Saturday, January 08, 2005


To evoke the Final Solution is to call forth at once a reflex of aversion and, I fear, inattentiveness. We know the Nazis were evil. Nough said, it seems.

But somehow the banality of that evil is never banal for me. That is, I'm always pulled into articles and programs (like this one in today's NYTimes, reviewing a new exhibit on Nazi science at the Holocaust Memorial Museum) that take up the question of how it could have happened. Yes, the banality of evil. But, how? How? What keeps people from noticing that, hey, we're killing innocent people here?

As an academic, one thing that chills me and keeps me on my toes is the fact that the Nazi scientists were simply working out of a popular and well accepted paradigm. Eugenics, racial hygiene, was all the rage. (In fact, I wonder if Alfred Kinsey's sex research was the heir of the eugenics department at Indiana University? Oh yes, Indiana was a state very obsessed with good racial hygiene.) So doing eugenics research wouldn't have seemed the least bit odd: indeed, it would have seemed quite banal, no doubt.

In today's article, though, one thing that really got me was the photograph of blind German children being taught to recognize racial distinctions by touch: they are shown handling plaster busts with exaggerated facial features (this is more clear in the print version of the article, where one child can be seen holding a very racialized black head). The photo is a kind of inverse version of the one on the cover of Eve Sedgwick's Touching Feeling, in which a textile artist (a woman who would probably have been judged racially inferior by eugenicists) embraces and folds her body into her artwork. In the Nazi photo, the girls touch the heads tentatively: one girl's body posture is much like the artist's, bent toward what she touches, but the touch isn't an embrace but a light, investigative fingering.

The way one approaches the world--to embrace or to investigate. To move beyond the banal or to stay unmoved, taking it in. And to be offered the banal as something good for you: education. Charity.

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