Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin

Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin
Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic," Berlin

Saturday, April 25, 2015

4/25 On Pain

In the last part of this class we will be dealing with writers who attempt to bridge the gap between culture and politics, each of whom have their own take on nihilism. In the first part of the class we looked at the history of the idea of nihilism, not only as an abstract concept, but in how it manifested at a specific point in time–Weimar Germany–and expressed through various cultural forms: painting, literature, photography, film, music, dance, architecture being the most emphasized. In the second part of the class we looked at the political and historical context in which this took shape, and the difficulties of building and stabilizing the political system. Now, we will be looking at two authors writing in the post-Nazi era, after 1933, one ultra-conservative (but maybe not quite a Nazi) and one rather unorthodox communist. Both of whom, like I said at the beginning, draw upon the cultural and political forces we have been looking at in an attempt to synthesize the two together–and both offer a possible solution to the problem of nihilism in modern society.

Ernst Jünger’s essay, “On Pain” was written in 1934 the second year of Hitler’s dictatorship after taking power in 1933.  Jünger (1895-1998) was a conservative–conservatives helped bring the Nazis to power–but soon regretted the Nazi seizure of power. After the war he became one of the most influential voices in German literature. Many other prominent Germans despite their sympathy or support for Nazism retained influential positions in society even after the war. This essay offers a way to interpret the authoritarian worldview the Nazis shared. Four elements in particular are important to consider: 1) The significance of pain as a human experience; 2) The relationship of pain to so-called "traditional metaphysics" which supports liberal political values; 3) The growth of a totalitarian state as the only way to deal with "pain"; 4) The importance of technology and bureaucratic organization in changing our perception of pain. 

The basic premise of the essay is that pain is the central experience in human life and that most if not all human behavior–at the level of the individual and at society–is organized in relation to how it deals with pain. This viewpoint does not differ significantly from the Freudian view of instinct theory, and remember that Freud himself was a conservative (often identified as a Hobbesian) who favored a strong state to preserve civilization. Jünger preaches submission to the totalitarian tendencies of the age, the mass organization of people into collective forms ready at anytime to sacrifice themselves to preserve the higher order. Only with this kind of submission can the state function freely to protect the people from "pain." The strongest states are those that can endure the most pain. This idea seemed attractive to a German populace that had undergone a lot of pain in the last 20 years. His essay analyzes the creation of what he refers to  as the "worker type" and "specialization" within the education system in relation to the pain and the organization of the state, as well as the impact of technology its "penetration" into human life–all defining aspects of the Nazi regime. 

Although he anticipates what would later be called totalitarianism the term itself was not coined until the 1950s in the book by the political theorist and German émigré Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published 1951. The major defining aspect of a totalitarian government, Arendt says, what separates it not only from democratic governments but even other so-called dictatorships, is the mass mobilization component. In other words unlike other forms of dictatorship which usually try to pacify or suppress the masses or depoliticize them, a totalitarian government, in almost all cases led by some kind of authoritarian political party actively works to co-opt and involve the public in political and social projects. Of course this is done in the most rigid, hierarchical, top-down fashion and the people have little choice but to obey. This form of power is constituted through the strict control of almost all institutions in society, including political parties and the media (ideology is central), but including trade and labor organizations, and even social and leisure activities. Jünger believes that this form of control is desirable, and is made possible through the power of technology that makes it possible to organize much more complex social systems.

Jünger also endorses the historical theory stating that liberalism basically died during the World War I and we have now entered a "post-liberal" phase in history. He is not the first to state this argument. Nietzsche–who is a strong influence on his and everyone's thinking–made similar arguments in the 1880s when he said things like "God is dead" and proclaimed the coming of the "superman" (übermensch). Liberalism and protestant values have always been closely associated with each other, from Weber's Protestant work ethic, to the promotion of liberal government and markets by the Protestant Anglo-American powers. Totalitarianism is then modern and advanced whereas the old liberal democracies are old-fashioned and outdated, and ill-suited for dealing with pain in modern life. Totalitarianism is a consequence of nihilism, and the only solution for the individual is to deindividualize themselves, submit to the process and become integrated within the technologically fused social-political-economic structure that has now replaced the traditional distinctions of different fields of activity supported by the liberal belief in the separation of public and private interests.

