Atlas was permitted the opinion that he was at liberty, if he wished, to drop the Earth and creep away; but this opinion was all that he was permitted.(Franz Kafka)
To be an I means then not to be able to escape responsibility, as though the whole edifice of creation rested on my shoulders.(Emmanuel Levinas)
I. The Project of a Historiographic Poetics
For several months, we have been meeting bi-weekly. Eight men and women of varied ages and with diverse ethnocultural histories who share an interest in the position of testimony in the formation of historical memory. Each has read substantially regarding the history of the German occupation of Vilna (1941-1943) during which most of the Jewish population of the city was incarcerated in a ghetto and systematically murdered. Independently, we have studied a myriad of documents that pertain to these events including diaries, poems, songs, video-testimony, drawings and photographs. For each meeting, one of us develops an array of testimonial material, documents, which through their very juxtaposition with one another, raise important questions integral to our attempts to think through and enact both an ethical remembrance and a practice of critical learning. This juxtaposition, along with a written commentary, is then electronically sent to all others and becomes the basis for further written responses that are distributed, read and considered when we meet.
Irena has sent a juxtaposition composed of multiple images and text that document the decision by the Nazi command to have a brigade of Jewish slave labour dig up and cremate the over 60,000 bodies of Jews murdered since the German invasion and buried in the killing fields of Ponar, a wooded area on the outskirts of Vilna. This juxtaposition includes photographs of brigade workers digging up bodies, drawings of the scene of cremation by F. Segal (a survivor of the brigade), and the Nuremberg testimony of Solomon Gol (also a survivor) who provides a narrative describing the experience of being a member of the brigade.
Irena writes in her commentary on this juxtaposition: ‘I suppose that what I’m trying to think through in my engagement with the testimonies of Vilna – and the question of how photographic images might be used to inform this engagement – is how can I find ways of activating testimonial images such that they become more than either merely information, or disengaged voyeurism’. This is a decisive, symptomatic question, carrying much of what is at issue in the proposal for an ethical practice and pedagogy of remembrance that we present in this paper. In regard to her juxtaposition, Irena wants to keep the photographic and graphic images cited from constituting either a site of spectacle or flattening into an evidentiary extension of Solomon Gol’s narrative account. But more generally, implied in her question is the challenge of considering on what terms a consciousness of history might become a responsible historical consciousness. Irena is asking not just what we might learn about the past, but as well what can be learned from our attempts to face the traces of lives lived in times and places other than our own. Ultimately at stake in such a practice is the question of one’s attentiveness to the stories and images addressed to us that arrive from another space/time, stories and images that insist remembrance be accountable to the demand for non-indifference.
One consequence of the recent ‘turn to ethics’ in social and political thought has been a return to the question of what it could mean to live historically, to live within an upright2 attentiveness to traces of those who have inhabited times and places other than one’s own. Substantively, this is manifest in the problem of how one attends to the experiences of others: how one reads, how one views and how one listens. These are not simply pre-given capacities but are historically specific normalized practices which, in any given epoch, are ingrained in what it means to live in consort with others, to live as though the lives of other people mattered.
As neo-liberal logic increasingly fosters a narrow conception of what constitutes responsibility, a central question for cultural study in our times has become the ethical, pedagogical and political implications of various practices of historical remembrance.3 While narrated memories are a sign of civic life, the motivated, authorized character of that civitas is very much an issue of how such memories might construct the substance and terms of one’s connection to those who have gone before us. As we will argue, public memory is not just that which contributes to knowledge of the past and/or underwrites a claim to group or communal membership. Quite divergently, public practices of memory can have a testamentary, transitive function; that is, they may be conceived as actions that ‘pass over’ and take effect on another person or persons. On such terms, practices of remembrance are always already caught up in the obligations expected by the transitive character of the testamentary act, the act of writing, speaking, imaging so as to bear an educative legacy to those who ‘come after.’
It is how one conceives of this educative legacy and on what terms one is prepared to engage it that is the crux of the relation between remembrance and civic life. The texts and images we are studying are commonly incorporated into two basic forms of remembrance, both of which, in quite different ways, attempt to address the problem of social adhesion. In the first of these forms, remembrance practices constitute collective rituals that attempt to build a social consensus by invoking iconic memories that mobilize affective structures of identification. In the second form, remembrance practices are more overtly hermeneutic in that they attempt to organize discursive structures, within which basic moral collective commitments might be articulated, cultivating mutual understanding and social solidarity. Our attention to these texts and images, however, has been on quite different terms.4
Particularly concerned with their testamentary function, we argue that the demands initiated by this function open a cultural space within which a moment of ‘public time’5 might come into existence. While we shall elaborate on the notion of public time further on, we note here that in such a moment, relations are constituted wherein which ‘the ethical’ becomes a question of how to read, view and listen, ‘response-abilities’ through which historical and cultural worlds become conceivable and concrete. In other words, the transitivity of testimony inaugurates a question of relationality, a question with the potential to re-situate human existence. Here then is a politics of hope6: an opening anew to the actuality of enacting or deciding the range of possibilities within which we live as purposeful human beings. What is at stake in the pregnancy of public time is a practical response to the question of how one might relate to the past, or, more precisely, how one might actualize an historical mode of being as a fundamental condition through which as humans we inhabit the world (Ziarek, 2000: 68-69). Remembrance then is a question of and for history as a force of inhabitation, as stories we live with, that intertwine with our sense of limits and possibilities, hopes and fears, identities and distinctions.
It is in this context that our interest is in new spaces of memoration, temporal and ontological boundary spaces that advance, encourage and enable practices of ethical response and critical learning through which one might explore the fundamental terms of relation with an absent presence that – through testament – arrives asking, demanding something of us. This arrival initiates a potentially transformative supplement to conventional questions of power (questions of who gets to decide for whom, what privileges, opportunities, and resources will be made available and withheld within any given community). That is, the testamentary address, in posing the problem of inheritance, circumscribes a space/time for working through the politics and possibilities of the inter-human. As Krzysztof Ziarek puts it: ‘The shape into which the world is formed historically depends precisely on the modality, or modalities, of relating, since these modalities never simply operate within the world but take part in the “activity” of unfolding this world in the first place. Differently put these modalities of relating are ‘responsible’ for how the world occurs’ (2000: 77, our italics).
How one responds in the face of the demand to read, view and listen counts for something, indeed counts for a great deal. Thus, our overriding question: what practices of response to the testamentary demand for non-indifference might enable an opening into learning? Learning here is understood not solely in terms of acquisition of previously unheard of, unknown facts and stories, but as well an opening of the present in which identities and identifications, the frames of certitude that ground our understandings of existence, and one’s responsibilities to history are displaced and rethought. In other words, how might remembrance be understood as a praxis creating the possibilities of new histories and altered subjectivities (Fraser, 1999)? The consequence of such learning extends to reworking notions of community, identity, embodiment, and relationship. This is a move toward a hopeful yet risk-laden learning that seeks to accomplish a shift of one’s ego boundaries, that displaces engagements with the past and contemporary relations with others out of the inescapably violent and violative confines of the ‘I’, to a receptivity to others, to (in Jacques Derrida’s terms) a ‘welcome’ of the other’s difficult, onerous approach. On such terms remembrance enacts possibilities for an ethical learning that impels us into a confrontation and reckoning not only with stories of the past but also with ourselves as we are (historically, existentially, socially) in the present.
As Derrida suggests in the concluding paragraph of Specters of Marx, ‘[i]f he loves justice . . ., the “scholar” of the future’ should not just enlist the ghost to provide lessons about justice but also should learn from attempts to engage the ghost, not how to ‘make conversation with the ghost but how to talk with him, with her, how to let them speak or how to give them back speech, even if it is in oneself, in the other, in the other in oneself’ (1994: 176). What practice constitutes talking with ghosts? What demands would such an ambition make on our modes of engaging aspects of testament? In its address, the testamentary act enacts a claim that, while providing accounts of the past, it may wound or haunt, interrupting one’s self-sufficiency and demanding an attentiveness to an otherness that resists being reduced to a version of our own stories. This is a claim on our practices of reading and listening that enables the reassessment and revision of stories that are most familiar. For this reason, we have become interested in the pedagogical and political implications of the question of attentiveness. That is, what form of attentiveness, what mode of sensibility might support the possibility that memories of others be engaged as something other than documentary evidence or a spectacle of suffering, which (while it might move me emotionally and provoke what I hope might be helpful action) fails to fundamentally challenge the narratives with which I orient my commitments and social relations? And crucially, what educative relationships and institutional forms, what elements of new memorial practices, might be necessary to sustain such an attentiveness, such a sensibility?
