Giorgio Agamben has suggested der Muselmanner as an ethical cipher for the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. He refers to the concentration camps as an extreme situation; using the juridical sense of the term where a judge uses an extreme situation or state of exception “for the foundation and definition of the normal legal order (Agamben, Giorgio, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, 1999, 48).” The concentration camps can therefore serve as a determinative paradigm for what his inhuman and what is human, and the Muselmann is the cipher for this determination. The Muselmann (the Muslim), so called because in his stooped and folded posture he resembled a Muslim at prayer, but also because the Arabic word muslim means “the one who submits unconditionally to the will of God (Agamben, 45)” were inmates in the camps who had given up. They had submitted to the will of the Nazis and become “the living dead” who were certain candidates for the gas chambers (Agamben, 51). They were walking symbols of the fate of every inmate and therefore the pariah of the camps. Some were so close to death that they no longer responded to the hunger impulse while others did not even respond to beatings given by the guards (Agamben, 42). Most inmates avoided the Muselmann and held them in disdain because what was at stake in the camps was to survive unchanged as a person and the Muselmann, by giving up, had “marked the moving threshold in which man passed into non-man (Agamben, 47).” And yet the Muselmann is an enigma standing on the border between life and death, a third realm between the human and the inhuman (Agamben, 48). It is precisely for this reason that the Muselmann are for Agamben, the “complete witness” of the camps (Agamben, 47). It is impossible to give an account of the horror of the camps. Only the dead can bear witness to this extreme situation. The survivors claim only to testify in their stead (Agamben, 34).
Drawing upon Agamben’s treatment of the Muselmann as the “complete witness” Slavoj Zizek argues that the Muselmann is “a kind of absolute/impossible witness… the only one who fully witnessed the horror of the concentration camp, and for that reason, is not able to bear witness (Zizek, Slavoj, “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence.” in The Neighbor:Three Inquiries into Political Theology, 2005, 160).” Contrary to Emmanuel Levinas’ claim that the capacity to say “Here I am!” is intrinsic to the ethical subject, Zizek argues that the Muselmann can no longer say “Here I am!” because of his enigmatic status. This inability, Zizek suggests, constitutes a failure by Lévinas to account for the “inhuman Other” that is in inherent in the paradoxical figure of the Muselmann (Zizek, 160). Zizek writes:
Consequently, is the paradox of the Muselmann not that this figure is simultaneously a zero-level, a total reduction to life, and a name for the pure excess as such, excess deprived of its “normal base”? This is why the figure of the Muselmann signals the limitation of Lévinas: when describing it Primo Levi repeatedly uses the predicate faceless, and this term should be given its full Lévinasian weight. When confronted with a Muselmann, one cannot discern in his face the trace of the abyss of the Other in his/her vulnerability, addressing us with the infinite call of our responsibility. What one gets instead is a kind of blind wall, lack of depth (Zizek, 161).
But, the Muselmann is not simply inhuman, but also human. It is his paradoxical nature that is so terrifying. Zizek fails to see that the Muselmann has a face precisely in his facelessness. The face of the Muselmann, even in its facelessness still confronts us with the question “human or inhuman?” It is precisely here that the Muselmann calls us into question so that we become vulnerable to the enigma of the facelessness, and consequently are called to a work of justice that does not finally resolve the question “human or inhuman?” Instead, we stare into the facelessness of the Muselmann without retreating from the terrifying paradox he confronts us with. We cannot, and we must not, ever answer the question. It is a liturgy of justice that moves into the abyss of the Muselmann never to return. It is a vulnerability to the silence of the impossible testimony in the midst of the ethical lacuna of the concentration camps.