Gene Ray: Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory

Eine englische Buchrezension zu: Gene Ray (2005): Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory. From Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11, Palgrave Macmillan, New York. (202 Seiten, 65 USD)

How do I, a German leftist, begin a review of a book that brings Auschwitz and Hiroshima into one single analysis? How do I summarize eleven interdisciplinary essays that deliberately violate some of the strictest taboos in the academic discourse? How can I plug into a search that begins with the most traumatic incidences in human history, and follows their traces all the way to the current 'war on terror' and to Israel's occupation of Palestine territory? The difficulties I encountered trying to do justice to Gene RayÂ’s book, obviously point to the difficulty of RayÂ’s field of research itself: Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory.

Hiroshima haunts 9/11

The term 'ground zero' famously refers to the cynical killing of thousands of innocent civilians on the 11th of September 2001 in downtown New York. By September 16th 2001, only five days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, 'ground zero' was used in every kind of discourse around the world to refer to the site of the destroyed twin towers in lower Manhattan. The origins of this term, however, point somewhere else: First used publicly in a 1946 report on Hiroshima in the New York Times, 'ground zero' is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "that part of the ground located immediately under an exploding bomb, especially an atomic one" (See Ray: 51). In his new book, Ray argues that the spontaneous use of the term 'ground zero' to name the destroyed complex of the World Trade Center can be 'read' as a symptom, as an unconscious acknowledgment of the terror bombings the US committed in Japan in 1945. But "Americans would rather act out Hiroshima than make any effort to critically process it" (Ray: 58). Because working through this problem would necessitate a critique of cherished myths of American 'moral exceptionalism'. It would call the myths into question that continue to be central to the discourse of the so-called war on terror. And pursued to the level of structure and system, it would lead to a critique of capitalist modernity itself.

Gene Ray's essay "Ground Zero: Hiroshima haunts 9/11", in which he develops these arguments, was originally published in 2003(1), and is now republished as the third chapter in his new book. Along with chapter six (Blasted Moments: Remarking a Hiroshima Image) and chapter nine (Listening With the Third Ear: Echoes from Ground Zero), it traces the hidden history and logic of the term 'ground zero' and ties in with a critical reflection on the 'mourning' of the Holocaust.

The fact that Ray puts essays and arguments together like a puzzle, makes the book a challenging read. However, it also shows Ray's great strength to deal with the complexity of the topic, and his caution in avoiding any kind of simplistic argument. Situated at the crossroad of critical art theory and political theory, with Theodor W. Adorno as a crucial point of reference, Ray argues that the genocides of Auschwitz and Hiroshima are both structurally linked to the logic of capitalist modernity itself. Building upon Horkheimer and Adorno's "Dialectic of Enlightenment", his essays argue that both Auschwitz and Hiroshima can only be understood as expressions of janus-headed modernity. That leads Ray to the question how contemporary art can reflect today on such traumatic events like Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The necessity for that is obvious: At the beginning of the 21st century, the refusal to work through such "catastrophes of second nature" (Ray: 30-31) continues to structure the 'war on terror' in its secret and manifest logics. As Ray shows, this is evident even in the peculiar choice of words: the return of the term 'ground zero'.

The exceptionality of Auschwitz

Bringing Auschwitz and Hiroshima together is necessarily a provocation. However, the problem of the singularity or incomparability of the Holocaust is discussed very differently depending on the specific (national) contexts and debates. In Germany for example, 'defending' the 'incomparability' of Auschwitz belongs to the critical resistance against conservative efforts of 'relativization' of the Holocaust and 'normalization' of German history.(2) In the larger international debate, though, pointing out Auschwitz's uniqueness is often linked to the argument that Auschwitz cannot be understood and therefore should not be analyzed.(3) At the extreme, to try to make sense of the Holocaust at all is already viewed as an insult to the victims - a claim that Ray explicitly rejects: "The imperative to respect the suffering of the victims and their memory is a grave one. This imperative cannot, however, have priority over the imperative to expose and oppose suffering being inflicted in the here and now" (Ray: 151).

