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Reconciliation—No Pasaran: Trauma, Testimony and Language for Paul Celan

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This article intervenes in the project of theorizing the politics of reconciliation and transitional justice with the suggestion that (a) more attention be paid to subjective experiences and discursive sensitivities affected/shaped by the trauma of historical violence and injustice, and that (b) the constitutive as well as potentially subversive working of these experiences and sensitivities be recognized. It focuses specifically on Paul Celan (1920-1970), a Jewish-Romanian-German poet and Holocaust survivor, proposing a reading of his work that connects aspects of the poetic, the traumatic and the peripheral that are relevant to political theories of reconciliation and justice. Celan's work is shown to problematize the dominant understandings of communal temporality that are encoded in the reconciliatory transitional project. This temporality approximates a linear and progressive motion: the transitional community (a) leaves behind the legacies of the “violent past” and (b) imagines (and moves towards) its future as an emancipative movement positioned beyond the constraints of the historical violence and injustice. In Celan's work, however, the traumatized subject's experience of temporality is understood metaphorically as an impossible passage. In contrast to the linear and progressive unfolding of the collective imaginary, the movement within a passage is repetitive, elliptical and, quite literally, aporetic (impassible). There is no guarantee of a successful passing through; instead, within the passage, Celan's traumatic and poetic subject encounters the abysmal. This basic contrast suggests that a critical theory of reconciliation should not only account for the fragility of human life in relation to historical violence, but respond to the constant proximity of violence within the reconciliatory project itself.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2009-06-01

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