In a recent issue of the journal Race and Class, John Berger contemplates the prophetic qualities of Hieronymus Bosch’s Millennium Triptych. Focusing in particular on the right hand panel that depicts Hell, Berger discusses how the form of the painting pre-figures contemporary culture under the threat of globalization. He notes that in Bosch’s vision of Hell, there is no horizon:
The world is burning. Every figure is trying to survive by concentrating on his own immediate need and survival. Claustrophobia, at its most extreme, is not caused by overcrowding, but by the lack of any continuity existing between one action and the next which is close enough to be touching it. It is this which is hell. The culture in which we live is perhaps the most claustrophobic that has ever existed. (1998: 3)
While Berger goes on to emphasize the lack of an elsewhere or otherwise in this vision of Hell, a condition that reduces ‘the given’ to an imprisoning actuality justifying self-serving projects and unrelenting greed, it is his diagnosis of a contemporary cultural claustrophobia that we find most evocative. For what Berger is suggesting is a cultural dysfunction actualized by a specific readiness-to-hand of sound, image and text that convey the narratives, sentiment and sensibilities of other people’s lives. Brought close through mediation of book publishing, broadcasting, film and video tape distribution, and Internet web pages, the testament of people subjected to oppressive circumstances, who have struggled (not always successfully) to survive on historical terms not of their own making, is increasingly evident, present, nearby. Yet this testament remains fragmented, neither touching nor touching us.
What would it mean for one to be ‘touched’ by the testament of another? To be touched by the memories of others is, at first blush, a phrase that brackets a matter of affect. It is commonly used as a synonym for those occasions when one is ‘moved,’ when one begins to feel a range of possible psychic states in response to another’s story: sorrow, shock, elation, rage. There is obviously some form of human connection referenced here. Most commonly characterized as an empathic response to stories and images of other’s plight, this is clearly one trajectory through which an archive of narrative and images might be redeemed from its hellish construction as a set of disconnected fragments. But, there are other, less affect-laden possibilities. If ‘being touched’ amounts to a negation of the fragmentation and isolation of experiences, then also redemptive is the contiguity and causality supplied by the historiographic impulse that seeks human continuity within historical narratives. Likewise, connectedness of experience is possible in the context of allegorical or emblematic readings wherein one set of experiences is understood through the representation of another. But all these interpretations of the event of ‘being touched’ limit the force of Berger’s observation. Edith Wyschogrod (cited in Jay, 1994: 557) has suggested, ‘touch is not a sense at all; it is in fact a metaphor for the impingement of the world as a whole upon subjectivity . . . to touch is to comport oneself not in opposition to the given but in proximity with it.’ The proximity she refers to here is not a spatial concept denoting an interval between two points or sectors of space. Not a state, nor repose, but rather it is, as Emmanuel Levinas would have it, a restlessness, a movement toward the other in which one draws closer (Levinas, 1992: 61-97). It is a ‘welcome’ in which one becomes not just emotionally vulnerable (open to feeling), but where one exposes one’s self to a possible de-phasing of the ego wherein the cognitive terms on which one makes connection with others are shaken, put up for revision. Thus, more than being moved or being able to integrate the stories of others into the communally established framework ordering one’s grasp of the world (past and present), ‘being touched’ commands taking the stories of others seriously, accepting such stories as matters of ‘counsel.’
In his essay ‘The Storyteller,’ Walter Benjamin (1968: 86) referred to counsel as, ‘less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding.’ For Benjamin, in order to seek and receive counsel one would first have to be able to tell this unfolding story. On such terms, for the lives of others to truly matter – beyond what they demand in the way of an immediate, necessary practical solidarity – they must be encountered as counsel. These would be stories that might actually initiate a de-phasing, a potential shifting of our own unfolding stories, particularly in ways that might be unanticipated and not easily accepted. Benjamin was attempting in this essay to reflect on the erosion of the very possibility of the exchange of experience. For him, this was actually being prevented by the proliferation of news reports and mass dissemination of stories and images that accompanied the media meditated transmission of experiences. Benjamin thought the link between memory and experience was being threatened within what he termed a ‘phantasmagoric’ flow of information that resulted in an age well informed about itself but at the same time knowing very little. Missing was the ‘wisdom’ of experience, its non-indifference, its transitivity. That is, the possibility that the telling of a story would actually make a difference in the way one’s own stories were told, either by opening one’s existing narratives to assessment and revision or by influencing one’s actions. This inability to ‘experience’ the transitivity of the stories of others (something other than simply being able to read/hear and recount them) is an historical condition. And it is to the conceptualization of this condition that we now wish to turn.
II. Re-Staging Politics in the Space of the Spectacle
In order to communicate the intricacies of the transitive nature of testament – of stories and images of distant suffering and death that arrive in my time and demand something of me – our project implicates the giving and receiving of testament with the possibility of what Derrida terms ‘a spectral moment’: a moment that no longer belongs to the present economy of coherent and integrated successions of ‘nows,’ of the ‘linking of modalized presents’ (1994: xx). To think of the transmission of testament as a ‘spectral moment’ incites a mode of historical apprehension that is distinct from the inclination to plot the past back in place: an inclination that in the process of uncovering the patterns and themes that impute historical meaning ends up, according to de Certeau, subsuming the dead, into ‘the objective figure of an exchange among the living’ (1988: 46).7 In this exchange relation between the past and present we thus witness a closed-circuit reception that renders the past into an abstraction (of historiography), a phantasmatic foreclosure that resurrects the past as a finished object that can be buried within the terms/grounds of the present.
Yet, the ‘spectral moment’ that invites us to make contact, to gain ‘counsel,’ from a haunting non-contemporaneity, with a haunting that overturns our ontological grounds, would trouble any mode of historical reception that (unwittingly) attempts to remain immanent to itself. To think of testament as a spectral instance, as a call that comes before and beyond the present, urges us to reckon with details that exceed the continuity of ‘our’ present terms. It allows us to acknowledge that within the details of the testament there always remain remains not yet accounted for or defined by the present terms of our discursive exchange.8 Heeding that there are remains, that there exists the too troubling or perhaps too shameful (the too much for now!), allows us to encounter the irreducible nature of testament. This is an instance that reminds us that it is the complexity of a living-life that often disappears in the typicality of historical abstraction. In the spectral moment, remembrance is challenged to re-work the singularity of life from its absorption into some undifferentiated mass-theme of history. In this sense, being attentive to the living complexity of testaments implies, citing Avery Gordon, ‘making a contact [with ghosts/with what is beyond here] that changes you and refashions the social relations in which you are located. It is about putting life back in where only a vague memory or a bare trace was visible’ (1997: 22). In other words, a transitive engagement with testament implicates a welcome to that which comes from beyond my time, to instances that expose us to what we are not, that engender a mode of being – a sociality of learning to live finally here, now – with ghosts that disjoin the exchange-order of presents.
But to contemplate the possibility of a sociality of living with ghosts requires grappling with our present position of reception. For how and what constitutes the spectral instance or an appropriate welcome to testaments is not – at least at this point – apparent. Much depends upon the structure of our mode of attention, on how we audience the stories and images that come before us. For the onlooker does not simply encounter testaments that speak for themselves. The stories and images of distant suffering come to us inherently through a form of mediated attention, through a process of meaning making within discursive limits that have particular implications. Drawing on what Benjamin terms the ‘phantasmagoric,’ we seek to make a distinction between a mode of reception that makes room for the coming-and-going of the ghost and a phantasmagoric invocation, which incarnates and transfixes the ghost into a parade of identical phantoms whose claim to presence undermines the possibility of developing a covenant with a non-present instance.9 Our assumption is that, before we can entertain the possibilities of an adequate reception of the ghost, we must grapple with the pervasiveness of the phantasmagoric form of encounter, with the present operative means of structuring our attention to the stories and images of distant suffering.
