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Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 7 months ago

Quick links: Adorno Levi Future reading Working bibliography Working thesis Final Writing for Block 4 Old notes Other students' work

General notes


  • Notes on Night (Elie Wiesel):
Wiesel constructs his text in a far different way than Levi. Wiesel's is - with a few exceptions - a chronological memoir, whereas Levi often generalizes to experiences throughout his time at Buna (see, for example, his chapter on "Work"), with a few important events told throughout (his arrival at the camp, "The Canto of Ulysses," his departure from the camp...). Thus, we might conclude that Levi's goal is to describe the details of the camp, as he experienced them, while Wiesel's is to tell the story of his experience in the camp. Levi also tells his story in both the present and past tenses, whereas Wiesel tells his entirely in the past. Thus, Levi's description is more immediate, while Wiesel's is more personal (a story of what happened to him). Why did the two make these very different choices? Some of the details between the two accounts also differ. The selection (I assume it is the same selection) in Buna during the winter of 1944/5 follows two different processes in the two texts. In Night, all of the prisoners run by the Dr. Mengele while the latter writes down the numbers of the people who will be killed (though some of those whose names are not written are also killed). In If This is a Man, all of the prisoners run by a prominent in the camp while the latter passes a note with their number either to the left or to the right, and all of those who are passed in one of the directions (the prisoners are not told which) are sent to the gas chambers. Are these different selections? If not, how is it possible that the two writers remember the events differently? (These questions further complicate Levi's claim about his heightened state of awareness while in the camp, such that he remembers everything from his time there.) Wiesel also claims that those in Ka-Be (the Buna hospital) were freed by the Russians two days after the rest of the camp was evacuated, while Levi's last chapter (describing his time in Ka-Be) is "the story of ten days." And, more importantly perhaps, in Night, many of the Jews suffer together in the beginning. Wiesel gets advice and pity from the others in the camps. In If This is a Man (and even more in The Drowned and the Saved), Levi makes it clear that the Jews, especially the Jewish prominents, were the cruelist of all because they were the most afraid of losing their privilege, and that answers in Buna were entirely lacking (the question, "why?" was a question only asked by the highest numbers, and the answer was some varient of "go to hell"). Again, how is it possible that these two accounts are different, not only in their manner of storytelling, but in the details of the story they tell? Did they experience two different sides of Buna or color their experience with their beliefs about topics like community and memory?


  • From The German Quarterly:
Anne Fuchs - "Towards an Ethics of Remembering: The Walser-Bubis Debate and the Other of Discourse" - Summer 2002The idea that narrative (storytelling) is the proper way to remember our pasts (and even develop our identities) is overwhelming in "currently dominant theories of cultural memories" (235). But, this point is not so clear-cut. For example, the Walser-Bubis debate is the debate between two Shoah survivors, Ignatz Bubis - who is impelled by an unhealable wound left by the Shoah to remember the dead (which reestablishes the ethical contract between self an other ruptured by the Shoah) - and Martin Walser - who, in the autobiographical novel Ein springender Brunnen, removes all mention of the Shoah (and the deaths of his brother and father) in an attempt to avoid the perpetrator-victim binary. Memory as storytelling/narrative is problematic partly insofar as it attempts to manage the Shoah, to fit it into an emotionally compelling, but neatly packaged experience (a trip to the Holocaust Museum, an "enjoyable trip" to Auschwitz (237), etc.). Much writing about the Shoah is - according to James E. Young - "factually insistent" (237) in the sense that it attempts to make a strong link between the narrative and the writer's experience. But, because the writing is therefore linked directly to the writer's experience, when the writer is not present, the work loses its only evidence. Young concedes, though, that this idea becomes complicated when we consider examples of fictional accounts of the Shoah that are also factually insistent. He makes the distinction between a sense of authority that is "retrieved" and one that is "constructed" (238), ie: one that comes directly from experience and one that comes indirectly from fiction. Anne Fuchs (the author), then argues that this distinction is important from an ethical standpoint. A retrieved authority, even insofar as the author's name is present, appeals to an existence that is not entirely capturable by words and thus the ethical obligation to take account of the testimony (how does this work? - see 238). Here, the author reminds of Levinas, who attempts to develop an ethics of others that does not attempt to remove the otherness of the other (by conceiving of it as another self), but "affects a calling into question of the same, a shock which offsets and disturbs consciousness. ...[T]his experience of otherness is a manifestation that defies representation..." (239). In other words, surprisingly like Adorno's explanation of the importance of art and philosophy, the experience of the other as an-other forces us to reconceive what we think fits under our present understanding of the world (that which we regard as "the same"). But, the key difference, between this conception and Adorno's is that this experience with the other defies representation. It cannot be touched by art. It is, on the other hand, accessible through conversation, which is why Levinas argues for an ethical obligation to listen, and thus especially to listen to testimonies of trauma (because they are the most in need of someone to listen? Because they are the most other, have the most to teach us?). This view differs greatly from that expressed at the beginning of the essay. Instead of the goal being history, the goal is what Fuchs (following Kristeva) calls "affect" - being moved by what we experience, which cannot be expressed in language (see below): "That unbearable pain shooting through the Shoah survivor who returns to Auschwitz in Lanzmann's documentary [?] and the sob of stuttering that interrupts the flow of speech, traces of an affect that frustrate representation" (239). If this experience is placed into language is placed into an order and thus becomes part of the same (it loses its otherness).

