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Rhetoric Society of America

TIe BIelovic oJ Bisaslev and lIe Inpevalive oJ Wviling
AulIov|s)· MicIaeI Bevnavd-BonaIs
Souvce· BIelovic Sociel¸ QuavlevI¸, VoI. 31, No. 1 |Winlev, 2001), pp. 73-94
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Michael Bernard-Donals
THE RHETORIC OF DISASTER AND THE IMPERATIVE OF
WRITING
Abstract: This essay defines a "rhetoric of disaster," traces its origins in
Maurice Blanchot and its connection to trauma theory, explains how it
works infigural terms to present what otherwise defies representation, and
suggests a relation between the events of history and testimonial evidence
that accounts for the uncanny effect of some representations of the Shoah.
In doing so it examines three touchstone texts whose sources are profoundly
traumatic events: a diary of the Warsaw ghetto written by Abraham Lewin,
eyewitness testimonyfrom the FortunoffArchives at Yale University, and a
"memoir" by Binjamin Wilkomirski whose origin and authenticity has been
recently and hotly disputed. The essay argues that because an event like
the Shoah presents the writer (and her audience) with a limit to writing
which destabilizes what we traditionally think of as knowledge, the
consequences of a rhetoric of disaster are troubling. The second half of
this essay lays out some of those consequences in both pedagogical and
ethical terms. If writing the Holocaust confronts us with something "other"
than knowledge, in Blanchot 's terms, it is doubtful that we can simply obey
the ethical imperative never to forget that which we cannot remember, let
alone know.
T he two most emphatic injunctions attached to the representation of the
Shoah appear mutually exclusive: the first is to burn the events of the
Holocaust into memory so that they may not be repeated (see Wiesel;
Berenbaum); the second is to resist the idolatry of representation altogether
and remain silent in the face of the most horrible of atrocities (see Koch;
Lang, "Introduction"). The first injunction urges us to speak of the events of
the Shoah, while the second urges us to avoid speaking of them. It is the
impasse between speech and silence, memory and forgetting, that Maurice
Blanchot calls the disaster of writing. In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot
calls the disaster "the limit of writing," a limit that "de-scribes," or unwrites
the object of writing (7). The book is an extended rumination on how the
events of history are to be found in writing, but in such a way that they pre-
cede and interrupt the language of anyone who tries to find a name, or a
narrative, with which to contain those events. Writing "brings to the surface
something like absent meaning," something "which is not yet what we would
call thought" because the event precedes the writer's ability to make sense of
it, and-like the sublime object-confounds the categories that would other-
wise be available to regularize it (41).
73 RSQ: Rhetoric Society Quarterly
Volume 31, Number 1 Winter 2001
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74 RHETORIC SOCIETY QUARTERLY
I intend in this essay to lay out what might be called a rhetoric of disas-
ter, explain how it works in figural terms, and to suggest a relation between
the events of history and testimonial evidence taken as history that accounts
for the uncanny effect of some representations of the Shoah. In so doing, I'll
refer to three touchstones, texts whose sources are profoundly traumatic events
(though-in the last case-they may not be the events of the Holocaust): a
diary of the Warsaw ghetto written by Abraham Lewin, eyewitness testimony
from the Fortunoff Archives at Yale University, and a memoir by Binjamin
Wilkomirski whose origin and authenticity has been recently and hotly dis-
puted. If it is true that writing an event like the Shoah presents the writer
(and her audience) with a limit to knowledge, rather than knowledge of the
event, and that this limit destabilizes what we traditionally think of as knowl-
edge, then the consequences of a rhetoric of disaster are troubling. The sec-
ond half of this essay will lay some of those consequences out in both peda-
gogical and ethical terms. If writing the Holocaust confronts us with some-
thing "other" than knowledge, in Blanchot's terms, how do we obey the ethi-
cal imperative never to forget that which we simply cannot remember, let
alone know? The answer is that we cannot: a rhetoric of disaster, founded on
a displacement of knowledge rather than its production, presents us with an
impossible ethics: to remember that which we cannot possibly write as knowl-
edge.
The question of how fully a state of affairs can be rendered discursively
is especially pressing in the case of historical discourse, in which the verac-
ity or coherence of eyewitness testimony-the testimony's ability to render
or represent a series of events in terms that are plausible or verifiable-is one
of the pillars on which the historical reality or truth of events rests. The stron-
ger the testimony-the greater its coherence and the degree to which it can
secure the assent of an audience and allow its members to understand what
happened-the more willing we are to grant that the event that lies at its
source occurred the way the witness says. But history's relation to testimony
-the relation of the events of history to history itself-has been a vexed one
from the beginning of the rhetorical tradition. To cite only one canonical
example, Aristotle takes for granted history's status as a record of what has
happened in the Rhetoric (1 360a36; 1393b25 ff.), suggesting that the politi-
cal orator may find historical precedent useful for arguing a current case. Yet
in the Poetics, Aristotle makes a distinction between poetry and history, sug-
gesting that the former is more a philosophical discourse than the latter, as it
deals with that "which is possible as being probable or necessary" (1451b1).
In other words, while testimony may serve as evidence, it is not necessarily
the best indication of the nature of events. The record of what happened may
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BERNARD-DONALS/RHETORIC OF DISASTER 75
not give the fullest or most adequate representation of the events to which the
witness testified.
The ongoing discussion of ethos and kairos in the rhetorical tradition
can be seen as ways of contending with the status of testimony (see Bernard-
Donals, "Ethos"; Sullivan). As a means of securing assent, ethos-the ex-
tent to which the speaker is able both to do justice to the object of discourse
(to get it right), and to adhere to the good while leading the audience toward
the good as well-has traditionally been understood as deriving from the text
itself and to some degree from external factors like the speaker's history or
character. Whether it was established primarily through the persuasive act or
through the audience's prior knowledge of the speaker's virtue has been open
to speculation from the outset of the rhetorical tradition (see Johnson). What
this means for someone like Aristotle is that in the best of circumstances, the
speaker hews to the truth of the matter and, in so doing, is more likely to be
seen by an audience as someone of good character. Quintilian's "good man
speaking well" was essentially a responsible speaker who was knowledge-
able not just about his subject, but also about virtue, both in himself and in
his audience; the best testimony was both logically coherent and adhered to
the principles of goodness.