The phantasmagoria of today can be glimpsed by how it circulates and structures our attention to the images and stories of the suffering and death of others primarily as news and information, granting them the lifespan of the moment. Its mode of presentation or preservation thus outstrips its content, its temporality foreclosed within the primacy of the present. ‘The value of information,’ Benjamin wrote in 1936, ‘does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender completely and explain itself without losing any time’ (1968: 90). Every moment a new item of information arrives before our eyes and (more often than not) passes away without much effect or with a fleeting momentary fascination – its urgent and frightful address instantly replaced by another item, leaving the basic assumptions of our place as the onlooker intact. Although we can feel deeply and endorse that we ‘do something,’ my response is short-lived – and, more gravely, it is contained: I am not in question.
By invoking the phantasmagoria in this way, do we not risk a straightforward dichotomization: with an earlier, pure and untainted form of ‘experience,’ a nostalgic lament for ‘a once upon a time’ when these stories could have been attended to and experienced properly? To be clear, we want to make no claims for a kind of ‘pure responsiveness’ that precedes some supposedly ‘technological Fall of Man’ (cf. Virilio, 2000). It is not a question of technological obstacles or filters – for this mode of circulation is not ‘in the way,’ but remains, in fact, the only way for these images and stories to arrive, to get to us at all. In this sense, what is of concern to us is less the mystification involved in the means of producing phantasmagoric apparitions, but rather the peculiar presentation of phantoms that structures a mode of reception that forecloses the transitive nature of testaments. In order to unfold what is at stake here, let us explore with more detail the operative principles of the phantasmagoria.
The term phantasmagoria first appeared in connection with a particular type of magic lantern show that became popular in early 19th century France, England and the United States. It is generally acknowledged by historians of visual technology that the most accomplished showman to present phantasmagorias was Etienne-Gaspard Robertson. These multimedia manifestations literally conjured a parade of ghosts. As projections of painted slides, these ghostly images were created by what Robertson called a phantoscope, a movable magic lantern on wheels. Often the projector was behind a translucent screen, out of view of the audience.
Although the technology of the phantasmagoria is important in order to understand how it elicited a particular form of attentiveness, let us dwell for a moment on its content. While the apparitions that Robertson’s phantasmagoria summoned drew on a variety of gothic narratives, literary spectres and mythic images, it is those that drew on French cultural memory and the traumatic history of the French Revolution that are perhaps most noteworthy in this context. Keep in mind that at the turn of 19th century, Parisians were living in the traumatic aftermath of the Revolution and the Terror of 1793-94. Indeed, one might argue that Robertson’s presentations exploited the memory of these events in order evoke both fascination and dread. But as well, we might speculate that Robertson’s phantasmagoria contributed to the production of a particular form of cultural memory as much as it drew on one, and thus was very much implicated in the forging of a particular form of historical consciousness.
Appearing along with the assassinated revolutionary Marat, one evening, were the apparitions of the founder of the Swiss republic William Tell, Virgil, Voltaire and the images of victims executed as a result of the revolutionary court’s denunciations and decrees. While Robertson turned ‘the bloody events of class warfare into [the] fantastic nightmares of an evening’s entertainment,’ into aesthetic apparitions ‘divested of their material reality’ as shadows who had lost their bodies, ‘these historical figures were more than just entertaining’ (Cohen, 1993: 234). Robertson helped them enter into a structure of signification through which they could be integrated into a pantheon of cultural memory where they would play the role of either evil demons or proud heroes. Robertson’s phantoms literally constituted a procession of images out of history that were in-scripted into an imaginative melodramatic re-contextualization, presented within the enchantment of the supernatural.
Robertson never hid the fact that his performances were illusions. He gave interviews that stressed this fact. Nevertheless, he did create a technology of representation that assembled a public to witness one way of living with ghosts, of bringing back the dead. Whether people believed the phantoms to be ‘real’ is not the issue, far more important is to consider the economy of exchange within the phantasmagoria: for the representational practice and the subjective processes is what made it intelligible and tolerable even if, at times, frightening. Thus, it is the terms on which the phantasmagoria structured a certain reception and relation to the past that is so crucial to understand if this discussion is to illuminate the problems of how contemporary practices of cultural memory mediate our relationship with those whose stories reach us from times and places other than our own. Although the phantasmagoria appears to unnerve and frighten, profiting from its effect through its relation with what is radically other (the dead), in claiming to bring back the dead it ultimately betrays and subsumes any relation to what is incommensurable to and with the present. That is, nothing can ever be sufficiently ‘other’ enough. As Benjamin might say, not ‘even the dead are safe from it’ (1968: 255), everything can be brought back – resurrected and reanimated. This phantasmagoric process, which denies the loss of loss, which denies that there is anything that is radically beyond the recuperative power of the present, ends up accumulating and circulating all things through the principle of identity. There is an obvious resemblance here between the phantasmagoric form and the commodity form, for both are committed to an economy where all things — eventually – can be evaluated, inter-changed or b(r)ought back through one universal equivalent.
In this sense, that which would otherwise remain incommensurate can be reduced – predicted in advance – to standardized objects or thematic events that facilitate a reciprocal undifferentiated exchange process. The principle of general equivalence thus cannibalizes the particular into an abstraction (identity), which then becomes suitable for (undifferentiated) exchange. This is precisely what happens within the mix of ghoulish, spectral history and phantasy that Robertson specialized in. Within his non-linear, melodramatic structure, which of necessity included figures of shining ideals juxtaposed with representations of terrifying images of evil, Robertson provided universal transcendent themes (good/evil; light/darkness; order/chaos) within which to place the spectres on offer to his public.
In order for the universal-equivalence of exchange to operate between the past and present, for the past to enter (phantasmagorically) and incarnate the terms of the present, there must be present in representations of the past an identity and continuity that conforms to a recognizable and coherent structure of meaning. A universal shared signified is thus presumed in the phantasmagoric invocation and reception of the past, structuring our relation to the past through a type of symmetrical one-to-one correspondence. In this abstracted sense, particular historical instances — which have the possibility of breaking up my time — are emptied of their specificity, and risk becoming fetishized and paraded as an ‘event’ that is reducible to its comparable or readily understood thematic characteristics. There is no transitivity in this form of living with ghosts. For no particular obligation – that supercedes my time – is encumbered by the phantasmagoric mediation of images and stories from other times and spaces. Rather, the phantasmagoric activity of making the past present through a successive series of identifiable connections structures a particular attentiveness that thwarts the recognition that a learning from the past requires the present and the past to meet on a different time, through an active remaking of one’s present historical consciousness.
If the phantasmagoria defines the terms of exchange between the past and the present, it then brings forth precisely questions of what might constitute learning about and learning from the stories of others. How is the suffering body presented to us, in our time? Consider in this context the great treatise on human social suffering, Terrence Des Pres’ book The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. In this riveting study of memoirs of the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag, Des Pres’ subject is survival, ‘the capacity of men and women to live beneath the pressure of protracted crisis, to sustain terrible damage in mind and body and yet be there, sane, alive, still human’ (1976: v). Although Des Pres recognized the limits of his project (see 1976: vi), it is the way he works with testimony that needs to be given a second thought.
Des Pres first of all de-contextualizes individual narratives and re-absorbs them into various categories of ‘survivor experience.’ Perhaps most vivid is his chapter on ‘Excremental Assault’ where he writes: ‘How much self-esteem can one maintain, how readily can one respond to the needs of another, if both stink, if both are caked with mud and feces?’ (1976: 66). Arguably, Des Pres’ Survivorpresents a phantasmagoria of pain and suffering. He does not deal with the production of those moments of pain. Rather, through re-presentation of individual descriptions of suffering, Des Pres returns to us the reality of the violence endemic to totalitarian regimes, presenting a viscerally moving presence of elemental degradation as it was experienced in the Camps and the Gulag. These accounts are narratively encoded as elements of the psycho-dynamics of survival, in effect the phenomenality of survival. In establishing the category of ‘survivor’ as the meaningful frame in which we can receive and hold the shocking stories he re-presents for us, Des Pres produces an ontology, the being of ‘the survivor.’ As we read on, we are certainly moved deeply – shocked and disgusted – yet with an epistemological frame effectively in place: one that emplots our reception in a narrative that delivers the thematic terms for claiming that, here indeed is the terrible damage inflicted and against which the human capacity to survive triumphs. What might be made of such testamentary legacy engaged on these terms?
