Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2019. 288 pp.
Review by Nitzan Lebovic
29 January 2020
Michael Rothberg’s book asks us to consider how every resident has become a beneficiary of and a party to acts of injustice. When our governments oppress minorities—for example, African Americans in the contemporary United States—or support others who do so, we are responsible. Are governments not counting on the taxes we pay and on our “violent innocence” (p. 19) to achieve their oppressive goals? Citing historical cases such as the Holocaust, apartheid, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Turkish campaigns against the Kurds, and drawing illuminating examples from the art and literature that helps us unpack the complexity of living in such times, Rothberg claims that each oppressive regime produced a version of “violent innocence” or “implicated subjects.” While he insists that recognizing ourselves “in the position of the implicated subject” is necessary, he draws on the work of William Kentridge, Marceline Loridan, and Hito Steyerl to show that it “will not automatically make us better people; such self-reflexivity can indeed become a form of narcissism or solipsism that keeps the privileged subject at the center of analysis” (p. 19).
The book is written in a brightly lucid prose, laying out the vicissitudes of a political discourse advanced though arguments followed by counterarguments. Moving chronologically, Rothberg traces the history of scholarly debates on different “gray zones,” where the separation between victim and perpetrator gets murky, assessing the conceptual outcome of each of these debates. Central were concepts such as guilt, responsibility, complicity, legacy, solidarity, and implication. Behind these different concepts and discourses, Rothberg finds a common motif: the political manipulation and abuse of the perpetrator-victim dichotomy. To avoid this binary––Rothberg reminds us of Primo Levi’s depiction of the concentration camp as a “gray zone"––we must think through the idea of implication, lest we misrepresent “the victims, who are no longer around to speak for themselves” (p. 84).
Rothberg’s strength lies in his remarkable ability to explain complicated theoretical issues in a few sentences, weaving together the political and the ethical, the historical and the aesthetic. This is a grand achievement in a book that follows dense exchanges that produced decades of commentaries. On top of that, Rothberg offers a balanced narrative that deftly maps philosophical discourses, individual approaches, and interpretations, while offering a series of close readings of figurative artworks. As an alternative to the binary oppositions we are offered close reading of art and texts by Kentridge, Alan Schechner, Loridan, and Steyerl. Each and every piece of art reflects here a position of implication as the gazing view of the artist perpetuates the crime by witnessing it, and giving it a form. Rothberg’s own lens lengthens the view: the Gaza blockade and Schechner’s comparison of it with the Warsaw Ghetto are mentioned not just to consider objectively how one becomes an implicated subject but to investigate Rothberg’s own identity as an American Jew. Rotherberg uses his intimate acquaintance with such issues in order to classify them: Considering the inadequate critique liberals have offered of Israel’s occupation, he separates American-Jewish Zionism into an “affective implication” and an “ideological implication” (p. 120). The relevance of his “implicated subject” becomes most apparent in this discussion, where even Judith Butler’s attack on the Israeli occupation in the name of vulnerability and precarity comes across as a form of victimology. “Recognizing one’s position as an unwilling perpetuator of injustice,” Rothberg admonishes us, “represents a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for a disengagement from implication and the construction of solidarity with those who suffer directly from our indirect entanglements” (p. 145).
If there is one weakness to this work, it is the very breadth of the category in question: If everyone is implicated, then how does the concept help us to avoid the depoliticization that Rothberg found unbearable in the perpetrator-victim dichotomy? What does it add to the narrower and more operative concept of complicity? Finally, how does this category function in the discourse Rothberg adapted for his narrative—academic theoretical jargon? There is no explicit discussion of academic institutions, or the tendency of critical thinkers to keep referring to the same agents of symbolic capital and power.
That said, such a weakness is minor given the brilliant and courageous discussion of contemporary political identity. I have no doubt that this book will become, much like Rothberg’s previous work, Multidirectional Memory, a basic reference for students of our interregnum world.