Toni Morrison: An Ethical Poetics

By Yvette Christiansë | Go to book overview

1. From Witnessing to Death Dealing:
On Speaking of and for the Dead

wasn’t I (wouldn’t I always be) tethered to a death-dealing ideol-
ogy even (and especially) when I honed all my intelligence toward
subverting it?

—“H”

In his consideration of the philosophy of witnessing, Giorgio Agamben attempts to map out some of the relationships between injury, survival, witnessing, and testimony. He argues that a twofold impossibility confronts the one who would testify: to bear witness to what one doesn’t know, and to bear witness to what cannot be known. He is struck by the lacunae in witnessing, which he understands to be a speech act, an active, outspoken remembering.1 He argues that those who survive cataclysms and who are called upon to speak of their experiences are trapped in the strict logic or structure that demands they speak in the place of those who cannot. Called upon to account, survivors cannot and do not have the intimate knowledge possessed by those who do not survive a cataclysm, which is to say any event in which survival is at stake.2 Yet it is through their speech that the lost voice is invariably sought or represented.

Moving from Eli Wiesel’s and Primo Levi’s reflections upon survival and witnessing, and the possible impossibility of the latter, Agamben turns to Lyotard’s observation of the near incredulity with which one confronts situations in which human beings, “endowed with language,” are unable to recount their experiences or can only do so partially.3 If they do speak, for Lyotard theirs is a partial discourse. For Agamben, the possibility of silence is not the same as absence. We may find ourselves in the presence of a person who cannot speak. This mute person is not simply the locus of absent speech. She is proof that human beings can become disconnected

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