2. PRIMO LEVI’S ‘GREY ZONE’, PATRIARCHY AND THE PROBLEM OF JUDGEMENT

[4] Primo Levi’s paradigmatic concept of the ‘grey zone’ focuses on the moral ambiguity that is so often found, yet seldom discussed, in human behaviour. Indeed, the renewed interest in, and often uncritical use of, the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in contemporary philosophy seems unsuitable to negotiate the complexities exhibited in situations of moral ‘compromise’ under duress. According to Levi, an examination of the ‘grey zone’ requires a rejection of the ‘Manichean tendency which shuns half-tints and complexities’, and resorts to the black-and-white binary opposition(s) of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (1986, 22). At the same time, a full awareness of the oppressive environment – in the context that this paper is concerned with, a patriarchal social system – must be accounted for. When engaging with women’s behaviour which might be interpreted as problematic, even while these women are implicated in a culture that constructs them as inferior, one is therefore confronted with considerable problems of language, judgement and representation.

[5] Levi’s ‘grey zone’ is essentially a metaphor for moral ambiguity: a conceptual realm with ‘ill-defined outlines which both separate and join the two camps of masters and servants. [The “grey zone”] possesses an incredibly complicated internal structure, and contains within itself enough to confuse our need to judge’ (1986, 27). This in itself highlights the way in which Levi’s concept problematises judgement, as his characterisation of the ‘grey zone’ could be (and often has been) interpreted to involve a merging, if not a blurring, of the fundamental categories of persecutors and victims. However, Levi stresses elsewhere in his essay, and for good reason, that such a distinction must be upheld (1986, 33). Drawing on his experiences in Auschwitz, Levi is chiefly concerned in his essay with those Jewish prisoners who obtained ‘privileged’ positions, including the Kapos (‘chiefs’) of labour squads in the camps, the members of the Auschwitz Sonderkommandos (‘special squads’) forced to work in the crematoria, and the controversial Jewish ‘Elder’ Chaim Rumkowski of the Lodz Ghetto. Nonetheless, it is clear from the critical attention afforded to Levi that, while focusing on the extreme ethical dilemmas of Holocaust victims, he engaged with a phenomenon that proves to be far more prevalent in human nature and experience.

[6] Levi’s concept of the ‘grey zone’ has been appropriated by scholars in the fields of Holocaust studies (Petropoulos & Roth 2005), philosophy (Todorov 1991), law (Luban 2001), history (Cole 2003), theology (Roth 2005), popular culture (Cheyette 1997) and feminism. Expanding or intentionally departing from Levi’s ideas, many recent interpretations of the ‘grey zone’ often misunderstand the historical specificity of Levi’s reflections. For instance, while applying Levi’s concept of the ‘grey zone’ to the effects of patriarchy and domestic violence on women, Lynne Arnault makes the somewhat problematic statement that ‘in order to establish the cruelty and seriousness of male violence against women as women, feminists must demonstrate that the experiences of victims of incest, rape, and battering are comparable to those of war veterans, prisoners of war, political prisoners, and concentration camp inmates’ (2003, 183, n.9). Aware of the potential problem of making controversial (and unnecessary) comparisons, Card (1999, 8-9) takes care to clarify her use of Levi’s ideas:

I do not wish to trade on the horrors of the camps or ghettos to get attention to the evils of misogyny. I do wish to explore the significance of the concept Levi identified for other contexts than those he had in mind… The choices facing many victims of misogyny bear no comparison with those of camp or ghetto prisoners.

In short, it is the philosophical realm of moral ambiguity and the associated problems of judgement and representation that feminist scholars may validly claim to explore in their efforts to develop a deeper understanding of patriarchy and its moral implications.

[7] The intersection between feminist thought and Levi’s writings, as pioneered by Card, claims that many women are drawn, ‘by hope of favour or privilege, into being men’s instruments of oppression’ (2000, 512). Levi’s question of whether or not one can – or should – pass judgement on the behaviour of so-called ‘privileged’ Jews can therefore be seen to have considerable relevance to the divisive issue of women’s involvement in/with patriarchy. While Levi unequivocally holds the perpetrators of the Holocaust responsible for their actions, he warns that one should avoid judging their victims. In the case of the men who were given the indescribable task of burning bodies in the crematoria, among other gruesome activities, Levi declares that ‘our need and ability to judge falters’, and that any moral evaluation of their behaviour must be ‘suspended’ (1986, 41 & 43). However, recent scholarship on the representation of ‘privileged’ Jews in Levi’s writings and elsewhere has identified what might be termed a paradox of judgement: namely, that even if moral judgements of victims in extreme situations should be suspended, such judgements are inherent in the act of representation, and are therefore inevitable (Brown 2010a, 2010b, 2009, 2008, 2007). As Card’s work suggests, similar observations can be made in relation to women’s apparent complicity in patriarchy, where the problem of judgement is essential to philosophical reflection.