Order and Progress
Liberalism as a political system and ideology still exist. This sense of continuity with the past is related to the idea of progress. Progress is the foundation of liberalism. Up until World War I, liberal governments in the United States, parts of Europe and parts of Latin America that had established liberal governments had believed rather uncritically that as technical and material development increased that social problems would become more manageable; that social conflicts between classes would be lessened; and that countries would resolve international conflicts peacefully (this latter view is summarized in the German philosopher Immanuel Kant's 1795 essay "Perpetual Peace"). The foundation of this belief is usually traced back to Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who made the famous proclamation, to paraphrase slightly: "if we learn to obey nature, we can control nature." In other words by discovering the laws of nature through the scientific method we can learn to adapt ourselves better to nature which will also give us some limited control over nature as well. Progress can be measured by how we have learned to obey/control nature. In a certain sense, Jünger does subscribe to this theory as well, although he claims to differ, since he has not really abandoned the idea of conquest over nature. Totalitarian government uses every means of science and technology available in order to better tighten control, and since this control is used to control pain, Jünger does implicitly at least, argue that the totalitarian state does represent a stage of progress past the older liberal-democracies.

Since World War II, liberals cannot hold on to their old ideas of progress anymore at least not without significant denial and indifference. Contemporary liberals have a much more cautious, reserved idea of progress now which revolves around the idea of "interest groups" and "pluralism." Where 18th and 19th century liberals would speak of perpetual peace and "universal brotherhood" (but how brotherly can it be when it is spread so far to people unknown?) liberals now define progress only in terms of material well-being and even then reduce that to a series of empirical "indices" or an index like income level, education level, life expectancy, etc. The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) uses those same variables (income, education, life expectancy) as its measurements in determining the quality of life throughout the world. http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/

Jünger's critique of liberalism is that it basically denies or conceals the relationship to pain. The existence of pain contradicts the dominant values of liberal society which holds out the myth that good will always triumph over evil. He also contrasts this with artistic depictions of pain, noting how modern and ahead of their time these painters were:

Pain’s disregard for our system of values greatly increases its hold on life...Our children’s tales close with passages about heroes who, after having overcome many dangers, live out their lives in peace and happiness. We hear such assurances with pleasure, for it is comforting for us to learn about a place removed from pain. Yet, in truth, life is without any such satisfying end... (p. 4).
Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights: Hell, 1504
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, 1562

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Copy of The Last Judgement by Hieronymous Bosch, 1520

If there is any doubt about this, the experience of the war will confirm the cruel indifferent equality of life:

In war, when shells fly past our bodies at high speeds, we sense clearly that no level of intelligence, virtue, or fortitude is strong enough to deflect them, not even by a hair. To the extent this threat increases, doubt concerning the validity of our values forces itself upon us. The mind tends toward a catastrophic interpretation of things wherever it sees everything called into question (pp. 5-6).

Jünger acknowledges the real gains and benefits made during the liberal era, while suggesting that these advancements have had a weakening effect on people at the same time as it breeds complaceny:

In this situation, the biased belief that reason can conquer pain loses its allure. This belief is not only a characteristic feature of forces allied with the Enlightenment, but it has also produced a long series of practical measures typical for the human spirit of the past century, such as–to name just a few–the abolition of torture and the slave trade, the discovery of electricity, vaccination against measles, narcosis, the system of insurance, and a whole world of technical and political conveniences...Our recognition of these achievements already lacks the noteworthy cult-like characteristic still familiar to us from our fathers. Born in full enjoyment of all these blessings now taken for granted, it seems to us as if in truth rather little has changed (p. 10).
Or that liberalism has produced material benefits on a scale not seen before in history. These are the tangible symbols of progress and they help create the impression that liberal values define the world:

