Witnessing Bosnia Through the Lens of the Holocaust
Do not cite
without permission of the author.
"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)
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 connection.
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 circles.
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 (Deichmann).
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
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 guarantee.
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