Witnessing Trauma: Reflections on the Work of Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, #2 of 5


This is the second of five posts of entries from my philosophical journal dealing with Testimony, the important book by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub.  The entry was originally written on the date given below.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Felman, “Education and Crisis,  Or the Vicissitudes of Teaching,” Ch. One of her and Laub’s book,  pp. 41-42: 

The Holocaust testimonies in themselves are definitely, at least on their manifest level, as foreign to “poetry” as anything can be, both in their substance and in their intent.  Yet many of them attain, surprisingly, in the very structure of their occurrence, the dimension of discovery and of advent and the power of significance and in part of a true event of language–an event which can unwittingly resemble a poetic, or a literary act.  The very real, overwhelming and as such traumatic aspect of these narratives engages, on the other hand, both the clinical and the historical dimensions of the testimony. . . [which are] implied as well by Celan’s poetry.  What makes Celan’s poetry crucially poetic (even in its post-aesthetic, antipoetic stage) is . . . its formal insistence on the unpredictability of its own rhythm.  In thus insisting on the unpredictability of its own music . . . Celan’s poetry insisted, in effect (as did Mallarmé’s), on the risky unpredictability of the endeavor of the  witness, who does not master–and does not possess–his testimony or his “message in the bottle” [Celan], which may or may not reach a “you” [addressee].  I would suggest, indeed, that both the mystery and the complexity of the endeavor of the testimony and of its compelling power derive, precisely, from this element of unpredictability, from what is unpredictable, specifically, in the effects of the exchange and the degree of interaction between the historical, the clinical and the poetical dimensions of the testimony.

Page 53:

I would venture to propose, today [after a crisis of witnessing that took place in her own class on trauma and testimony], that teaching in itself, teaching as such, takes place precisely only through a crisis:  if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or the explosiveness of a (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught:  it has perhaps passed on some facts, passed on some information and some documents . . . but that no one could recognize,and that no could could therefore truly learn, read or put to use.

Looking back at the experience of that class, I therefore think that my job as a teacher, paradoxical as it may sound, was that of creating in the class the highest state of crisis that it could withstand, without “driving the students crazy”–without compromising the students’ bounds.

Later, same page:

Both this kind of teaching and psychoanalysis are interested not merely in new information, but, primarily, in the capacity of the recipients to transform themselves in function of the newness of that information. . . . Testimonial teaching fosters the capacity to witness something that may be surprising, cognitively dissonant.

Part of her own “testimony” in and to the class at issue was to mirror the class’s responses back to them, in a sort of reflective listening.  She says of that (p. 54):

My own testimony to the class, which echoed their reactions, returning to them the expressions of their shock, their trauma and their disarray, bore witness nonetheless to the important fact that their experience, incoherent though it seemed, made sense or that it mattered.  My testimony was both an echo and a return of significance, both a repetition and an affirmation of the double fact that their response was meaningful, and that it counted.

I think she blows it there:  If she is right, then neither she nor her class,  in their “testimony,” bore witness–testified–at all to the Holocaust, but merely used it–no less than the worst Hollywood usage for profit’s sake–for exterior purposes,  and thus repeated the silencing of the Holocaust testimony that they purported to honor.  After all, the experience of those in the Holocaust did not “make sense” and did not “matter,” was not “meaningful” and did not “count”!

A truly traumatic or event-ful teaching would shatter the students and leave them shattered.  In a colloquial sense it would indeed “teach them”–teach them to think their lives mattered or counted at all, any more than did the lives of the dead in the Holocaust.

There is no “redemption.”


Laub writes chapters two and three.  Two is “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening.”  P. 57 (the first of the chapter): 

While historical evidence to the event which constitutes the trauma may be abundant and documents in vast supply, the trauma–as a known event and not simply as an overwhelming shock–has not been truly witnessed yet, not been taken cognizance of.  The emergence of the narrative which is being listened to–and heard–is, therefore, the process and the place wherein the cognizance,  the “knowing” of the event is given birth to.  The listener, therefore, is a party to the creation of knowledge de novo.  The testimony to the trauma thus includes its hearer, who is, so to speak, the blank screen on which the event comes to be inscribed for the first time.

I’d extend that, to cover what are called “screen memories” as such, which, as I suggested in my [Philosophy and] 9/11 class last fall, not only or primarily veil what is to be remembered, but also and above all provide the surface on which memory itself can be projected, and without which no memory can occur.