Ray is far from claiming that Auschwitz and Hiroshima are identical or morally equivalent events. And he is far from any kind of relativization of the Holocaust. For his part, the historical comparison of shared conditions and differences is an epistemological method to trace the logic of industrialized 'modern' genocide, inherent in both Auschwitz and Hiroshima. In "Blasted Moments: Remarking a Hiroshima Image", Ray draws on authors like Hanna Arendt, Eberhard Jäckel and Giorgio Agamben to characterize "the singularity of the Nazi-genocide" in its "exterminating logic." He describes the Holocaust's specificity as a "combination of a racial project of biological purity, industrialized technology, and bureaucratic implementation" (Ray: 101).

Looking at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ray sketches a different picture. The nuclear killing of 300,000 victims by the US government and its armed forces was a result of the emerging US empire's cold-blooded geopolitics:

"[W] ithin the complex of motives and causes bearing on Truman's authorization of nuclear first use, the most decisive was the calculation of top-level advisors that a 'demonstration' of the new weapon would secure U.S. dominance of the postwar period and at the same time justify the huge expenditure (thereby avoiding possible Congressional investigations)." (Ray: 57)

While racism was part of a historical context that facilitated the US decision to use nuclear weapons on Japanese civilians, the exterminating logic of anti-Semitism behind the Holocaust was an essential element of Nazi ideology itself. In both cases, though, all the resources that the state and capitalist economy could bring to bear were directed to the development of new techniques and technologies of violence; in both cases, what Adorno and Horkheimer called 'instrumental reason' - the logic at the very core of capitalist modernity - was directed to the goal of destruction without limits. In both cases the result was a fully rationalized, fully industrialized genocide, and these models are now available to any developed nation-state. Today, any state and ruling order that feels itself sufficiently threatened has the option to retool its 'monopoly of physical violence' (Max Weber) in these ways. This, Ray insists, is the threat to humanity in the most universal sense that urges us to critically process this history and its logics. But instead of working through the traumas of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, collective memory is dominated by 'official narratives', by ritualized memorial gestures and monuments, massive passivity and rigorous defenses against any kind of disturbing encounter with individual and social responsibility.

Auschwitz and Hiroshima: Contesting the myths

In the case of Hiroshima, Ray brings us to the year 1995, when the 'National Air and Space Museum' in Washington, D.C., planned to exhibit the aircraft Enola Gay, which dropped the first nuclear bomb over Hiroshima. In addition to showing the actual airplane, the concept of the exhibition included "a narrative that would have encouraged visitors to begin a critical process of their own" (Ray: 55). The curators planned to integrate new historical evidence that questioned the official myth, according to which the nuclear bombing was fully justified and actually saved lives by bringing the war to a swift conclusion. But to include such critical debates into a major pubic exhibition in the US capitol was obviously too much of a provocation. Aggressive protests by well-organized veterans' groups, the Air Force lobby and conservative politicians led to the cancellation of the show. The museum's director, Martin Harwit, stepped down, and eventually the Enola Gay was "displayed as a heroic relic, accompanied by a single minimalist and uncritical panel of text." (Ray: 56).

As the Enola Gay 'scandal' from 1995 triggered a series of studies and writings about the American denial of Hiroshima, Gene Ray points out the similarities to the German 'historians' debate' about the Holocaust from 1986. However, it would have been interesting to compare the ‘defeat’ at the 'National Air and Space Museum' to the case of the German Wehrmacht-exhibition.(4) Opened in March 1995, the exhibition displayed hundreds of war photos from 1941 to 1945, documenting that not only Special Forces like the SS and the SA, but also the regular troops of the German Wehrmacht had been massively involved in carrying out the systematic killings on the eastern front. The destruction of the 'official myth' of the 'clean Wehrmacht', which had been 'abused' by Hitler and other Nazi leaders, caused a tremendous public debate, including two debates in the German Federal Parliament, a number of debates in German State Parliaments, and massive local protests wherever the exhibition was on show.

