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MLN 121.4 (2006) 1009-1022

The Nazi Genocide and the Writing of the Holocaust Aporia:
Ethics and Remnants of Auschwitz
Esther Marion
SUNY Brockport

In his preface to Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Giorgio Agamben stresses the ethical and political enigma posed by the failure of traditional interpretive schemas in the aftermath of the Holocaust.1 He frames his project in the following terms: "I will consider myself content with my work if, in attempting to locate the place and theme of testimony, I have erected some signposts allowing future cartographers of the new ethical territory to orient themselves."2 Responding to the ethical exigency of "the aporia of Auschwitz" (12), Agamben's analysis, as I will argue, effaces the very historical constitution of this aporia, which he structurally appropriates for assimilation into his philosophical discourse. A weighty claim perhaps, but the burden of "a reality that necessarily exceeds its factual elements" (12) makes weighty claims on the future to be safeguarded from theoretical evaporation and discursive sanctity. I intend to situate Agamben's text in the context of his thought on subjectivity and temporality in order to shed light on its positing of ethics; to elucidate the consequences of this ethics in the context of the Holocaust; and to reflect on the problematic relation between postmodern/deconstructionist discourse and the writing of the Holocaust. [End Page 1009]

The Holocaust Witness as Subject

First, let us consider Agamben's formulation of the subject as developed in his work. In Potentialities, he states that "history is the cipher of the shadow that denies human beings direct access to the level of names."3 Agamben rereads Plato's "Seventh Letter" as a statement of the "presuppositional and objectifying" nature of language, which is always predicative since "sayability itself remains unsaid in what is said and in that about which something is said. [. . .] knowability itself is lost in what is known and in that about which something is known" (33). According to Agamben, the event of language, what Heidegger terms the Improper—that which is unsaid—destines humanity to "history and transmission" (134). Agamben goes on to explain that the self as fracture is this condition of ungroundedness, of the fallen nature of language, which is lived as historical inheritance and communication. Rather than a chronological origin, it contains its own condition of possibility, what Derrida's grammatological project identified as the trace: human languages as meaning and history "mean to say the word that does not mean anything" (53). This paradox implies that individuals and communities necessarily invent their own foundation, "the fiction of a beginning; what is excluded from a community is in truth what founds the whole life of community, being taken up by a community as an immemorial past" (136). To prevent such an illusion, Agamben proposes the assumption of a subjectivity after the end of history, a subject that assumes and exists as its own originary fracture: "What unites human beings among themselves is not a nature, a voice or a common imprisonment in signifying language; it is the vision of language itself and, therefore, the experience of language's limits, its end" (47). It is the figure of Bartleby the Scrivener who "would prefer not to" that Agamben recuperates as a figure of passivity and potentiality, a threshold figure through whom the occurrence of language itself speaks, and in his model of the Holocaust witness, he seems to have found a parallel model. The survivor, rather than bearing witness to historical, human atrocity, serves as a theoretical construct who as such bears witness to "the missing articulation between the living being and logos" (Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz 134). Agamben posits the survivor as a space in which "to listen to what is unsaid" and the voice of this "testimony says [. . .] 'human beings are human insofar as they bear witness to the inhuman'" (121). [End Page 1010]

Drawing on Primo Levi's identification of the Muselmann,4 Agamben divides the Holocaust survivor into...


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