Survival : Gil Anidjar

Youngsuk Suh / Untitled (inf638)
Youngsuk Suh / Untitled (inf638)

Survival : Gil Anidjar

“I must repeat,” Primo Levi famously insisted, “we, the survivors, are not the true witness.”1 Out of this unusual claim or insight, Levi did more than his share in dedicating his life and works to a reflection on the witness, the true or complete witness, and on testimony. It should not be surprising therefore that, himself a paradigmatic figure, witness to the witnesses, Levi did not have as much to say about the survivor, about “we, the survivors.” Levi professed neither privileged understanding of the reasons for survival, nor particular knowledge of the powers—or accidents—of survival. He certainly did not contribute to the impressive and seemingly lasting achievements of social Darwinism, nor did he claim to offer yet another image of “the triumph of the human spirit.”2 Levi did not write a critique of survival reason, but neither did he write an apologia pro vita sua, pro vulnerabili vita sua. Survival remained, for him, an open question—or worse, an accusation. “The worst survived,” he insistently wrote, in an inversion of Herbert Spencer’s famous phrase. He repeated: “The worst survived.”3

Survival is everywhere, yet survival also lingers, it seems fair to say, at the edge of our concerns, literally on the brink rather than at the center of our consciousness. What kind of consciousness, if consciousness is the word, does survival entail?4 How old is this consciousness, how universal? What is the nature, the political nature of its concerns? Or is survival, “the absolute value of survival,” as Jacques Barzun calls it, more adequately understood as the marker of a moral inclination?5 Is survival past or present? Is it ahead of us? A matter of selection or of decision, of individual or ethical choice?6 Is it a collective keyword, a philosophical or political concept?7 “Today, one would accuse survival of lacking structure, of being a concept . . . out-of-date, and outdated; in short, an old nineteenth-century scientific ghost.”8 A structural anachronism—

let survival be understood (according to this thinking in which nothing is lost) as being yet, as continuing to be, according to modes of power (possibility, ability, eventuality) . . . something indeterminate still happens, when in fact we should be no longer, not be capable, not be able to stand it any longer.9

Has survival survived? What is it, finally, that has survived or that has been survived?10 I shall broach these questions by first offering an illustration, a summary for the argument to come—an attempt mainly to reckon with the manifest and marginal rhetoric of survival, with the strange and growing ubiquity of survival and with its rule—seizing the opportunity to perhaps lighten, or at least gauge, the dark and heavy matter Levi’s words inevitably extend over the subject. I mean “illustration” quite pedestrianly, for I will be commenting on a set of juxtaposed images, which, random as it might appear, has been widely disseminated in major cities and airports the world over, one substantive instance in the general representation of difference and cultural difference (“different values”) courtesy of international banking, a crash course in visual studies and political philosophy, or alternatively an introduction to liberal (and, incidentally, négationniste) hermeneutics. This particular instance speaks, at any rate, to survival.

In a few words, if not a thousand, the image speaks for itself, or so one might wish to say.11 It functions, at any rate; it succeeds in functioning, in large part because it provides its own intertext, the by-now unavoidable intertext, unlikely as it is, of survival. Through the inscriptions, and by way of the juxtaposition as well, a larger cultural context is powerfully included, translated; it moves in and out, in and further within the treble frame in a dynamic manner.12 My argument takes its point of departure from a kind of inexorable motion here at work. For the image—one that is three and three that are one—slides and slithers in two directions at once, placing survival both at the edge and at the center of a loop that alliterates (Es-es to Es-es) and moves diegetically. It shifts from bright to dark, from the lightness of being to the aftermath of catastrophe and back to the banality of evil.

Read alternatively from right to left, which might be de rigueur in our allegedly philo-Semitic context, the plot of the shaved heads carries us along, down the jetway westward, ultimately oscillating between natural or man-made disaster, the aleatory nature of looking at the bright side of life by choosing it (life, I mean—over cancer, apparently), joining the army (“be all you can be”), embracing with pointed ease a decision that seamlessly turns one from perpetrator to victim, or finally perhaps into fashion victim.13 As Marc Nichanian strikingly writes in what appears to be a different context, “survival is denial.”14 Then again, and true to the sovereignty of survival that underlies my preoccupations, it might very well be that we shall all become “queen for a day,” fashion queens indeed on television’s Survivor (“outwit, outplay, outlast”). “These are some of the facts of our lives,” write Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen as they attend to the “new physics of survival” in American mass culture; these are ”the decisions and reveries of survival.”15

