Failed witnessing: The Drowned and the Saved:

The pivotal function of the moral third in relation to collective trauma is constituted by the acknowledgment of violation by the others who serve as witness. At a social level this role is played by the eyes and voice of the world that watches and upholds what is lawful by expressing, at the least, condemnation and indignation over injustice and injury, trauma and agony endured by the victims. The suffering or death of the victims is thus dignified, their lives given value. Their lives are worthy of being mourned, as Butler (2004) termed it, they are grievable lives. In other words, they are not simply objects to be discarded. Given the state of media proliferation, victims the world over know whether their suffering is seen and regarded; they can ask in despair, Why is no one paying attention as we die here?

Primo Levi’s book The Drowned and the Saved begins with the poignant assertion that every camp survivor he had ever encountered had the same dream or fantasy of returning home and telling his loved ones of the horrors they had seen and suffered; and in every case the person would be disbelieved or ignored by those by whom they so urgently needed to be heard. Levi’s account, like many others, suggests that this experience of the failed witness is a central component of trauma (see Laub and Auerhahn, 1993). In psychoanalytic therapy we are accustomed to the fact that the injured child feels as betrayed by the bystander parent as by the abuser parent (Davies and Frawley, 1994). The problem of the failed witness is directly related to the division between the discarded and dignified.

Samuel Gerson (2009), in a stunning paper on “The Dead Third,” took the experience of failed witnessing to mean that the person or groups feels that the social world that ought to care has disappeared and so the values of a caring world have become lifeless. Instead of recognition, there is only the unresponsiveness of the heaven that does not weep. Both the witnessing Other and the Third are dead. Working with traumatized victims shows us that this despair makes it very difficult to revive the witness function, to acknowledge in a way that is useful, because the very divisions I spoke of earlier interfere. The person who ought to witness or help appears to be on the other side of the barbed wire, and even with good intentions unable to truly take in the horror or terror known by human beings exposed to such brutality. Levi’s story implies the faint-heartedness, the reflexive self-protection and anxiety on the bystander’s part that lead to denial. Such reactions are merely one form of denial (Cohen, 2002), one kind of non-recognition that causes an alienation that seems beyond healing. And such inability to recognize horror view along with the alienation it produces can both be seen as aspects of the escape from anguish that fall into the complex category of dissociation (see Howell, 2005).

The issue of self-protection was addressed in characteristically hyperbolic language by Rousseau:

Though it were true that co-miseration [compassion] is no more than a sentiment, which puts us in the place of him who suffers…[it is] active in the savage, developed but dormant in civilized man…. In fact, commiseration must be so much the more energetic, the more intimately the animal, that beholds any kind of distress, identifies himself with the animal that labours under it. Now it is evident that this identification must have been infinitely more perfect in the state of nature than in the state of reason. It is reason that engenders self-love…that makes man shrink into himself…keep aloof from everything that can trouble or afflict him: it is philosophy that destroys his connections with other men… dictates that he mutters to himself at the sight of another in distress, You may perish for aught I care, nothing can hurt me. … One man may with impunity murder another under his windows; he has nothing to do but clap his hands to his ears, argue a little with himself to hinder nature, that startles within him, from identifying him with the unhappy sufferer.

What Rousseau’s critique of Enlightenment took aim at is the so-called rationality of self-protection, of self-interested individual that denies social connectedness as opposed to the involuntary, unbidden identification that may justifiably be seen as a first, untutored response of our nature. It is questionable perhaps to identify empathy with our animal nature rather than human sociability, but it is clear that Rousseau sees reasoning activity — that is, the Cartesian reasoning subject — as developing through dissociative processes in the service of disconnecting, or tolerating the disconnection one has already suffered. The capacity to dissociate, to disconnect and preserve the self when need-satisfying dependency is unsafe or unavailable, is doubtless facilitated by certain forms of intellectual activity (or so, at least, neurologically informed psychologists who start with attachment as a baseline concur (Schore, 2003; see also McGilchrist, 2009).

A less polarizing psychological position than Rousseau’s might argue that both these self states — compassionate and self-preservative — exist in most people, and that much of our social thought struggles with how to live the conflict between them. It is from the position of the moral third that we may recognize this conflict within ourselves and struggle to transform it — not by denying the self-protective urge to turn away but by examining its sources. I am not considering here the respective weight of altruistic and aggressive tendencies. Rather, I am proposing that we analyze the inverse dependency relationship between recognition and denial: for instance, how being denied recognition may intensify vengefulness and victimhood (Berger, in Urlic, I., Berger, M. & Berman, A., 2013) or conversely how receiving acknowledgment may create conditions for compassion or acknowledgment of others’ suffering.