Both the intrinsic and extrinsic traditions-what James Baumlin has called
the "rhetorical" and the "philosophical" views of ethos-become troubled
when confronted with testimonies of events like the Shoah, events whose
weight of atrocity seem to leave a hole in the fabric of narrative. Inherent in
Holocaust testimonies, like other testimonies of trauma (pace Langer Felman),
are the "anguished memories" that make themselves apparent in survivor's
attempts to write the disaster of their experiences during the events of the
war. Langer's point is that the distance between what has been witnessed
and what can be committed to testimony-what was seen and what can be
said-is often wide and always palpable: not only in the witness's state-
ments but in the shrugged shoulders, the winces, the tears, and the silences
that punctuate the oral testimonies and that are aestheticized but not domes-
ticated in the written language of figure. On extrinsic criteria (the philo-
sophical view), the worth of a discourse, regardless of its ability to produce
knowledge or to accurately record an event, can always be called into ques-
tion if we can impeach the character or the veracity of a speaker who cannot
tell us precisely what happened in terms we can recognize. How could what
they say be possible, we might ask? On intrinsic criteria (the rhetorical view),
a testimony would have to agree with or at least corroborate a good deal of
other eyewitness testimony of the Holocaust in order to tell a certain truth. It
would have to represent a reality to which other witnesses have testified and
which is internally coherent. (See Daniel O'Keefe's book, particularly the
chapter on "Source Factors," for a description of how this problem is treated
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76 RHETORIC SOCIETY QUARTERLY
in psychology and communication research; for views more consistent with
contemporary critical and historiographical theory, see Carlo Ginzburg's and
Martin Jay's essays on the problems of verifiability of witnesses in the case
of disasters like the Shoah.) Holocaust testimony is often both extrinsically
incredible-the events to which the witness testifies seem impossible, un-
real- and intrinsically incoherent-exhibiting gaps, silences, and disjunc-
tions.
On an "indicative" criterion, however-by paying attention to what re-
sides behind the language of the discourse rather than in the speaker's virtue
or the degree to which the discourse can be squared with a state of affairs
-
then the extent to which a discourse has an ethical or moral authority, and the
extent to which we might say that the speaker or writer is "telling the truth,"
depends on the discourse's ability to move an audience to "see" an issue or
an event that exceeds language's ability to narrate it. In terms of kairos,
rather than providing the criteria that would secure appropriate reactions from
an audience based upon the constraints of time and place in which they find
themselves, such a discourse would explode time and place, and indicate
what Sullivan calls a "fullness of time" that lies beyond any definable his-
torical situation. An "indicative" (or "epideictic") criterion can be found
not in the Aristotelian paradigm but in the Platonic one: in the former, ethos
finds its source in the virtue of the speaker and that it has an effect upon the
quality of knowledge that the speech produces; in the latter it finds its source
in the speech's ability to indicate (though perhaps not produce) knowledge,
and to the extent that it manages to indicate what lies beyond the contingen-
cies of the world the speaker may be considered of better or worse character.
In Phaedrus and Gorgias, Plato suggests that language leads speaker and
listener to Truth by indicating rather than by producing it. Socrates' second
speech on love (Phaedrus 244a-257b) figurally represents the cosmology
whereby an investment in love and beauty brings souls closer to their point
of origin; it does not produce knowledge of that cosmology. But the figural
effect of the speech-as well as the object of representation itself, a mne-
monic whereby the soul is perfected as it glimpses an object that reminds it
of its former perfection-indicates what lies beyond the contingencies of the
world (where, in the Gorgias [469b-c], Socrates imagines the possibility of a
state of affairs in which he may neither do nor suffer harm). The relation
between truth as content and what lies beyond truth-what might be called,
in psychoanalytic terms the "real"-is the matter at issue in the debate, late
in the Phaedrus, on the value of writing. When, in Socrates' retelling of the
myth of the origins of writing, Ammon charges that writing is not a drug for
memory, but for reminding (275a), he is making a claim similar to the one
Socrates makes in his second speech on love about the perfection of the soul:
that in seeing the beauty of the lover, the soul is reminded of its origin in
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BERNARD-DONALS/RHETORIC OF DISASTER 77
perfection and is compelled to return there (249b-e). Writing cannot bring
the object of knowledge to the reader, any more than the lover can bring
about the perfection of the soul. But writing does (in Socrates' words) re-
mind the reader of it, but does not represent the object. In fact, the conun-
drum for Plato's Socrates is whether rhetoric produces truth or an image of
truth, and most readers of the Phaedrus suggest that the best it can do is the
latter. What writing and, ideally, rhetoric can do, however, is indicate that
which is "really written in the soul" (278a), what lies at the source of lan-
guage-what lies at its point of origin but to which language does not pro-
vide unfettered access.'
It is precisely this relation between language and the events that precede
or lie outside it
-
between writing and the disaster-that occupies Blanchot's
attention in The Writing of the Disaster. There Blanchot makes clear that
experience is a state of being that requires knowledge. The occurrence of the
event in which a person is implicated and sees herself as such precedes expe-
rience. It is immediate: "not only [does it] rule out all mediation; it is the
infiniteness of a presence such that it can no longer be spoken of' (24). In
the occurrence of the event, the individual is "expose[d] to unity": in order to
render the occurrence as an experience at all-in order for the occurrence to
be seen as an event-the individual becomes defined as a subject. She be-
comes an "I" over against which the event can also be identified, given at-
tributes, and finally named. At the moment the individual recognizes the
occurrence of the event as an experience, and herself as the subject of expe-
rience, the event "falls in its turn outside being" (24). Experiences, recog-
nized by the witness and named, are nonetheless haunted by their status as
events, and "the names [are] ravaged by the absence that preceded them"-
the event now lost to memory except as a name-and "seem remainders,
each one, of another language, both disappeared and never yet pronounced, a
language we cannot even attempt to restore without reintroducing these names
back into the world" (58).