Raphael Rosen (2000), one of the winners of an annual essay contest for high school students designed to encourage and promote the study of the Holocaust, wrote the following:
[T]he emotional connection we make to the descriptions [of survivor testimony] is fundamental to one’s ability to feel suffering when we read horrifying images and descriptions of individual human suffering during this time. In describing dysentery in concentration camps, Terrence Des Pres says, ‘Those with dysentery melted down like candles, relieving themselves in their clothes, and swiftly turned into stinking repulsive skeletons who died in their own excrement’ (1976: 59).
Rosen responds to this passage as follows:
‘Repulsive skeletons’ dying ‘in their own excrement,’ is a powerful image by itself, but when we can imagine it occurring to individual human beings, and when we can connect on an emotional level to this image, it becomes extremely [powerful]. The forceful images [provided by] Des Pres . . . take the connection to . . . the level of the visceral. . . . With Des Pres we can actually feel the suffering that so many went through. Survivor testimony and description will forever play the crucial role in the future of Holocaust remembrance.
As Rosen suggests, Des Pres’ phantasmagoric representation solicits our attention on an emotional level providing a visceral connection to the degradation he has returned to us. Within this connection Rosen imagines he can ‘actually feel the suffering that so many went through.’ In this collapse of self and other, non-indifference is not an option. Rosen may indeed find ways of acting on this non-indifference, turning it concretely into positive (or perhaps relentlessly melancholic, destructive) forms of cultural memory. What is not likely, however, is that he receive the testament presented by Des Pres as counsel, as subject to the difficult work of opening up his own structure of attendance, his own unfolding story, to the demand that he explore and take into account the implications of being addressed by one ‘stinking … caked with mud and feces.’
In this example of reception, phantasmagoria might be understood as a mode of regulation of the inter-human, one whose terms are defined by a particular mode of attentiveness, one that we have come to call spectacle. The particular mode of circulation and exchange between the past and the present that the phantasmagoria structures, circumscribes – as we have seen – the task of inheriting and handing onward within an economy that grants currency to the spectacle of presence. In order to theoretically extend the implications of the phantasmagoric reception we thus draw out how its reliance on spectacle mediates our attention to what arrives from beyond the masterable grounds of the ego. Whereas the phantasmagoria allows us to forefront a particular relation between the past and the present, our venture into the workings of the spectacle seeks to highlight the structure of attendance implicit within the phantasmagoria.
How then is the relationship we hold of the body in ruins (the suffering body) one of spectacle? In providing a few points in this regard, we are self-consciously re-appropriating Debord’s – imminently problematic – concept (1983), re-working its terms and the force of its insight.
 First of all, spectacle is not a thing, it is not an event or even a particular representation of an event. Nor is it something that is exclusively visual, that necessarily incorporates looking at images. Rather spectacle is a particular mode of attentiveness organized within phantasmagoric relations. It is a way of entering the significations of social relations and in this sense may be understood as enacted through certain forms of thought (conscious and unconscious) as well as expressions of feeling.
 Spectacle accepts the incarnation of the ghost as the terms of its attention. Whether in novels, memoirs, diaries, recorded testimonies, films, or theme parks its ambition is to recognize the past as present-at-hand, to accept the terms of the reduction of the past so that the ghost can be of our time – all its radically, its otherness gone. The ghost is thus manifested/staged as a phantom by means of a familiar and exchangeable set of present characteristics; that is, the terms of its welcome are within spectacle: within a spectatorial address that invites the sensationalized sense that ‘you are there,’ engrossed in a symmetrical relation with an ‘entified’ other. This type of engrossment, according to Kaja Silverman, This recalls the formulation of genre in ‘The Law of Genre’:
encourages us to apprehend other beings as present-at-hand entities because it implies seeing them from one uniform standpoint . . . through those perceptual coordinates which are most emphatically and frequently reiterated in our culture, and which therefore interpose themselves almost automatically between us and the world – through what might be called the ‘given-to-be-seen.’ Although we are at such inauthentic moments still in the world, we are not really ‘there.’ (Silverman, 2000: 32-33)
 Spectacle is the development of a technology of separation. ‘Spectacle is not primarily concerned with a looking at images but rather with the construction of conditions of attention that individuate, immobilize, and separate subjects, even within a world in which mobility and circulation are ubiquitous’ (Crary, 1999: 74). Spectacle thus requires the individuation of attention. As a mode of attentiveness it opens the object of my gaze to my individual involvement with it. Not at all pure passivity, the very basis of spectacle lies in eliciting an individual response. But – as a strictly individuated response – it pretends that there is no need to have the substance of my attendance reinscribed in a relational, publicly accountable manner. Rather my encounter is naturalized into a collection that befits the private interior of ‘my experiences.’ That is, spectacle opens on to the melodramatic structure of phantasmagoria inviting identification and the reading of the particulars of images and narratives on the terms of the moral certainties we hold dear. Indeed, it is the very acceptance of this invitation that allows us to disavow any requirement that the terms on which we are moved by phantasmagoric displays might throw ourselves into question, into de-stabilization. The projections and identifications made within spectacle, and the consequent defences it elicits, both require and enact leaving ourselves intact, at a distance, protected from being called into question and altered through our engagement with the stories of others.
 Spectacle offers an attentiveness to suffering that encourages or reproduces an illusory or fantastic mode of attention that endows that horror with a capacity to turn the praxis and process of human history into its thing. Our attentiveness while not ‘inactive,’ is compliant; it does not engage in the praxis of making and re-making our historical consciousness. Before the phantasmagoric scene we fall in awe – feeling deeply, but with nothing to say. Yet, though the light is not on us, within relations of spectacle we are assigned responsibilities; there are expectations. Assembled on terms of spectacle, we must behave as good audience members – leaving unthought the question of how this regulates our obligation to a testamentary legacy that demands a reckoning in the present.10
As a clear example of the contemporary logic of spectacle within the phantasmagoria, we refer to an article entitled ‘Seeking Answers Down in the Trenches’ in the New York Times (November 19, 2000) by William Boyd, novelist and film director. In this article Boyd is sketching his intention and mode of framing his film The Trenches, a feature presentation that depicts forty-eight hours in the British trenches before the beginning of the four month Battle of The Somme, which resulted in 420,000 British casualties, 195,000 French, and 600,000 German. Explaining his efforts, Boyd notes:
We forget that the First World War took place in glorious Technicolor, so familiar are we with its monochrome version. We forget also that it wasn’t mute. The silence of the silent film and the sepia of the images distance the event from us, visually, and it seemed to me one of the great advantages of making a film at the end of the 20th century about the trench experience of the First World War would be that, at the very least, we would see and hear it approximately as it must have been.
Boyd also refers to receiving, just as the filming began, information about his great uncle Sandy who had fought in the First World War and had been wounded at the Battle of the Somme. He writes:
My uncle had also sent a photograph of Sandy in uniform; I had never seen a picture of him before. So – as the world of the film began to cohere and come alive – if there was ever any ghostly presence haunting our replica trenches (and they were spookily evocative at times), I imagined it as being that of Sgt. Alexander Boyd, D.C.M.
We say, casually, that life in the trenches of the Western Front must have been ‘unimaginable.’ But it seems to me that the challenge to the artist, the challenge of art, is precisely to try to imagine the unimaginable – to set the imagination free and attempt to bring that bizarre, boring, filthy, terrifying world to life. . . . In filming ‘The Trench,’ I wanted to make the First World War personal again, to recreate a world that could have contained my grandfather and my great uncle, whose photographs sit today upon the mantelpiece in my study. I wanted more than anything else to represent the ordinariness and humanity of these boys and these young men, and in that way I felt we would understand all the better what they endured.
Yet Boyd knows full well what the economy is within which his staging could circulate. In his film the camera never rises above ground level, but rather ‘roves around the trench system with the actors, almost as a ghostly witness,’ as the clock ticks down the hours before the men go over the top and into battle. When they leave the trench to walk across the Somme valley, Boyd’s aspiration is:
that we have come to know them – and [that] the messy, desperate fates awaiting these particular young men would stand as symbols for the grotesque and enormous massacre that actually took place. My aim, my hope, was to make it authentic, to make it true, to make it real.