The breadth  of people partaking of goods and pleasures is a sign of prosperity. Perhaps most symbolic are the grand cafes, in the halls of which one is fond of replicating the styles of the Rococo, Empire, and Biedermeier. They can be called the true palaces of democracy. Here one senses the dream-like, painless, and oddly agitated ease that fills the air like a narcotic. On the streets it is striking how the masses are dressed in such undeniably poor taste, yet in a uniform and “respectable” fashion. Bare and blatant poverty is rarely seen. The individual is greeted by a wealth of conveniences, such as the path paved for education and a career choice of preference, the free market of labor, the contractual character of almost all social ties and the unrestricted freedom of movement. The potential for conflict is thereby greatly reduced (pp. 12-13).
However, appealing liberalism may be, Jünger insists that pain is still always just beneath the surface, even if it expresses itself in the restlessness of boredom:

As a rule one will not have to go far to uncover the pain. Indeed, even the individual is not fully free from pain in this joyful state of security. The artificial check on the elementary forces might be able to prevent violent clashes and to ward off shadows, but it cannot stop the dispersed light with which pain permeates life. The vessel, sealed off from pain’s full flow, is filled drop by drop. Boredom is nothing other than the dissolution of pain in time (p. 13).
Jünger’s intent then is to argue for a means to control pain. He says this comes through detachment. In a strange way, Siddhartha practiced a similar detachment from the world. Notice the reference in the passage, to the “priestly-ascetic kind.” Weber speaks of detachment as an essential quality of a political leader. However in Nazi Germany, the destruction of individuality also creates a sense of detachment. Jünger refers to this elsewhere as "objectification" or turning the individuals in society and society itself into objects that are manipulated by the state. The term objectification originally referred to the process of externalizing ideas through labor, or making something concrete and real. In Jünger's case, the "liquidation" of the individual might be more appropriate, in other words to dissolve the inner life of the individual, including all resistance to power, into nothingness. This is accomplished by separating the connection between body and mind, the body is simply an object to be manipulated, the mind is just a reflection of the stimuli applied to the body. Jünger will make several references to attacking "zones of sensitivity," including the body, as if sensitivity itself or being a sensitive person is a vice. In the logic of totalitarianism, the liquidation of the individual is necessary to protect the individual from pain:

This detachment emerges wherever man is able to treat the space through which he experiences pain, i.e., the body, as an object. Of course, this presupposes a command center, which regards the body as a distant outpost that can be deployed and sacrificed in battle. 
Henceforth, all measures are designed to master pain, not to avoid it. The heroic and cultic world presents an entirely different relation to pain than does the world of sensitivity. While in the latter, as we saw, it is a matter of marginalizing pain and sheltering life from it, in the former the point is to integrate pain and organize life in such a way that one is always armed against it...Indeed, discipline means nothing other than this, whether it is of the priestly-ascetic kind directed toward abnegation or of the warlike-heroic kind directed toward hardening oneself like steel. In both cases, it is a matter of maintaining complete control over life, so that at any hour of the day it can serve a higher calling. The central question concerning the rank of present values can be answered by determining to what extent the body can be treated as an object (pp. 16-17).

Once the body has been objectified it can better assimilate itself to technological organization. Unlike liberals who originally saw scientific progress as an unmixed blessing, the application of science and technology to warfare has instead contributed to "dehumanization" (another term for objectification) as this chillingly prophetic passage shows:

Recently, a story circulated in the newspapers about a new torpedo that the Japanese navy is apparently developing. This weapon has an astounding feature. It is no longer guided mechanically but by a human device--to be precise, by a human being at the helm, who is locked into a tiny compartment and regarded as a technical component of the torpedo as well as its actual intelligence.... 
If one enlarges upon this thought, one soon realizes that it is no longer considered a curiosity once achieved on a larger social scale, i.e., when one disposes over a breed of resolute men obedient to authority. Manned planes can then be constructed as airborne missiles, which from great heights can dive down to strike with lethal accuracy the nerve centers of enemy resistance. The result is a breed of men that can be sent off to war as cannon fodder (p. 18 italics added).