Cathy Caruth's work on trauma substantiates this claim: what the wit-
ness sees isn't available to memory because seeing precedes the witness's
ability to know what she sees. Once an experience occurs, it is forever lost,
and it is at the point of "losing what we have to say," that we speak (Blanchot
21). It is the point at which the event is lost that writing begins. For we don't
remember a traumatic event so much as we forget it; we "take leave of it," in
Caruth's terms, though it leaves an indelible mark on everything we say in-
cluding the subject of the narrative of the event. The distance between what
has been witnessed and what can be committed to testimony-what was seen
and what can be said-is often wide and always palpable: not only in the
witness's statements but in the shrugged shoulders, the winces, the tears, and
the silences that punctuate the oral testimonies and that are aestheticized but
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78 RHETORIC SOCIETY QUARTERLY
not domesticated in the written language of figure. Asked to describe the
death of her mother in the Lodz ghetto, the survivor named Mary R. lapses
into a recitation with which she is familiar as docent at a Holocaust museum:
"very difficult; I don't even like to think about it. In all eleven million civil-
ian people killed in the concentration camps ..." (Stanovick 1-2). Such an
intrusion upon narrative-typical of some survivor testimonies-is a mark
of something else, the event that troubles history.
The testimony of Moses S. offers another example of the apparent im-
passe between the event and experience, what has happened and what can be
represented.
Two boys having one bunk. One said to the other, "Will you watch
after my piece of bread? I'm going to the bathroom." He said, "OK."
When he come back, was no bread. Where was the bread?
" I'm sorry. I ate it up."
So he reported to the Kapo. Kapo comes along, he said, "What
happened?"
"
Look, I ask him to look after my piece of bread, and he ate it
up."
The Kapo said, "You took away his life, right?"
He said, "Well, I'll give it back this afternoon, the ration."
He said, "No, come outside." He took the fellow outside. "Lie on
the floor." He put a piece of brett [board] on his neck, and with his
boots-bang! On his neck. Fertig [finished]! (FVA tape T-5 11)
What is perhaps most chilling about this tape is not the content of the story-
of the experience-itself, but of what cannot be placed into the narrative: the
cracking of the board against the child's neck, the quick, almost frantic walk
outside the barracks to the yard, the look of panic in the boy's eyes just be-
fore the Kapo sentences him to death. They find no place in the language of
narrative, but they do have a place in the testimony of Moses S.: in his ges-
tures. Here, in the no-place of the narrative, is the gaping, open wound, the
disaster of experience seen by Moses S. (who may be the other boy; we never
find out) and that is witnessed only in terms of the ending-fertig!-or the
absence of Moses's own place in the historical circumstances he narrates. In
Langer's terms, the self caught up in the time during the killing wins the
battle over the present, so sickening the interviewer and Moses's wife that
they both urge him to call it quits. But on Blanchot's terms, the witness is
making present an absence that so disrupts his present that they become ab-
solutely inseparable, so much so that Moses's language becomes submerged
by his gestures, and he actually, with a motion of his hands and his feet,
becomes the Kapo and finishes the memory with the violence that killed the
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BERNARD-DONALS/RHETORIC OF DISASTER 79
little thief forty-five years earlier.
What, precisely, is the act witnessed here by the survivor: the moment of
the child's death? The moment that the witness realizes that the crime of
eating another child's bread has led not to justice but murder? Neither of
these historical circumstances is made available by the testimony, though
both of these moments are part of the narrative. But this is a language report-
ing not so much a series of events but a language that instantiates a rupture of
the normal sequence of events-in this case, the historical circumstances of
Moses S.'s witness to murder-fertig!-and the anxiety of forty years that it
has caused. This language indicates the absence of the event witnessed rather
than the event itself. The abruptness of the final word does not provide ac-
cess to the event itself, but indicates something like its loss to memory, its
unavailability in the language of the narrative, and yet also interrupts (in
Blanchot's terms) that narrative with the force of the disaster (59, 7). Moses
S.'s exclamation provides a glimpse of the absence that marks the act of
witness and the failure of language to contain it.
If testimony like Moses S.'s works by indication rather than by repre-
sentation, and the event to which the witness testifies bears an oblique rela-
tion to the language of the testimony itself, then the historian must find some
other criterion with which to judge the reliability or truth of testimonial evi-
dence besides its transparency. This was the problem Hayden White tried to
solve in 1990 when, at a conference on Nazism and the Final solution held at
UCLA, he turned to the catalogue of figures provided by rhetoric. (Though
in this section I run the risk of falling into a trap Brian Vickers has warned
about in his conclusion to In Defense of Rhetoric-namely, focusing atten-
tion on all too few figures, in this case metaphor, metonymy, and synechdoche
-it will nonetheless give some idea of how the rhetoric of disaster functions
in practice and not only in theory.) The traditional view of historical narra-
tives and of testimonies is that their veracity was linked to their transpar-
ency: the language of history is meant to provide a window through which
we see clearly the events themselves. But if language doesn't yield the events
of history this simply-particularly events whose effect upon the witness or
historical actor is brutally traumatic-there must be some way to convey not
just events but also to register or indicate the traumatic kernel of their effect.
White proposes that the most effective historical writing is "intransitive writ-
ing," a term he adopts from Lang (who in turn attributes it to Roland Barthes;
see Act and Idea xii, 107-9). It works by drawing the reader's attention to the
impossibility of making the substitution of herself for the historical actor, the
difficulty of saying "I am here," I understand. It brings to the surface of the
historical narrative the aporias that exist between subject and object, agent
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80 RHETORIC SOCIETY QUARTERLY
and patient, literal and figurative language, and makes that case for the reader
than it is not one or the other of these poles that ought to be the object of
historical inquiry but rather the writing itself and the way that it resists read-
ing, or naming, or knowledge. In other words, it resists verisimilitude, the
will to representation.
