Remnants of Auschwitz the Witness by Agamben Giorgio Short Story Analysis try to identify and briefly characterize a couple of particular examples addresse

Remnants of Auschwitz the Witness by Agamben Giorgio Short Story Analysis try to identify and briefly characterize a couple of particular examples addressed in “The Witness” that seem to either confirm this suspicion or alternately challenge it (the exception that has by now become the norm, or, with the contrary view, perhaps the exception that has successfully become the lesson not to repeat). How might taking such an alternative sort of lesson from past occurrences shape (or differently shape) the path ahead? R E M N A N T S OF
this book succeeds only in correcting some of the terms with
which we register the decisive lesson of the century and if this
book makes it possible for certain words to be left behind and
others to be understood in a different sense. This is also a wayperhaps the only way – to listen to what is unsaid.
Giorgio Agamben
The Witness
1. 1 In the camp, one of the reasons that can drive a prisoner to
survive is the idea of becoming a witness. “I firmly decided that,
despite everything that might happen to me, I would not take my
own life.. .since I did not want to suppress the witness that I could
become” (Langbein 1988: 186). Of course, not all deportees, indeed only a small fraction of them, give this reason. A reason for
survival can be a matter of convenience: “He would like to survive for this or that reason, for this or that end, and he finds hundreds of pretexts. The truth is that he wants to live at whatever
cost” (Lewental 1972: 148). O r it can simply be a matter of
revenge: “Naturally I could have run and thrown myself onto the
fence, because you can always do that. But I want t o live. And
what if the miracle happens we’re all waiting for? Maybe we’ll be
liberated, today or tomorrow. Then I’ll have my revenge, then 1-11
tell the whole world what happened here -inside there” (Sofsky
1997: 340). To justify one’s survival is not easy – least of a11 in the
camp. Then there are some survivors who prefer t o be silent.
“Some of my friends, very dear friends of mine, never speak of
Auschwitz” (Levi 1997: 224). Yet, for others, the only reason t o
live is t o ensure that the witness does not perish. “Others, on the
other hand, speak of it incessantly, and I am one of them” (ibid.).
1.2 Primo Levi is a perfect example of the witness. When he
returns home, he tirelessly recounts his experience to everyone.
He behaves like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner:
You remember the scene: the Ancient Mariner accosts the wedding
guests, who are thinking of the wedding and not paying attention to
him, and he forces them t o listen t o his tale. Well, when I first
returned from the concentration camp I did just that. I feIt an unrestrainable need to tell my story t o anyone and everyone! . . . Every
situation was an occasion t o tell my story t o anyone and everyone:
t o tell it to the factory director as well as to the worker, even if they
had other things t o do. I was reduced t o the state of the Ancient
Mariner. Then I began 10 write on my typewriter at night.. . . Every
night I would write, and this was considered even crazier! (Levi
1997: 224-25)
But Levi does not consider himself a writer; he becomes a
writer so that he can bear witness. In a sense, he never became
a writer. In 1963, after publishing two novels and many short
stories, he responds unhesitatingly to the question of whether he
considers himself a writer or a chemist: “A chemist, of course, let
there be no mistake” (Levi 1997: 102). Levi was profoundly uneasy
with the fact that as time passed, and almost in spite of himself, he
ended up a writer, composing books that had nothing to do with
his testimony: “Then I wrote.. . . I acquired the vice of writing”
(Levi 1997: 258). “In my latest book, La Chiave a stella, 1 stripped
myself completely of my status as a witness.. . . This is not to
deny anything; 1 have not ceased to be an ex-deportee, a witness. . . .” (ibid. : 167)
Levi had this unease about him when I saw him at meetings at
the Italian publisher, Einaudi. He could feel guilty for having sur-
vived, but not for having borne witness. “I am at peace with myself
because I bore witness” (ibid.: p. 219).
