A single look at this remnant of images, or erratic corpus of images in spite of all, is enough to sense that Auschwitz can no longer be spoken of in those absolute terms –generally well intentioned, apparently philosophical, but actually lazy – „unsayable" and „unimaginable." The four photographs taken in August 1944 by the members of the Sonderkommando address the unimaginable with which the Shoah is so often credited today – and this is the second period of the unimaginable: tragically, the Shoah refutes it. Auschwitz has been called unthinkable. But Hannah Arendt has shown that it is precisely where thought falters that we ought to persist in our thought or, rather, give it a new turn. So, if we say that Auschwitz exceeds any existing juridical thought, any notion of fault or of justice, then political science and law must be re-thought entirely. And if we believe that Auschwitz exceeds all existing political thought, even anthropology, then we must re-think the very foundations of the human sciences as such.
The historian's role is, of course, crucial to this task. Historians cannot and must not „accept that the problem posed by the genocide of the Jews be neglected by relegating it to the unthinkable. [The genocide] was thought, it was therefore thinkable." This is also the direction taken by Primo Levi in his criticism of the speculations on the „incommunicability" of the concentration camp testimony. The very existence and the possibility of such testimony – its enunciation in spite of all – refute the grand idea, the closed notion, of an unsayable Auschwitz. It is to the very core of speech that testimony invites us, compelling us to work there. It is harsh work, since what it concerns is a description of death at work, with the inarticulate cries and the silences that are implied. To speak of Auschwitz in terms of the unsayable, is not to bring oneself closer to Auschwitz. On the contrary, it is to relegate Auschwitz to a region that Giorgio Agamben has very well defined in terms of mystical adoration, even of unknowing repetition of the Nazi arcanum itself.
We must do with the image what we already do more easily (Foucault has helped us here) with language. For in each testimonial production, in each act of memory, language and image are absolutely bound to one another, never ceasing to exchange their reciprocal lacunae. An image often appears where a word seems to fail; a word often appears where the imagination seems to fail. The „truth" of Auschwitz, if this expression has any meaning, is neither more nor less unimaginable than it is unsayable. If the horror of the camps defies imagination, then each image snatched from such an experience becomes all the more necessary. If the terror of the camps functions as an enterprise of generalized obliteration, then each apparition – however fragmentary, however difficult to look at and to interpret - in which a single cog of this enterprise is visually suggested to us becomes all the more necessary.
Citation from: Georges Didi-Huberman: Images in Spite of All, Chicago University Press, 2012, p. 25f
©Chicago University Press 2012