Besides the rapid introduction of technology into all areas of human life and its penetration into humanity another aspect of the post-liberal world is the transformation of liberal education into  specialized education. Specialization is the process by which the individual converts themselves from the old humanist idea of the individual (the liberal arts) into a productive function, disciplined into performing a certain action, whether it be skilled or unskilled. Jünger also argues against "free inquiry" and provides the usual authoritarian argument for why information should be controlled–so as not to undermine the war effort (Germany was not at war in 1934, however, in a totalitarian state there is constant "preparation" for war). This also completes the process of liquidating the individual by destroying the sensitivity of their minds:

A second zone of sensitivity is devastated by the assault on liberal education. The effects of this assault are much less apparent. This has various reasons, but the most important one is that we continue to idolize ideas that artificially support the principles of liberal education, especially the idea of culture. Yet this changes nothing on the ground, because the assault on individual liberty inevitably involves an assault on liberal education. This becomes apparent when we are forced to deny the right of free inquiry. Free inquiry is impossible wherever its essential purpose is preparation for war, because, like a blind man, free inquiry opens all doors arbitrarily. Yet today the only door to unlock is the one to power. Free inquiry is pointless once it becomes clear what should be known and what should not (p. 20).

Despite supporting the manipulation of knowledge and information which inevitably will degrade the population, Jünger is also concerned with the growth of the masses and the lumpenproletariat.  "Mass," refers more to the lack of integration in a localized community, that defines the term.  The masses came from the proletariat, the workers, and the petty bourgeoisie: small shop-owners, artisans, and small businessmen who all generally struggled economically during the Weimar period and in some cases were threatened with their livelihood becoming obsolete as new forms of economic activity and new economic processes replaced older ones. 

In an ironic pattern that seems to recur often in politics: social classes who are marginalized give their allegiance to political leaders who represent the very same forces which are marginalizing them in the first place (large industrial monopolies). The Nazis are able to "transfer" this resentment and hostility towards Jews, communists, liberals, reason, and anything else they deemed a threat. The masses are in a sense homeless, anonymous, and alienated. The lumpenproletariat, unlike the proletariat are unemployed, or work irregular even illegal jobs: they are like the criminals and homeless that you see in M. It is out of the lumpenproletariat that the Nazis will recruit their street-fighters; just as they recruited their organizers out of lower middle class private organizations; the masses will later cheer them as they strip the people of their rights.  

Jünger devotes a lot of time to talking about the impact of photography on increasing our awareness (and hence our control) of the human body. He seems to appreciate the objectivity of photography, again, for its lack of sensitivity:

The photograph stands outside of the zone of sensitivity. It has a telescopic quality; one can tell that the event photographed is seen by an insensitive and invulnerable eye. It records the bullet in mid-flight just as easily as it captures a man at the moment an explosion tears him apart. This is our own peculiar way of seeing, and photography is nothing other than an instrument of our own peculiar nature (p. 39).
Photography, then, is an expression of our peculiarly cruel way of seeing. Ultimately, it is a kind of evil eye, a type of magical possession. One senses this very clearly in places where a different cultic substance is still active. The moment a city like Mecca can be photographed, it falls into the colonial sphere (p. 40).
He uses examples drawn from combat and colonialism, one can now study in close detail how people die and can access documentary evidence of foreign locations. Traditional cultures are known to have believed that if you are photographed it will steal your soul, or as he says a type of magical possession. A more harmless example could be even something like NFL films which are highly praised for their quality as they allow the viewer to analyze in detail how the game is played and how the players move. Professional athletes of all sports are usually required to study films of themselves or other athletes playing in order to learn how to perform better, move better, and correct mistakes–of course all this applies to the military as well.

The profussion of violent imagery, and the fast pace and constant danger of modern life forces people to become more tolerant of pain and death:

The human will disciplines and outfits this flesh with such painstaking care that it now seems more indifferent to injury. Today, we again are able to bear the sight of death with greater indifference, since we no longer feel at home in our body as we did before. It no longer accords with our style to stop a flying show or a car race simply because of a deadly accident. Such accidents lie not outside but inside the zone of a new kind of security (p. 43).

 Precisely because we have the technology to study the body more and its appearances we become more conscious of appearances (especially our own) and more aware thus changing humankind’s standards of beauty, but also social interaction and human behavior as well, as well as turning beauty into a commodity (i.e posters and pictures of Lola the cabaret singer):

The desire to see physical beauty in keeping with different standards is no less noteworthy A close connection to photography is also present here, especially to film, which is essentially the model of beauty. The eye has many occasions to grow accustomed to viewing the naked body, such as in sports, public baths, rhythmic dancing, but also in advertisements. We are dealing here with forays into the erotic zone, whose meaning has yet to be revealed even if we already have an inkling of it (p. 44).