1.3 In Latin there are two words for “witness.” The first word,
testis, from which our word “testimony” derives, etymologically
signifies the person who, in a trial or lawsuit between two rival
parties, is in the position of a third party (::terstis). The second
word, superstes, designates a person who has lived through something, who has experienced an event from beginning to end and
can therefore bear witness to it. It is obvious that Levi is not a
third party; he is a survivor [superstite] in every sense. But this also
means that his testimony has nothing to do with the acquisition
of facts for a trial (he is not neutral enough for this, he is not a
testis). In the final analysis, it is not judgment that matters t o him,
let alone pardon. “I never appear as judge”; “I do not have the
authority to grant pardon.. . . I am without authority” (ibid.: 77,
236). It seems, in fact, that the only thing that interests him is
what makes judgment impossible: the gray zone in which victims
become executioners and executioners become victims. It is
about this above all that the survivors are in agreement: “No
group was more human than any other” (ibid.: 232). “Victim and
executioner are equally ignoble; the lesson of the camps is brotherhood in abjection” (Rousset, cf. Levi 1997: 216).
Not that a judgment cannot or must not be made. “If I had had
Eichmann before me, 1 would have condemned him to death”
(ibici.: 144). “If they have committed a crime, then they must pay”
(ibid.: 236). The decisive point is simply that the two things not
be blurred, that law not presume to exhaust the question. A nonjuridical element of truth exists such that the quaestiofacti can
never be reduced to the quaestio iuris. This is precisely what concerns the survivor: everything that places a human action beyond
the law, radically withdrawing it from the Trial. “Each of us can
be tried, condemned and punished without even knowing whyv
(ibid.: 75).
1.4 O n e of the most common mistakes – which is not only made
in discussions of the camp – is the tacit confusion of ethical categories and juridical categories (or, worse, of juridical categories
and theological categories, which gives rise t o a new theodicy).
Almost all the categories that we use in moral and religious judgments are in some way contaminated by law: guilt, responsibility,
innocence, judgment, pardon.. . . This makes it difficult t o invoke
them without particular caution. As jurists well know, law is not
directed toward the establishment of justice. Nor is it directed
toward the verification o f truth. Law is solely directed toward
judgment, independent of truth and justice. This is shown beyond
doubt by theforce ofjudgment that even an unjust sentence carries
with it. The ultimate aim of law is the production of a res judicata,
in which the sentence becomes the substitute for the true and the
just, being held as true despite its falsity and injustice. Law finds
peace in this hybrid creature, of which it is impossible t o say if it
is fact o r rule; once law has produced its res judicata, it cannot g o
any further.
In 1983, the publisher Einaudi asked Levi t o translate Kafka’s
The Trial. Infinite interpretations of The h a 1 have been offered;
some underline the novel’s prophetic political character (modern
bureaucracy as absolute evil) o r its theological dimension (the
court as the unknown God) or its biographical meaning (condemnation as the illness from which Kafka believed himself to suffer).
It has been rarely noted that this book, in which law appears
solely in the form of a trial, contains a profound insight into the
nature of law, which, contrary t o common belief, is not so much
rule as it is judgment and, therefore, trial. But if the essence of
the law – of every law – is the trial, if all right (and morality that
is contaminated by it) is only tribunal right, then execution and
transgression, innocence and guilt, obedience and disobedience
all become indistinct and lose their importance. “The court wants
nothing from you. It welcomes you when you come; it releases
you when you go.” T h e ultimate end of the juridical regulation is
t o produce judgment; but judgment aims neither t o punish nor t o
extol, neither t o establish justice n o r t o prove the truth. Judgment is in itself the end and this, it has been said, constitutes its
mystery, the mystery of the trial.
O n e of the consequences that can be drawn from this selfreferential nature of judgment – and Sebastiano Satta, a great Italian jurist, has done so -is that punishment does not follow from
judgment, but rather that judgment is itself punishment (nullum
judicium sine poena). “One can even say that the whole punishment
is in the judgment, that the action characteristic of the punishment – incarceration, execution – matters only insofar as it is, so
t o speak. the carrying out of the judgment” (Satta 1994: 26). This
also means that “the sentence of acquittal is the confession of a judicial error,” that “everyone is inwardly innocent,” but that the only
truly innocent person “is not the o n e who is acquitted, but rather
the o n e who goes through life without judgment” (ibid.: 27).
I. 5 If this is true – and the survivor knows that it is true – then
it is possible that the trials (the twelve trials at Nuremberg, and the
others that took place in and outside German borders, including
those in Jerusalem in 1961 that ended with the hanging of Eichmann) are responsible for the conceptual confusion that, for decades, has made it impossible to think through Auschwitz. Despite
the necessity of the trials and despite their evident insufficiency
(they involved only a few hundred people), they helped to spread the
idea that the problem of Auschwitz had been overcome. The judgments had been passed, the proofs of guilt definitively established.