Here, again, are all the tropes of a spectatorial address. To make it authentic, to make it true, to make it real when it can not be. To move us within the very move in which ‘particular young men would stand as symbols for the grotesque and enormous massacre.’ In this promise of the immediacy of presence, of our absorption in this presence, effaced is any notion of a ‘trace’ as that which points to what is now gone, which ironically renders that which is not there, there. For the trace is not the terms of spectacle. The grounds of spectacle are far more empirical, eliciting excitement more than the anxiety of the sign, an anxiety mobilized not only by the slippage between the signifier and that which is signified, but, as well, the unbridgeable gap between what Levinas termed ‘the saying’ and ‘the said.’ In the phantasmagoric return of the dead, what is lost is loss itself with the result that – although we might weep, fear, and be shocked – the spectacle of presence becomes a mode of consolation.
The society of the spectacle has not only mobilized and supported an effusion of contemporary re/presentations but as well, produced a narrowing of what counts as one’s own experience with the result that the elemental structures of sociality are increasingly narrowed. But the promise of ‘counsel,’ the potential for the experience of others to ‘touch’ us, is too important to the prospect of hope, to the possibilities of human futurity, to simply abandon within the hegemonic prerequisites of a neo-liberal logic that would hermetically seal the possibility of the past and future within the actuality of the present. If there is to be an acknowledgement of a future to come – and not the resignation of thought to more of the same – central to our present concerns must be an openness to what Homi Bhabha (1994: 223-229) calls ‘translating’ cultures and histories in ways that make it possible to reassess and revise the means of receiving stories with which one is most familiar.
We cannot however step out of the phantasmagoria to some neutral, objective place. As Benjamin knew full well, ‘the unclouded innocent eye has become a lie’ (cited in Cohen, 1993: 251). Emphasizing the force of Benjamin’s words Margaret Cohen writes: ‘Rational de-mystification can hence no longer be the critic’s task. Rather, [one] must seek some form of activity using his/her immersion in the very objects of study to productive end’ (1993: 251). With this in mind, we begin a re-consideration of questions of public memory. To work towards ethical and transformative pedagogical forms of remembrance one must recognize that spectacle will be the initial mode through which testamentary remnants give themselves to us. As we read, listen, and view accounts of human initiated suffering and death we are brought into the orbit of a spectacular relation with the body in pain that is humiliated, that perishes. A risk encountered in this relation is the abstraction of testament into a narrative of ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ Testament on phantasmagoric terms configures particular moments of anguish/suffering into a thematic formula in which the testamentary inheritance loses its specificity and historical grounding, even more crucially – loses its transitivity. Within our 21st century phantasmagoria, the ghost is called forth, but yet re-absorbed into a history that is more troubled than troubling, delivered more as news than counsel. But the question remains, living within this phantasmagoria, can we work within it to find moments in which it can be undone, where there is something other than the terms of a spectacular attentiveness, one in which a specific relation between stories/images and their reception might begin to define the substance of the inter-human?
III. Remembrance, Pedagogy and the Ethical Praxis of the Inter-human
The challenge of remembrance in our time is to create a sphere of human engagement and learning, to develop a social space and a practice where it becomes possible to engage with the stories of others on un-phantasmagoric terms. We now turn to our attempt to meet this challenge through on-going work with a group of people attempting to enact a form of remembrance-as-learning, through what we have called a ‘historiographic poetics.’ Our efforts to work towards a non-spectacular mode of attending have found that it is only among others, only in working together, that this attending can become a genuine practice. The study group is thus not merely an assembly of individuals with common interests or commitments: more than just a ‘meeting,’ it is simultaneously a time, a site and an opening up. Watchful of the many ways in which this mode of attending continues to be subject to forces of spectacularization (forces from which no solitary act of reading can ever entirely disengage), the group supports a space and a time within which one learns, one teaches how one learns and one learns again. It is this space that inaugurates what we have earlier referred to as a moment of ‘public time’ — a relationality which, in the very unpredictability intrinsic to open conversation between individuals, perennially keeps itself open. It is a community of rememberers and learners, an open community11 of witnesses, both present and absent, living and dead.
Envisioned is a transitive sphere (or spheres) within which various and varied stories can be circulated, and where participation in such a sphere of public memory requires vigilance and attention to the instances conveyed of other people’s lives. In the context of this vision, a particular diary, for example, Herman Kruk’s diary of the Vilna Ghetto, can be approached as an instance of ‘testament.’ More generally, testament in this sense refers to images, text and/or sound written and assembled to constitute (in the very movement of production) an address that attempts to initiate a public memory. But the ‘public’ character of this memory is not something given in advance. Rather, the idea of a public is what is at stake in the transitive address: an address which seeks, but may not arrive at, its destination (Keenan, 1998). That is, the public character of the memorial demand of testament is inherent in the very dynamic called for by testament as such: a waiting, a hearing, a response, a welcome of the arrival of that which – in its difference – opens the question of the inter-human. Thus public here is neither a prescription nor pre-scribed. It is neither those with a ‘citizen’ status, nor pre-given as a ‘we’ that is amassed into something called ‘the public.’ Rather, the sense of a public we are mobilizing here is the ‘we’ who ‘recognize the possibility of an open response’ (Keenan, 1998) to a testamentary address, acknowledging membership in the generation (which could be any generation) for which this message was intended.
This transitive testamentary act (at every reading, at every listening) is an occurrence, an event that has a singular illocutionary force that subjects its addressee to a demand, to an obligation that can either be refused or differentially enacted. But what is the pedagogical project inherent in this force? The temporal condition of the event of testament brings the past with it, charging this event with a future, a possibility; that is, the address of testimony opens the possibility of a site of difference and transformation whose contours are not pre-set, but brought into view and situated, situated anew at each testamentary instance of public time. This initiates a force which has the potential to instantiate the present as ‘already extended beyond itself into the future and carrying with it the past’ (Ziarek, 2000: 84), implicating testament in the re-formation and renewal of historical consciousness. The transitivity of testament initiates a non-linear temporality, a momentary complex of the has-been, the making-present and the coming-toward (Ziarek, 2000: 84). Thus, the pedagogical hope of this form of remembrance is that new things may happen if this moment includes the radical openness to the proximity of the other, one beyond a spectacular sensibility.
We have been exploring a practice of remembrance that attempts to provoke and support such an openness to testament and have termed this practice a ‘historiographic poetics.’ This refers to a specific form of public work, a particular creative, reflective working with testimony that attempts to serve both ethical remembrance and critical learning. It describes the activities of a group working together to enact a new form of relation to historical material. The sense of the poetic in this relation is not being invoked for any aesthetic eloquence, but for the active process of decomposing our expectations and re-composing our obligations to the testamentary traces. As our idea of historiographic poetics reveals, this is as much a creative act as a responsive one: it is an act of creation which is essentially responsive. And the work is thereby inherently and inexorably unfinished – called forth by and intended for the group itself, it becomes what it is only in being offered to others, in becoming other than whatever one had intended. In this regard, we offer a methodological triad of juxtaposition, commentary and response as the primary terms on which a trans-activity is enacted in the process of reading and responding to the archive of testamentary materials.
We know, as Benjamin taught, that ‘every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably’ (1968: 255). However, this recognition of the past as one of one’s own concerns is no simple task. Indeed, it is fraught with problems and risk. Within the space of our study group, as we read and listen to the testimony of Vilna, we are faced – we will perpetually be faced – with the problem of recognition12: how might the images of the Vilna Ghetto be recognized as one of our own concerns? The task cannot be reduced to the apprehension of relevance: the grasping of (from our time-of-the-present) themes or issues that seem to persist through time and into our own. Finkielkraut has rightly cautioned that ‘[m]emory does not consist in subordinating the past to the needs of the present … for he who looks to gather the materials of memory places himself at the service of the dead, and not the other way around’ (1994: 54). So one must proceed on grounds different from the typical investments one often finds at the root of the ‘use of history,’ the active adaptation of history to the social, emotional and political needs of the present.
