Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Towards an Ethics of Reading Survivor Testimonies

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Towards an Ethics of Reading Survivor Testimonies

Article excerpt

Scholars have been trained to read and write in certain ways. Academic discourse is clearly distinguishable from other kinds of writing, even with the high degree of specialization that marks different fields of study and disciplines. We may not understand what the philosopher or social scientist is saying, but we are clear on the fact that she is writing as scholars write and using an academic discourse that connotes certain practices. At times, scholars raise ethical questions about these practices of reading and writing. For example, concerning the specialization of disciplinary discourses, some propose that we should write in ways that those outside our own area of specialization or our discipline can understand, while others maintain that the complexity and opacity of a particular discourse is intrinsically related to its subject matter such that writing in a simpler manner would distort or betray the subject matter.

But there are also fundamental ethical questions that focus not on questions of communicability or on style, but on whether there are limitations to and constraints on what scholars do and how they do it. These questions are particularly pertinent to reading and writing about testimonies of survivors of extreme violence and suffering where scholarly practices can sometimes seem ill-suited to the task. These questions include: Should the way scholars read and write about narratives of extreme suffering differ from the ways in which they read and write about texts about other kinds of things? Can one write in an objective or neutral tone about extreme suffering? What should scholars do with the emotions that these sorts of narratives elicit--whether outrage, sorrow, guilt, anger, frustration, or despair? And what of the scholar's expertise in analysis how does one analyze someone's testimony of suffering without such analysis becoming either a kind of violation or a detached look at what calls for a response? Can academic discourse respond to suffering or do academe's modes of thinking, reading, and writing resist the very activities of response that testimonies seek to elicit?

In this article, I will explore some of these questions and work towards an ethics of reading and responding to testimonies written by survivors of extreme suffering, with a focus on Holocaust survivor testimonies. Given the focus of this issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination on trauma, I will consider the ways in which the use of the concept "trauma" functions in our responses to survivor testimonies and ask: In what ways does the category of "trauma" help us to resist the temptations, pitfalls, and presumptions to which scholars may be prone in the face of these texts of suffering, perhaps by warning us of the ways in which they differ from other kinds of texts we read, and in what ways might it make us more susceptible to them?

In working towards an ethics of responding to survivor testimonies, we can take our cues from the survivors who write or speak them and attend to the implicit and explicit requests that they make of us within them--including the ways they constrain and chasten our responses, on the one hand, and elicit and shape them, on the other. Survivor testimonies can reverse the usual relation between scholar and text: rather than the scholar bringing her methods of analysis and critique to bear on the text, survivor testimonies may ask the scholar to unlearn the very frameworks of understanding with which she has previously pursued her scholarship. Often, these testimonies point to gaps, misconceptions, and presumptions in our thinking that need to be addressed in order to begin to respond responsibly.

I would like to offer just a few brief glimpses at ways that scholars might be able to develop an ethics of response to survivor testimonies--one that emerges from what the narratives themselves tell us about how we should respond to them. I focus here on those who are writing about the Holocaust, whether as scholars, survivors, or both, but I think these works are instructive for scholars responding to a range of testimonies and of texts. …

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