In late 1999, three scholars published research material declaring that some of the photos and photo legends were used incorrectly in the exhibition. Under an incredible public pressure the curator Hannes Heer stepped down. The exhibition was completely reviewed by an independent commission, and reopened in 2001. Even though the second Wehrmacht-exhibition renounced many of the provocative elements it had displayed before - such as the iron cross that continues to be the symbol of German army aircraft in current out-of-area operations all over the world - it remained a painful thorn in German sentiment. Never before in German history had the involvement of the 'little man' in the killing of millions of Jews, prisoners of war, partisans, communists, gays and innumerable other victims been brought to the public eye to this extent. The societal disruption and the aggressive individual responses that the exhibition caused confirm Gene Ray's main hypothesis for the German case: the collective mourning and intellectual confrontation with Auschwitz, necessary to understand this catastrophic and yet fundamental part of German history and identity, has still not taken place.

Art and critical theory

It seems questionable, whether the Wehrmacht or Enola Gay exhibitions would have had the same dynamic effect as interventions into 'official memory' that open up space for new public debates, if they had been based on artistic practices. The reasons are numerous: If shock has become an essential expectation of the bourgeois audience for contemporary art, how would art then be able to unfold any kind of disruptive force? If shock becomes a convention of art, then it no longer disturbs anything. Art seems to be a showpiece institution that 'demonstrates' the pluralistic tolerance of modern democracies - as long as it remains strictly contained inside the safe space of galleries and museums. These then function as a buffer against any kind of social subversion or counter-culture, or even the kind of critical force that the Wehrmacht and Enola Gay exhibitions seemed to carry. Ray's essay about the "Little Glass House of Horrors: Taking Damien Hirst Seriously" (chapter five) reveals this sort of shocking, and yet tamed, harmless and fugitive character of contemporary artistic provocations. Discussing art enfant terrible Damien Hirst and several of his installations, Ray acknowlegdes the power of Hirst's work and at the same time questions this sort of commodified, made-for-exhibition production and reception, and the institutions that serve it:

"It is not often that a work of art can trigger such forceful responces. But that in itself is no achievement: any Hollywood thriller or roller coaster can pull our strings more impressively. The question, the problem, of this work is: What is it doing here in a musem? What, exactly, is it doing?" (Ray: 86)

However, the more profound question is, if and how art can reflect at all on events of such unimaginable dimension as Auschwitz. Seeking an answer, Gene Ray takes us back to Adorno's critical art theory, and analyzes Adorno's famous line: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (Ray: 64).

"In the face of culture's utter failure to change or deliver us, the old exaltation of tradition is forbidden. 'Poetry' (Gedichte) stands here synecdochically for all traditional forms of high culture production, with their common assumption of autonomous and enlightened bourgeois subjectivity. What is barbaric after Auschwitz, is to reach back for these traditional forms and to take up traditional practices appeals unreflectively, as if nothing had happened." (Ray: p. 64)

For Adorno, there can be no positive representation of the Holocaust: "Because Auschwitz is not assimilable to subjective experience, it can only enter art as a void or absence" (Ray: 65). While Adorno "would propose Samuel Beckett's Endgame" as the exemplar of such an art (Ray: 65), Gene Ray takes a close look at the work of German artist Joseph Beuys. In chapter two (Joseph Beuys and the 'After-Auschwitz' Sublime) he shows that in fact several of Beuys pieces are "a staggering allegory of ineffability that responds to Theodor Adorno's famous 1951 dictum: after Auschwitz no more poetry" (Ray: 42). Beuys' installations, sculptures and public performances, in which he often used materials like felt and melting fat, seem to make a material reference to the horror of the concentration camps. At the same time, Beuys refuses any kind of direct or positive representation of the Holocaust. His art produces "its effects according to different rules - those of the sublime. Only an art in that register, an art which evokes and avows, which strikes, hits and hollows, can hope to honor the major trauma of the historical referent" (Ray: 42).