This means attending to the implications of Benjamin’s astute paradox that ‘in order for a part of the past to be touched by the present, there must be no continuity between them’ (1999: 470). This demands new, and perhaps less directive, forms of answering to the responsibilities of memory: for the work of a historiographic poetics will not be ‘about something,’ but rather that it will be something, a form of remembrance that attempts to clear the way for the arrival of the new, and emergent. This requires a focused conversation within which one is enabled to work with and through the dialogical and transferential relations evoked by the transitive demands of testimony. As Kelly Oliver suggests, ‘working-through is the process of articulating and diagnosing the ways in which we totalize or deny otherness; its aim is transforming our relations with others and otherness’ (2000: 45).
This ‘method ‘ is our exploratory response to the question: does one read and listen differently to testamentary material if obliged to more than just personal reception, if obliged to find a way to teach, to teach how and what we learn not only about Vilna but from attending to its testimony? The implications of this question run deep, opening the issue of a dialectical relation between knowing and the social activity of sustaining an historical consciousness. Indeed, perhaps these questions are unaddressable except in the form of a conversation that upholds the on-going renewal of historical consciousness, a conversation sustained by relations of learning and teaching, by witness as a form of collective study.
As we described earlier, the basic operation, which initiates – but does not complete – the work of historiographic poetics, is the act of collage: the citation and arraignment of a finite set of testamentary texts and images in juxtaposition.13 In historiographic poetics, the placing of each citation in relation to one another is intended to expose one’s exposure to the address of testament, to my attempt to be responsible to that address. This citation of details in the form of a collage is a practice that attempts to give expression to what astonishes, what exceeds my horizon of expectations, what is contradictory and heterogeneous. As a gesture towards a non-reductive textual event, a juxtaposition will, in its most developed form, be a polylinguistic, polyvocal and polytemporal14 remembrance which can include a juxtaposition of music, poetry and art with ghetto diaries, memoirs and survivor testimony. It is a way of reintroducing incommensurability into linguistic and social structures – a constant remembering and reassertion of difference, whose purpose is to open the present to something new.
These juxtapositions will require proceeding from a rigorous listening and a certain attentive obsession with details. This means awakening to a humbleness that is also a form of vigilance: a being open to surprise, to an unsettlement, and then to an interrogation of why we are surprised, unsettled. Of the structure of this vigilance, Oliver writes, ‘vigilance is necessary to recognize the unrecognizable in the process of witnessing itself. To demand vigilance is to demand infinite analysis through ongoing performance, elaboration, and interpretation’ (2000: 46). By staging aggregations of the testimonial details, we ask those addressed by our witness to engage with us in speaking (not about but) to these images as we attempt to recognize them as one of our own concerns. And this is why, included within this ‘method,’ the juxtaposition must be accompanied by a ‘commentary.’ As an attempt to signify one’s difficulties in working through the study of historical documents, this commentary is to be understood as a practice that attempts to discover what can be said about one’s process of writing one’s juxtaposition. In other words, a juxtaposition’s commentary is an effort to deepen what is at stake for the one who remembers through the enactment of a collective, dialogical practice with those committed to the task of attending to the address of the past. To complete at least one cycle of the work of this poetics, the members of this community must, in turn, write back: responding to both the juxtaposition and its commentary within the contexts of their own attempts to engage an archive of testament, to respond to its demands.
Our interest is in the maintenance of a space of study that allows for and provokes an endless process of questioning and re-questioning, demanding greater and greater attention not only to the remnants themselves, but to our obligations and to our attempts to respond to those obligations. This open engagement with testament will always turn us back to our responsibility, to the work (and it iswork) of foregoing the idealization or ossification of the approach, a rendering of this approach into a simple compensatory or consolatory formula. The obligation is to a constant rewriting of the face that approaches us – testifying to and out of my exposure to its demands, opening up in turn my own witness to the questioning of others.15
As we find in Levinas, ‘To study well, to read well, to listen well, is already to speak: whether by asking questions and, in so doing, teaching the master who teaches you, or by teaching a third party’ (1994a: 78-79). To listen well is already to speak, and to speak is to open and sustain a space within which the (absent) voices of witnesses past might resound anew in and into our own time. It is to make possible the re-sonance, or echo, of what has not yet been spoken, of something that is not already contained within the document sitting in my hands. It is to make possible a space and a time within which something new can happen — inaugurating a hope for a future that might be more than merely ‘more of the same.’16 As Benjamin writes in ‘The Task of the Translator,’ what is essential in an ‘original’ work, what demands the attention and labours of the translator, ‘is not statement nor the imparting of information’ (1968: 69). Rather, this essential quality is precisely that which escapes the written-ness of the text — what demands translating is effectively what has not been ‘said’ or recorded at all: its transitivity. For a story to survive as testament it must continue to address. What the reader/rememberer is here called to do with a testament is keep it from disappearing as testament — and this means responding to its call, performing this response by exposing to others my exposure to its demands.
To receive a story as counsel is thus more than merely the question of garnering a piece of wisdom from the telling, nor is it to pass it on as if the social space across which voices are heard is a neutral and indifferent site of transmission and reception. To pass on a story is not only to pass on the content or information contained within it, but also the difficult experience of your attending of it. A living story does not pass from the mouth-of-the-teller to the ear-of-the-listener, but rather it moves — it lives — from mouth-to-mouth, from telling to telling (Benjamin, 1968: 87). Thus to properly ‘hear’ a story isto tell it again — the wisdom of counsel is the wisdom of experience. It is, as Benjamin (citing Hofmannsthal) has written, ‘to read what was never written’ (1999: 416).
Thus, it is important to emphasize that this citation of testimonial detail is not a simple privileging of the authority of the ‘eye-witness.’ It does not operate on the presumption that such testimony can bring one closer to the truth. Rather, we emphasize that citation is an act in which what is given, is given again, given to another. Memoration through quotation is not simply repetition, but an iterative re-working with others in the site of the present (A. Benjamin, 1997: 50), a re-working that in its very work may unsettle the invested frameworks that help one grasp and negotiate present realities. The unsettlement that citation may provoke lies in the substance and method by which our citation provides details.
This feature of our historiographic poetics is what we describe as the ‘impoverished and impoverishing’ potential of a juxtaposition. One may find the juxtaposition ‘impoverished’ insofar as it presents an array of details that, in their very density, begin to diminish the surety that the signs emplot an adequate index of the events they reference. This opens to the possible registration that however detailed each passage might be on its own, the effect of reading them together on the page can ’empty out’ the contents of its substantiality. The result is the impoverishment of the reader/rememberer: one is leftpoorer, both in terms of what each account, in themselves, seemed to have communicated, and in terms of the knowledge, information or structures of understanding that one may have taken for granted prior to this encounter. It is this structure of impoverishment that can perhaps open to the witnessing of that which necessarily escapes any particular telling or testimony: the singularity of the telling itself, beyond the content and information that any testament might bear.
The discussion that followed one specific juxtaposition is of particular interest on this point. It consisted primarily of references to the well known Vilna singer, Lyuba Levitska, and her subsequent execution for the crime of smuggling food through the Ghetto gate. The juxtaposition with its repetitions and contradictions between accounts of Levitska’s ‘crime’, arrest, imprisonment and death, threw its readers into ‘an historiographic crisis.’ What to admit, what to refuse as reliable evidence, reliable information, reliable witness? But this is not merely a crisis of evidence, but one of interpretation. In the amassing of details about the circumstances of Levitska’s death, readers encountered questions of how to be responsible to a life that has been lived, traced amidst and between testamentary referents.
One member of the group admitted that the profusion of details in this juxtaposition produces a text that ‘breaks the heart.’ He explained that, within the confusion of multiple accounts, the presence(perhaps we might talk here of the Levinasian ‘face’ — the face without features) of Levitska comes through, something that is not available in the bare surface details of descriptive accounts often given in diaries, memoirs and oral testimonies. In part, this can describe the escape of a life from the confines of a narrative, a narrative that is always a candidate for being the authoritative story. In this escape what comes forth is the un-representable particularity of Lyuba Levitska, her ‘face’ becoming visible precisely for having escaped the fixity of the citable details of the narration of her death.17The multiplicity of texts keeps unsettling the ‘story’ – keeping the story open – and it is in that very unsettlement that the ghost, the facingthat escapes all possible re-presentation, enters.
It is in this spectral moment that one can begin to regard one’s own facility for attending to testimony, for learning what it has to teach, and for helping formulate a responsible response not only to what is said but to its persistent moment of saying. For us, the importance of citation lies in the confluence of its indexical and delineative dimensions as this confluence is subjected to the discipline of a historiographic poetics.
