Some responses to productive conversations about representations of suffering, through a confused but avid reading of Agamben: Remnants of Auschwitz.
As witnesses, we need always to admit that we don’t know what we’re talking about, and must nonetheless talk.
When we are moved by images of child soldiers, for example, we know that we are not them, and that child soldiers capable of testifying are not direct witnesses to that which is the end of their indenture – namely the destruction of the human; if they were destroyed – truly destroyed – their memory and so their language would be destroyed with them. (Someone who survives a suicide attempt can testify to the nature of an attempt, but no one can testify to suicide itself; people who have been declared legally dead and then come back can’t testify in the language of death, but in the language of back-from-death…)
We, some, are drawn to child soldiers (or other cases that strike the heart with special fierceness) as extreme cases that illuminate the norm… the way that in legal reasoning cases beyond the law are studied to make more firm the reach of the law (this part is especially heavy on the Agamben). We work on a daily basis with a general understanding of human capacities – the red-line for aggression, the unmoved needle betokening a death of empathy. Contemplation of the child soldier (of the concentration camp wraith, of the murderer) must remain constant (and like monks, whose contemplation keeps the world whole – not everyone at all times must contemplate atrocity… it is essential in fact that something else also be thought of; witness is by nature incomplete, and the world is fulfilled by giving witness a place/places in which it is not, like duty, like God). The reality of the child soldier belies the safety of our conventional definition of ourselves as we are human.
But the refrain here is: incompleteness. We must recognize not only that we witnesses just don’t get it, can’t get it, that “it” can’t be gotten (only had)… we also need to acknowledge that our attraction to an image (event, idea) that seems to be the true, singular bursting point of all knowing – our important not-knowing – depends on all other witness, and all other knowing. Reality, including the reality of suffering, is ecological – the exception we have found (and preserve, and make vivid) is not beyond good and evil, but prior to it (again, my jumbled reading of Agamben).
“Testimony… contains a lacuna… The survivors agree about this. ‘There is another lacuna in every testimony: a witnesses are by definition survivors and so all, to some degree, enjoyed a privilege… No one has told the destiny of the common prisoner, since it was not materially possible for him to survive…’ (Levi 1997: 215-16). ‘Those who have not lived through the experience will never know; those who have will never tell; not really, not completely… The past belongs to the dead…’ (Wiesel 1975: 314).”The language of testimony is a language that no longer signifies and that, in not signifying, advances into what is without language, to the point of taking on a different insignificance – that of the complete witness, that of he who by definition cannot bear witness.” – Agamben
As artists seek for limits, for liminal experiences, for passage beyond the pale and back again, we take care that the avatars, the images and language – the people – that give form to our witness, not become “it” – the limit and what lies beyond it.
The testimony of some of the child soldiers I have met is some of the worst stuff I have ever heard in my life. I’ve heard nothing. To keep alive my witness (my lacuna, my failing forward) to these children, I must keep alive my hearing in the world at large; for my witness to be authentic, I must also lose it, even as I repeat it, in the living potential of the universal possibility prior to what will one day be said originally and forever. I must witness and forgive – meaning – must allow the point of my anger to co-create experience with that which gives rise to my anger (others who have suffered, and others who have caused suffering) – and that which is indifferent or far removed from my anger (when my anger is so clear to me – so clearly me… sometimes feels like me at my best; like me).
This is hard.
Effective witness to child soldiers, overall, includes witness to that which is other than child soldiers, and admits that even the witness to the children is impossibly incomplete. That said, there are individuals who are specialists (religious, who forgo some “practical” duties to look only at God; people who look at the world from the point of view of farming it, or organizing the disenfranchised, or…); not everybody needs to have an overall view. the overall makes up the overall view, and can profit from the congregation of particularities. Some artists, some witnesses, will, to the good of mourning, dedicate their service to suffering of a particular kind.
We can’t understand Uganda through child soldiers alone, of course. We can’t understand Uganda (or the world) without understanding child soldiers. Research may involve disciplinarity; the practice of our field (art) requires interdisciplinarity.