Noone bears witness

Rachel Zolf. Photo by Brian Adams.

I am here today[1] to make a claim for the “Noone” who “bears witness for the / witness.”[2] Negation is never as it seams in Paul Celan. Yes and no are unsplit neighbors housed in abrasive proximity in the noem. That alien traumatic kernel of Das Ding in the Nebenmensch adjoins and hystericizes me, yet also wakes me to the both/and that exceeds and opens thought. As the pure products of America go crazy, Noone arrives to witness and adjust, Noone can drive the car.[3]

Giorgio Agamben, via Primo Levi, posits the “living dead” Muselmann figure (or figuren) of the Nazi camps as the “complete witness” to the disaster, the witness who can’t speak and bear witness, the subject who literally undergoes catastrophe. Thus, “the witness, the ethical subject, is the subject who bears witness to desubjectification.”[4] The “author,” whose etymological origins include vendor, one who advises or persuades, and witness, is also always coauthor. “The survivor and the Muselmann, like the … creator and his material are inseparable; their unity-difference alone constitutes testimony” (150). The survivor’s testimony is adjoined to the one who cannot speak, the “Noone” — or, via another translation of Celan’s Niemand, “Nobody” — suspended in a third realm between life and death.[5] The unsaying is always present as a remnant in the saying, as “the human being is what remains after the destruction of the human being” (Agamben, Remnants, 134).

For Agamben, “poets — witnesses — f[ind] language as what remains, as what actually survives the possibility, or impossibility, of speaking” (161). Speaking for myself, I do not trust the poet as direct transparent witness; I do not trust the “modest witness” as ethnographic fieldworker. I do not trust the speech of “I was here,” so I am entitled to speak. Always-authored testimony has its roots in the master’s testes.

But I do sort of trust Noone, the polyvocal, multifocal, desubjectified or maybe just “bad” subject[6] who bears witness for the witness who bears witness to the Muselmann’s catastrophe. I do think there is a way that poetry can partially reclaim the gaze of the witness from an intersubjective non-triangulating “third” or more remove,[7] without succumbing to colonization. Perhaps not incidentally, the presently absent Muselmann is German for Muslim, and catastrophe in Arabic is nakba, the term Palestinians use for the “ethnic cleansing” they endured in 1948: “If you do not want to talk about Odradek, Gregor Samsa and the Muselmann, then shut up about your love for a neighbor.”[8] The transcendental ethical two (me and you, reader-writer, reader-text, writer-text) tends to founder on the shoals of the spiraling out political three. No one, no two, but peut-être a futurity of three or more, in an act of imagination that brings together present absences, absent presences and so-called “present absentees.” Borrowing from Lacan, “It’s only because we can count to three that we can count to two.”[9]

Near the end of Agamben’s argument on the Muselmann’s unsaying speech, he makes a concomitant argument for interstitial knowledges in time:

In the concept of the remnant, the aporia of testimony coincides with the aporia of messianism. Just as the remnant of Israel signifies neither the whole nor a part of the people, but rather, the non-coincidence of the whole and the part, and just as messianic time is neither historical time nor eternity, but, rather, the disjunction that divides them, so the remnants of Auschwitz — the witnesses — are neither the dead nor the survivors, neither the drowned nor the saved. They are what remains between them. (163–64)

I’d like to posit this liminal space of what remains as precisely where the multifaceted Noone of innovative, avant-garde, whatever-you-want-to-call-it poetry can do its interruptive, interrogative work, burrowing in the gaps between calcified knowledges to release and circulate what I call the “mad affects” that can both hinder thought and set it alight. Something like chips of Walter Benjamin’s messianic Jetztzeit — “now-time” — that flash up as unarchived, effaced remembrances of suffering that interrupt and reorient this time. Or Jacques Derrida’s profane “messianic hope … without content”[10] that can manifest itself as an urgent injunction to act in the present, much as democracy or justice à venir may never come. Maybe it will, peut-être it won’t.[11]

To offer one slant anecdote, I went to Palestine-Israel for the first time in January 2009 for a research trip that ended up coinciding with that horrific war on Gaza. Yet, I deliberately did not write about my direct experiences on that trip. Instead, I used collage, disjunction, parataxis, dissonance, and other aspects of form in an attempt to engender “mad affects” within other people’s Orientalist and thanatourist narratives and other people’s first-person testimony. As Shoshana Felman writes, “The more a text is ‘mad’ — the more, in other words, it resists interpretation — the more the specific modes of its resistance to reading constitute its ‘subject’ and its literariness.”[12]

It is of course not new to use artifice to generate unreadable effects and affects in an attempt to shift the molecules in the brain — modernist avant-garde and post-structuralist “language” and “languagey” poetries have toyed with this process masterfully by way of “fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on.”[13] But, much as I’m not interested in neoliberal notions of what’s new in poetry, there is another element that emerges with the author’s attempt to witness and persuade and sell by adjoining her/himself to the Muselmann’s impossible speech; or to that of the homo sacer not considered human enough to be sacrificed, but whose bare life can be extinguished at will. There is poetry/performance from Juliana Spahr, M. NourbeSe Philip, Laura Elrick, Kaia Sand, Jordan Scott, kari edwards and others that enacts this “speaking silence” through affective gestures, that attempts to conjure the deracinated spectre or golem of the Noone and stick her/his “‘Oriental’ agony” (Agamben, Remnants, 70) to you like shame, instead of evacuating the desubjectified subject on the altar of the language game. Speech happens at the threshold of the human and the inhuman, at the hyphen adjoining I and Thou, but it indeed may be mad and indecipherable: “Odradek is the form which things assume in oblivion.”[14] The text reaches a limit, but perhaps better to go there than stand by and deny we have responsibility as authors. Or pretend we’re not authors at all.