 Laub goes on (p. 60) to provide an excellent example of this sort of “screening,” which reveals in and as its very “concealing.”  It is the example of a woman recounting her experience of the rebellion at Auschwitz.  Laub, in a group  of historians who discount her testimony because it is clearly “historically inaccurate” (she remembers all four of the crematoria chimneys being blown up, when “really” only one was), replies as follows (he’s quoting himself [in the third person]): 

“The woman was testifying,” he insisted, “not to the number of the chimneys blown up, but to something else, more radical, more crucial:  the reality of an unimaginable occurrence.  One chimney blown up in Auschwitz was as incredible as four.  The number mattered less than the fact of the occurrence.  The event itself was almost inconceivable.  The woman testified to an event that broke the all compelling frame of Auschwitz, where Jewish armed revolts just did not happen, and had no place.  She testified to the breakage of a framework.  That was historical truth.”  (Cf. Nixon quitting in 1974!  [That was the “historical truth” of  Nixon’s Presidency.])

Nor does it say anything that (p. 61) one of the historians observes that the event “historically, made no difference,” because it was not only “put down” but also even “betrayed by the Polish resistance,” none of which makes it into the woman’s testimony.  Laub is wiser than that.

He goes on to  argue (p.. 61):  “Of course, it is by no means ignorance that I espouse.  The listener must be quite well informed if he  is to  be able to  hear–to be able to pick up the cues.”

Indeed, I’d add, as Freud and “Irma’s dream” also exemplify, if the listener does not know the presumed “facts,” then the symbolic clout of the testimony–its very being as testimony, then–can never be heard, and never spoken (insofar as, Laub being right on this, the hearing/listening is inseparable from the  event of the narrating/witnessing), since it is only in the gaps between the  “facts” and the “memory” that truth occurs–the sort of “historical truth” Laub is concerned with.

By telling him [of her remembered experience of the Auschwitz revolt], the woman for the first time comes to know of the event.  P. 62:  “And it was through my listening to her that I  in turn came to understand not merely her subjective truth, but the very historicity of the event, in  an entirely new dimension.”  He learned the very historical truth of it, I’d say. 

She was testifying not simply to historical facts, but to the very secret of survival and of resistance to  extermination. . . . She saw four chimneys blowing up in Auschwitz:  she saw, in other words, the unimaginable taking place right in front of her own eyes.  And she came to  testify to the unbelievability, precisely, of what she had eye-witnessed–this bursting open of the very frame of Auschwitz.  The historians’ testifying to the fact that only one chimney was blown up in Auschwitz, as well as to the fact of the betrayal of the Polish underground, does not break the frame.  The woman’s testimony, on the other hand, is breaking the frame of the concentration camp by and through her very testimony:  she is breaking out of Auschwitz even by her very talking.

Indeed, in this crucially important–historically true–sense, every testimony to the Holocaust is itself the breaking out from Auschwitz–again and again, for the very first time.

P. 63: 

Because the testifier did not know the number of the chimneys that blew up; because she did  not know of the betrayal of the Polish underground and of the  violent and desperate defeat of the rebellion of the Auschwitz inmates, the historians said that she knew nothing.  I thought that she knew more, since she knew about the breakage of the frame, that her very testimony was now reenacting.

As the Psalmist sings of the vacuity of the rich and the powerful:  “I passed by again, they were not there.”

That’s the truth of Auschwitz, just as his resignation was the truth of Nixon.

Also p.63:

It has happened to me many times that thinking back to  a psychoanalytic session with a patient, I suddenly realize that I understand it.  Everything falls into place and comes together. . . . Such sudden illuminations are not rare.  They often do not last, however.  I do forget them before my next appointment, and my patient and I sink back into the routine of everyday quabble.  It is as though two  simultaneous dialogues proceed and the ordinary one, the one that is commonplace, prevails. 

Cf. Heidegger on authenticity/inauthenticity.

The decay of truth.

P. 71:  “Survivors beginning to remember often desire to be alone, although very much in someone’s presence; the listener has to be exquisitely responsible to these cues.”


Laub, Ch. 3, “An Event Without a Witness:  Truth, Testimony, and Survival,” p. 91:

The testimony [namely, of Holocaust survivors] is inherently a process of facing loss. . . .

It is the realization that the lost one are not coming back; the realization that what life is all about is precisely living with an unfulfilled hope, someone saying:  “I’ll be with you in the very process of your losing me.  I am your witness.”


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  1. […] Witnessing Trauma: Reflections on the Work of Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, #2 of 5 April 2009 4 […]

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