Philosophy of the Arts


The Moral Witness

Their Peculiar Contribution

What if we’d introduce a distinction between the epistemology of the narrative and the sincerity of testimonials of experiential memories that anchor the narrative—liberating the moral witness from having to answer epistemological challenges. the truth of a witnesses testimony is allowed to be idiosyncratic, because what it arguably does is contribute an idiosyncratic corroboration upon request by historiography. The criteria the moral witness answers to are moral, with an eye to their future audiences and the deceased others; as well as psychological, with an eye to their real, and truthful, authentic memories.

Margalit versus Lanzmann? Not.

The ambiguity at stake in one witness speaking on behalf of the many can now be readily understood. Margalit means: no moral witness should claim to be telling the whole historical narrative (the one historiography is after) as they are not experts in that. Of course, they are not—not normally at least. And thus Margalit comes to require the moral witness to relate their personal stories.
The fact that Lanzmann says that ‘his’ witnesses never say “I”, but say “we”, can be seen to expand on Margalit’s point of view: when Abraham Bomba, the barber, says “I had to cut the hair of these women”, although that is a statement describing what he as a person had to do, he is already talking about the others–the women whom he had to cut the hair, and tried to console, but could not on account of the SS and kapos–and for the others–the other barbers who were ordered similarly.
There is no way to tell a personal story without representing yourself and your actions as socially embedded. The fact that according to Lanzmann nobody in the film says “I”, merely goes to show how much the witnesses are conscious of their social embedding. How could they not be?

Expanding Moral Testimonial Beyond the Individual Witness

The moral witnesses in Lanzmann’s film Shoah speak for the rest, among other reasons, because their memories are stirred by the place they are put in. The moral witnesses find their memories in these places, where others left theirs as well. That should be construed like this: the way you sit in a chair, and how that feels is dependent on the nature of the chair among others (and this thought can and should be broadened to include further properties of the place, and the affordances recognised thereof.)
The moral witness is not saying I, or we, Lanzmann says. They are not speaking for themselves, do not relate their personal story about how they escaped a camp, and so on. Indeed, they describe the situation as, in fact, anyone in their position would have experienced it. That, of course, is an assumption, but one that cannot possibly far removed from reality. It is vastly incoherent to assume that, for instance, another barber in a position such as Abe Bomba’s would have had totally different experiences. That would call for a stretch of imagination.
One reason for the moral witness to refrain from saying “I” probably is this that thus they succeed in somehow making the story a little less personal; it may be a way to distance themselves a bit from the pain in their memories. Their desire to speak up, in fact is based in their will to speak for the lot, and not to cleanse their own memories; not for the sake of psychotherapeutic katharsis. So the very occurrence of their testimonial indicates an implicating of the lot. Abraham Bomba is more upset for talking about the experience of his fellow barber than about his own experiences. It is only when he relates the other’s horrible story that he drops silent (the silence that intimates so much more than anything he does say.)

Nuit et Brouillard

Jean Cayrol, in Nuit et Brouillard, in contrast, does speak in more generalising terms about what happened, and does exactly not refer to his personal predicament. He may be a moral witness, but he does not speak as one. Instead, he can be argued to abuse his status as a moral witness, to authorise his more general descriptions. (Thanks, Iris, for suggesting this latter objection).

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