But why call this ‘method’ a ‘poetics,’ a term historically loaded, pregnant with multiple associations? In order to address this question directly, we must clear away two possible misdirections that the use of the term poetics may initiate. First of all, within the humanities, there is a long tradition following Aristotle in referring to poetics as the study of the rules, codes and procedures that operate in any given set of texts: that is, the study of the laws of effective composition. On such terms, to undertake a discussion of poetics is, most commonly, to describe and analyze (and, for some, historicize) the discursive conventions that inform the reading of and response to a particular set of texts. In poetics as a field of study, one ‘attends to all the moves, schemes, and conventions that govern writing, including the order of material, the choice of voice and point of view, and stylistic matters such as diction and sentence patterns’ in order to understand its effects (Carrard, 1992: xiv-xv). Yet, as is already evident, our interest is far from the analysis of writing (testamentary, historical or otherwise).
Secondly, the use of the term poetics might signal to some a gesture toward a concern with philosophical aesthetics, particularly as the agenda of this area of inquiry is taken up with the problem of expressive limits and the notion of the sublime. However, in our work, we clearly depart from approaching the Shoah as an ‘event,’ a subject of contemplation. In our wrestling with the responsibility of memory, we are not gesturing towards issues of the sublimity of Holocaust memory. Our concern is not with the response of wonder, enormity, or astonishment that meditation on the Shoah as an ‘event’ elicits, making it alien to thought, leaving memory in ruins and reducing us to a stammer. We indeed disavow any notion of a rhetoric of remembrance that constitutes a poetics of Auschwitz as an ‘aestheticizing adornment’ (Leslie, 2001). Indeed, quite differently, our concern is with the risk inherent in ‘acts of predication’ (Braiterman, 2000) that attempt to enact our obligation to respond to the demands of testament — which needs always to be understood in its transitivity. For us, the first instance of this response requires acts of communication addressed to a community of others gathered to struggle with the question of the responsibility of memory. Such communication must include speech and writing that ‘give countenance’ to those who have provided testament. Silence is not permitted. Quite the contrary, what is required are the ‘naive’ practices (Braiterman, 2000) of citation and detailed historiographic reference through which the responsibilities of remembrance can be explored. As witnesses who stand in a transitive relation with the traces of those who continue to speak through the material existence of testamentary documents, at minimum, we must in some medium – whether print, electronic, or performance – cite (and hence point to) specific texts or documents. In citing testamentary texts (be they diaries, memoirs, video interviews, poems, art or song), we stage a necessary indexicality. Testamentary documents are signs that, first and foremost, are determined by the events that produced them (Brinkley and Yourav, 1996: 121-122). Thus, in citation, attention is called not only to the presence of testamentary material but as well to testament’s gesture beyond itself to past events. In this sense, the citation of testamentary documents does — importantly – ‘bring news,’ returning to attention that which has been missed, or misplaced.
Thus, our interest in ‘poetics’ seizes the term so that for us it stresses a particular form of historiographic poiesis: an actual making or doing of remembrance, the on-going production of a radical historical consciousness through a citational working with texts of testament in relation to the same activity undertaken by others. This work, this poiesis, is the foundation of remembrance as both a personal and social practice. As we know, remembrance resides not in monuments, images and texts but in our engagements with them.18 In this sense, the remembrance practice we are concerned with is not simply a repetitive re-cycling of texts, a posting of signs as emblems. To write is to produce meaning and not reproduce a pre-existing meaning, to write is always first to rewrite. As a poiesis, a doing, historiographic poetics carries the potential of something new, emergent, something not already predicated by a pre-existing written form. Historiographic poetics is never about something, it is something. Historiographic poetics is not just a writing, but also performance, elaboration, interpretation that enacts the gift of testimony by, within the space of a community of memory, giving it again. This act of re-giving is not as a simple textual re-transcription, but emerges essentially in the recognition that the gift of testimony lies precisely in its pedagogical force, its transitive demands.
To receive the gift of testament is effectively to be given a task; what is demanded is the interruption of this spectacle of full presence, which in effect demands nothing at all. Within the spectacle of the phantasmagoria, words, stories and images require no metabolization, and thus make no demands upon their recipient. Offered as pre-interpreted, substantial and with a life of their own, they short-circuit the very possibility of just such a demanding address. But, to attend to the transitivity of testament as gift means that something needs to be enacted: that, lacking substance and any meaningfulness in itself, it demands our effort – even requires it. The language of the gift serves here to emphasize this transitive aspect of testament – like testament, all gifts make at least one bare originary demand (i.e. ‘receive me’), which in the failure to be heeded, it ceases to be (or rather, never was) a gift. Thus, it can perhaps be said that the inheritance of testament is the reception of ‘the gift of the ghost.’ The ambiguous meaning of this phrase opens itself to the inherently paradoxical arrival of this ‘gift’ – for testament is simultaneously the gift that is given and the face (or rather the fac-ing) of the giver. The ghost arrives to give itself to me, demanding (from the start) my attention and my response in order to arrive at all.
So even when, or perhaps especially when, we are given explicit instructions (‘This is what I would like you to do with my words’), it is fundamentally up to me to announce this obligation – I cannot simply submit to their authority, wishes or hopes. This apparent disrespect is what marks the absolute character of the encounter. As Geoffrey Bennington (2000: 140) writes: ‘The structure of inheritance commits us to a view of the here and now as a moment when the past always still remains before us as an endless task.’ It is entirely up to me – in speaking for those who have passed, and those who have summoned me to speech ‘in the first place,’ I cannot ever defer to ‘the plain meaning’ of an other’s speech.19
To offer a juxtaposition is thus not to inform others of historical facts, or confess autobiographical details about one’s readings, but is the very opening up of that reading to an other, for an other. Attentive to those moments of interruption and address that mark every encounter with testament, the study group is called upon to emphasize the trans-actional significance of speech. Text near song, diaries next to poems, photographs alongside paintings or drawings, this mixing of media is designed to be neither additive nor thematic, but an attempt to negotiate and re-count a moment of astonishment. To offer a juxtaposition is thus not intended to supply an interpretation of one’s witness. Rather, it is a knotting together of these various and distant accounts in order to impart a moment of concatenation encountered as surprise and instruction, initiating thought that has no rest, that can neither be completed nor end. It itself announces the obligation to speak then of our own surprise, our own questions, our own instruction. The experience of a juxtaposition and commentary is both a construction and an offering. It is a mode of speaking which cannot escape the intricate complications ofaddress: for it is, at the same time, a speaking to and a speaking for.
Historiographic poetics is a response to the question what one might do in order to listen and talk with ghosts. It is founded on the premise that when listening to ghosts and then giving them back speech, one must proceed in full acknowledgement that the gift of testimony is non-reciprocal. The only way to return the gift is by giving it to someone else. One gives back speech to a ghost by speaking of the ghost to others, speaking specifically of its teaching; speaking specifically so as to teach others what it is that the ghost has taught. Thus, to enact and live within public time, one must commit to a vigilant attention not only to the text in your hands, but also to the world into which you will carry and teach its teachings. Levinas is prescient in reopening the question of the inter-human when he states:
speech, in its original essence, is a commitment to a third party on behalf of our neighbour: the act par excellence, the institution of society. The original function of speech consists not in designating an object in order to communicate with the other in a game with no consequences but in assuming toward someone a responsibility on behalf of someone else. (1990:20-21)
1 The research on which this paper is based is being supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, under a project grant No. 410-990-321, entitled ‘Witness-as-Study: Remembrance as a Practice of Learning.’ We wish to acknowledge the invaluable conversations we have had with the other members of the Testimony and Historical Memory Project at OISE/UT, in particular: Lisa Farley, Irena Kohn, Margaret Manson, Lara Sauer and Jessica Ticktin.
2 An ‘upright’ attentiveness would be an answerability constituted in ‘an original fidelity to an indissoluble alliance, a belonging with, [that] consists in confirming this alliance and not in engaging oneself headfirst for the sake of engaging oneself’ (Levinas, 1990: 49). For a discussion of Levinas’ notion of uprightness [droîture], see Derrida (1999: 1-13).