With Adorno’s critical art theory at its center and Joseph Beuys' work in mind, chapter four (Mirroring Evil: Auschwitz, Art, and the ‘War on Terror’) is a careful and sober analysis of a controversial 2002 exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. The group show included thirteen younger artists, some of them Jewish, "and was bitterly attacked for legitimizing art that treats the Jewish genocide with irreverence and insensitivity" (Ray: 61) Chapter eight (Working Out and Playing Through: Boaz Arad’s Hitler Videos) extends these investigations to the work and reception of leading 'post-Zionist' Israeli artist Boaz Arad, who also participated in the 2002 exhibition 'Mirroring Evil‘ at the Jewish Museum. In both essays, Ray links the discussion about 'art after Auschwitz' to the question of Israel's current occupation of Palestine and the instrumentalization of the memory of the Holocaust-victims: "As Israel's lobbyists and apologists fall back on indiscriminate accusations of 'anti-Semitism' in an attempt to silence global criticism of Sharon's campaign of urbicide in the Occupied Territories, it is now necessary to state clearly what would not ordinarily need to be said at all: anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel state policy are not the same thing" (Ray: pp. 70-71).

Adorno's blind spots

The possible instrumentalization of the memory of the victims is something that Adorno did not address and possibly did not foresee. This begs the question, how critical theory can respond to the problem of artistic interventions into new (geo)political and cultural contexts, such as the so-called 'war on terror' or Israel's occupation politics. In his concluding chapter (Conditioning Adorno: 'After Auschwitz' now) Ray opens up this debate:

"Adorno's ethic formulated an urgent response to catastrophic history in the content of European postwar reconstruction culture. But as history continues to unfold in a more intensely globalized context, this post-war response cannot be hypostatized or imposed indefinitely. (...) The problem it poses for Adorno's ethic will have to be confronted" (Ray: 150).

Finally, there is another important 'blind spot' in Adorno's art theory: Adorno‘s rigorous reflections dig out the limits and predicaments of traditional bourgeois art. But he doesn't seem to ask about the possibilities for a different kind of art or cultural practice that would push beyond this bourgeois paradigm. It would be interesting therefore (but obviously a different exercise) to confront Adorno with practices of non-conventional and counter-cultural art, such as contemporary situationist, interventionist and tactical media practices, or the so-called 'communication guerrilla'. Although in "Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory" Ray doesn't really touch this topic, it seems like something he could have had in mind when he wrote his last chapter. Concluding his long confrontation with Adorno’s powerful critical reflections on art after Auschwitz, Ray writes: "The urgent need for artistic practices to resist currently unfolding injustice through autonomous cultural interventions must come before valid injunctions to respect the memory of the dead." (Ray: 151). Art can open up new discursive spaces, and lead to collective thought and action to resist our daily capitalist nightmare and reshape our future.


Diese Rezension erscheint im Sommer 2006 in der US-Zeitschrift 'Leftcurve'.



(1) Gene Ray: Ground Zero: Hiroshima haunts 9/11, in: Alternative Press Review, 8/1, spring 2003.

(2) See the so-called German 'historians' debate' (see: Baldwin 1990). The debate took place from 1986 to 1988, and was an intellectual and political controversy about the role of the Holocaust in German history. It pitted left-wing intellectuals against right-wing intellectuals, with Ernst Nolte and Jürgen Habermas at the center of the debate.

(3) See Gene Ray's references to this debate on pp. 19-21 and ‘endnote 1’ on p. 157.

(4) The exhibition "Crimes of the German Wehrmacht: Dimensions of a War of Annihilation, 1941-1944" was organized by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. Information in English are available online at:


Adorno, Theodor W.; Horkheimer, Max (1972): Dialectic of enlightenment, New York.

Baldwin, Peter (1990): Reworking the past: Hitler, the Holocaust, and the historians' debate, Boston.

Boyer, Paul (1999): Exotic Resonances: Hiroshima in American memory, in: Hogan, Michael J. (Ed.): Hiroshima in History and Memory, Cambridge/New York..

Ray, Gene (2005): Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory. From Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11, New York.


Gene Ray: Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory. From Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11, in: Weitz, Eric D.; Zipes, Jack (Ed.): Studies in European Culture and History, seventh volume, Palgrave Macmillan, New York: 2005 (hardcover, 202 pages, 65 $).