Book Review: Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thoughtlessness by Valerie Hartouni

Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thoughtlessness
New York: New York University Press, 2012
BY Valerie Hartouni

Reviewed by LIA DEROMEDI, Royal Holloway, University of London

Visualizing Atrocity dissects the myths that structured the public’s understanding of the Nazi genocide and totalitarianism. Examining how we define or judge acts of genocide and their perpetrators, Hartouni identifies a ‘visual rhetoric’ in the moral and political spheres that contributes to contemporary genocide mythmaking: a rhetoric which, she argues, is disrupted by Arendt’s portrayal of evil as “banal.” One of Hartouni’s primary focuses is the image of atrocity, such as those captured by the Allied armies liberating concentration camps. These carefully selected and mass-produced images used in the trials reinforced the popular assertion “that the Holocaust is at the limit of knowledge and feeling” (13). These images helped to determine judicial verdicts and criminal definitions as well as to shape public images of the perpetrators. By contrast with this rhetoric of responsibility for atrocity, Hartouni characterises Arendt’s view of Eichmann’s banality as concerned with his inability to think from another’s point of view, which Arendt differentiates from ‘empathy’.

Hartouni’s first chapter familiarises the reader with Arendt and Eichmann, examining his trial in Jerusalem, and in particular how Arendt developed the view of ‘the banality of evil’, and highlighting how this continues to inspire debate. Using sources from the prosecution, journalists, and scholars, and information about the defendant, Hartouni traces the evolution of Arendt’s perception of Eichmann, a perception that was contrary to that which was shaped for the public via printed media and television. Arendt’s conclusions took the focus away from anti-Semitism and brought it to the extermination itself, seeing it as more important than any specific justificatory ideologies. According to Hartouni, Arendt’s view of Eichmann as both banal and thoughtless seemed to deflect responsibility and detract from the public’s craving for a monster to blame. In seeking to fulfil the public’s desire for a specific kind of evil, Hartouni identifies the trial’s main deficiency: according to Arendt, political motivations and pressures caused it to miss an important opportunity to define a “special type of criminal” who had no harmful intent or sadistic motives yet still caused unprecedented damage.

Chapter II looks more closely at the Nazi genocide for which Eichmann symbolically stood trial. Hartouni identifies a relationship between the increasing academic interest in the period and the graphic images disseminated in popular culture, often as a substitute for historical understanding. She echoes the familiar dictum that images can speak volumes, standing in the speechless responses or for the voiceless dead. In fact, both the sites and their images were put on forcible display to the world; Hartouni gives an example of this exposition with photographs of German civilians compelled to view exhumed mass graves. These images were used to support the prosecution’s assertion of Eichmann’s evil as monstrous, where Arendt would see the root of Eichmann’s evil as thoughtless. Hartouni highlights Arendt’s consideration that Eichmann’s thoughtlessness is the key to defining his criminality, and is far more alarming and significant.

Hartouni’s third chapter concentrates on Arendt’s image of Eichmann’s thoughtlessness to address the how question in genocide and familiar issues of individual responsibility and judgment. Hartouni brings up several misreadings of Arendt to suggest that, instead of disregarding them we should ask how they contribute to contemporary inquiries. What is needed is a new approach to understanding atrocity commensurate with Arendt’s image of this new criminal. Arendt attention to Eichmann’s inability at the trial to speak in anything other than stock phrases or clichés grounded Arendt’s position that it was an intellectual failing on Eichmann’s part to engage in a “thinking dialogue,” where other critics would see an emotional one (apathy). Hartouni considers the documentary by Sivan and Brauman, The Specialist (1999), which arranges footage of Eichmann’s trial in order to ally itself with Arendt’s image of him. Hartouni claims that, as a composition, the film unintentionally reproduces the issue it intends to counter—using images to create an image of Eichmann suited to the public’s desire for the right kind of criminal to blame.  Hartouni ties this to the prosecution’s use at Eichmann’s trial of the documentary footage created for Nuremberg. The display and composition of these images underscored Eichmann’s apparently apathetic response to viewing them, thus reinforcing the constructed image of him as monstrous.

Chapter IV departs narratively from Arendt to the Nuremberg war crimes trials whose influence was evident at Eichmann’s, particularly in the recycled documentaries. Hartouni points to Nuremberg’s images as being used to sway political and judicial opinion, which established a system of truth about images, remembrance, and understanding. Hartouni describes the documentary footage shown early on at the Nuremberg trials, which came from three sources each serving their own agendas: the first depicted the US Army liberating camps, images that have come to symbolise death and brutality on a massive scale; the second American film was a selection from Nazi propaganda reels intended to supply the origins of the ideologies that resulted in those grim images of the camps; and lastly, the politicised Soviet documentary that focused solely on Nazi abuses in Eastern territories. Though originally compiled for the courtroom, the images were also widely available to the public and in the years since have helped to shape our ideas of what genocide ‘looks like’. By utilising these images as a form of testimony, Hartouni identifies a ‘performance of law’. She also emphasises the construction of the courtroom, positioning the screen in place of where the judge’s bench is traditionally, thus predetermining the importance of these films for the trial. Tellingly, Hartouni includes a number of images to reinforce her own argument.

Hartouni finishes her examination by tying Arendt’s characterisation of evil as banal to current conceptions of genocide. Hartouni theorizes that a visual rhetoric has developed which shapes judicial, moral, and public understanding of genocide, its perpetrators, and victims; Arendt’s image of evil as both banal and thoughtless frustrates the image this rhetoric seeks to portray. Visualizing Atrocity makes insightful connections between Arendt and the thoughtless criminal, questions posed by the post-war trials and their struggles to define criminals and their crimes, and the ways in which images shape our views, particularly on genocide. By relating the visual to the criminal and political issues of the Nazi genocide, Eichmann, and Arendt, Hartouni poses critical questions on justice and morality that resonant in other genocides and in our time.

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