3 In posing such questions regarding historical remembrance as central for cultural study, we are marking our commitment to the necessity of re-thinking how we conceive of the problems of human connectedness, of our commitments and responsibilities to others. Clearly there are multiple, inter-related thematics within which such concerns are pressing: human rights, environmentalism, corporate globalization. We are here stressing that human views of one’s relation to a past are crucial for working through new possibilities for the inter-human. What histories matter and how history matters to whom are questions inevitability caught up in questions of futurity, of the possibilities for humanity.
4 Our interest in not in adjudicating which among differing forms of remembrance is the superior, reducing remembrance to one correct form. Rather, we are concerned here with expanding the range of possibilities regarding the practices that constitute a mature form of public memory. On such terms, the ‘lessons’ of history will not reside exclusively in the historical and sociological understanding of what was done by others, nor in the moral messages that encourage us to the civic courage needed to stand against injustice. These lessons will also reside in a practice of creative historical study that becomes a way of re-thinking the present and the terms on which commitments and responsibilities are constituted.
5 Responding to testament is not simply ‘an intellectual operation that gives one information about the social world, owing nothing to its involvement in the social world’ (Deutsche, 1996: 310). The movement of testament is something that happens to me, something that is implicates me in that moment of possibility in which questions of human connectedness may be opened. The movement of testament is bound to time and nourished by time. It is not just that the transitivity of testament references a certain diachronicity immanent in dialogic relations, but as well, this transitivity references our need of time. As Franz Rosenzweig (1953: 199) notes, ‘to require time means that we cannot anticipate, that we must wait for everything, that what is ours depends on what is another’s.’ That our horizon is not enough, that one must wait, means the time of testimony is conceivable as a ‘public time’ understood as a movement that encompasses the arrival of another on terms within which my vulnerability to this arrival is manifest.
6 For a discussion of the notion of hope as that which resides in the re-thinking of the present, and hence the possibility of futurity, see Andrew Benjamin’s ‘Hope at the Present’ in (A. Benjamin, 1997: 1-25).
7 At the inception of The Writing of History (1988) de Certeau recognizes that the past is given presence and discursive comprehension by historical writing in order to bury its radical (non-present) alterity. For de Certeau this is an alterity that not only disrupts historical teleology, but also – through the haunting return of the dead – impinges on the living-space of the present: he writes,
ghosts find access through [historical] writing on the condition that they remain forever silent. . . . The other is the phantasm of historiography, the object that it seeks, honors, and buries. A labor of separation concerning this uncanny and fascinating proximity is effected. . . . [H]owever contradictory it may be, this project aims at ‘understanding’ and, through ‘meaning,’ at hiding the alterity of this foreigner; or, in what amounts to the same thing, it claims the dead who still haunt the present, and at offering them scriptural tombs. (1988:2)
The writing of history, according to de Certeau, often claims and fixes a place for the dead only to entomb them so that their alterity – that which makes demands on the time of the living – is foreclosed.
8 Again de Certeau lends insight to the problematic being glossed here. The writing of history
promotes a selection between what can be understood and what must be forgotten in order to obtain the representation of a present intelligibility. But whatever this new understanding of the past holds to be irrelevant – shards created by the selection of materials, remainders left aside by an explication – comes back, despite everything on the edges of discourse or in its rifts and crannies: ‘resistance,’ ‘survivals,’ or delays discreetly perturb the pretty order of a line of ‘progress’ or a system of interpretation. These are lapses in the syntax constructed by the law of place. Therein they symbolize a return of the repressed, that is, a return of what, at a given moment, has become unthinkable in order for a new identity to becomethinkable. (1988: 4)
9 At the risk of reducing the multiple spectres at work in Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1994) we venture a paradigmatic distinction between ghosts (the non-present presentation that announces what is beyond my time) and phantoms (as the incarnation or assimilation of the exteriority of the ghost to effect spectacular – frightening and/or enchanting – apparitions). Although ghosts like phantoms need to embody some phenomenal form in which to make themselves present in order to address us, it is the distinction in presentation and reception that maintains the ghost as ghost or renders the ghost into a phantom. The discussion of the armor of the ghost in Derrida’s Specters of Marx is helpful with regards to drawing out what is at stake in maintaining the presentation and reception of the ghost as ghost. Derrida writes, ‘The armor, lets one see nothing of the spectral body, but at the level of the head and beneath the visor, it permits the so-called father to see and speak. Some slits are cut into it and adjusted so as to permit him to see without being seen, but to speak in order to be heard’ (1994: 8). The armor, which blocks our direct approach to the ghost and yet presents it, conveys the ethical challenge of reception that is offered by the non-present presence of the ghost. In other words, the armor can be read as a trace which encases the ghost that faces and addresses us: a face or address still haunts the material traces here. For in blocking our direct approach to the ghost it secures the asymmetry that is necessary for maintaining any possible ethical encounter with the ghost/the face as other. In this sense, the armor is the phenomenal presentation of an other’s command that calls out to us. In the context of the ethical-communicative structure of testaments, the armor metaphor marks that paradoxical distance, which necessarily must be in place, when engaging with difficult stories that address/haunt us: stories that seek out our attention while needing to maintain their distance (that is, a distance that protects the non-phenomenal phenomenon of its address from too easily settling into our present/identificatory knowledges).
10 In an attempt to emphasize that the transitivity of testament is not held fetishistically in the text itself we – throughout the paper – highlight the active role of various modes of reception and its effects on meeting the ethicality implicit in the testamentary address. Our work at this stage does not directly discuss the constitutive role of different forms of mediation, that is the various apparatuses of dissemination and their associated technologies, in certain modes of reception/reading. However, we want to note the importance of considering the specificity of media in enabling us to ask more concrete questions regarding the production of attention, and how these media structure the limits and possibilities of our engagement. In another stage of our work we plan to take up the specificity of mediated transmission, that is, the way in which particular forms for circulating testaments are implicated in contextualizing our audiencing practices.
11 An ‘open community’ — i.e. one founded in openness – would not be an exclusive grouping, but rather a coming together: sociality is thus never private, never simply two. With respect to the study group, for example, the group comes together to gather around and near a ‘third’ whose absence perennially keeps the doors of the meeting place/time open.
12 See the critique of recognition in Kelly Oliver’s Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (2001).
13 Drawing on Benjamin’s insight that the citation ‘summons the word by its name, breaks it destructively from its context, but precisely thereby calls it back to its origin’ (qtd in Weigel, 1996:38), this juxtaposition of disparate and sometimes contradictory elements is offered in order to open testament to its ‘origin’ as saying – allowing it perhaps to address once more.
14 Polylinguistic: since the juxtapositions potentially offer a disparate mix of ‘languages’: both natural language (testimonies translated from the Yiddish, the Hebrew, the German, the Lithuanian, Spanish, some originally in English) and different representational languages (poetry, prose, plays, photos, songs, the visual arts etc.).
Polyvocal: insofar as a juxtaposition will include passages and images from multiple sources and individuals, whether or not they describe the ‘same’ event or time.
Polytemporal: insofar as these ‘quotations’ will each have their own temporal index – some inscribed temporally proximate to the events depicted, some months later, and some as much as 50 years from the events.
15 Of this conception of study, we might also say, along with Levinas, that ‘study is not the activity of a lone individual and that essentially truth must be communicated, that the “I think” is sociality, and that that communication is not an addendum to truth but belongs to the reading itself and is part of the reader’s concern’ (1994b: 66).
16 It is the arrival of a time not founded in the present, in my presence, but rather it is the open future of a possibility, a project. As Keenan writes, it is ‘[n]ot the future of the present, not a future good to be hoped for from a position (or negation) in the present, but the promise and the affirmation of the future, of futures, as other, as not quite like any other, as what is only possible or, better, what is (always) not yet possible: what might no longer be what is’ (1997: 169).
17 In this movement of ’emptying out,’ this ‘more’ that addresses the contemporary witness to testament makes its invisibility visible. It is a dis-orientation that can open to a genuinely new orientation: beyond the movement within the page, outwards, towards the singular voice of the ‘original’ witness, and towards the others, in the room, reading with you.
18 See James E. Young’s The Texture of Memory (1993).
19 This can remind us of the ‘respect without reverence’ for the Word that we find in the interpretative activities of the rabbis of the Talmud. For more, see chapter 2 of Levinas, Testimony, and the Memory of Tradition by Mark Clamen (work in progress).
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