Errant voices

March 17, 2020 by Miriam Jacobs

Errant voices

About the gap in the testimonies of Auschwitz


Symbolic language, like poetry or art, expresses what cannot be said in words directly. For instance, when a poem is recited, something else seem to express itself through the poet. I think that something similar is happening in the theory of Giorgio Agamben, when he describes the gap in the testimonies of Auschwitz. I wonder what Agamben means with this gap, and whether it is also the case of something else expressing itself through, in this case, the witness. My query in this essay is: wat exactly does Giorgio Agamben means with the gap in the testimonies of Auschwitz?

By following Agamben on his research to insights in this gap, in The remnants of Auschwitz, I hope to get more understanding of that other, that resonates through the witness. I will stay close to the subject of Agamben, which means that I will only look specifically at the testimonies of Auschwitz. I will first research what Agamben means with this gap. In his research, he involves a contradiction. Namely the one between phoné, which means voice, and logos, which stand for meaningful language. Agamben connects the essential human being to phoné, while connecting the linguistic human being to logos.

Subsequently, he searches for the connection between these two opposites. This connection seems to express something that is absent in the testimonies, but at the same time, it seems to sound through them. With that, I get to the terms subjectification and de-subjectification, because Agamben shows how something else resonates through us, via the subject. The subject gets, so to speak, de-subjectificated. In this case, this “something else” is the everyday prisoner in Auschwitz. He was called “the Musselman”. The Muselmann was the human being who comply with the ultimate goal of the Shoah, namely to die.

In Auschwitz, the Muselmann was reduced to naked life. According to Agamben this means a life that is human, but it is no longer capable of claiming human rights. This means this life is potentially exposed to violence. This also means, that the Musselman was not capable of testifying. Nevertheless, the Musselman testifies without words, through the survivors. He testifies from non-language, which at the same time seem to show an impossibility to testify. According to Agamben, this impossibility is precisely the gap in these specific testimonies.


The testimonies about the truth of what has happened in the camps, are not traceable to the reel elements they are based on, because this truth is simply unimaginable. According to Wittgenstein, only facts which we can imagine, can be presented by valuable propositions. This means, that only the statements about natural sciences can be said. Statements concerning personal experiences are excluded. This means, that the truth about what happened in Auschwitz, cannot be presented by valuable propositions.

Agamben speaks about the aporia of Auschwitz, enabling a seemingly unsolvable impasse in these testimonies. With this he refers to the account that the experiences transcend the facts. Hence, there seems to be a chasm between experience and fact. According to Agamben, the testimonies show a gap. Regarding above conclusion, Primo Levi says that the witnesses are necessarily the survivors of Auschwitz. These witnesses survived the camp because they benefited from privileges. A regular prisoner wasn't able to testify about his fate, simply because he could impossible survive the circumstances.

These regular prisoners in Auschwitz were called Muselmänner. They belonged to, what Agamben calls the grey zone; a zone in which ethical and legislative categories get mixed up. This zone is formed by subjective guilt and objective innocence. According the analysis of Hegel, there is evidence of subjective guilt and innocence, because we are responsible for the things we do. However, according to ancient philosophy, objective guilt and innocence means, that one truly did what one did, in the objective reality.

This means, there is no verdict to deliver within the grey zone. That makes the grey zone a so called “non-responsibility-zone”. An example of the grey zone is the sonderkommando in Auschwitz. This kommando existed from groups of random appointed, strong looking prisoners. Under the surveillance of the SS, they were forced to help misleading other prisoners. This means, that a prisoner was the victim of the regime. At the same time, he was an offender within the camp. This way, nobody could be held accountable. De Muselmänner belonged to that grey zone, because they as well were not able to judge. According to Levi, they haven't spoken by themselves. Hence, the true witnesses of Auschwitz, the Muselmänner, have never testified. This means that its value derives from what is essentially missing.

Namely, the true witnesses have perished.Therefore, it seems, as if the ones who do testify, testify by mandate. However, according to Levi this is not true, because he who perishes, has nothing to say. This means that the witness only testifies that it is impossible to testify.


