"Blowback", a term invented by officials of the CIA,
has begun to circulate among students of international relations.
It refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept
secret from Americans; what the daily press reports as the malign
acts of "terrorists" or "drug lords" or "rogue
states" or "illegal arms merchants" often turn out
to be blowback from earlier American operations (Simpson 1988).
While refraining from making direct political commentary, this paper
revolves around representations of atrocity and what other kinds
of meanings might lie within such images. Can we talk about what
blowback the community and the individual might experience from
witnessing testimonies of atrocity? Shoshana Felman asks a similar
question: "If history has clinical dimensions, how can testimony
intervene pragmatically and efficaciously at once historically (politically)
and clinically?"(1995 20 emphasis in the original). For the
purposes of my discussion I have (rather brutally) translated Felman's
"historically (politically) and clinically" as "community
and the individual" in order to consider how an exploration
of testimony can generate new ways to think about intervention on
an international political (historical) scale.
Work of the Witness
Felman offers a neat description of a "life-testimony":
"not simply a testimony to a private life, but a point of conflation
between text and life, a textual testimony which can penetrate us
like an actual life"(14 emphasis in the original). This point
of conflation begs further attention. This definition of testimony
pushes the edges of its meaning outwards from its specific legal
usage towards something much more profound. Somehow, testimony,
as Felman describes, permeates the barrier that "normally"
separates text from life. Generally contemporary literary critics
agree that text does not simply record fact but requires that one
decipher what might be visible on its surface. Text is not fact.
But occasionally one finds oneself "appointed to bear witness"(ibid).
In Felman's description, the "appointment" transcends
the usual process of deciphering meaning, instead, penetrating the
witness, compelling her to face something larger than simply a life
- indeed to "face life's horror to which there is only one
comfort - its alignment with the horror experienced by previous
witnesses" (Felman citing Canetti ibid). Thus our usual means
of distinguishing between text and life, between representation
and fact, is utterly shattered. But, as Felman reminds us, testimony
does not offer a completed statement, a totalizable account of events.
"It does not possess itself as a conclusion, as the constatation
of a verdict or the self-transparency of knowledge" (Felman
16-17). Later in the paper I will point out that this understanding
of testimony as an "incomplete" speech act that simply
contains a powerful address to what in history is the action that
exceeded or exploded conceptual reification (the trauma), often
accidentally sets the ground for a repetition of the original action
that initiated the trauma. In this situation, testimony's status
as a speech act, as merely an address, becomes confused with the
event of the trauma itself. And if the testimony becomes incontestable
self-evidence of the traumatic event, it can initiate a disastrous
repetition of that event. I intend to argue that it is necessary
to maintain the gap between what is essentially representation of
the trauma and the event of trauma-in a clinical and collective
sphere. Further I'm suggesting that the answer to the question (and
character) of intervention depends on the maintenance of that gap.
Thus the "trick" becomes difficult when trauma is often
defined as that which eludes representation (Felman 1995, Caruth
1996). But before we might consider these questions, it perhaps
would be prudent to consider what Felman calls the "appointment"
and "alignment of witnesses."
Felman suggests that the appointment to witness cannot be relieved
by any "delegation, substitution, or representation... It is
a strange appointment... To bear witness is to bear the solitude
of a responsibility, and to bear the responsibility, precisely,
of that solitude" (14-15). But paradoxically this solitary
burden is both in the company of other witnesses (the alignment
of witness that literature produces) and an appointment that asks
the witnesses to speak for and to others. This makes the work of
the witness paradoxical, seemingly impossible and yet the structure
of the experience seems to contain disquieting new ways for thinking
through history and our relationship to others. In short, the structure
of testimony demands a new version of community.
Jean Francois Lyotard offers a similar argument in his short paper
"The Other's Rights." Lyotard suggests that the capacity
to speak to others is perhaps the most fundamental human right and
if the facility is forbidden, "a harm is inflicted on the speaker
thus constrained. He is set apart from the speech community of interlocutors.