Before considering the consequences of such cycles, I want to offer a more general perspective on the complementary opposition that underlies them. I suggest that we make use of an intersubjective psychoanalytic position to argue that Klein’s idea of the paranoid position of splitting between good and bad objects be broadened to include splitting the world into those who may live and those who must die. I want to underscore this refraction of the kill or be killed, doer-done to analysis: Living in an imaginary world in which some are saved and others left to drown, or in which “only one can live,” is another version of complementarity that manifests when the lawful third — “all deserve to live” — is missing. When the third fails, there seems no way out of this imaginary in which some are left to die except what Sue Grand (2000) called “the bestial gesture of survival.” Of course the idea that only one can live or thrive is as old as the story of Cain and Abel. For us it might be interesting to note Freud’s choice of the Oedipus myth as his central metaphor for life and death struggle over this first myth of progeny in the basic religious text of Western the society, this rejection of the third.

One could argue that this story, that is to say its fundamental assumption, is itself a source of fear and suffering, but the argument that the conflict between brothers derives from scarcity misses (at least in part) the psychological point. The mourning of death of infants and children is a great theme in literature — yet we must confront the equally powerful implication of this early myth that only one child was chosen, and in other cases, that those who perished were not grieved, not respected, not prayed for; or that their loss was due to weakness and abjection; or that those who died were not favored or, to the contrary, were victims of envy. Perhaps such visons might best be seen as representing our child-like efforts to disidentify with the drowned in order to stave off the terror of sharing their fate. What clinical experience with manic and grandiose states allows us to grasp is the way in which individuals rationalize their survival or success precisely in order to uphold the dissociation of their fear of being emotionally abandoned, unrecognized, left to perish by their families or community.

The survivor response of disidentification with those who do perish is common, and as I said, may be one aspect of self which is experienced by most people. The response can arise as a manic defense against vulnerability but also as a reflexive shut down in the face of pain or fear. But another matter is the etching of such responses into the collective psyche as superiority or triumph: justifying the inflicting of harm and permitting avoidable suffering as the deserved fate of the unworthy, those who fail or don’t keep up in the race. The disavowal of public social responsibility for helping over harming is part of a complex process of withholding acknowledgment of injuries to victims in an unlawful world. This constitutes a form of failure to dignify suffering through witnessing that perpetuates breakdown of the moral third. It may be seen as the avoidable failure, the one which enshrines the complementarity of dignified and discarded and deprives those who suffer trauma a vital ingredient in reclaiming their sense of value and agency.

The complementary position of “only one can live,” of being either among the discarded or the saved is associated with a protective shell of dissociative denial about the horror suffered by the other. That shell protects the bystander from inhabiting the part of self that would be evoked by feeling the other’s suffering as well as the shame of recognizing the choice not to feel. (Rachel McKay, personal communication).

Still, the dissociation of the others’ humanity, which supports the ongoing splitting between the discarded and the deserving, is occasionally disrupted by a violent breakthrough of the real consequences of this division. This occurred in 2005 when reporters in New Orleans watched in horror the conditions under which victims of Hurricane Katrina were herded and held in the convention center with no water or medical supplies. For one short and virtually unprecedented moment members of the official media expressed naked personal shock and horror at the treatment of fellow citizens who were clearly being abandoned by all agencies deemed responsible for saving them (the President, the army, the national guard, the governor, the police). These reporters became in Ullman’s (2006) sense real witnesses, embodying emotionally the impact of what they saw, despite or because it flew in the face of what they wanted to believe about the lawful nature of our society. They transcended their disembodied professional roles, the customary forms of pseudo-witnessing and pseudo-third based on dissociation and protectively cloaking the authorities’ failure. This rare crack in the façade of “fair and balanced” reporting — simultaneously ratified the truth of their experience. I am suggesting that in such moments collective breakthrough of dissociation constitutes a shift out of the unconsciously held convention according to which some Other(s) is not worthy of saving and thus awakens a palpable, powerful wish to connect, to affirm the value of social attachment and the moral third.

To continue reading, click here for parts 4 and 5.