One way to think of verisimilitude is in terms of the rhetorical or poeti-
cal figure, and the degree to which figure makes present a state of affairs and
holds the reader's attention on matters of language. Metaphor is tradition-
ally understood as a figure that works by way of substitution: in Aristotle's
example, "there stands the ship," the term "anchored" is substituted for the
term "stands," and through the difference between the spoken word and the
unspoken (but intuited) one, our attention is focused not only upon the close-
ness of one set of experiences (which we may recognize) and another (which
we may not); it is also focused upon its dependence upon language. Depend-
ing on the number of terms that are substituted in the silence of the analogy
(and in Aristotle's understanding of poeisis, the skilled speaker could hold
four terms in a relation of similarity in a single figure) the reader or listener's
ability to individuate the terms in use becomes jarring as the distance be-
tween them in the analogy grows. In an extreme circumstance-kenosis, in
which a set of terms is so far removed, in terms of similarity, from another
that it begins to systematically undo their claim to order-metaphor "breaks
up a totality into discontinuous fragments" (De Man 275), disordering our
illusion of the coherence of the real supplied by figure, and forcing upon us
the realization that the chain of signification (founded upon metonymy, a
relation of contiguity rather than substitution) is just that, a chain that is un-
hitched from the world of the real.
White's assumption is that the metonymic relation-in which the terms
substituted for one another are so closely related that they repeat themselves
endlessly-is that upon which "normal" discourse (or, perhaps, historical
discourse) is founded. In an essay on figurative language, Thomas
McLaughlin says of metonymy that it "accomplishes its transfer of meaning
on the basis of associations that develop out of specific contexts," and "that it
relies on connections that build up over time and the associations of usage"
(83, 84). For White, the importance of metonymy is that the terms placed in
relation ("sail," "ship") are assumed to be related in the given context, and
because of what he calls this extrinsic relation (that there must be some order
of reality outside the discursive situation that provides the context in which
these terms may be related), the reader is able to understand more clearly the
aspects of the reality the metonymic figure is meant to distinguish (Metahistory
34-6). In other words, metonymy, through a repetition of different aspects of
the same reality, offers the reader a clearer, more direct understanding of the
nature of the reality being described. With metonymy, cause-effect relation-
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BERNARD-DONALS/RHETORIC OF DISASTER 81
ships are so well established that we are lulled into believing that what we
are being given is a description of the real under a paradigm. Metaphor
distances us from our ability to regularize our assumptions about the reality
purportedly being described. Metonymy is transitive, whereas metaphor is-
or at least has the capacity to be-intransitive (see White, Metahistory 37-8);
metonymy assumes that history (the context presumed to be exterior to dis-
course) is the origin of language, whereas metaphor assumes that language is
the origin of the historical real.
But Blanchot tells us that when an individual bears witness to an event,
particularly an event like the murder of a child or the destruction of one's
culture, the event itself, lost to memory and to knowledge, exerts such a
pressure on narrative that it destroys it. In rhetorical terms, the disaster is an
effect of discourse that focuses the reader's attention on the impossibility of
substituting oneself for the "I" of the narrative. One implication of the
disaster's effect upon the narrative of history is that regardless of the rhetori-
cal vehicle in which we place the event-either in the transparent, metonymic
language of chronicle or in the denser, metaphoric language of poetry-none
can do justice to the events that precede writing. Even the language of
chronicle, the relentless shorthand record of the events that take place before
the witness's eyes, would on Blanchot's account be unable to contain the
disaster, the irretrievable event.
An example of just such a chronicle is Abraham Lewin's account, pub-
lished in 1988 under the title A Cup of Tears, of his years in the Warsaw
ghetto. That account was one of several others that were eventually buried in
milk cans in basements in the ghetto and retrieved in the years following the
end of the war. Lewin's account, along with the remembrances of others
who survived the deportations and the camps (and many others who didn't),
form the core of the historical accounts of the liquidation of the Warsaw
ghetto. Like the videotaped testimonies provided by survivors, the descrip-
tions given by Lewin are oftentimes harrowing: of ruses used by government
forces to separate children from their parents, acts of brutality both by the
German military police and by the Jewish police, and the political and theo-
logical convolutions of the Jewish councils and other civic organizations as
they tried to justify a consistent response to the orders to be "resettled." But
Lewin's account, more so even than those found in the Fortunoff Archive,
offers extremes of metonym, abbreviations so transparent as to put pressure
on White's distinctions between normal history and figural representation.
Lewin writes, "A night of horrors. Shooting went on all night. I couldn't
sleep," and then lists the names of the families whose members were rounded
up and led to the umschlagplatz, where they would be loaded onto trains and
sent to Treblinka. The metonymic language of lists is difficult to make sense
of, and exceedingly difficult to "read through" as a window into the experi-
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82 RHETORIC SOCIETY QUARTERLY
ences of someone like Abraham Lewin for three reasons: the context in which
the items on the list are meaningful to the writer is unspoken; the events that
surround those listed by the writers are simply unknown to him (the experi-
ence of the trains, and the camps); and the occurrence of events, and their
impact upon the witness, is simply lost to memory, and all we have are traces
in the language of the narrative testimony.
Though Lewin sometimes does provide a historical (or more often than
not a cultural) context in which to understand the event by making compari-
sons between objects or events from radically different paradigms in his en-
tries (as he does when he compares the liquidation of the ghetto in 1942 to
the worst ordeals of the Jews in the land of Mitzrayim), he more often lists
them in shorthand. They are often tiresomely, gruesomely similar events,
and names appear after names, lists that should, on White's accounting, lull
the reader into understanding that what is being repeated is simply sameness:
"Today the Germans have surrounded the following streets: Gesia, Smocza,
Pawia, Lubiecka, and took away all the occupants. Yesterday the following
were taken away: Khanowicz, Rusak, and Jehoszua Zegal's whole family"
(Lewin 146). It takes a footnote by the editor to make the reader understand
that Johoszua Zegal was the grandfather of Lewin's wife Luba, and no notes
establish the context for the names of the streets that were surrounded, and
what events took their toll upon the inhabitants of the houses on those streets
bordering the Jewish cemetery on the western side of the ghetto. It is the
effect of repetition-of the "transitivity" of metonym, the figure that lulls
one into thinking that "I know this," and that allows us to forget that "I was
not there"-that seems to work against White's claims for transitive writing.
