The Question of Ethical Discourse: Emmanuel Levinas, Primo Levi, and Giorgio Agamben

  • Dan Leshem
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


The chapter “Shame, or on the Subject” from Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz, raises the question of how criticism can account for, address or face radical alterity. However, rather than addressing the alterity communicated through survivor testimony, Agamben guides his argument through a series of critical techniques aimed at limiting and categorizing the survivor’s narrative, thereby distancing himself and his discourse from the experience and retelling of horror that is constitutive of the survivors’ experience.1 The trajectory of his argument, as announced in the preface, involves a movement toward the retrospective site of testimony, and then back to the present in order to establish, “a human understanding of what happened there … its contemporary relevance” (11). This approach raises a couple of crucial questions: Why is understanding Agamben’s privileged method of approach to alterity?; and, Why does he direct the encounter to attend only to what happened in the past? I argue that the critical encounter for the “contemporary relevance” of Holocaust testimony happens in our present approach to the survivors and their testimony. Moreover, by displacing the ethical question onto the survivors’ “inabilities,” Agamben perpetuates discourse that is unethical in Emmanuel Levinas’s terms, since it refuses to acknowledge the other’s subjectivity as a demand.2 With primary reference to Levinas’s Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being, and with some reference to Jean-François Lyotard’s notion of the differend, I will show that Agamben’s discourse, in the face of radical alterity, attends only to those assimilable elements that pose no threat to the investigating subject.3


Holocaust Survivor Discursive Strategy Radical Alterity Italian Student Contemporary Relevance 
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  1. 1.
    Giorgio Agamben, “Shame, or On the Subject,” in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999), 11. All further references to this work are noted in the text.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Vintage, 1989), 83–84.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Primo Levi The Reawakening (New York: Collier Books, 1993), 16.Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1988), 5.Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1988), 11.Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    Emmanuel Levinas, “Signature,” trans. Mary Ellen Petrisko, Research in Phenomenology 8, 1978, 175–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Stanislao G. Pugliese 2005

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  • Dan Leshem

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