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More sayable than you think

By (September 1, 2016) One Comment

Weil es sagbar ist. Über Zeugenschaft und Gerechtigkeit (Because it is sayable: On Witness and Justice)
By Carolin Emcke
Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2015

WEILESSAGBARISTThe adjective ‘indescribable’ performs a one-word contradiction. Nevertheless, by the early nineties it had become widely believed in certain post-structuralist philosophical circles that the Holocaust was indescribable and unknowable. Carolin Emcke argues in her latest book, Because it is Sayable: On Witness and Justice, that not only are genocide, atrocities and violent crimes describable, knowable, and communicable, but the victims of such crimes often want their stories to be told and heard, and it is a matter of justice for society to hear them. (As Emcke’s book has not yet been translated into English all quotations in the following are my own translations).

The late Gillian Rose had already taken aim at such post-structuralist views in 1994 in a presentation called ‘Beginnings of the day – Fascism and representation’. One of the mistakes of such philosophy, she argued, was conflating pat answers with comprehension. The Holocaust itself is not ineffable, and to claim as much, and then to infer from the claim that ‘representation’ itself is somehow fatally inadequate and even to blame for what happened, does not help. Indeed, ‘the argument for the overcoming of representation, in its aesthetic, philosophical and political versions, converges with the inner tendency of Fascism itself,’ wrote Rose, insofar as it makes criticism all the more difficult to carry out. Rose accused philosophers who said we can’t represent the holocaust of a pseudo-religious, misty-eyed failure to think clearly about how best to respond to the horrors of the twentieth century. She dubbed this failure ‘Holocaust piety’. In its stead she urged ‘Holocaust ethnography’. Rose had some influence on those who study artistic representations of the Holocaust but she did not carry the day in the field of continental philosophy.

Twenty years later, we find Carolin Emcke making a very similar argument and doing the important work of “Holocaust ethnography”: recording and transmitting the stories of brutalised people. Like Rose, Emcke is a Schülerin of the Frankfurt School, the tradition of sociology-and-philosophy whose most famous members are Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas. Unlike Rose, after Emcke received her doctorate (with a work on collective identity), she went on to become a reporter, covering wars, crises and disasters. In Germany she is a celebrated figure. This year she won the international Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels), where Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, gave the congratulatory speech. Only one of her books, however, has been translated into English. Echoes of Violence: Letters from a War Reporter appeared in 2007, a year after its release in Germany. There she took up a theme similar to that of her latest book: the desire of those suffering violence or devastation to have their story written down and shared with others. Time and again, remarks Emcke, people in crisis situations of various kinds ask for their experiences to be recounted, reported, disseminated to the wider world.

Her new book takes seriously the near-universal desire of victims for witnesses of their suffering and asks what that desire means for the question of social justice. She argues not only that society must become more receptive to hearing from and believing victims, but that recent philosophical theories in this area – focused on the Holocaust – have hindered justice in this regard. The book comes out of her years of eyewitness reporting and interviewing as much as her philosophical training. It comprises mostly previously published material, preceded by a new piece, a long essay about half the book’s total length, which carries the book’s title and subtitle: literally, Because it is sayable: On Witness and Justice. It is about witnessing extreme experiences of injustice and violence, in both senses of the word. That such witness is both possible and necessary – sayable – is the burden of Emcke’s essay, which she approaches through a combination of careful analysis of first-hand accounts and brief excursions into philosophy.

The eponymous essay opens with a quotation from Anna Akhmatova, recounting her time in prison during Stalin’s terror. When a woman realised who Akhmatova was, she asked the poet in a whisper, ‘And could you describe this?’ Akhmatova replied, ‘yes,’ whereupon ‘there floated something like a smile over what had once been the other woman’s face.’

echoes of violenceThe jailed woman’s question to Akhmatova is almost a challenge to the great poet’s powers: can you describe this? The odds may appear unfavourable. Victims often cannot themselves understand what happened; they frequently find it difficult to put into words; when they do their speech is prone to be fragmented, repetitive, lacking coherence. For a writer, the challenges are to render this speech into some kind of whole without falsifying it, and to convey something of the horror of a situation to those who have never experienced anything comparable, and perhaps are reading the report whilst eating lunch.

