Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive

By (my own) request:

In Remnants of Auschwitz, Agamben attempts to account for the (in)ability to take account of the experiences of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi concentration and death camps during World War II. A dense construction of parallel critical concepts and philosophies relating the aporic binaries of subjectification/desubjectification, the human/inhuman, the possible/impossible, and so on, Remnants traces the complicated relationship between testimony, witnessing and the archive, where the archive is that which is found between the said and the unsaid and testimony exists in the potentiality of the unsaid; a potentiality that is rendered a possibility (of speaking) by the witness (145-6). To quote Agamben directly,

[T]estimony is the disjunction between two impossibilities of bearing witness; it means that language, in order to bear witness, must give way to a non-language to show the impossibility of bearing witness. The language of testimony is a language that no longer signifies and that, in not signifying, advances into what is without language, to the point of taking on a different insignificance – that of the complete witness, that of he who by definition cannot bear witness. (39)

Drawing on the writing and personal experiences of Primo Levi, Agamben’s “complete witness” (and “Levi’s paradox”) is the figure of the Muselmann: the “limit figure” (63) of life and death who constitutes a “new ethics” (69) of humanity and non-humanity.

Agamben is fond of epic conceptual aphorisms (his text is overwhelmed by them), but I think his argument is perhaps best accessed by taking him at his word:  his “last word,” or the word of the Muselmann quoted at the end of the book. Upon reviewing the included testimonies of self-identified Muselmänner—a postscript archive in their own right—I was struck by the consistency in rhetorization of the state of the Muselmann. Four of the eight survivors quoted by Agamben characterize their time as Muselmänner in terms of the “no longer:” “I no longer reacted,” “I no longer even felt hungry,” “you no longer wanted anything from anyone,” “Earthly things no longer mattered,” “he no longer believes in heaven or hell,” “He no longer thinks about his home, his family, the other people in the camp” (166-8). While we hardly need yet another term with which to conceive of the witness and the Muselmann in particular, I think this constant reiteration of a state which is “no longer”—a repetition Agamben certainly evokes, but overlooks in his specific citation of the eight testimonies—is a useful framework through which we might understand Agamben’s project. As a concept, the “no longer” is traced through every iteration of his theory: the Muselmann is no longer man and no longer living, the Muselmann can no longer speak, language is no longer a text or reality but discourse the moment of its enunciation, and so on. In keeping with this trajectory, while Agamben reminds us by way of Foucault that the author is “no longer” author (or, rather, never was), testimony, rather, is “always an act of an ‘author’: it always implies an essential duality in which an insufficiency or incapacity is completed or made valid” (150). Agamben’s navigation around the concept of the author and authorship in his final chapter is tricky, and I would like to dedicate the remainder of this response to its exploration.

In 1996 I read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. I then read all of the books around Anne’s diary: Anne Frank’s Tales From the Secret Annex, Anne Frank: Beyond the Diary and Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend. My diary entries that year began “Dear Kitty.” Every week I rented The Diary of Anne Frank on VHS from the public library and spent every Friday night watching the over three hour film. For my birthday I received The Holocaust Chronicle, a 768-page account of Nazi Germany pre-, during and post-war, and likely to the chagrin of my sixth grade teacher, I wrote my final book report on all of these texts, on Anne, on Schindler’s List, on the Holocaust as I had come to understand it.

Recording this over ten years later and typing the account in its entirety my initial response, I admit, was one of shame. Agamben defines shame with reference to both the Muselmann (he who is let die) and the survivor (he who is made to live or, as Agamben revises, to survive) as “nothing less than the fundamental sentiment of being a subject…: to be subjected and to be sovereign” (107); shame is “being consigned to a passivity that cannot be assumed” (110). Agamben addresses me (and you)—the “spectators”—in his first chapter. Relating an anecdote of a soccer match that presumably took place between the SS and the Sonderkommando, the “special team” of camp inmates responsible for running the gas chambers and crematoria (24), Agamben writes, “our shame, the shame of those who did not know the camps and yet, without knowing how, are spectators of that match…repeats itself in every match in our stadiums, in every television broadcast, in the normalcy of everyday life” (26). Bearing in mind my own account of Anne Frank-related, adolescent reading, it is difficult to discern whether the shame of which he writes is constituted in the moments of inattention to the history of the Holocaust, the moments I spent combing over various Holocaust-related texts, or both. What is certain is the distinction being made between spectator and witness. Agamben’s construction, after all, positions the composite witness as enacted by the survivor, and only the survivor. Only survivors of the camps bear witness for those who did not survive. Meanwhile we (and presumably Agamben would include himself in this category) are relegated to the perpetual spectatorship of the soccer game from hell. According to Agamben’s construction of witnessing, he, me, you, any 11 year old girl with her first copy of The Diary cannot bear witness for Anne, or anyone else. The role of the witness is reserved for the survivor, for the authentic and sanctified experience of the “unique event” (31, 157)—a depiction I would hope to trouble—of Auschwitz.

I accept this, certainly, and it is with trepidation (how many times in the writing of this paper was I faced with the impossibility of speech?) that I proceed to my final gesture. I can’t help but note that my experiences as a young girl and even my experience reading this book and attempting to respond to it represent a form of witnessing—do they not? In his preface, Agamben posits his book as “a kind of perpetual commentary on testimony,” “a way to listen to what is unsaid” (14). In other words it is a voicing of testimony; it is the experience of the archive; it is witnessing. Furthermore, Agamben reminds us in an interview with Ulrich Raulff for the German Law Journal that the critical work of Remnants functions as a paradigm: “I work with paradigms,” he says, “I use this paradigm to construct a large group of phenomena…in order to understand an historical structure” (610). A paradigm—“a pattern or model, an exemplar” (OED)—is by definition a structure to be applied. Yet in his account of accounting, Agamben never theorizes his own participation as a witness, nor mine. Where am I in Agamben’s configuration? And where is he? For what can I bear witness and can I? If it is not witnessing when I read a Holocaust memoir, or write about one, what is it? After all of the commentary we have encountered of the personal and visceral experience of archiving why, for Agamben, can the archivist not bear witness? What kind of time limit does this impose on witnessing? And if all this is true, of what import is Agamben’s role as paradigm-builder? What are we to make of his almost absurd structures of thought that result in an impossibility to speak on the subject?

Agamben (and here I have to agree with him) is anxious about speaking for these desubjectified subjects; his text, as a result, is laden with this anxiety. Thus, his last word, the word that is to resonate beyond the text’s conclusion, is the word of the Muselmann. But Agamben forgets himself: it is his word, too. Although he opens with a plea to move beyond enigma, beyond the “incomprehensible” (11); though he asks, “Why confer on extermination the prestige of the mystical?” (32); though he concludes by claiming that “those who assert the unsayability of Auschwitz today should be more cautious in their statements (157), Agamben proceeds, to some degree, to fulfill the very opposite: in his effort to render the experiences of Auschwitz comprehensible, he nevertheless confers a mysticism of his own to the authentic survivor whose days are limited, asserting his own unsayability of Auschwitz and effectively closing the conversation.

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~ by pamelaingleton on 28 July 2010.

One Response to “Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive”

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