Fuchs then turns to Freud's analysis of trauma. Freud claims that traumatic memories are not simply repressed, but subconsciously altered (even formed) by the needs of the individual. In fact, the telling of stories by a patient is a performance that displays "the repetition compulsion in the transference relationship" (240 -- what is this?), which indicates a repressed affect: instead of telling a story to bring forth (un-repress) my memories, I still a fictional story and use it as a way to perform (through gestures) my repressed (unsaid and un-narratable) affect. In Fuchs' terms: "Freud, and even more so Lacan, Kristeva and Lyotard think of trauma as a performance that fails to speak the language of representation, as an unrepresentable affective impring haunting the self's conscious fabrications, known as memories" (241). The theories expressed at the beginning (those that emphasize narrative memories) attempt to achieve closer, "but closer and memory are diametrically opposed" (241). (?) Complicating these beginning theories further is Lyotard's claim that narratives and memorials (and all forms of representation) may not be good ways to remember: (as quoted in Fuchs: "It is to be feared that word representations (books, interviews) and thing repersentations (films, photographs) of the extermination of the jews [...] by the Nazis bring back the very thing against which they work increasingly in the orbit of secondary repression instead of letting it remain forgotten, outside of any status, on the "inside." It is to be feared that, through representation it turns into an ordinary repression. One will say, It was a great massacre, how horrible. Of course there have been others, "even" in contemporary Europe (the crimes of Stalin). Finally one will appeal to human rights, one cries out "never again" and that's it! It is taken care of" (Fuchs, 241; Lyotard, "Heidegger and 'the jews'" - 26).

Response: Although Levinas's diction, of "otherness" and "alterity," sounds overly philosophical and even metaphysical, he is describing something common in the human experience. In Wittgenstein's terms, this "alterity" is the aspect of what can be shown that cannot be said (more on this -- reread your Witt-y essay). In Kundera's, it is the unique aspect of every individual (that Tomas attempts to reach through sex and through surgery.)

  • Postmodernism and the Ethical Subject:
"Towards a Postmodern Ethics of Memory"This essay looks at the postmodern way of thinking about history (namely, as something fragmented to which we are "foreign" (in other words, as something distant from us)) and claims that the roots of this way of thinking lie (at least partly) in technology since the beginning of the 19th Century and the way that it has changed, and continues to change, the way we think about time and space.

"The contemporary preoccupation with history and memory can be seen as operating in direct reaction to the amnesiac tendency of our era, the inscription of newly imagined communities and locations a response to the loss of shared ritual and national identities in a West increasingly characterized by shifting zones of cultural hybridization. However, it would be misleading to frame these gestures against forgetting as merely nostalgic and compensatory. New modes of theorizing questions of knowledge and the subject within the postmodern also mark important re-framings of the past - and in ways that work to expand rather than to diminish our ethical horizons" (8).
The study of history has not only become broader, but more self-conscious, such that people now talk about history less as an epistemological study (after truth) and more of "an ethical and political practice" (10, quoting Lynn Hunt (pg 103?), "History as a Gesture; or The Scandal of History"), In other words, as we realize that history is intersubjective and not objective, we also realize that it must be social (governed by who is allowed into the intersubjective discourse), so social questions (questions of value and politics) enter into discussions about the study of history. Looking at history as intersubjective also opens up questions of revisionism in which we think of history as memory at the level of a nation-state, like the example of the French denial of Vichy as Paris was liberated (see, pg. 11), and of the existence of the Other as an essential component of language.

Once we associate history with memory, we see that the growing historical awareness in literature, literary theory, philosophy, etc. is partly a push to remember (Holocaust Remembrance, AIDS quilts, the return of historical considerations in theory, etc.) and partly - because human consciousness is not infinite - a push to forget. Remembering - according to Derrida (where?!) - is an ethical act.

  • And then...

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