In the meantime, and whatever the sequence and its orders—reading is here an unavoidable part of seeing, and it tilts insistently westward, as I have said, toward Hollywood and the filmic and televisual imagination—the atheological sum of images must be seen for its ambiguous flatness. It is the bank’s own caption, and carries with it an asserted superior perspective on the entire world, that brings about this flatness, leveling that world (and a few others), the nature of differences, and the meaning of history in the service of rhetoric, the rhetoric of service, with rhetoric at your service:

When we look at the world, we see that different values are what make it so remarkable. With over 140 years of experience, we use this understanding to serve you better.16

The narrative implications linger, however, and the sequence thus brings to mind the steps that familiarly bind the logic of the film noir, for instance, to survival. There too the hero “dreads to look ahead, but instead tries to survive by the day”—facing ahead ourselves, we have little sense of what is facing us and are confronted not by a face but by the back of our white hero’s head.17


*For Marc Nichanian. I delivered an early version of this essay on a panel entitled “After the Survivor,” at Centro Primo Levi 4th International Symposium, The Asia Society, New York, October 2010. I thank Uri Cohen, Natalia Indrimi, and Manuella Consonni for the invitation and ensuing conversations. My dialogue with Marc Nichanian (who had spoken the day before at the same conference) long precedes that occasion, and has been all the more formative.

1. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Summit Books, 1988), 83.

2. See Mike Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

3. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 82.

4. Reflecting on survival (he calls it a word, an idea, never a concept), Jean-François Lyotard proposes an “intelligence of survival,” in which time “provides, at least for the spirit, the foundation of its idea of survival, in the philosophical problematic of spirit or consciousness.” Jean-François Lyotard, “The Survivor,” in Toward the Postmodern, trans. Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts (Atlantic Highland, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996), 145.

5. Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 125.

6. “According to Melanie Klein, we develop moral responses in reaction to questions of survivability,” writes Judith Butler in an essay dedicated to “survivability, vulnerability, affect.” Butler goes on to assert that her “wager is that Klein is right about that, even as she thwarts her own insight by insisting that it is the ego’s survivability that is finally at issue. Why the ego? After all, if my survivability depends on a relation to others, to a “you” or a set of ‘yous’ without whom I cannot exist, then my existence is not mine alone, but is to be found outside myself, in this set of relations that precede and exceed the boundaries of who I am.” Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable (London: Verso, 2009), 44.

7. See Didier Fassin, “Ethics of Survival. A Democratic Approach to the Politics of Life,” Humanity 1: 1 (2010): 81-96. This essay resonates, in a number of ways, with Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). Both of these very different essays attend not so much to survival (the term may be said to have been stretched anyway, and to some extent generalized as well), as they attempt to explain “how a good person quite literally survives death.” Johnston, Surviving, 14. See also Fassin, “Ethics of Survival,” 90. Whereas Fassin underscores “social agents” and “the complexity and richness of life in society as it is in fact observed” (93), Johnston proposes that we abandon received notions of self and consciousness (“the irrelevance of substantial selves” [176], “there is no survival of one’s very own individual personality” [357]), and substitute for it, ultimately, agape as “identity-constituting in a way that makes for survival in the onward rush of humankind” (49). The good, Johnston concludes (by which he means, the survivors), “have a larger identity; they live on in the onward rush of humankind, variably and multiply embodied in the embodiments of those that follow them” (356). What Johnston calls “the onward rush of humankind,” Fassin calls “what life is or rather what human beings make of their lives, and reciprocally how their lives permanently question what it is to be human” (94). What binds it all together is, of course, survival.

8. Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Surviving Image: Aby Warburg and Tylorian Anthropology,” Oxford Art Journal 25: 1 (2002): 65. Didi-Huberman engages here the discourse of anthropology, and art history, in its relation to evolutionism; see as well his “Artistic Survival: Panofsky vs. Warburg and the Exorcism of Impure Time,” Common Knowledge 9:2 (2003): 273-285.

