- Witnessing Witnessing: On the Reception of Holocaust Survivor Testimony by Thomas Trezise
In this meticulous and consistently illuminating study, Thomas Trezise “approaches the testimony of Holocaust survivors . . . by focusing attention on those who receive it” (2). It is first and foremost a meta-critique of the epistemic foundations and ethical stakes of a variety of influential works that have theorized—and modeled—practices of listening to Holocaust survivor testimony. It is not uncommon to encounter literary scholars who, in a two-step move, dismiss “theory” and appeal to the need to attend carefully to “actual” primary texts. Guided by an ethical imperative to listen attentively to survivor testimonies, Trezise’s trenchant critique of ways in which theoretical works by Giorgio Agamben, Cathy Caruth, Berel Lang, and Dori Laub variously foreclose on, rather than enable, such listening could be seen as a sophisticated variation on this familiar theme. Such a reading of Witnessing Witnessing would be misguided, however. The very patience and rigor with which Trezise reads the theoretical works by these authors, and also by Theodor W. Adorno and Emmanuel Levinas (in both of whom, in spite of his incisive criticisms of each, he finds a more subtle openness to victim discourse), attests to the intellectual and ethical importance he ascribes to such theoretical endeavors. One of the greatest strengths of this critique of theoretical approaches to Holocaust survivor testimony is its impressive grounding in and profound respect for theoretical work. Glib dismissals of “theory” tell us nothing; Trezise’s theoretically informed demonstration of the “pronounced listening impairment” (3) of much theoretical thought on Holocaust survivor testimony, in contrast, shows us ways to question our assumptions about Holocaust survivor testimony, in the hope of inspiring new practices of listening to it.
Chapter One is a thorough and critical discussion of Dori Laub’s famous essay “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening,” which was originally published as Chapter Two of the influential 1992 work that Laub coauthored with Shoshana Felman, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. Trezise’s focus falls in particular on the debate Laub had with certain historians (or claims to have had, for under Trezise’s scrutiny Laub’s account comes to appear dubious) about the value of testimony by a survivor who makes a factual error in her eyewitness account of the Sonderkommando uprising at Auschwitz-Birkenau on October 7, 1944. In Laub’s account, the historians, interested only in the connotative register of the woman’s testimony, dismiss it as unreliable, whereas Laub himself, sensitive to the performative nature of what she is communicating, appreciates her testimony as a significant event in its own right. In taking up the question [End Page 1142] of the historical and psychoanalytic “frames of reception” within which Holocaust survivor testimony can be understood, Trezise productively complicates the neat distinction Laub sets up between the historical and psychoanalytic frames, and argues compellingly that we need to use and compare multiple frames in our attempts to receive survivor testimony. He does this in no small part by returning to the archival video testimony that Laub claims to describe: he finds rather breathtaking discrepancies (which are anything but satisfactorily addressed in Laub’s response to an earlier version of this chapter that Trezise published as an article) between Laub’s account and any of the possible sources to which he could be referring. Trezise rightly gives Laub a great deal of credit for underscoring the need to attend to the singularity of each survivor, but demonstrates that Laub violates his own imperative, and draws attention to his unreflected investments in his own, clinically inflected modality of listening, when he bases his argument on a freely drawn composite witness.
Chapter Two can only be called a demolition of the extremely influential theory of trauma elaborated by Cathy Caruth in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1996) and other works. Trezise identifies the most fundamental epistemic shortcoming of Caruth’s theory of trauma—“the inaccessibility of traumatic experience to knowledge undermines the...