To no one is he any longer someone other, nor is anyone now his
other" (141). Lyotard's formula offers a similar portrait of
trauma - as a harm of address. The traumatized becomes only an object,
without anything like a relation of address (see Caruth and Keenan
1995). Similarly, in the course of constructing his video archive
of Holocaust testimonies, Dori Laub discovers that the listener
(the interviewer) becomes the Holocaust witness before the narrator
does: "To a certain extent, the interviewer-listener takes
on the responsibility for bearing witness that previously the narrator
felt he bore alone, and therefore could not carry out. It is an
encounter and the coming together between the survivor and the listener,
which makes possible something like the repossession of the act
of witnessing. This joint responsibility is the source of the reemerging
truth" (69). Without the listener-interviewer, the traumatized
remains unable to bear the responsibility of the experience, unable
to address anyone outside.
So at minimum, we have a description of the strange, involuntary
appointment to bear witness to trauma that in turn generates a sort
of paradoxical community - an alignment of witnesses that each must
bear the responsibility of solitude whose effects explode any capacity
for explanation or rationalization; a community composed of contradictory,
impossible bonds indeed. But this, according to Lyotard is the very
composition of community itself: "[T]he human we does not precede
but results from interlocution... The citizen is the human individual
whose right to address others is recognized by those others"
(138). Thus Laub's video archive might be Lyotard's ideal community
- an environment wherein the abject are granted the right to address
others and in turn the right to be someone else's other. Testimony,
then, becomes the very narrative vehicle by which a community (based
on a reemerging, belated, traumatic truth) is made.
In another light, this vision of community seems excessively hopeful.
Ora Avni's reading of Elie Wiesel's novel, Night, suggests the vision
of a community based on speech acts poses some extraordinary difficulties.
The main character Moshe, having escaped from the death camps, returns
to his community in an attempt to reintegrate into the human community
of his past - a community whose integrity was put into question
by the absurd, incomprehensible, and inassimilable killings he had
witnessed (Avni 212). Anvi suggests that "through his encounter
with Nazism, Moshe has witnessed... the demise of his notion of
humanity - a notion, however, still shared by the town folks. As
long as they hold onto this notion of humanity to which he can no
longer adhere, he is ipso facto - a freak" (ibid). Moshe tries
to address his community as a way back to normalcy, as a way to
generate a community on Lyotard's terms: on the basis of interlocution.
Or, perhaps, more precisely, Moshe tries to create an entirely new
community through his efforts to testify; certainly a community
in which he has a place in the collective history. But Night is
the story of a repeated dying: Moshe's community obdurately refuses
to take his story as truth. He is never permitted to make an address.
This, in effect, exemplifies the perpetual dilemma of Lyotard's
(and arguably Felman's) version of community. Despite Moshe's unrelenting
efforts to tell his story throughout the book, "people refused
not only to believe his stories, but even to listen to them"
(Avni quoting Wiesel 214). Similarly Avni says, "the first
survivors who told their stories to either other Jews or to the
world were usually met with disbelief... 'I don't believe you'"
said Justice Felix Frankfurter, when given an eye-witness testimonial
of the atrocities. "'I did not say this young man was lying.
I just said I cannot believe him'"(Avni 203).
Avni has constructed a complex theoretical version of the speech
community using Saussure's linguistic terms in her paper, but key
to our conversation here is the point that a private language is
no language at all. To ensure the integrity of the community, enough
linguistic rules must be in place for the transmission of meaning.
Traumatic experience undoubtedly ruptures those rules. The testimony
then, becomes a speech act that attempts to shift that rupture into
the community of interlocutors-to pass the accident-a technique
of renegotiating the rules of address. Every sentence uttered by
the traumatized (given that the traumatized was offered the right
to speak) would necessarily transform the rules of the community.
Felman describes this process of linguistic interruption in her
section on poetry: "The breakage of the verse enacts the breakage
of the world" (32). Testimony seems to bring the sensitive
relationship between language and events to a crisis level, at times
conflating the gap between them. Paul Celan describes his relationship
to language as a process of seeking an entrance into reality:
In this language I have sought, then and in the years since then,
to write poems-so as to speak, to orient myself, to explore where
I was and was meant to go, to sketch out reality for myself...