In order to testify, one needs the possibility of speech. Nevertheless, the Muselmann was no longer able to speak, because he was reduced to naked life. Agamben finds this mechanism of naked life in the theory from Carl Schmitt, about the legitimacy of the exceptional state. This legitimacy reduces all kinds of layers of society into the position of lawlessness; of declared outlaws who can be murdered with impunity. According to Agamben, naked life is human, but it is no longer eligible for human rights, like the right of testifying. After all, he has no longer access to logos. Remarkable here, is that the linguistic competence of the Muselmann shows a reversed image of the child, that is not yet able to speak meaningful.

Levi shows this reversal in linguistic skills, when he mentions Hurbinek, a small child in Auschwitz. In Hurbinek, the potential of speech has to become actualized. Therefore, Hurbinek testifies trough the words of Levi. This shared testimony shows that the personal experiences transcend the linguistic competence. With that, Agamben comes to a contradiction, namely phoné versus logos. According to Wittgenstein, contradictions form the boundaries of language and thought, and with that, the boundaries of the world. Agamben tries to find the right middle within these boundaries.

Phoné stands for voice, or the direct experience. Hegel sees the directness, or non- linguistic experience, as a perfect element, in which the interior is as exterior, as the exterior is interior.Logos on the other hand, refers to meaningful language and the human being as a linguistic being. Agamben searches for the connection between these two opposites. The direct voice, which coincide with subjective experience, the phoné, is called Voice by Aristotle. The Voice of Hurbinek expresses more than the logos with which Levi tries to catch it.

This 'more' is the non-language where the gap exists from. It is the part that Levi cannot put in words. Meaning, the witnesses are not able to testify to a gap. They can only testify to the inability to get the Voice into the logos. This inability expresses itself in the fact, that each testimony exists from two people, namely the survivor and the Muselmann. In other words, the testimonies exist from logos and Voice. Voice tries to come to significance in logos. However, the gap in the testimonies, exist from the inability of experience to come to significance in logos.

Subjectification versus desubjectification

Within the distinct between subjectification and desubjectification, Agamben connects the essential human to the Voice and the linguistic human to logos. Hence, speaking about subjectification means that the linguistic human identifies with logos. By taking the word, the speaker surrenders to the structure of language. With that, Voice get lost within logos. Or, the essential human gets lost when the human becomes the subject. However, the caesura in what is present, but doesn't belong to the human, is a form of desubjectification.

For example, according to Plato it isn't the poet, but a Divine voice that speaks through the poet. Another resemblance is the Muselmann, who speaks through the witness. Nevertheless, the distinction gets intensified within the Muselmann. A human being normally suppresses Voice in logos, when he takes the word. The Muselmann on the contrarily, is completely evolved into Voice. He only is able to get to meaning through the logos of the witness. This means that the testimony is the transition from Voice to logos. However, the direct element, or coincide of Voice with experience, makes this transition impossible at the same time. As mentioned above, the experience transcends the reality. Hence, the Muselmann raises the question of itself through the logos of the witness. It is up to the listener to hear this Voice, or the essential human, in between the words.

I find back something similar in the approach of Jacques Derrida, about the written word. Namely, by approaching a text with great caution, one gets to the core of it. In the poems of Celan, he searches for the tracks of the essential. He concludes that the search itself is the essence of wat literature is.

However, scripture is not to be grasped by our words. Every time it eludes our interpretations, according to Derrida. This seems in accordance with the impossibility to get Voice within logos. According to Derrida, it is not about the word itself, but about that what the word refers to. Literature is an endless exercise in finding the truth in between the sentences.

Similarly, it seems to be stated with the testimonies of Auschwitz, which don't refer to the gap, but to the Muselmann, the gap points at. Hence, the non-speaking part in the human is a form of desubjectification. Agamben calls shame as an example of the non-speaking part, which is present in every human being. It is a direct element we are surrendered to, and were we have no effect on. It speaks through the subject, making the subject being desubjectificated. Namely, this process gets caused by a double process. On the one hand there is a loss, or desubjectification, of the subject. On the other hand, there is a new controlling of the subject, or subjectification. The witness exists from both elements. In fact, every human being carries a Muselmann inside.

