Re-actualizing a cultural exclusion zone

Rivista di Estetica. 2018;67:97-116 DOI 10.4000/estetica.2664


Journal Homepage

Journal Title: Rivista di Estetica

ISSN: 0035-6212 (Print); 2421-5864 (Online)

Publisher: Rosenberg & Sellier

LCC Subject Category: Fine Arts | Philosophy. Psychology. Religion: Aesthetics

Country of publisher: Italy

Language of fulltext: Italian, French, English

Full-text formats available: HTML



Alexander Chertenko


Double blind peer review

Editorial Board

Instructions for authors

Time From Submission to Publication: 30 weeks


Abstract | Full Text

The rise of modernity in the 19th century can, among other things, be vividly illustrated by the phenomenal advance of medical profession and, in particular, surgery as its most radical form. In the 20th century, the doctor has already been steadily associated with the phenomenon of power. Medical experiments on human subjects are generally recognized as one of the most extreme manifestations of this discursive nexus. Despite considerable amount of historical research, predominantly dealing with the experiences of Nazi medicine and its patients in concentration camps and some other disciplinary institutions, as well as somewhat gloomy attraction providing for unabated fascination on the part of trivial literature, such experiments have not yet become an established literary topos. The elusive nature of this phenomenon which belongs to the kern of post-war anxiety, but is rarely addressed to, allows me to attest to the fact that human experiments, especially those conducted in Nazi concentration camps, have become a cultural «exclusion zone». Nonetheless, there is a whole range of texts in which attempts has been made to overcome the cultural taboo and to give voice to the victims of human vivisection. Two of them – Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Suspicion and Marcel Beyers The Flying Foxes – are analyzed in this paper against the backdrop of the so called «intellectual witness» – a concept proposed by Geoffrey Hartman and meaning a distanced witnessing, mostly on behalf of younger generations or, as in case with Dürrenmatt, of those who stayed aside of the World War II. In both novels, the narrative structures of intellectual witnessing serve to surmount the metaphorizing tendency which turns the reality of human experiments into tropes corroborating the author’s idea or concept. Combining documentary elements with the elements of trivial fiction, Dürrenmatt and Beyer make significant strides in deconstructing the naïve «over-identifying» with the victims, as well as their overt fictionalization. As a result, they manage to open the possibility of witness beyond the perspective of eyewitnesses, and at the same time subjugate this rearticulation of the past to the demands of the present situation that facilitates it. This perilous duality reveals the ethical double bind which seems to be inherent to the most reactualizations of utterly traumatic historical experiences, such as human experimentation, transformed into «exclusion zones» and then voiced through intellectual witness and other forms of «secondary witness». In order to become an object of witnessing, those traumatic experiences must correspond to the anxieties of the present originating from them. While triggering the reactualization process, such anxieties, however, also subject the experience of concrete victims to the desiderata of a traumatized «(intellectual) witness» and, in such a way, misuse the tragedy as a means of the witness’s coming to terms with his or her own trauma.