Survival : Gil Anidjar

The breach thereby opened by Levi between the survivor and the witness has been duly noted and much discussed. It is a breach that continues to inform a conception that—not quite generalized or widespread—sees in the survivor a figure that is distinct from the witness and perceived as the condition of possibility and impossibility of the witness.38 Most prominently perhaps, Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Derrida have attended to it from different perspectives, though they have arguably devoted much of their philosophical energies to an understanding of testimony, participating as well in the proliferation of discursive and institutional interest in trauma and witnessing.39 As he sums up his own project, Agamben makes clear that he proposes to

reread the phenomenology of testimony in Primo Levi, the impossible dialectic between the survivor and the Muselmann, the pseudo-witness and the ‘complete witness,’ the human and the inhuman. Testimony appears here as a process that involves at least two subjects: the first, the survivor, who can speak but who has nothing interesting to say; and the second, who ‘has seen the Gorgon,’ who ‘has touched bottom,’ and therefore has much to say but cannot speak. Which of the two bears witness? Who is the subject of testimony?40

No witness without survivor, no survivor as complete witness. Accordingly, as one scholar (somehow disturbingly) puts it, “the anthropological value of Levi’s work is to be found in the depiction of the dehumanized Drowned rather than in the characterology of the Saved.”41 The survivor is and is not the witness, but he is one of the saved. He is therefore not the subject, and certainly not the primary subject of attention.42 It is the witness, in testimony, which gives us access to the dead (“the survivor and the Muselmann cannot be split apart,” writes Agamben). Scholars and philosophers have focused on this statement, since within it the profound core of the problem Levi confronts can be found.43 The witness is thus perceived as an essential problem of our time, and testimony—not survival—is the explicit and recurring concern that calls on our philosophical, legal, and political imagination.44 That is why we have been said to live in “the era of the witness,” as Annette Wieviorka has it. We do not live—or apparently not—in the era of the survivor.45

It is surely no wonder that our attention has tenaciously returned to the question of testimony. It is no wonder either that we have been at once drawn to and diverted from the question of survival. Although strangely ubiquitous, the figure of the survivor and his predicament have not—perhaps could not—become objects of critical reflection, not until recently. Consider that Uri Cohen’s inquiry into survival, his unimpeachable study of the fact that “Jewish politics really begin with the question of survival,” was only made in 2007.46 The seemingly glaring obviousness of this statement can only increase when considering that its content had not been scrutinized or criticized. That same year, in fact, the French anthropologist Didier Fassin remarked on the recent trend whereby “sociological and anthropological literature has made much use of the word survival”; it has increasingly embraced the word survivor to the point that it “has become banal.”47 Yet, as Fassin comments with rare acumen, this has been done “without really knowing what it means to survive.”48

More recently still, Fassin together with psychiatrist Richard Rechtman, produced a striking history of the deployment and use of the popular word “trauma,” and its attending, proliferating effects, among which are the identification of “survivor syndrome,” the phenomenon of “survivor’s guilt,” and the dissemination of a certain instrumentalization of the notion of survival across a wide range of fields.49 Fassin and Rechtman go on to suggest that we still lack the most basic layout for a typology of survivors. In fact, based on the clinical use of the term alone, the view seems established that “there is no difference between the survivor of genocide and the survivor of rape.”50 They rightly propose, therefore, that we ”wonder if it is reasonable to group in the same category the adult who was sexually abused as a child and the earthquake survivor, the veteran who committed war crimes and the civilian whose family was massacred, the descendant of the captive rediscovering his or her history and the political activist tortured under an authoritarian regime.”51

Trauma and survival are of course not identical, but—barring future objections—they seem to be linked in a number of ways. The very popular spread of these words over the course of recent decades, at any rate, along with their scientific, social and institutional life, seems to testify to “a process of profound social change that has recast the role of the trauma survivor who, once merely a victim, has become a witness to the horrors of our age.”52 The tendency to associate and even collapse witness and survivor fait symptôme, signals that (like the victim or the enemy, perhaps) the survivor has become an ambiguous figure, a concrete image of our collective imagination—albeit a less acknowledged one. And remember what Levi said about such an image:

If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen.53

Levi, I repeat, identified the Muslim, the Muselmann, as the image of our time. Not the survivor.

In their turn, Fassin and Rechtman remind us that there are, unfortunately, many more images, many more names, not all of which were exposed to critical scrutiny. They mention “the slave, the colonized, the subjugated, the oppressed, the survivor, the accident victim, the refugee.” These, they write, “are concrete images of the vanquished whose history, far from disappearing along with their experience of defeat and misfortune, is reborn in the memory of subsequent generations.”54 One could say that these figures and images themselves survive. They are themselves survivors of sorts, “surviving images,” in Aby Warburg’s phrase.55 They are, like much else, implicitly governed by a discourse of survival.