[8] It should be acknowledged here that the examples Card uses differ significantly from the issue of whether or not some women can be considered ‘complicit’ in a ‘rape culture’; nonetheless, similar obstacles to understanding problematic situations exist here too. In her essay on ‘Women, Evil, and Gray Zones’, Card draws on the notion of the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, citing numerous examples of women identifying with their torturers after having been abused or held hostage over a prolonged period of time – most (in)famously, Patricia Hearst. By developing a pseudo-identity, Card writes, victims ‘can enhance their chances of survival, making them useful to abusers and encouraging a reciprocal identification that makes it psychologically more difficult for abusers to depersonalise and destroy their victims’ (2000, 510). While the medical establishment has responded to cases of women ‘suffering’ from ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ by absolving these women from any moral responsibility, Card writes that ‘we may have a morally gray area in some cases, where there is real danger of becoming complicit in evildoing and where the captive’s responsibility is better described as problematic than as nonexistent’ (2000, 511). Furthermore, Card makes it clear that there are varying degrees of complicity on the part of victims, that judgement is often impossible, and that not all victims ‘compromise’ themselves, but sometimes resist instead. She argues that, while resistance is sometimes possible, outsiders are seldom in a position to judge when. Like Levi, Card emphasises that issues of individual agency and moral responsibility are far from clear-cut. Indeed, in characterising Levi’s ‘grey zone’ as an area in which ‘agents confront real choices between horrifying options created by unspeakable oppression’ (1999, 3), Card rightly stresses that issues of moral ambiguity, ‘compromise’ and ‘complicity’ are as complex as they are crucial to feminist ethics.

    • Vicky Nesfield
    • April 13th, 2010

    Thank you to Drs Deb Waterhouse-Watson and Adam Brown for a really engaging paper. I think it’s interesting how issues of assault and violence are often ‘elevated’ if that’s the correct word, to the level of concentration camp / Holocaust violence. Andrea Dworkin, a very polemic feminist writer also used Holocaust imagery and parallels in some of her writing about rape and sexual violence against women, although from a different perspective it would seem to Card. Dworkin appeared in every case she discussed to absolve women from any responsibility or blame, and used the language and imagery of the Holocaust to explicate the violence and horror she felt was being perpetrated against women.
    It seems to appear in a number of cases, that likening something to the Holocaust serves (intentionally at least) to ‘make it bigger’ and more complex than the normal realms of jugement and understanding, and thus possibly attempt to evade problematic and uncomfortable questions of blame. This is precisely the issue Levi attempted to tackle in his writing on ‘Grey Zone’, where he very openly negotioated the problems of judgement in these circumstances.
    I found this paper fascinating in the way it combines these issues of violence and subjugation of women and the Holocaust in a very different way to other examples of feminist theory and the use of Holocaust imagery.

    • Adam Brown
    • April 14th, 2010

    Many thanks for your comments Vicky, I’m absolutely in agreement with you! The (mis)appropriations of Levi’s concept of the ‘grey zone’ and the subject of the Holocaust more broadly are as vast as they are often problematic. As you mention, Dworkin’s writing is a case in point.

    It’s for this reason that I found Card’s careful exploration of Levi’s ideas so refreshing. Levi’s work has always contributed to the fraught issues of the ‘uniqueness’ and ‘universality’ of the Holocaust, and his reflections are so often caught between these two (contradictory yet interdependent) positions. Card implicitly acknowledges these complexities in her writings and, as we note in the paper, takes care to make clear the distinctions between her subject matter and the events of the Holocaust. At the same time, Card makes a strong case for the applicability of Levi’s conceptual ‘grey zone’ space to the violence inflicted on/by women. Hopefully, we have approached this issue in a similarly nuanced manner 🙂

    Thanks again for your thoughts!

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