Butler on Levi

by tobybee

I came across this video from 2006 of Judith Butler giving a seminar paper entitled ‘Primo Levi for the Present.’ She talks in this first part of the paper about the idea of ‘giving an account of oneself’ – how does one speak about oneself in order to be known both to the self and to others to whom one speaks. She then goes on to relate this to Primo Levi’s writings, and to the traumas of the Holocaust and the problems of narrating ones traumatic experience. This is the first part of her talk, the rest can be found in bits on youtube.

These are ideas which I have been thinking about recently, as I’ve thought about the ways in which Holocaust survivor testimonies are used to learn about the Holocaust. We’re taught, I think, to hear the survivor as though they are speaking an absolute truth of what happened: as though those truths can be known and spoken and learnt. Butler here raises the question, which is issued by psychoanalysis: can one ever know oneself and communicate that self? How much more problematic is it to communicate trauma and the traumatised self? I’m not talking here about ‘facts’ about the Holocaust: the not-knowing I’m thinking of has nothing to do with Holocaust denial. Instead, I’m thinking of how the Holocaust was experienced, felt, understood and known. We’re encouraged, as Jews, to have a sense of what the Holocaust was and to pass on that knowledge through speech. Butler is asking about the possibilities of this.