Art Spiegelman has written two major graphic novels: the two volumes of Maus, which revolve around his father’s survival of the holocaust; and In the Shadow of No Towers, a book that relates Spiegelman’s experiences in New York on September 11 and after. The second book explicitly refers back to the first, with Art reminiscing about his father “trying to remember what the smoke in Auschwitz smelled like”. “The closest he got was telling me it was… ‘indescribable’”. There follows a frame in which Art silently continues to smoke his cigarette. Then, in the next frame, the reflection continues: “That’s exactly what the air in Lower Manhattan smelled like after Sept. 11!” The sequence, like so many in this book, is brilliant–first of all because of how it plays with the term “indescribable” (it interrupts the flow of words, but not of images). But its brilliance also lies in the fact that it is in this negative term—in this determinate indeterminacy—that Auschwitz and September 11 are compared. The two events find each other in the limits they pose to representation.
On the page, this comparison between Auschwitz and September 11 is also captured in other ways. The most explicit visual way in which it is established is the fact that Art, in the frames that I have just discussed, is represented as a mouse, a transformation that goes back to Spiegelman’s Maus-volumes, in which the Jews are represented as mice. Much has been said about this representation already. Why did Spiegelman decide to represent the Jews as mice? Doesn’t this play into anti-semitic rhetoric? Shouldn’t he have represented them as “human”, rather, in order to counter the violence to which the Jews fell victim? One could read Spiegelman’s aesthetic choice in response to the motto with which Maus begins: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human” (Adolf Hitler). How does Spiegelman respond to this statement? Not by insisting that the Jews are human. His novel represents the Jews as mice; the Germans are cats, the Poles pigs, the French frogs, and so on. It’s as if Spiegelman is saying to Hitler: fine, we are not human; but you’re not human either. The very category of the human in the name of which Hitler is making his statement, undergoes a radical deconstruction. Rather than insisting on the human—an insistence that would have made Spiegelman complicit with Hitler, because one can only assert such a category over and against an other that is inhuman–, Spiegelman claims the label of the inhuman as a site of great aesthetic, ethical, and political possibilities. It is with this claim that Maus begins.
Spiegelman’s message has lost none of its power in the post-9/11 era. Today, it is still “us” who lay claim to the human, and “them” who are labeled inhuman. Anything can be done to those who fall outside of the category of the human: that is where human rights run into their limits and limitations, and encounter Guantánamo.
References: Spiegelman, Art. In the Shadow of No Towers. New York: Pantheon, 2004; Spiegelman, Art. Maus I and II. New York: Pantheon, 1973-1991. Image: Willem Weismann, Urban Archaeology, 160 x 210 cm, 2010.