The survivor is an image, then, a figure of our collective imagination, that has at once garnered much and all too little attention. For Terrence Des Pres, among the very few who engaged in a sustained reflection thereupon, and sought in fact to rehabilitate him, “the survivor is the figure who emerges from all those who fought for life in the concentration camps.”56 Des Pres also prepared the ground for another crucial distinction, which Fassin and Rechtman mention, namely the distinction between survivor and victim. As we shall soon see, this underscores that the image or figure of the survivor is almost unanimously taken to be a recent one. It may also explain why, very much unlike the witness, the concept of survivor has not quite acquired its philological lettres de noblesse. Who by now still fails to be familiar with the Latin testis, testimonium or with the Greek origins of the word martyr?

38. Felipe Victoriano provides an articulate recapitulation and a typical summary in his “Fiction, Death and Testimony: Toward a Politics of the Limits of Thought,” Discourse 25 (2004): 1-2. See esp. Felipe Victoriano, 224.

39. “This book is a kind of perpetual commentary on testimony,” Agamben writes, going on to elaborate on the survivors and their reasons to survive in a chapter revealingly entitled “the witness.” Remnants of Auschwitz, 13 and 15ff. For Agamben, Levi’s claim that the survivor is not the true witness “calls into question the very meaning of testimony” (33), but not the meaning of survival. This is of course not to say that Agamben’s work is anything less than a major contribution to our understanding of the survivor. In fact, Agamben probably takes the generalization of survival to its utmost limit when he writes, as if proposing a new definition of the human, that “the human being can survive the human being” (134) and of survival: “the decisive activity of biopower in our time consists in the production not of life or death, but rather of a mutable and virtually infinite survival” (155). And yet, throughout his account, survival remains inextricably, and surprisingly, linked to the witness, framed by, even confined to, the dominant problem of testimony. Hence, the final secret biopower (as close to radical evil as it gets in Agamben) seeks to produce “a survival separated from every possibility of testimony” (156). Like the survivor, the Muselmann must speak. See also (in a different context) Linda Alcoff and Laura Gray, “Survivor Discourse: Transgression or Recuperation?,” Signs 18:2 (1993): 260-290.

40. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 120; see also 150: “The survivor and the Muselmann, like the tutor and the incapable person and the creator and his material, are inseparable; their unity-difference alone constitutes testimony.”

41. Antoine Philippe, “The Drowned as Saviors of Humanity” in The Legacy of Primo Levi, 127.

42. Noting the significance of the discrepancy, indeed, the widening gap between witness and survivor (the former as the humanitarian worker, the later as the silent victim), Didier Fassin repeatedly brings his readers back to testimony as the explicit site of concern, indeed, “in this new configuration of testimony . . . it is not the survivors who testify to what they have experienced but the aid workers who attest what they have heard.” Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present, trans. Rachel Gomme (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 207. The political and theoretical privilege of testimony is of course overdetermined, since “not all ‘survival’ situations, as these actors often describe them, are equally dramatic or involve the same risks to life, but the core of humanitarian action is indeed existence under threat” (232). It remains the case that “the witness has become a key political figure of our time” (220), whereas the survivor is “the second figure” (297 n12).

43. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 158.

44. Positing a difference between ancient problems of property and inheritance and our current condition, Daniel Sperling proposes to distinguish “surviving interests” from “posthumous interests” in order to advocate a more realistic, and humane, conception of the human subject in law. Daniel Sperling, Posthumous Interests: Legal and Ethical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

45. Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness, trans. Jared Stark (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006). As Martin Harries has reminded me, this very recognition may indicate yet another shift in the history of survival (personal communication).

46. Uri Cohen, Survival: Senses of Death between the World Wars (Tel-Aviv: Riesling, 2007), 10.

47. Didier Fassin, When Bodies Remember: Experiences and Politics of AIDS in South Africa, trans. Amy Jacobs and Gabrielle Varro (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 261.

48. Didier Fassin, When Bodies Remember, 261; cf. Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope where Lear calls “radical hope,” that which “is held in the face of the recognition that, given the abyss, one cannot really know what survival means.” Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 97.

49. See also Ian Hacking, Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

50. Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood, trans. Rachel Gomme (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 19; and see Larry David’s take on this question, (I thank Brian Goldstone for providing me with this pointed clip).

51. Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 277.

52. Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 22.

53. Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, 90.

54. Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 16.

55. See Georges Didi-Huberman, “Surviving Images.”

56. Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), vii. Des Pres disagreed with the claim that the Muselmann was the paradigmatic figure and proposed the survivor instead. For the controversy that ensued and its significance (or lack thereof), see Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 91ff. Incidentally, Agamben’s most extensive engagement with the figure of the survivor “per se” occurs here, in the context of a discussion of “survivor’s guilt.”

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