With the exception of occasional moments of lucidity, it has taken
almost half a century to understand that law did not exhaust the
problem, but rather that the very problem was so enormous as to
call into question law itself, dragging it to its own ruin.
The confusion between law and morality and between theology and law has had illustrious victims. Hans Jonas, the philosopher and student of Heidegger who specialized in ethical problems,
is one of them. In 1984, when he received the Lucas Award in
Tubingen, he reflected on the question of Auschwitz by preparing
for a new theodicy, asking, that is, how it was possible for God to
tolerate Auschwitz. A theodicy is a trial that seeks to establish the
responsibility not of men, but of God. Like all theodicies, Jonas’s
ends in an acquittal. The justification for the sentence is something like this: “The infinite (God) stripped himself completely, in
the finite, of his omnipotence. Creating the world, God gave it
His own fate and became powerless. Thus, having emptied himself entirely in the world, he no longer has anything to offer us; it
is now man’s turn to give. Man can do this by taking care that it
never happens, or rarely happens, that God regrets his decision to
juridical responsibility -not in order to assume another kind of
responsibility, but to articulate zones of non-responsibility. This
does not, of course, mean impunity. Rather, it signifies – at least
for ethics – a confrontation with a responsibility that is infinitely
greater than any we could ever assume. At the most, we can be
faithful to it, that is, assert its unassumability.
The unprecedented discovery made by Levi at Auschwitz concerns an area that is independent of every establishment of responsibility, an area in which Levi succeeded in isolating something like
a new ethical element. Levi calls it the “gray zone.” It is the zone in
which the “long chain of conjunction between victim and executioner” comes loose, where the oppressed becomes oppressor and
the executioner in turn appears as victim. A gray, incessant alchemy
in which good and evil and, along with them, all the metals of traditional ethics reach their point of fusion.
What is at issue here, therefore, is a zone of irresponsibility
and “impotentla ludicandi” (Levi 1989: 60) that is situated not
beyond good and evil but rather, so to speak, before them. With a
have let the world be.”
The conciliatory vice of every theodicy is particularly clear
here. Not only does this theodicy tell us nothing about Auschwitz, either about its victims or executioners; it does not een
manage to avoid a happy ending. Behind the powerlessness of
God peeps the powerlessness of men, who continue to cry “May
that never happen again!” when it is clear that “that” is, by now,
gesture that is symmetrically opposed to that of Nietzsche, Levi
places ethics before the area in which we are accustomed to consider it. And, without our being able to say why, we sense that
this “before” is more important than any “beyondw- that the
“underman” must matter to us more than the “overman.” This
infamous zone of irresponsibility is our First Circle, from which
no confession of responsibility will remove us and in which what
is spelled out, minute by minute, is the lesson of the “terrifying,
unsayable and unimaginable banality of evil” (Arendt 1992: 2 52).
1.6 The concept of responsibility is also irremediably contaminated by law. Anyone who has tried to make use of it outside the
juridical sphere knows this. And yet ethics, politics, and religion
have been able to define themselves only by seizing terrain from
1.7 The Latin verb spondeo, which is the origin of our term
“responsibility,” means “to become the guarantor of something
for someone (or for oneself) with respect to someone.” Thus,
in the promise of marriage, the father would utter the formula
spondee to express his commitment to giving his daughter as wife
to a suitor (after which she was then called a sponsa) or to guarantee compensation if this did not take place. In archaic Roman law,
in fact, the custom was that a free man could consign himself as a
hostage – that is, in a state of imprisonment, from which the term
obligatio derives – to guarantee the compensation of a wrong or
the fulfillment of an obligation. (The term sponsor indicated the
person who substituted himself for the reus, promising, in the case
of a breach of contract, to furnish the required service.)
The gesture of assuming responsibility is therefore genuinely
juridical and not ethical. It expresses nothing noble or luminous,
but rather simply obligation, the act by which one consigned oneself as a prisoner to guarantee a debt in a context in which the
legal bond was considered to inhere in the body of the person
responsible. As such, responsibility is closely intertwined with
the concept of culpa that, in a broad sense, indicates the imputability of damage. (This is why the Romans denied that there could
be guilt with respect to oneself: quod quis ex culpa sua damnum
sentit, non intelligitur damnum sentire: the damage that one causes
to oneself by one’s own fault is not juridically relevant.)
