Sans retour : subjectivity, ethics and the question of survival in the works of Semprun, Levinas and Derrida / by Colleen Sharon Pearl.
Although much of contemporary trauma theory emphasizes the difficulty of representing and articulating survival after the devastation of a trauma, very little has been written about the questions of subject-formation that survival both generates and presupposes. Trauma studies has operated largely under the presumption that subjectivity belongs to an essentially autonomous individual. Thus it has left unexamined those assumptions of sovereignty presupposed by the concept of the subject of survival. The leading question of my dissertation thus turns on what happens to an understanding of survival when we consider subject-formation not on the model of autonomy but as constitutive relationality and responsibility. Studying the literary and philosophical works of Jorge Semprun, Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, thinkers whose reflections on loss and ethics emerged in response to the traumatic violence of the Shoah, I offer a reading of survival that foregrounds a receptiveness to others at the heart of subject-formation. I ask how this receptiveness may imply that an 'I' does not recover from loss but is rather transformed through the claims made upon it by the dead Such a transformation, I propose, speaks to an ineluctable vulnerability that founds our responsibility for one another and marks both the difficulty and promise of surviving.In Chapters One and Two, I look at the relationship between subjectivity, loss and bearing witness in Semprun's Holocaust testimony, L'écriture ou la vie. I suggest that Semprun's writing upsets the idea of survival as the recovery or perseverance of a preexisting, autonomous 'I' and instead reveals an 'I' which is repeatedly produced through an endless obligation to bear witness to the dead. The third chapter turns to a discussion of Levinas's formulation of ethics as a pre-ontological, constitutive responsibility for the other that always already ruptures the coherency of 'the self'. I examine how this critique of the egological foundations of subjectivity invites us to reconsider survival in terms of vulnerability and responsibility rather than the reassertion of sovereign individuality Chapter Four takes up Derrida's reflections on mourning, spectrality and hospitality, and focuses on his claims regarding the obligation to live with the traces of the dead. I argue that this obligation opens upon a practice of interpretation that conceives of survival not as the return of an original but rather, as a potentiality for living 'otherwise'.
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