9. Jean-François Lyotard, “The Survivor,” 145.

10. Marc Nichanian, in whose debt I remain throughout this essay, raises this essential question in his reflections on “the image and the survivor,” insisting that the Catastrophe, “the event-without-witness” (in Shoshana Felman’s phrase), is the very destruction of the witness, the production of an event that, beyond proof and evidence, has always already been denied as “fact.” Nichanian takes to its logical conclusion the breach famously opened by Primo Levi between the survivor and the witness, the very breach Giorgio Agamben seeks to displace when he writes the following: “If the survivor bears witness not to the gas chambers or to Auschwitz but to the Muselmann, if he speaks only on the basis of an impossibility of speaking, then his testimony cannot be denied. Auschwitz—that to which it is not possible to bear witness—is absolutely and irrefutably proven.” Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 1999), 164. Also, a few pages earlier: “It is because there is testimony only where there is an impossibility of speaking, because there is a witness only where there has been desubjectification, that the Muselmann is the complete witness and that the survivor and the Muselmann cannot be split apart” (158). See Marc Nichanian, The Historiographic Perversion, trans. Gil Anidjar (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009) and Edebiyat ve Felaket [Literature and Disaster], trans. Ayşegül Sonmezay (Istanbul: Turker Armaner, 2011). “The Image and the Survivor” is one of the lectures included in this book composed of a series of lectures delivered in English in Istanbul. After their delivery, the lectures were rewritten in French (the version I was privileged to read), and then translated and published in Turkish. All this being of course true to Walter Benjamin’s insight on translation and afterlife (fortleben as opposed to überleben).

11. See http://shawncita.wordpress.com/2010/03/17/words-do-have-the-power/, accessed January 27, 2012.

12. Because the bank advertises its own global nature, one that is performed in numerous other ads (cf. previous note), as well as in the very reach of the marketing campaign, the limits of the context to which I refer cannot be established with much precision (but see http://www.istockanalyst.com/article/viewarticle/articleid/2740549, accessed January 27, 2012). Like every other context, and perhaps even more so, this “context is never absolutely determinable, . . . its determination is never certain or saturated.” Jacques Derrida, “Signature, Event, Context” trans. Alan Bass, in Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 310. “Ethnocentric” as it ultimately is, my argument follows the claims of generalization, even universalization, that accompany the discourse of survival in its English translations (überleben and fortleben, as it were) with a view to interrogate survival’s hold on us and locate it somehow more narrowly within a particular—and peculiar—“tradition.”

13. “For if I were to argue that genders are performative,” writes Judith Butler “that could mean that I thought that one woke in the morning, perused the closet or some more open space for the gender of choice, donned that gender for the day, and then restored the garment to its place at night.” Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), x. Butler’s argument against the misunderstanding of her work already had to contend with a stacked deck, for not only genders but also one’s sartorial, professional and existential “choices” have been multifariously influenced by advertising and marketing. Perhaps this is “because the living imagine themselves playing the dead as if they were method actors ‘getting inside’ the dead.” Martin Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 112. On the negationism implicit in this macabre merry go-round, see my “When Killers Become Victims: Anti-Semitism and Its Critics,” Cosmopolis: A Review of Cosmopolitics 3 (2007). (http://agora.qc.ca/cosmopolis).

14. Marc Nichanian, Literature and Disaster. Nichanian speaks of the demand for evidence and proof that plagues the survivor, as well as of the inherent negationism of historiography, both of which negate the event. One could contextualize otherwise and refer here to what Barbara Ehrenreich describes as “the relentless promotion of positive thinking.” Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009).

15. Stuart Ewen and Elizabeth Ewen, Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 7 and 38.

16. I quote from the HSBC caption.

17. Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir” quoted in Martin Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 60. If one only knew which way is up, this might all be read together with Harris’s impeccable recalling of “Walter Benjamin’s perhaps overfamiliar figure of the angel of history,” who has “no choice but to obey the quasi-materialist prohibition against contemplation of the future” (99). Slavoj Žižek could not fail to remind us here of “a Freudian perspective,” where “the face is the ultimate mask that conceals the horror of the Neighbor-Thing.” Hence, “the covered face causes so much anxiety: because it confronts us directly with the abyss of the Other-Thing, with the neighbor in its uncanny dimension. The very covering-up of the face obliterates a protective shield . . . Imagine a woman ‘taking off’ the skin of her face itself, so that what we see beneath is precisely anonymous dark smooth . . . surface.” Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (New York: Verso, 2010), 3.

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