Dan Friedman
Steel and Glass, p.3

Man in a Glass Box

Subverting these easy equations is the transparent glass used as the material for the defendant's protective booth at the trial of Adolf Eichmann (1961). As the first trial in Israel of a major Nazi, the event was of major significance and the proceedings were filmed in their entirety, creating a cinematic event that is an enduring image of the mid-twentieth century. The glass booth defended Eichmann from physical harm but placed him under incessant scrutiny. An accused criminal in his own right, and a representative of the abhorred Nazi regime, the man in the glass booth was reduced to a kind of caged animal - rather like Kafka's punishment of carving the crime into the flesh of the criminal, rendering Eichmann as a zoo specimen on display seemed a performative act of pre-conviction retribution. At the same time, the transparent glass connoted justice - see, Israel seemed to be saying, how we protect from harm even the man who engineered our slaughter.

Seeing the man was intended to help us reach our judgment of him, not unlike the Hindu concept of darshan, in which actually seeing the guru is a form of receiving wisdom. However, in the many films made from the footage of the glass booth, it is the booth itself, with its multiple attempts to display transparency, protect the accused villain, and place him on exhibit, which seems primary. Thus the purported medium of transparency fails, since it, rather than that which is inside it, takes prominence.

Even when we are able to penetrate through the glass, however, Eichmann's personality subverts the entire enterprise of "seeing." Ironically, the true transparent cipher was the Nazi himself. Eichmann, as his testimony proved and as Hannah Arendt so lucidly observed, was no Satanic villain but merely an excellent bureaucrat who was entirely uninterested in the morality of his own technocracy. The attempt to make him the scapegoat for the system that he served was bound to result in dissonance: there was, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, no 'there' there - no deeper motive. Eichmann's evil was entirely banal, a superficial quality. It was neither mythic (as Gershom Scholem insisted) nor demonic; in conversations with the matter-of-fact Eichmann, evil - as distinct from inefficient - barely seemed to exist at all. However, despite Arendt's best attempts and those of the original televisors and filmmakers who later edited the trial footage into other films, neither the heinous system for which Eichmann worked, nor the Israeli system that is trying desperately to dramatize him as the exemplary villain, nor the system of media which represents the entire affair, are ever dealt with adequately.

The reason for this is that glass sees objects, but does not see systems. Eichmann becomes invisible, a failed embodiment of a system that cannot be grasped or rendered. The glass around Eichmann was supposed to help us see a man -- an evil man -- instead of the machines of the prison guard or the truck driver. But instead, what we saw was no man at all. As J.D. Salinger has us notice, in his Nine Stories, the only way to understand the world around us is to see more Glass. His protagonist, Seymour Glass (pronounced "See more Glass"), is both transparent and also highly reflective of the world around him: he is a cipher, but also a character. The material glass, likewise, is both transparent and reflective, showcasing rebellion, judgment, disdain, but helpless to contain it, in a system that stretches beyond and behind the mirror.

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Dr. Dan Friedman recently received his Ph.D in Comparative Literature from Yale University

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