In Blanchot's terms-in terms of the rhetoric of disaster-the position
of the writer (the position of the "I") is here annulled by the zero-point of
language, the point at which the events become written and named and si-
multaneously-as they are written-dissolve as experiences. The repetitive
language of metonym here, in which street names and family names are run
together as a litany of destruction, seem alien to both the writer and to the
reader. It is a language unconnected to the network of other words or signs
that might make possible even an imaginary position from which to see and
understand their object. Writing-any writing-involves two moments that
work against each other: the moment in which we create a name for the ob-
ject, and that in which the object itself, which becomes lost in the moment of
writing, exerts a pressure upon the language of the name, or narrative, of
history.
In Lewin's diary we see this entry, written on the day after his wife of
fourteen years is taken away and transported:
Eclipse of the sun, universal blackness. My Luba was taken away
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BERNARD-DONALS/RHETORIC OF DISASTER 83
during a blockade on 30 Gesia Street. There is still a glimmer of hope
in front of me. Perhaps she will be saved. And if, God forbid, she is
not? My journey to the Umschlagplatz-the appearance of the streets-
fills me with dread. To my anguish there is no prospect of rescuing
her. It looks like she was taken directly to the train. Her fate is to be
a victim of the Nazi bestiality, along with hundreds of thousands of
Jews. I have no words to describe my desolation. I ought to go after
her, to die. But I have no strength to take such a step. Ora-her
calamity. A child who was so tied to her mother, and how she loved
her.
The "action" goes on in the town at full throttle. All the streets are
being emptied of their occupants. Total chaos. Each German factory
will be closed off in its block and the people will be locked in their
own building. Terror and blackness. And over all this disaster hangs
my own private anguish. (Lewin 153-4)
Here writing obeys the obligation to name: Lewin tries desperately to build a
position from which to write ("my own private anguish," "my desolation") at
the same time that he tries to imagine the other individuals and events that
form the context for his writing ("the people will be locked in their build-
ing," "God forbid, if she is not [saved]?"). But neither position is finally
fixed, in part because neither name nor any part of the historical narrative
Lewin tries to write can be understood in terms of any other. This is not due
to the historical circumstances in which Lewin is involved, circumstances
that prevent him from understanding the enormity of the disasters (his own
and that of the ghetto). It is due instead to writing's inability to render what
he sees without reducing it to narrative. At the moment of writing, Lewin
displaces both the "I" and the "other" from which, and to whom, he writes as
well as the historical event of the disaster. It is this moment of displacement,
the moment of writing and of loss, that produces a violence, "the rupture, the
break the splitting, the tearing of the shred-acute singularity, single point"
(Blanchot 46). It is here that events-Luba's deportation, the terror of their
daughter at being made motherless, the mechanical and awful willingness to
continue to speak in the face of all this-are omitted from the language of the
writing but are made present in the absence of the writing. The intention to
write is shattered by the event's ability to elude writing.
In both Lewin's diary and in the testimonies by survivors, in both liter-
ary representations like Primo Levi's or in the painful extemporaneity of the
diary or the oral testimony, there is something in the events of the Shoah that
resists vraisemblance, and that makes itself apparent in figural (that is, rhe-
torical) terms. This is true not only of accounts which, in Langer's terms,
"remind us that we are dealing with a self-consciously represented reality"
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84 RHETORIC SOCIETY QUARTERLY
(Langer 40) through the language of metaphor, but also those which are de-
signed to be, in White's terms, "read through." If we take Blanchot seriously,
we need to recognize that there is a certain intransitivity that occurs even
metonymically-even in language that on the face of it seems to regularize
the narrative, vraisemblable historical world-in historical texts that rends
open that apparently historical order and confronts the reader with the disas-
ter.
The pedagogical implication of a rhetoric of disaster is complicated and
potentially troubling. Theorists of writing have paid a good deal of attention
in the last several years to the ways in which the events of the Holocaust, as
rendered in fiction and in testimonial accounts, can be seen as points of de-
parture for discussions of diversity, or race hatred, or the role of resistance,
or any number of other controversial topics. The assumption we generally
make in courses like these is that their goal should be to produce knowledge
of the events of the Shoah and, whenever possible, to connect that knowl-
edge with other knowledges-of the dynamics of poverty, or of racism, or of
other disasters or genocides. But while there is clear documentary evidence
available, for example, to suggest to us the operations of the mobile killing
squads that followed behind the invasion of the Russian and Polish pale, and
though there is enough testimonial evidence to suggest to us the experiences
of individuals involved in the killing (both survivors and collaborators), that
evidence cannot bring knowledge into accord with the events themselves.
The problem is a rhetorical one: the severity of the events witnessed defies
the historically transparent writing we generally assume to be the best ve-
hicle for reporting them. The testimony of even the most reliable witness
succumbs to the displacement of the events from the language of the narra-
tive, and the effect of such a narrative-of its intransitivity-is what Saul
Friedlander has called, in another context, uncanny. Through it,"we are con-
fronted with [an uncertainty brought on by the representation] of human be-
ings of the most ordinary kind approaching the state of automata by eliminat-
ing any feelings of humanness and of moral sense .... Our sense of
Unheimlichkeit [uncanniness] is indeed triggered by this deep uncertainty as
to the 'true nature"' of the referent of the narrative itself (Friedlander 30).
The effect of the uncanny in the writing class is that, faced with the enormity
of the events as described in halting, incomplete and yet horrifying testimo-
nies and documents, students have a very difficult time evaluating that writ-
ing, let alone trying to find language with which to write themselves. How
can you possibly assess the authority of the sources you read, and the charac-
ter of the witnesses who have written them, when you are absolutely shat-
tered by their effect?
