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Winter 2001, pages 49-94

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 in figural 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 testimony from the Fortunoff Archives 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.

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