... These are the efforts of someone coursed over by the stars of
human handiwork, someone also shelterless in a sense undreamt-of
till now and thus most uncannily out in the open, who goes with
his very being into language, stricken by and seeking reality (Celan
cited by Felman 34).
Celan seems to regard language as the means by which he may access
humanity again. He goes "with his very being into language,"
knowing already the injury of becoming merely an object amongst
other objects, without anything like the capacity to address. It
is only through his poetic testimony, with its double-edged effect
of both wounding the witness and, at the same time, allowing the
speaker the possibility of movement (back) into reality, that Celan
can form a home for himself. It seems that contained within this
very special address is the capacity to generate a version of community
that can survive the rupture of inassimilable, traumatic events
like colonization, slavery and holocaust. The address proceeds,
like Celan's poetry, without guarantees of success, but nevertheless
persistent in its incessant call.
Thus at the other end of the testimonial transaction, an established
community can refuse to let the abject speak in order to maintain
its own integrity. Testimony's plea is refused. Undoubtedly, the
price on an established community to witness trauma must, at times,
have immeasurable costs-the nature of which, whether economic or
internal (epidermal?), is certainly a subject for many more papers.
But communities are formed out of testimony and if, as Felman suggests,
literature generates an alignment of witnesses, then we may read
the story of her class, the texts and video archive as an example
of this new version of community based on an address. And yet this
community wasn't particularly "functional" either:
[The students] were set apart and set themselves apart from others
who had not gone through the same experience. They were obsessed.
They felt apart, and yet not quite together. They sought out each
other and yet felt like they could not reach each other. They kept
turning to each other and to me. They felt alone, suddenly deprived
of their bonding to the world and to one another (Felman 50).
The students were drawn together and yet found little comfort in
each other-an alignment of witnesses bound together by bonds of
appointment but which wretchedly offer no easily comprehendible
It seems Felman's original question, "If history has clinical
dimensions, how can testimony intervene pragmatically and efficaciously
at once historically (politically) and clinically?"(20), has
become self-evident. Testimony, as the process by which an address
is made, always already does intervene. We might think of testimony
as the penultimate medium of intervention. Its mode of address intervenes
on established communities seeking to introduce new linguistic and
narrative rules-it seeks to generate a new community on different
grounds, or perhaps more precisely, across different grounds. But
perhaps we have slid away from the more difficult question of intervention
on an international or global scale-what we could read as Felman's
"historical (political)" category. The following section
will track the story of the now iconic photograph of Fikret Alic
standing behind barbed wire in Bosnia in 1992 to see how testimony
works its powers of intervention on a macro scale.
The Sight/Site of Barbed Wire
Late in the summer of 1992 a group of British reporters from the
Independent News Service (ITN) discovered a series of concentration
camps operated by Bosnian Serbs. From the seven minute finished
report that aired on August 6 on Channel Four in Britain, newspapers
and around Europe and North America captured a single video-still
as the image for the cover the following day (both Time and Newsweek
picked up the image on their covers a week later). Both the report
and the still image sparked an intense debate that "obscured
not only the events of the war, but also the political and ethical
implications of being a witness to war"(Conley 102). The still
image is a memorable one; it shows "a stretch of barbed wire
separating gaunt prisoners from reporters. One man, Fikert Alic,
may be seen reaching a bone-thin arm through the wire to shake hands
with Ed Vuillamy [a British journalist for The Guardian]. Standing
behind barbed wire, his rib cage jutting out, linked the bloodiest
conflict in Europe since the Second World War to the most awful
site of the 1940's: the concentration camp"(ibid).
For many, this picture became the symbol of the horrors of the Bosnian
war. Key to this story and to the emotive impact of the image was
the traces of resemblance to memory of the Shoah. One British newspaper's
headline captioned the photograph "Belsen '92'" (Daily
Mirror, 7 August 1992). Even after a year of the pictures being
taken, an article in The Independent used the barbed wire to make
the Nazi link: "The camera slowly pans up the bony torso of
the prisoner. It is the picture of famine, but then we see the barbed
wire against his chest and it is the picture of the Holocaust and
concentration camps" (Daily Mail 5 August 1993 cited by Deichmann).