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BERNARD-DONALS/RHETORIC OF DISASTER 85
To take only one recent example of this problem, Andrea Freud
Loewenstein writes that during the spring semester of 1996 at Medgar Evers
College, her introduction of Spiegelman's Maus in a second-semester writ-
ing course produced some startling reactions from classmembers. In addition to
seeing the book
-
a depiction of Art Spiegelman's collection of testimonies
from his father, who survived the Holocaust in Poland, in comic book form-as
a way to prompt her students to writing, she also saw the section of the course
in which she used the book as an opportunity to "challenge the anti-semitism
I heard from my students," and to "think more widely about the origins and
effects of stereotypes and prejudice, to see themselves not only as victims of
stereotyping and prejudice, but also as perpetrators" (419). By asking her
students to write about the book, and about their identities as "minorities,"
Loewenstein's students began to find a language with which to express knowl-
edge of Judaism, of the events of the Holocaust, and of their own very com-
plicated positions as individuals defined by color, or ethnic category, or gen-
der, or various combinations thereof. She concludes that several of her stu-
dents "embarked on their own projects: writing comic-strip texts, making
films, or writing creatively about their own family situations" (419). The
account of the class includes transcripts of her students' conversations and
some excerpts from their writing, writing which seems to indicate a desire to
come to conclusions about the subject of the Shoah and of their experiences
but which falls short of the mark for various reasons, one of which may be
the pressure-the disaster-of the circumstances of the writing itself.
But Loewenstein's postscript points to the greater difficulty of seeing a
relation between the events of history-in this case, Spiegelman's attempt to
work through his father's experiences in the camps and his own very difficult
experiences as the son of a Holocaust survivor-and the writing of those
events into a narrative of history or of experience. There she tells her readers
that one of her colleagues at Medgar Evers drew her aside to show her a
paper in which one of her students had "'really made a leap forward in under-
standing,"' in which the student, one of those who'd been in Loewenstein's
class a year earlier, had lifted sections of a paper from the earlier class and
grafted them into the paper for the second instructor's course on an alto-
gether different subject. Loewenstein provides two possible reasons for this:
the student was pleased with her insight and "merely decided to recycle it,"
or that it was a cynical exercise in giving the (second) teacher what she wanted.
But there is another, more fundamental, explanation: the student's sense of
the material from the classes on Maus, and her ability to record that sense in
conventional terms, are irremediably divided by the passage of the events of
the class from event to experience. Loewenstein, like most teachers, is will-
ing to see her student's writing as a faithful record of an insight or under-
standing-of learning-that came to the student in class, and that to have
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86 RHETORIC SOCIETY QUARTERLY
grafted a passage from that writing into an essay for a different class is tanta-
mount to a "recycling" of the insight. This is to miss the point, however, that
at best writing is indicative of events, or in this case of ideas, that precede the
writing itself, and that the student may well have seen the recycled passage
as bearing the imprint of an event or experience that could not otherwise be
narrated. The passage, in other words, may be related both to the "leap for-
ward in understanding" experienced in the second class as well as to the
insight gained in the first, but it is a relation that can only be surmised.
To press the point a little, it's also possible to suggest that the student's
writing marks a universal knowledge that stands in place of a particular one,
that it substitutes a conventional knowledge for a more traumatic, compli-
cated, and unwritable sense that is impossible to know except as a moment
that precedes language altogether (for a more troubling view of this same
point, see Gourevitch, "What they Saw..."). The passage reads, in part:
We were both [Blacks and Jews] packed like sardines and sent away
from our homelands, the Jews by trains and the Blacks by boat. ...[T]he
German solution for the Jews was total destruction; the White solu-
tion for the Blacks was total utilization.... Unlike the Jews, Blacks
were considered more useful alive then [sic] dead. Now whenever I
pass the intersection of New York Ave and Eastern Parkway I can ob-
serve the Jews with new insight, comprehension, and realization of
our common experience. (Loewenstein 41 1)
Though the student expresses a sense of her "common experience" as an
African American student with those of Jews during the Holocaust, there is
clearly more going on here: an expression of anger, a sense of discontinuity
between the historical circumstances of the Shoah and the middle passage, a
connection between the geography of New York and the machinery of de-
struction in Europe and the Atlantic. The student's conclusion is an attempt
to forge a knowledge from her particular and very difficult position in the
midst of an experience she is at pains to fully understand. What she has
written, in other words, responds to the disciplinary demands of the writing
course, and of the pedagogical demands of a teacher whose trajectory for this
section of the class is to foster a sense of diversity and to work against stereo-
types. But the language of this passage marks a limit to these imperatives by
writing against them, by exerting a pressure upon them that can't be con-
tained by the essay's language. In short, there seems to be some other event,
some other insight, that functions as the origin of this narrative, so it should
come as no surprise to Loewenstein that the narrative could be used as a
marker of something that she herself may not be able to recognize.
What this suggests is that while we may glimpse a trace of the event's
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BERNARD-DONALS/RHETORIC OF DISASTER 87
horror, we do so at the expense of knowledge. Or, to put this another way,
writing the disaster may indicate the event that ruptures narrative, but it doesn't
build knowledge of it, and in fact works against knowledge's grain. The
injunction to see the Holocaust as an event that must never be forgotten, and
that acts as a paradigm for race hatred, or antisemitism, or the cultural logic
of fascism, seems to insist upon finding a language with which the events of
the Holocaust can be written, understood, identified with or against. But if
the events of the Shoah are paradigmatic of the intransigence of events to
writing, or of the way testimony both creates and destroys the language of
witnessing, then any attempt to integrate the Holocaust into a pedagogy of
writing needs to deal with the possibility that in asking students to write (on)
the Holocaust we are asking them to do something utterly impossible or at
the very least traumatic.
What this means for pedagogy is that we need to resist the temptation to
think of writing as a medium that represents states of affairs. This is true
both of the writing our students read
-
in testimonies, histories, and other
narratives
-
and the writing our students produce. Identification of the kind
evidenced by Loewenstein's students is only one example of what happens
when one attempts to bring the traumatic effect of figural displacement (in
her case, in Spiegelman's Maus) under a universal knowledge. What the
Holocaust shows, perhaps more clearly than other traumatic events, is that
discourse cannot represent what has been seen, and that at best it indicates
the effect upon the witness of what she saw. Even the most explicit attempt
to regularize the horrible particularity, to elide what resists naming with a
knowledge, indicates, in its incommensurabilities, what lies behind it: "eleven
million ... six million ... one and a half million"; "Unlike the Jews, Blacks
were considered more useful alive than dead ... [I realize] our common ex-
perience."