The silencing of the victims is, for Emcke, the most insidious part of the wrong done to them, because it robs them of their subjectivity and individuality. This explains the universal desire of victims to have their stories heard. They want not only to be remembered but also to be confirmed as a person in their own right. The thought that someone, not necessarily the victims themselves, could describe their experiences appropriately – with truth, coherence and efficacy – gives them hope, wakens them from their torpor.

Emcke, like many in her tradition of the Frankfurt School, takes a view of human identity as constituted by recognition from others. A person can become an autonomous individual only if, paradoxically, s/he is treated as such by society. Our dependence on others for our individuality and sense of self makes us vulnerable to the refusal of recognition. When that refusal of recognition takes extreme forms – as in torture, rape, slavery – it requires address by a more concentrated form of speech than most people have at their command. It is for this reason society needs skilled writers who will gather, shape and share stories of extreme harms.

Careful attention to the various textures of witnesses and witnessing undergirds Emcke’s philosophical meditations. Out of deep familiarity with a whole range of examples she poses a number of questions that are only answerable in specific cases. When does someone become a witness? Do they have to know, do or believe something specific? What or whom does the witness serve? What role does time play? Is the sooner the better for reporting? Where is witnessing done and where is it best done? At home? In a courthouse? High level philosophical abstraction will not do here, we need the investigative journalist to find out the detail.

As a case in point, Emcke reports her conversation with a man who fled Yugoslavia in the nineties. His story is of torture, fleeing his homeland, arriving in Germany, deportation back to Yugoslavia, being tortured again, escaping again, and finally settling in Germany. Yet he begins with having just bought brand new shoes. As he slowly and fragmentarily lays out his story, the shoes frequently recur as detail in no way relevant to the current stage of the story. Eventually it turns out his shoes were taken by one of the soldiers who tortured him. Emcke draws a threefold lesson from the story. Victims of such crimes often struggle to articulate their experience in a coherent way, even though they want to share it. This leads, second, to the task of the journalist: to perform that function for the victim. Third the experiences are comprehensible and communicable, all these difficulties notwithstanding, if we are willing to take the time to listen:

The confusion is therefore, as a reaction to exceptional situations, more an expression of the undamaged person. Whoever at first understands nothing, who cannot describe what has befallen him in this damaged world, is not yet damaged. It is those who simply want to pathologise the persons concerned in this early phase who are hasty. It is those who want to fasten the problem onto the victim, not onto the circumstances, who are careless.

Having made the reader realise just how little she or he has thought about the fine detail of extreme injustice, Emcke then leads her audience through a number of first hand accounts of the consequences of injustice and violence. Sufferers of torture or kidnap are often unable to appropriate their experience, or can only do so with great WIEWIRBEGEHRENdifficulty. They struggle to bring into accord their life before, during and after the event. Emcke dwells on the story of Natsacha Kampusch, who was kidnapped as a ten year old and only escaped aged eighteen. She spent her entire adolescence locked alone in a tiny room or acting as a servant for her kidnapper, Wolfgang Přiklopil. After her escape she spoke publicly of her ongoing psychological problems, as well as mourning for Přiklopil (he committed suicide as soon as he realized she was free). At this point, public opinion in her native Austria turned against her, because she did not fit the stereotypical mould for victims. This well illustrates Emcke’s insistence on the element of justice involved in society’s response to victims’ stories.

Torture poses a different problem. Intense pain isolates the self from every other thought, feeling, sensation and person. Emcke describes it as ‘transformation into a thing.’ How does one find a language to describe the experience of being reduced to a thing? Many used metaphor to try to understand and describe their situation, as if too direct and unmediated a perception of their circumstances would be a further harm. As Holocaust survivor Jean Améry pointed out, in the context of a gulag or concentration camp, rational-analytic thinking is more of a hindrance than a help. In order to survive one must cease seeking to understand. The very lack of norms in the camps, the absurdity of the situation, was a key part of its danger to the psychic life of rational beings.

A key theme in the main essay, however, is the survival of rationality, the fact that victims are not entirely reduced to passive matter. (Emcke takes a swipe here at Foucault’s belief in humans as utterly and fully the product of power’s forces and discourses). Despite being treated as things, victims of extreme wrong do find ways of asserting themselves, holding onto scraps of civilisation, retaining a sense of dignity, enacting moments of dissidence amidst their whelming impotence. For instance, Primo Levi, another survivor of the Holocaust camps, translated Dante into French with an Italian inmate. Emcke’s attention to these strategies – and their success – is an important antidote to earlier philosophical treatments of the Holocaust, which emphasised the passivity of the victims.