ITN's image won huge global coverage and later came to play a crucial
role in mobilizing international opinion against the Bosnian Serbs-a
strategy often called "mobilizing shame" in humanitarian
The debate that ensued proceeded as follows: while researching for
the War Crimes trial on the Bosnian war, a German journalist, Thomas
Deichmann, discovered that the barbed wire in the photograph was
attached to the poles from the inside. He then argued in an article
in Living Marxism in 1997 that the Muslims were not standing behind
a fence but in front of one-that Trnopolje was not a prison or concentration
camp but a refuge camp that the Muslims themselves created. ITN
responded with (and won) a libel suit against Living Marxism. According
to the courts, the photograph was incontestable evidence of concentration
camps in Europe. Further, Deichmann argued that the photograph was
clearly intended to render Trnopolje visible as a camp which in
turn set the stage for NATO's intervention:
Roused by the pictures, British prime minister John Major summoned
cabinet colleagues back from holiday for an emergency meeting. Shortly
afterwards, his government announced that British troops would be
sent into Bosnia. In the USA, where the 1992 presidential election
campaign was in full swing, Democratic Party candidate Bill Clinton
and running mate Al Gore used the ITN pictures to demand that president
George Bush should take military action against the Bosnian Serbs.
In Brussels, meanwhile, NATO staff responded by planning a military
intervention in the Balkans (Deichmann).
The photograph, mobilized as evidence of a contemporary holocaust
in Europe, obviously had an impact (leaving aside for the moment
the argument about the difference between NATO versus humanitarian
intervention). The photograph's testimony seemed to offer direct
historical (political) reasons for the world's intervention. In
this particular case, the photograph mediated "history's clinical
dimensions" by relying on the relationship between the present
and the past (namely the Holocaust). By drawing the present into
the past the address is generated and the alignment of witnesses
materializes through the newspapers' readership.
But this particular case begs the question of who bears witness
for the witness? The image of Fikert Alic was not the testimony
of the traumatized-at least not the testimony of the Muslims who
inhabited the camp. We must read the story of this photograph and
the subsequent story of the impact of the photograph as the testimony
of a witness. Penny Marshall led the ITN crew into Bosnia, not fully
knowing what to expect. Faced with the experience of encountering
gaunt men detained in camp-like facilities, Marshall assumed the
role of the good journalist and offered testimony of what she had
witnessed. This testimony, presented in the form of a news report
and many subsequent interviews, was then offered to an established
community of interlocutors-the global community of CNN viewers.
The community that consequently developed was one made up of witnesses
to the testimony of a witness. Here is the "blowback"
of traumatic testimony: nowhere in such a community is the traumatized
located. Despite his very image on the cover of hundreds of papers,
he remains absent, abject. His right to speak, his very ability
to address has been usurped by the witness who in turn mistakenly
claims the right to (re)address and interrupt the order of things;
a new right to intervene in the order of international politics
and strategies. In so doing, "genocide, creates a new human
subject-the pure victim stripped of a social identity" (Ignatieff
20). Perhaps we might add to Ignatieff's claim: it is the image
of genocide which strips the traumatized of its social identity
and power to address. (Fikert Alic's name did not accompany the
original newscast of his image or the newspaper covers. It wasn't
until some years later that his name even appeared in a caption
of the iconic image.). Ignatieff, in his vitriolic chapter on the
ethics of television suggests "Television images cannot assert
anything; they can only instantiate something. Images of human suffering
do not assert their own meaning; they can only instantiate a moral
claim if those who watch understand themselves to be potentially
under obligation to those they see"(11-12). The images of the
Bosnian camp were mobilized by the newspapers not as a testimony
of a witness but as incontestable evidence of concentration camps
in Europe. "But therein lies the difficulty-a camp is not visible
as such. When ITN reporters tried to capture the memory of the camp
in order to render visible what was happening in Bosnia, they forgot-even
as did their critic, Deichmann-that an image does not record a fact,
but requires that one decipher what might be visible on its surface"(Conley
104). In one sentence Conley separates what could not be separated
in the course of nearly ten years of legal and ethical finagling-the
gap that testimony always penetrates: the gap between text and life,
between the image and the event. Obviously the deliberate enlistment
in the veracity of a text's (or photograph's) testimony can be mobilized
as part of a plea for intervention-in this case as part of a plea
for UN humanitarian intervention. But as Conley says, "the
memory of Auschwitz is not necessarily the knowledge of an event,
for there is not translation to knowledge that would produce ethical
or political clarity from an image framed by that memory"(105).