Blanchot worries that by reading the testimonies of events as The Holo-
caust, we destroy the effects of the particular:
Fragmentation, the mark of a coherence all the firmer in that it has to
come undone in order to be reached, and reached not through a dis-
persed system, or through dispersion as a system, for fragmentation is
the pulling to pieces (the tearing) of that which never has preexisted
(really or ideally) as a whole, nor can it ever be reassembled in any
future presence whatever. (60)
There is, in the disaster, the beginning of an ethics: the disaster occurs when
one's particular implication in the event is held up as everyone's implication,
making it a universal experience, and producing a knowledge of the whole in
contrast to the impasse itself. We are better off focusing our attention on
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88 RHETORIC SOCIETY QUARTERLY
those impasses-as revealed in the synechdochic or metonymic stutters in
diaries like Lewin's, or testimonies like those of a Moses S. or a Mary R.-
and deferring our students' desires to produce knowledge of the event, to act
as though we can ourselves make sense of an event we did not see and did not
experience. If we see writing as an indication of an event rather than a repre-
sentation of it, and we make clear to students that even the best writing pro-
duces impasse as much as it produces insights, then perhaps the best we can
hope for is that our students produce writing that makes clear the gap or
impasse between the representation and represented, and see their response
to such incongruities as the site of knowing and teaching that keeps horror
itself recognizable.
I want to conclude by indicating one of the ethical implications of a
rhetoric of disaster. As I intimated at the beginning of the essay, I think those
implications complicate some assumptions we generally hold about the eth-
ics of Holocaust remembrance-and of redemption-that are usually associ-
ated with the injunctions "never forget," and "never again." If Blanchot is
right, and a witness's participation in the events of history-particularly
traumatic or horrible events like those indicated by testimonies and diaries of
people like Abraham Lewin-are irrecuperable except through the fragmented
and troubled narratives that fail to contain them, then the only connection
between the event, as "in-experienced," and the testimony of the event, as
the writing of the disaster, is tenuous at best. In the case of the Lewin diary,
it may well serve evidence of the events comprising the concentration and
liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, insofar as it stands as an "eyewitness testi-
mony" to those events. And the historical circumstances of the diary itself,
found as it was on a site recalled by other witnesses long after the author had
been killed and every trace of the ghetto had been annihilated, would seem to
bear out and confirm its status as evidence. But what if, for whatever reason,
those historical circumstances-corroborating witnesses, documents, place
names recollected-could not be recovered? In such a case, the best we can
do is to rely upon the effect of the diary itself. Hayden White would argue
that its status as evidence depends in part upon its effect, and that effect-
produced metonymically either by design or by circumstance-is, in the case
of the Lewin diary, a profoundly disturbing one.
The case of the Wilkomirski "memoir" Fragments-initially believed to
be an account of the author's horrifying experiences as a child in the death
camps, it turns out to be either a willful fabrication or a compilation of night-
mare visions and voyeuristic research by someone who believes himself to
be a survivor of Majdanek and Auschwitz (see accounts of the controversy in
Lappin; Gourevitch, "The Memory Thief')-puts even more pressure on the
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BERNARD-DONALS/RHETORIC OF DISASTER 89
relation between the effects of a testimony and its source. If we only judge a
testimony by its effects, Fragments works metonymically rather than meta-
phorically, and it produces in the reader an uncanny response that could be
likened to the effect of the disaster on White's or Blanchot's terms. The book
is a series of horrifying tableaux that move between the atrocities of the camps
and the nightmare of an adoption after the war in which those around him
urge the survivor to forget his experiences. But such a result is disturbing-
Wilkomirski may be a liar, after all; no one would say the same of Abraham
Lewin or Moses S.-and it is all the more profoundly so if it leads, as Philip
Blom has suggested, to an "ero[sion of] the very ground on which remem-
brance can be built" (Blom) and leads eventually to "a new revisionism that
no longer attacks the truth of the Holocaust but only individual claims of
survival" (Peskin). Does the ambivalent relation of narrative and the inac-
cessible real of history, the difficulties inherent in writing an event and the
elusiveness of the event itself, allow for such a radical reading of the
Wilkomirski memoir, and of eyewitness testimonies as a genre?
It is, in fact, entirely consistent with a rhetoric of disaster that the nature
of events rendered in discourse can only be established individually: that it is
impossible to understand whether or not "the Holocaust" occurred in all of
its horrible detail because any rendering of the event-either through eye-
witness testimony or with the broad brushes of history or panoramic films
like Schindler's List or Shoah-risks giving us the mistaken impression that
what we hear or see in the testimony is what the eyewitness herself saw, or
that the individual narrative can stand as a substitute for the larger historical
narrative. This was a point made over and over again during the debates that
followed the release of Schindler's List in 1994. Critics complained either
that the film was too brutal in its use of detail in sequences, for example,
depicting the liquidation of the Kracow ghetto or, especially, those involving
the showers at Auschswitz; or they complained it wasn't detailed enough,
and that even the violence of the liquidation scene omitted atrocities that
would have given the film a greater historical authority. Reviewers in a
roundtable discussion printed in the Village Voice in March of that year wor-
ried that the American viewing public would equate the movie with the event,
and conclude that, in the end, it wasn't all so terrible (Hoberman). What was
remarkable about that roundtable discussion, and about nearly every discus-
sion that took place after the film's premiere, is that every participant in the
debate "saw" something quite different in the film. This is partly due to the
nature of taste, as Kant pointed out so clearly over two hundred years ago.
But it is also partly due to the nature of the rhetorical enterprise, on at least
one reading (and I hope a non-idiosyncratic one).
We do not establish truth through discourse as much as we produce ar-
guments for a certain view of it, and no argument, no matter how strong and
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90 RHETORIC SOCIETY QUARTERLY
no matter the integrity of the speaker, will settle a matter once and for all.
Arguments produce contingent truths that can be later tested for consistency,
but those contingent truths are established through the argument itself. It is
significant that in this view of rhetoric there are few guarantees that what is
understood in one "conversation" or, for our purposes here, testimony, will
be understood the same way in another or by different witnesses to the testi-
mony.
