Bearing witness to the witness: some thoughts on hearing wounds talk

May 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

Talking wounds.
Can wounds talk? Pain is often a great silencer; unshareable and often uncommunicable, it frequently cuts us off from others. But it is also true that, as in the story of Tancred and the tree, wounds never stop speaking, seeking out listeners who will hear them or, if such a thing is possible, heal them.  Holocaust survivor Primo Levi writes in if this is a Man of his recurring nightmare: the ‘ever repeated scene of the unlistened-to story’. The dream expresses a fear he says is common to survivors, and which is connected to the need to ‘tell our story to the rest, to make the rest participate in it’ (1987: 15.) The plea of the survivor, then, is to be heard, it is a request that we, who did not have to suffer the trauma of the surviving the Holocaust, bear witness to the witnesses of atrocity. It is a request that was for a long time painfully denied, but which has in recent years found itself at the heart of a burgeoning interest in trauma and, along with it, an emerging ethics of witnessing. For Cathy Caruth, for example, the call of the ‘crying wound’ of trauma represents an ethical address of the other to the self that ‘demands a listening and a response’ (1996: 9). Similarly, in the psychoanalytic model of trauma testimony described in Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s by now seminal study Bearing witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening, ‘it takes two to witness the unconscious’ (1992: 15). Holocaust testimony is here described as a performative act that can be understood not as a statement of truth but as ‘a mode of truth’s realisation’, in which the witness to the witness is an active participant. For Laub, the listener is an ‘enabler of testimony’, he or she is ‘party to the creation of knowledge’ (Felman and Laub 1992: 15). The listener, as the ‘enabler of testimony’ is what makes possible the process by which ‘the narrator (the survivor) reclaims his position as a witness’ (Felman and Laub 1992: 85). To witness then, is no solitary act; the wound that talks always seeks the secondary witness that will hear it. French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard has also theorised this relationship in his succinct and oft-cited formula for a ‘testimonial pact’. Among the conditions necessary for successful and politically useful testifying Lyotard notes the importance of ‘an addressee, not only willing to listen and accept the reality of the referent, but also worthy of being spoken to’ (Nance 2006: 87).In his model the listener – who actively and ethically listens, recognising the voice and subjectivity of the testifier in the process – is not merely an additional benefit, (s)he is a vital element without which the testimony would not exist. Put simply, it is only in the company of a (worthy) listener that my story can be told. This is perhaps no great revelation, and indeed the notion of an audience as a necessary part of the act of witnessing is nothing new. One of the earliest categories of witness, the martyr (etymologically linked to the modern term witness, via the Greek martur, itself said to be linked to the Indo-European word for ‘remember’), is a case in point.  In early modern stories of sainthood – often called the pious pornography of the middle ages – the martyrs bear witness to their faith in God always and necessarily in front of an audience. The martyr becomes a saint by virtue of her tortured, gruesome, bleeding body: flesh and limbs are torn apart, breasts are sliced off, and nubile young girls are set to boil in vats of hot oil. But this body does not suffer in isolation, for the witnessing body of the martyr is in all senses a site of performance and spectacle – of the pagan torturer’s power (which is undermined), of the faith and endurance of the saint, of the miraculous blessing and protection of God, and of the sublime nature of suffering and abjection. As with every spectacle, the audience is crucial to the success of the act. Without the belief of the audience, both within the narrative (the pagan spectators who convert to Christianity, the God who observes and intervenes), and without (the medieval layperson who reveres relics and images of exotic martyred flesh) the saint would quite simply not be a saint. As Blondheim and Liebes put it, in biblical witnessing, ‘the witness is the addressee, not the medium. It is the collective which performs the witnessing’ (Blondheim and Liebes 2009: 115). If Judaeo-Christian storytelling is not as popular as it once was, the principle of religious witnessing seems to be making a come-back in the secular creeds of trauma, memory and human rights discourse. The entreaty made to us by survivors who tell their stories or historians who construct their museums and mausoleums in remembrance of the ugliest of pasts is, indeed, as Levi put it, an entreaty to participate in a community of collective remembering in which witnessing the witness becomes an ethical imperative. So what does this mean for us? What should it alter about the way in which we regard the wounds that speak to us every day – in books, films, or artworks; through the museums and memorials that we visit; or even in the news as we eat our dinner? For me the first step is to begin to think of ourselves in this position of reader/spectator/visitor/viewer less as the passive receivers of media projections and more as active listeners, as secondary witnesses whose role in the production of memory and its meanings is far from obsolete. This is on the one hand an empowering move: as active listeners we are also free to question the narratives constructed by these media projections of the past into the present; to do so is critical in all senses of the term, for to challenge something is also to engage in it. This does not, however, mean that by becoming active listeners we should or would callously join the league of deniers; for when we accept our role as active participants in the ongoing conversation with the traumas of the past, we also enter into that testimonial pact that Lyotard has outlined. We commit also to partake of an ethics of listening by which we are positioned first and foremost as witnesses to the witness. Through this commitment we acknowledge our responsibility of recognition towards the original witness who, like so many of those survivors of the holocaust who have so graciously given us the gift of their terrible stories, are no longer there to tell their stories, but whose wounds nonetheless continue to speak, and must continue to be heard.

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§ 2 Responses to Bearing witness to the witness: some thoughts on hearing wounds talk

  • Witness Some says:

    […] Bearing witness to the witness: some thoughts on hearing wounds … Bearing witness to the witness some thoughts on hearing wounds talk. May 15th, 2011 § Leave a Comment. Talking wounds. Can wounds talk? Pain is often a great silencer; unshareable and often uncommunicable, it frequently […]

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