The Noone is someone, many ones, a social “structure of feeling”[15] that can be powerful when harnessed. I feel this with my compatriots on this panel, a common politics and sociality that are part of what keep me going. As I struggle to write these ten minutes, Israeli troops have killed at least nine unarmed people and wounded scores of others on a humanitarian ship carrying ten thousand tons of food, medicine, building supplies and toys to Gaza. Can poetry do anything about a tragedy like this? No. And again I wonder what the hell’s the point. But I still feel called to fail well in the catachrestic effort to listen to what is unsaid and beyond knowledge in the testimony of the witness who bears witness for the Muselmann’s “bare, unassigned and unwitnessable life” (Agamben, Remnants, 157). “They crowd my memory with their faceless presence,” writes Levi.[16] Like the Guantanamo detainees risking US national security by shamelessly scratching thousands of lines of poetry onto Styrofoam cups with their fingernails. “No more sand art, no sand books, no masters.”[17] In 1982, after the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, Emmanuel Lévinas was asked if the Palestinian was not the consummate other to the Israeli. Lévinas demurred, saying that’s not what he meant at all, that the other was neighbor, who could be kin, but was at least a friend vis-à-vis a discernible enemy. Perhaps, as Slavoj Žižek suggests, in an effort to transcend the friend-enemy binary we should restore the grotesque face to the faceless Muselmann neighbor, whose infinitely vulnerable call is neither legible nor audible, but can only be hauntingly felt, an infinitely unreasonable impress-ion on and in me, engendering a set of mad affects that I can’t turn away from, that stick to my bones. In Arabic, shahīd means martyr and witness, as in witness to the truth. Unthinkable truth of living experience — there is no certitude in testimony, and the poem is untranslatable. The two can only be created by passing through the three.

During a suicide bombing, the body, in an act of sublime necropolitics, becomes the ballistic weapon, and the primary target isn’t the victim/enemy but the witness who must attempt to make meaning from shards of bodies melding in a precarious we. In Latin, the roots of testimony are not only the master’s testis but terstis, the one who is present as a third. Psychoanalysis and philosophy sometimes tell us that subjectivity is witnessing as response-ability, however impossible a task; and the intersubjective third is a mental space where responsibility begins.[18] Perhaps the truly radical call, beyond reason or recognition, is to witness that alien thing in the excessive neighbor beside me and you — Freud’s strange Zug (a trait, but also a line or mark or remnant) in the Muslim’s absent present face. That punctum, the accident that pricks, wounds me, can render me capable of renaming a body grievable, as Judith Butler has called us to do. If “negation is at the heart of testimony”[19] — Celan’s no-poem, the noem, is also noesis, the heady nous, and even yes, nous, the impossible we. Noone is an interpenetrative many. In the same bony ash-strewn poem that contains “Noone / bears witness for the / witness” the speaker stands “at the threeway,” the impossible fork in the path, and calls out in apostrophe to “you threeway / hands.” Much as witness and testimony and experience and feeling and presence and even Celan may be bad words in our hallowed post (Post)-modernist/structuralist/breakfast cereal circles that may sometimes include Reznikoff but not Forché and friends, perhaps “something / is given off” within us, a response-ability to the mad address, an impossible handshake “in isolate flecks” as “No one” madly adjusts the gears.[20] As the consummate formalist Victor Shklovsky said, facing the dearth of aesthetic options after the Russian Revolution, “There is no third path and that is the one we’re going to take.”[21]

A version of this essay previously appeared in
Canadian Literature.



1. This is a slightly revised version of a paper I gave at the Rethinking Poetics conference at Columbia University, New York, June 12, 2010, on a panel titled Affective Economies and Prosodies, with Jeff Derksen, Lisa Robertson, and Chris Nealon. I have preserved the markers that frame this piece as an oral performance for a specific time and audience.

2. Paul Celan, “Ashglory,” in Paul Celan: Selections, trans. Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 104–105.

3. See William Carlos Williams, “To Elsie,” in Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1985), 53–55. Also, Das Ding (the Thing, la Chose) and Nebenmensch (a fellow human being, the one next to and adjoining me, the neighbor) are terms theorized by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan.

4. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 44, 151. Hereafter cited in text.

5. Celan, “Ashglory,” in Breathurn, trans. Pierre Joris (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006), 193.

6. For more on the “bad subject,” see “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 181.

7. Please note the “or more.” I am not proposing a “third way.”

8. Slavoj Žižek, Eric L. Santner, and Kenneth Reinhard, The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 7.

9. Ibid., 71. Citation comes from Jacques Lacan’s Les non dupes errent, December 11, 1973, but recontextualization in The Neighbor is important.

10. Pheng Cheah and Suzanne Guerlac, eds., Derrida and the Time of the Political (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 15.

11. The liminal doesn’t have to be “between.” It can be threshold, window, gate, whatever failed projective metaphor you choose.

12. Shoshana Felman, Writing and Madness (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2003), 254.

13. Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (Berkeley: Atelos, 2007), 49.

14. Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka,” in Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2: 1931–1934 (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999), 811.

15. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 131.

16. Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening: Two Memoirs, trans. Stuart Wolf (New York: Summit Books, 1986), 90.

17. Celan, Poems of Paul Celan, trans. Michael Hamburger (New York: Persea Books, 1972), 217.

18. See Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), and Jessica Benjamin, “Beyond Doer and Done to: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness.” Also, see Bracha Ettinger on the transjective in The Matrixial Borderspace (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

19. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 54.

20. Williams, “To Elsie,” 53–55.

21. This is Jacqueline Rose’s paraphrase of Shklovsky in The Question of Zion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 14.