Witnessness (unabashed propaganda)

By | November 12, 2010

Prior to Robert Harvey’s Witnessness, I can’t say that I’d ever read a book on ethics (in this case via Beckett, Dante, Levi and Didi-Huberman) that was both serious and strident in intent and yet witty and encouraging. There are many things that one could pick out to illustrate why Harvey’s book is a noteworthy achievement, but I’ll restrict myself to one (perhaps two) aspects of his work that mean a great deal to me personally.

Harvey describes a turn that Primo Levi makes between If This is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved. In the former, Levi writes that, as a human being, he had experienced reaching the very bottom (“al fondo”), but in the latter, written forty years later, he reflects that, in fact, he had never reached the bottom, as those had who had perished or given up. What this turn means for Levi’s own position as a witness, what it means, more broadly, for our conception of what it is to be a witness, and, perhaps most importantly, the implications in this for the capacity within all of us to be witnesses – it is this that Harvey unravels and articulates so eloquently and forcefully.

The universal ethics that Harvey develops, which gives a central role to the imagination, is encouraging because it does away with a Manichean, pessimistic and apathetic approach to ethics, and with the notion that there are those who witness and those who do not. Indeed, the traditional role of the witness, especially in the legal sense, is very far from Harvey’s conception; in the former the witness is obliged to put away his imagination, in the latter it is essential.

A number of eminent scholars have already praised Witnessness:

"A wise and passionate book, whose fundamental ambition – to develop an effective universal ethics – is compellingly accomplished. The conviction with which Harvey establishes Samuel Beckett’s rightful place at the heart of this undertaking is thrillingly persuasive. Harvey’s thinking is as committed as it is attentive, his readings full of care and insight. This is an inspiring achievement." — Martin Crowley, University Senior Lecturer, Department of French, University of Cambridge, UK.

“A witty ethics? Who would have thought it possible? Yet this is just what Robert Harvey gives us in his brilliant Witnessness. With Beckett-like bilingual virtuosity, Harvey invents, stage-manages, and animates a philosophical theater in which, not merely spectators but actors as well, we might learn to move beyond the dreary monolingualism that passes for politics—-in which we might learn, as Harvey puts it with characteristic wit and ethical force, to be beside ourselves.” — Joseph Litvak, Professor of English, Tufts University, USA

"The last sentinel of witness consciousness, Robert Harvey locates the knocked out ethical transmitters that populate our 'litterature' and continue to signal, if dimly, from the late works of Samuel Beckett as well as those of Dante and Levi. Staying close to the ethical breach, the work travels the edges of translation as an essential philosophical stance. Harvey's grasp redeems purposefulness and refuses to shutter the house of being. Bright with humanist replenishment, Witnessness stares down the darker regions of my own intractable dwellings. The reader should be prepared for jolts of joyfulness!" — Avital Ronell, University Professor of the Humanities, Co-Director of Trauma & Violence Transdisciplinary Studies, New York University, USA, and Jacques Derrida Professor of Media and Philosophy, European Graduate School, Switzerland.

“In the name of the universal, Robert Harvey’s extraordinary book invents and performs an absolutely singular ethics through a practice of reading beyond scholarship, across more than one language, brilliantly weaving Beckett with Primo Levi and Dante, Blanchot and Derrida with Lyotard, in a poetic text of great virtuosity that leaves one both devastated and hopeful.” — Geoffrey Bennington, Asa G. Candler Professor of Modern French Thought, and Chair, Department of Comparative Literature, Emory University, USA.

Haaris Naqvi, Acquisitions Editor

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