To return to where we began this essay, such a view of the rhetorical
enterprise is not new: in the Phaedrus Plato's Socrates is at pains to show
that, ideally, writing is indicative of what lies behind knowledge rather than
productive of knowledge. The successful rhetor is the one who is able to
convince an audience not that what he says is true, but that what he says,
while not true, has an effect that points to what occupies a place outside of
language: it points to what is real. And this effect-writing as a reminder of
what was once inherent in the soul but is now inaccessible to it (Phaedrus
277e-278a)-is a radically individual one, an effect which is different from
soul to soul, from listener to listener, from witness to witness. To return now
to Philip Blom, he worries that the Wilkomirski narrative introduces a new
sort of Holocaust denial, one that doesn't question the occurrence of the event
but the veracity of individual testimonies which, taken together, might tes-
tify to the event. And he is right to be concerned. He is right to say that if we
can undermine the authority of the writer of a Holocaust testimony, and say
with certainty that he was never there and that he did not see what he claims
to have seen, we have eliminated one piece of evidence that we can use to
argue that the atrocities of the Shoah occurred. Such testimonies-in the
form of eyewitness accounts, documentary evidence, trial transcripts, and
diaries-taken together form the tapestry of suffering that we have inherited
as the narrative of the Holocaust. But such testimonies, as accounts of hor-
rible events that are inaccessible even to the memories of those who sur-
vived, let alone those who claim to have done so or those who read their
accounts, function in similar ways and have similar effects: they establish
the credibility of the speaker, and indicate an event as it occurs prior to her
ability to speak it, not so much in their accordance with the facts of history
(facts which are accessible only through narrative) but in the way they dis-
rupt the narrative of history and force the reader, or the interviewer, to see
something horrible, perhaps a trace of the traumatic event itself.
These effects are only available one witness, one reader, at a time. As in
the case of the Wilkomirski memoir as much as in the case of the Lewin
diary, we may well be able to undermine the authority of the speaker if we
take him to be trying to establish a narrative of the circumstances of the
Holocaust that will settle the matter once and for all. The converse is also
true: a lack of credibility seems to throw open to question the veracity of
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BERNARD-DONALS/RHETORIC OF DISASTER 91
testimonies of other survivors. But this is not to say that it lessens the disas-
trous effect of the testimony, or the testimony's ability to indicate something
about the nature of the event, though that disaster may not be the historical
object whose "content" we take to be coequal with the narrative's shape.
Elena Lappin suggests that the author of Fragments has indeed suffered some
shocking accident in the events surrounding his separation from his mother,
or the years in which he lived in orphanages or foster care or in the care of
adoptive parents. Such an "accident" would render the uncanny effect of the
memoir's metonymic language as an indication of an event that is not only
inaccessible to his readers but inaccessible to himself as well. As I say, Philip
Blom has reason to worry about the effect of Wilkomirski's lack of credibil-
ity. But to a smaller degree he should worry about the very same problem in
each and every survivor testimony: an analysis of the rhetoric of disaster
simply does not give us access to history; it only gives us (figurally) some
access to its effects.
The testimony of a witness to disaster is a narrative that simply cannot
provide us access to the circumstances that lie at its source, though it may or
may not accord with the historical record. That an account is inaccurate, or
that it is inconsistent and marked by gaps and plain inaccuracies (or even, in
the case of the Wilkomirski "memoir," lies), should not be surprising if we
take seriously a rhetoric of disaster. For it is only in the obliteration of events,
in effacing them from the realm of the sayable and by acknowledging them
as irretrievably lost to knowledge, that the writer is brought to language. The
language to which he is brought does not necessarily adhere to what we think
of as the historically accurate, or the verifiable, or even the circumstances of
the writer himself. But this is a troubling fact about history and memory that
may give us no way to adjudicate the traumatic experiences we read in mem-
oirs, or diaries, or other narrative accounts of the Shoah. The gaps in a narra-
tive cannot be said simply to represent inaccuracies; rather-as Caruth sug-
gests, speaking of Freud-they represent and "preserve history precisely
within this gap in [the] text" (Caruth 190). The fact is that each encounter
with the memory of the event repeats the initial trauma, but by other means-
rhetorical means-that are constantly interrupted by a "gap" of both memory
and of experience. What we are left with is the possibility that the gap be-
tween the historical record of the irretrievable event and the rhetorical memory
built to fill it can never be closed.
A rhetoric of disaster suggests that writing works against knowledge at
the same time it tries to inscribe it. For us and for our students, who were not
there, we can't possibly write into knowledge an event to which we have no
access or experience, let alone understand it well enough to connect it con-
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92 RHETORIC SOCIETY QUARTERLY
ceptually to other experiences to which we do have access. Writing itself,
though, shows something like a structure of disaster-we don't know the
Shoah so much as we catch a glimpse of it in the disfigured language of
testimony and of remembrance. And this uncanny effect-this displacement
of knowledge-is disruptive of our own attempts to write in response to the
Shoah. It stands in the way of our attempts to write disaster as much as it
does in the diarist's or even, perhaps, the charlatan's. Blanchot is right: "the
disaster ruins everything:" writing, memory, the certainty of knowledge. But
if it also forestalls turning the Shoah into a certainty to be filed away or made
sacred, so much the better
Department of English
University of Wisconsin
Note
'See also Lawrence Rosenfeld's "The Practical Celebration of Epideictic"and
"Central Park and the Celebration of Civic Virtue." The most significant difference
between Rosenfeld's and Sullivan's notion of the kairotic or epideictic rhetorical tradi-
tion and the "rhetoric of disaster" I describe here is that for the former writers the terms
are valorized as overwhelmingly positive. For Rosenfeld and Sullivan, the fullness
presented by epideictic or kairotic rhetoric secures assent by an irrational impulse that
"shines forth" or produces "ripeness" (Sullivan 325, 321), an impulse that brings the
reader to mind of the "copious order" of the world that lies just behind the chaos of life
(Rosenfeld, "Central Park" 249-52). The disaster, presented by rhetorical means, is a
commingling of positive and negative, much more akin to Kant's feeling of sublimity
-the arousal of both pleasure and pain, terror and order-than to any positively valo-
rized sense of the world. See Bernard-Donals, "Between Sublimity and Redemption";
Hartman, "The Book of Destruction;" Steiner, "The Great Tautology".
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