A Light that Burns to the Bone: Trauma and Banality in Jean Améry’s Essay on Torture

Noam Pines


The essay explores the epiphanic qualities of trauma in Jean Améry’s account of torture. For Améry, torture emerges as a site of revelation in which a fundamental gap is exposed between the two poles of human existence: the figural capacity to represent and raw, unmediated experience. Employing this critical distinction, Améry challenged Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil” in a phenomenological analysis drawn from his own experience. The essay argues that although Améry manages to offer a phenomenological account of torture, it is not because of a successful conceptual distinction between the “real” and the “abstract,” but rather, and involuntarily, because of the reenactment of a traumatic repetition in his text. This essay exposes the conceptual deficiencies that underlie Améry’s phenomenological account of trauma, but at the same time it also argues that the “contamination” of Améry’s thought by trauma does not render his key conceptual distinctions invalid or self-defeating. Rather, his analysis ultimately sheds light on elusive aspects of the psychological motivations of Nazi perpetrators, aspects that remain outside the purview of the factual-historical account. By identifying torture as the “essence” of National Socialism, Améry lays emphasis on the calculated, illicit exercise of sovereign power in the hierarchical chain of Nazi officials. (NP)

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