Emcke thinks it is always possible to find a reality beyond the current absurdity, irrationality and pain of torture or kidnap, that there always remains an inner room not breached by pain. She mentions Kampusch’s coping strategy as an example of such ‘saving transcendence’. Not long after Kampusch was kidnapped as a ten year old she made a pact with her future, eighteen year old self, that she would turn into that future self and attain freedom. The resolve to keep her promise helped her survive.

Emcke’s reporting on the complexity and variety of human responses to extreme injustice is informative and accurate, but produces some apparent contradictions, which Emcke disappointingly does not address. Her belief in the endurance of an ‘inner room’ or core of the self ultimately beyond the reach of pain, seems to oppose an idea she quotes from Elaine Scarry: ‘World, self and voice are lost’ during intense pain. Likewise, her story about Levi’s translation of Dante contradicts the view she repeats from Améry that rational thought was a burden in concentration camps. As she notes, Miklós Radnóti wrote a whole book of poetry in the camps, which his wife found secreted in his jacket after he was disinterred from a mass grave at the end of a death march. In these cases, despite their suffering, the men had not completely ceased thinking nor trying to understand and express their experience, nor had all their energies been absorbed the quest for survival, as she earlier suggests.

GEGENDENHASSLike Rose two decades before her, Emcke takes aim at Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, as well as at Agamben and the psychoanalyst Dori Laub. She regards their theories as well intentioned but hyperbolic. In the end these philosophers fail to listen to the witnesses of terrible crimes even where they cite them first-hand. They fail to do them the justice of hearing and sharing their stories. Emcke thinks we are too quick to write off some cases of horror as incomprehensible (just as we too readily assume we understand others). The result is the unwitting effect of sacralising the very events we would abjure. Silence descends, heads shake, but accounts are not heard. Their status as impenetrable and unreadable leaves the victims locked in their silence, alone, denied their right to be confirmed as human subjects by others.

This operates in society more generally too. Emcke takes a telling example of a 2013 tweet from Martin Schulz (President of the European Parliament): ‘Visit to Auschwitz changes you. No words to describe the enormity of this crime. We must never forget.’ Leaving aside whether tweeting about the Holocaust from Auschwitz is appropriate, there is the question of the function of such phrases:

The wording here (as in other contexts) is used as a rhetorical placeholder for suggested emotional or moral depths, which reveals above all, however, a hermeneutic superficiality. In the increasingly ritualised form of collective remembrance, which only repeats the formula of “indescribable,” the memory of what was so reprehensible that it should be remembered (and described), starts to be lost.

Although our knowledge is imperfect it can be at least partially adequate to its tasks, one of which is making society fit to hear the victims. As she shows, hearing them is more difficult but also more possible than we usually imagine. The task is urgent because if we fail we add to the most insidious part of crimes – the silencing of the victims.

The oldest of the remaining essays, published in 2005 under the title ‘Anatomy of Torture’ (Anatomie der Folter), covers the Abu Ghraib human rights abuses and the fate of Ivan Frederick, who was jailed for his role in them. Emcke is restrained yet clearly exercised by the jailing of a few personnel in response to the systematic and institutional nature of the abuse, torture and murder. ‘The soldiers from Frederick’s unit only imitated the conduct that had long since established itself.’ Coming after a long mediation on the Holocaust and Balkan wars it reveals disturbing similarities between the current world superpower and earlier forms of barbarism. Emcke gives the last word in the essay to Frederick’s wife: ‘They led us into the war with lies…and now they use ordinary soldiers as a scapegoat for their crimes.’

‘Anatomy of Torture’ is a strong piece of reporting and Emcke lets the facts do most of the talking. Other pieces tackle the limits of empathy and compassion, the difficulties of recounting the physical and human devastation in Haiti, the hypocrisy of many so-called liberal responses to Islam in Europe. These are well written and interesting but Emcke’s book is important because it offers a much-needed correction to the treatment of the Holocaust in certain widespread philosophies and society’s often unthinking response to the ‘indescribable,’ which, it turns out, is not so indescribable after all, though it demands more from writers and us as listeners than we are inclined to think.

Andrew Brower Latz‘s articles have appeared in various journals such as Telos, Thesis Eleven, and Political Theology, and magazines such as 3:AM and Philosophy Now. His book, The Social Philosophy of Gillian Rose, is forthcoming.