Jünger reacts to these changes with a sense of regret–perhaps already seeing the direction Nazism is going in–but also sharing a fairly general suspicion of technology shared by many in his generation. His reference to the Copernican age is also a reference to Kant who considered his philosophy centered on the individual to be a "Copernican revolution" in philosophy, in other words just as Copernicus showed the earth was not at the center of the universe, the end of the Copernican age is the end of the age of the individual as the center of politics and society:

We  find ourselves in a situation where we are still capable of grasping what is lost; we can still sense the destruction of values and how the world is becoming more shallow and superficial. New generations are growing up far removed from all our inherited traditions, and it is an amazing feeling to see these children many of whom will live to experience the year 2000. By then, the last remnants of the modern, i.e., Copernican, age will most likely have disappeared (p. 45).

In such a situation, pain remains the only measure promising a certainty of insights. Wherever values can no longer hold their ground, the movement toward pain endures as an astonishing sign of  the times; it betrays the negative mark of a metaphysical structure (p. 47).
Pain  dissolves–or negates–the structures of "metaphysics," systems of ideas based on concepts like: freedom, justice, and progress. In a very real sense pain is the ultimate reality, the others are illusions. Jünger's lament over the conditions of modern life and the loss of values are familiar themes that many other writers have approached as well. However, not many writers can bring you in to the "eye of the storm" so to speak and provide a sociological and cultural analysis of life inside Nazi Germany–even if Jünger is careful to avoid any explicit reference to the Nazi party. At many points it seems as if the essay is to provide a strategy for how to adapt to life like this, which is basically be an obedient worker and do what you are told. For most conservatives life under these conditions is still preferable to communism. 

There are many things that can be said about this in relation to politics and culture today. Ultimately, the biggest criticism that can be thrown against Jünger I believe is that despite his posturing and all the pseudo-macho and heroic rhetoric he does not really confront pain at all. Instead, he runs away from it by preaching  a kind of "spiritual suicide" which frees the individual from pain, but only by making them dead on the inside, mechanically going through their lives doing exactly what the authorities want them to do. If you want to have real life, you have to learn to live with pain and not just suppress it or block it out. In other words, totalitarianism represents a desire to destroy life physically and spiritually in order to be free of the sensation of pain, something not too far from Freud's conception of the "death drive." 

Next class we will continue discussing the changes in perception and experience in the works of Walter Benjamin.

Assignment Due 5/2: Choose a passage from Jünger, write it out, explain the meaning of it, and why you chose this passage.


  1. Good Afternoon Prof. Murdaco,

    First, I want to say that I hope you regain your health quickly.

    Secondly, the syllabus says our next class is 12/6, so is it safe to say that we DO NOT have class next week (11/29)?

  2. Hi professor Murdaco. I wish your recovery as soon as possible. Take care of yourself .
    I read few student's article . it is meaningful and understandable . so it is nice article to read . from these article I learn a lot

  3. The human will disciplines and outfits this flesh with such painstaking care that it now seems more indifferent to injury. Today, we again are able to bear the sight of death with greater indifference, since we no longer feel at home in our body as we did before. It no longer accords with our style to stop a flying show or a car race simply because of a deadly accident. Such accidents lie not outside but inside the zone of a new kind of security (p. 43).

    I chose this passage because of it's reality. The reality of this passage has not just become but, has been around for centuries. It reminds me of that music group the Monkey's. They say "One monkey don't stop the show". That is the way of the world now more than it has ever been. Many lives are lost due to many, many, different reasons. There may have been a time when someone died through a horrific tragedy of some sort, that people may have stopped even if it was for a hour to deal with emotional pain. Nowadays death has become as if someone has dropped the ice cream off the cone. When that happens people will look for a minute and say wow and, keep on going on with what ever routine they were in. This non caring attitude for human life has become the shield to another humans emotions. No one cares until it either hits them or someone close to them. There is no more care and concern for tragedy as in many days before now. This is that new security of every man for themselves era.