Responsibility and guilt thus express simply two aspects of
legal imputability; only later were they interiorized and moved
outside law. Hence the insufficiency and opacity of every ethical
doctrine that claims to be founded on these two concepts. (This
holds both for Jonas, who claimed to formulate a genuine “principle of responsibility” and for Lkvinas, who, in a much more
complex fashion, transformed the gesture of the sponsor into the
ethical gesture par excellence.) This insufficiency and opacity
emerges clearly every time the borders that separate ethics from
law are traced. Let us consider two examples, which are very far
from each other as to the gravity of the facts they concern but
which coincide with respect to the distinguo they imply.
During the Jerusalem trial, Eichmann’s constant line of defense
was clearly expressed by his lawyer, Robert Serviatus, with these
words: “Eichmann feels himself guilty before God, not the law.”
Eichmann (whose implication in the extermination of the Jews
was well documented, even if his role was probably different from
that which was argued by the prosecution) actually went so far as
to declare that he wanted “to hang himself in public” in order to
“liberate young Germans from the weight of guilt.” Yet, until the
end, he continued to maintain that his guilt before God (who was
for him onlv a hoherer SrnnestriiSer, a higher bearer of meaning)
could not be legally prosecuted. The only possible explanation
for this insistence is that, whereas the assumption of moral guilt
seemed ethically noble to the defendant, he was unwilling to
assume any legal guilt (although, from an ethical point of view,
legal guilt should have been less serious than moral guilt).
Recently, a group of people who once had belonged to a political organization of the extreme Left published a communiqu6 in
a newspaper, declaring political and moral responsibility for the
murder of a police officer committed twenty years ago. “Nevertheless, such responsibility,” the document stated, “cannot be
transformed.. . into a responsibility of penal character.” It must
be recalled that the assumption of moral responsibility has value
only if one is ready to assume the relevant legal consequences.
The authors of the c o m m u n i q u ~seem to suspect this in some
wav, when, in a significant passage, they assume a responsibility
that sounds unmistakably juridical, stating that thev contributed
to “creating a climate that led to murder.” (But the offense in
question, the instigation to commit a crime, is of course wiped
out.) In every age, the gesture of assuming a juridical responsibility when one is innocent has been considered noblr; the assumption of political or moral responsibility without the assumption
of the corresponding legal consequencrs, on the other hand, has
always characterized the arrogance of the mighty (consider Mus-
cyanotic acid, and wash them with water; make sure that n o valu-
solini’s behavior, for example, with respect t o the case of Giacomo
able objects were hidden in the orifices of the bodies; extract gold
Matteotti, the member of the Italian parliament who was assassi-
teeth from the corpses’ jaws; cut the women’s hair and wash it
nated bv unknown killers in 1924). But today in ltaly these models
with ammonia chloride; bring the corpses into the crematoria and
have been reversed and the contrite assumption of moral respon-
oversee their incineration; and, finally, empty out the ovens of the
sibilities is invoked at every occasion as an exemption from the
ash that remained. Levi writes:
responsibilities demanded by law.
Here the confusion between ethical categories and juridical
Concerning these squads, vague and mangled rumors already cir-
categories (with the logic of repentance implied) is absolute. This
confusion lies at the origin of the many suicides committed t o
culated among us during our imprisonment and were confirmed
escape trial (not only those of Nazi criminals), in which the tacit
afterward.. . . But the intrinsic horror of this human condition has
imposed a sort of reserve on all the testimony, so that even today it 1s
assumption of moral guilt attempts t o compensate for legal guilt.
difficult to conjure up an image of “what it meant” to be forced to
It is worth remembering that the primary responsibility for this
exercise this trade for months.. .. One of them declared: “Doing this
confusion lies not in Catholic doctrine, which includes a sacra-
work, one either goes crazy the first day or gets accustomed to it.”
ment whose function is t o free the sinner of guilt, but rather in
secular ethics (in its well-meaning and dominant ersion). After
Another, though: “Certainly, I could hae killed myself or got myself
killed; but I wanted to survive, to avenge myself and bear wltness.
having raised juridical categories t o the status of supreme ethical
You mustn’t think that we are monsters; we are the same as you.
categories and thereby irredeemably confusing the fields…
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