Conley and Ignatieff seem to ask us to remain open to the task of
reading this borderland that testimony sensitizes-which happens
to be designated by the barbed wire in the photograph in question.
They ask us to maintain our means of distinguishing between text
and life, between representation and fact, to keep from collapsing
the gap, because as Felman reminds us, testimony does not offer
a completed statement, a totalizable account of events. "It
does not possess itself as a conclusion, as the constatation of
a verdict or the self-transparency of knowledge" (Felman 16-17).
And yet the photograph's powerful address to what is the event of
displacing, torturing, raping and probably killing thousands of
people, exceeds and explodes conceptual reification. The confusion
between the address and the event, between representation and the
act of trauma seems to, accidentally, set the grounds for a repetition
of the original action which initiated the trauma. These are the
"stakes" in this "larger, more profound, less definable
crisis of truth"(Felman 17). In this case, it could be argued
that the response to the testimony of the photograph only unknowingly
repeated the inaugural trauma of the events that took place in Bosnia:
The International Committee of the Red Cross complained that, thanks
to the global excitement caused by the ITN reports, every chance
had been lost to attain a solution which would allow the Muslims
to remain in the region. On 1 October 1992, the first big Red Cross
convoy set off from Trnopolje to ship 1560 refugees over the border
into Croatia. In a sense, the exile of thousands of Muslims from
their home in Bosnia Herzegovina was thus inadvertently facilitated
by the international reaction to the ITN reports from Trnopolje
Blowback: while the address of the photograph clearly generated
a community of interlocutors through the apparatus of the media,
it's uptake only generated an international community that "did
something" (sent doctors, aid workers and some 60,000 troops
to Bosnia) which, arguably, was only an action which repeated the
initial displacement. In other words, the photographs testimony
was not recognized as such-as only an address. Instead, the photograph
was mobilized as clear evidence of the event of a new holocaust
in Europe. It penetrated like life itself. But this (mis)reading,
the substitution of the representation of an event for the event
itself, seems to only obliterate the actual event. Something about
the act of seeing, in the very establishing of the bodily referent
of Fikert Alic, erased, with the help of the empty grammar of the
caption, the reality of the event as not Belsen or Auschwitz. The
gap between representation and reality and responsibility has fused
shut. Thus the mis-recognized memory image of the death camps was
able to produce an absolutely airtight ethical/political justification
for intervention on a historical (political) scale. Perhaps when
looking at the ITN photograph of Fikert Alic we are seeing more
of the Holocaust than of Bosnia. A fused structure that rejects
all possibility to cultivate a sense that past is past. History
knifes through the present, creating a psychological simultaneity,
grasping onto a grief and anger whose power traps us in an unending
yesterday (Ignatieff 168-9).
So testimony's power of intervention, pragmatic and efficacious,
at once historical (political) and clinical, can go either way.
If we take the constitution of community as Lyotard suggests, as
a locus of speech acts, then several possibilities surface: the
space between testimony as an address to the event of trauma and
the actual event itself can be obliterated at which point the demand
to "Do something!" stifles the almost whispered utterance
of the dilemma: "What to do?" Or, the testimony can reduce
the community of interlocutors to crisis, passing the accident of
the trauma through the community, but, in so doing, bringing with
it the possibility of knowledge, for "in itself, knowledge
[of the event] does not exist, it can only happen through the testimony:
it cannot be separated from it. It can only unfold itself in the
process of testifying but it can never become a substance that can
be possessed by either speaker or listener, outside the dialogic
process" (Felman 53). While Felman's paper begins to open up
what we might call the borderlands of testimony, it does not provide
any immunity. We can begin to see how testimony intervenes at once
historically (politically) and clinically but this offers no defense
against that interruption. Despite the growing predominance of the
medium as a privileged mode of communication, the narrative form
of testimony remains without ethical, clinical, historical or political
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