard Reader, ed. Andrew Benjamin. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992a. 360-92.

6 See Jill Robbins, Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

7 As Cohen points out, Levinas’ ‘Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism’ (1934) was one of the first philosophical attempts to refute Nazi totalitarianism; after the war, however, Levinas prefers to remain reticent.

8 Cohen’s analysis is very close to Jean-Luc Nancy’s conception of ‘inoperative community’ (in The Inoperative Community, 1990), and the model of communal co-existence which he evokes is reminiscent of Nancy’s ‘being singular-plural’ (in Being Singular Plural, 1996), although Nancy derives his analysis from Heidegger’s Mitsein rather than from Judaism. Cohen acknowledges the proximity of his own thinking with Nancy’s on page 144.

In Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Giorgio Agamben includes an appendix containing excerpts from diaries of concentration camps inmates, who testify to having been Muselmänner.

10 In Piotr Matywiecki, ‘Wstyd,’ in Kamien graniczny (Warsaw: Latona, 1994), 28.


Arendt, H. (1997) ‘Approaches to the German Problem’. Essays in Understanding: 1930-1954. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Agamben, G. (2002) Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Trans. D. Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books.

Blanchot, M. (1986) The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Celan, P. (1988) Poems. Trans. Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea Books.

Cohen, J. (2003) Interrupting Auschwitz: Art, Religion, Philosophy. New York and London: Continuum.

Derrida, J. (1978) ‘Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book’. Writing and Difference. Trans. A. Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fackenheim, E. (1987) ‘The 614th Commandment’. The Jewish Thought of Emil Fackenheim. Ed. M. J. Morgan. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Kant, I. (1951) Critique of Judgement. Trans. J. H. Bernard. New York: Hafner Press.

Dorota Glowacka teaches critical theory and Holocaust studies at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Canada. She is co-editor of Between Ethics and Aesthetics: Crossing the Boundaries (SUNY, 2002) and author of many articles on Holocaust literature and art, continental theory, and Polish, French, and American contemporary literature.