Non language

So, a testimony contains something that cannot be said, an untranslatable part. There seem to be a distinct between that what can be said, and that what can be experienced but not be said. This is applied to the logical form of the world, the visible word, which can be seen or experienced, in the way of contingent propositions, like symbolism, and in logical propositions. Even the unspeakable propositions in philosophy, like metaphysics or ethics, belong to this group, which Wittgenstein describes as the things which cannot be put in words. They manifest themselves. They are mystical.

Poetry shows a similar gap. According to Derrida, every accountable witness enters a poetic experience of language. Poetry creates its own idiom, and is therefore untranslatable. Lyotard contrasts reality with the experience of the eyewitness. The reality of the experience of the eyewitness, which he doesn't know how to translate, cannot be raised. That what cannot be raised, seem to be the transcending life experience, which expresses itself through the essential, instead of the linguistic human being.

The reality is a social construct that is always stuck to reality. This means that we only can say something about a part of that reality. Therefore, we can say about the testimony that a testimony is missing. Either there can be testified that nothing can be said at all, or there can be testified dat something is missing. About the so-called logos part we can say that this part belongs to the social construct. The unspeakable part, in other words, the transcending experience, seems to belong to phoné. Het seems to belong to the ineffable propositions, by which it is mystical.

The testimonies of Auschwitz only exist from a part of the reality, namely the ones from the survivors, who testified of death in the camp. However, we always can only testify of the death of the other, but never of our own death. Because of this, the experience escapes our daily understanding. It is logical impossible to testify of death from one owns experience. Because in death, Being is alienated from Be. Meaning, the other announced, does not possess this Being in the way of possessing a subject, which is in this case the Muselmann, it possesses; his grip on existence is mysterious. It is not only unknown, it is even not knowable. While the transcending life experience is unspeakable of, death is not known. Because the witnesses of Auschwitz, testify of death, one gets into a realm of danger. Approaching these testimonies as being mystical, gives the opportunity to see the Shoah as something unique, and with that exclusive. In other words, like Ype de Boer writes in the preface of Remnants of Auschwitz: When we grant a special status to Auschwitz, there is the possibility that we lose the human character of it out of side. Understanding of the gap, and with that, the awareness of the presence of the Muselmann, can keep us out of this dangerous area.


According to Agamben, the testimonies of Auschwitz show a gap. Within this essay I tried to give an answer to the question what Agamben exactly means with this gap. Namely, it seems as if this gap wants to express itself through the witnesses. I discovered that this gap stands for the Muselmänner; they were the ordinary prisoners who formed the mainstream in the camp. The Muselmann was in fact the main character of Auschwitz, who impossible could have survived, because he wasn't able to benefit from privileges. This figure belonged to the so-called grey zone. A zone in which no judgement could be made. In other words, it was a so called “no-responsibility zone”.

During his research to the gap, Agamben discovers a contradiction, namely logos versus phoné. Logos stands for the rational human being and meaningful language. Phoné expresses the essential human being and the direct sound, which Aristotle calls Voice. Within the testimonies, the Muselmänner form the Voice which tries to resonate in logos. Within the testimonies of Auschwitz, the direct experience seems to be more comprehensive than the language that tries to catch her. In other words, the direct experience of the Muselmänner cannot be expressed in logos. This impossibility is the gap in the testimonies. This means that every testimony of Auschwitz exists from two witnesses, namely the survivor and the Muselmann. The first one gets desubjectificsated by the last one, because the last one resonates trough the logos of the first one. With subjectification, namely, the subjects identify himself with the talk mode. However, within the testimonies, the Musselman speaks trough the subject. This means that the subject gets desubjectificated. In other words, it is not about the gap, but about the Muselmann, the gap points at. One cannot speak about the gap, making it mystical. However, a mystical status might keep from further research. Albeit, research is needed to break down this mechanism of biopolitics. Maybe, the call to further research is the true remnant of Auschwitz.



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