Trust and Violence: An Essay on a Modern Relationship

August 2, 2012

It is daring or perhaps disarming of an author to begin a book with a basic question, especially if it is a difficult book. This one begins with a question borrowed from the writer Walter Kempowski: "How on earth?" Such a question, said Kempowski, "is a lot for a lifetime, analogous to 'I know that I know nothing.'" "How on earth?" is indeed a wonderful question - reminiscent of Marshal Foch's habitual refrain, "De quoi s'agit-il?" ("What's it all about?") - in the first instance for its essential simplicity. Jan Philipp Reemtsma is nothing if not daring. Intellectually, he is unconfined; he treats disciplinary boundaries with magnificent disregard. He has verve and nerve: it is as if all of knowledge is his province. His recourse to literature as a guide to morals is disarming indeed. Simplicity, however, is not his strong suit.

Here he is setting out his stall: "The form of life we have taken to calling modernity not only ought not to have been compatible with the occurrence of violent excess in the twentieth century; once it did - for nonmysterious, specifiable reasons - modernity at least ought to have perished as a result. All culture and cultural criticism after Auschwitz, Adorno wrote, is garbage. This is a moral pronouncement (see above), not an empirical description, and ultimately an expression of the indignity that art and culture failed to diminish our homicidal tendencies. But, as Adorno himself knew well, this objection to art and culture was an objection on paper only; its purpose was to warn us of answering barbarism with self-barbarization. Our persistent trust in modernity despite our knowledge that it is other than we presumed it to be is the subject of this book."

The book is full of passages like this, in which the categorical vies with the disputable ("ought to have perished"?), the insight is pushed to the giddy limit (did he really say garbage?), the compacting is such that the sense is elusive (answering barbarism with self-barbarisation?), the assertions are taken on a roller-coaster ride to an uncertain destination, and the syntax is torqued into reluctant submission. Three hundred pages later: "What prevented twentieth-century violence from damaging our collective beliefs to the point that control and social interaction became obsolete? The answer: insights into the dynamic of violence and the terrible truth that trust in modernity can change into trust in violence at a blink of an eye occur in societal roles separate from those that foster social trust... If morality, directed at humanity as a whole, articulates itself at an oblique, unmodern angle to functional differentiation, then consciousness of the fragility of that which we value about modernity articulates itself in the medium of angst. Knowledge, therefore, is not useless. With luck, it resurfaces as sensitivity."

Trust and Violence was originally published in German in 2008. The translation was funded by a joint initiative of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the German Federal Foreign Office, the collecting society VG WORT and the German Publishers and Booksellers Association. It is impossible to tell how far the translation contributes to (or exacerbates) the problems of the text, but it is evidently not entirely sound. It is littered with grammatical errors, and there is a persistent problem with prepositions. "Trust and Violence brings together ideas I have put to paper over the past several years," explains Reemtsma, "put to paper" suggesting something like "put to the sword". And in a book teeming with references to authorities far and wide, Princeton University Press has not seen fit to provide an index. "How on earth?"

Trust and Violence: An Essay on a Modern Relationship

By Jan Philipp Reemtsma.translated by Dominic Bonfiglio. Princeton University Press. 416pp, £34.95. ISBN 9780691142968 and 9781400842346 (e-book). Published 23 May 2012.

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