Witnessing the Uninhabitable Place: On the Experience and Testimony of Refugees

In: Research in Phenomenology
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  • 1 Professor, Faculty of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies, Center for Contemporary European Philosophy, Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands
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Symptomatic of the crisis of the current global political order are the millions of displaced that have fled their homes but are not allowed to enter the country in which they seek refuge. Instead, they are placed in camps. To understand the site of the camp and the bare life it produces, testimonies of refugees are indispensable. This essay aims to examine and listen to these testimonies by, first, introducing the notion of testimony and some of the characteristics of the testimony of refugees; second, examining what it means to listen to testimony and which role is played therein by the narrative, literary structure of testimony; and, third, by interpreting the form of life to which the testimonies of the camp attest, which several witnesses describe as a life in “limbo.” This essay concludes with some brief remarks on the relation between experience, truth, and language in testimony.


Symptomatic of the crisis of the current global political order are the millions of displaced that have fled their homes but are not allowed to enter the country in which they seek refuge. Instead, they are placed in camps. To understand the site of the camp and the bare life it produces, testimonies of refugees are indispensable. This essay aims to examine and listen to these testimonies by, first, introducing the notion of testimony and some of the characteristics of the testimony of refugees; second, examining what it means to listen to testimony and which role is played therein by the narrative, literary structure of testimony; and, third, by interpreting the form of life to which the testimonies of the camp attest, which several witnesses describe as a life in “limbo.” This essay concludes with some brief remarks on the relation between experience, truth, and language in testimony.

The crisis of the modern, global political order manifests itself symptomatically in the millions of stateless refugees looking for a new place to live, as is argued by several authors, such as Arendt and Agamben.1 Arendt notes that in every epoch, refugee lives are marked by “the loss of their homes, and this means the loss of the entire social texture into which they were born and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world.” This is a crisis in its own way, but not the characteristically modern predicament of the modern displaced: “What is unprecedented is […] the impossibility of finding a new [home].”2 In between fleeing from old homes and the – possibly indefinitely postponed – taking refuge in new homes, the displaced are interned in camps. The crisis of modern politics is exemplified by the camp as its paradigm, as Agamben suggests; and the extermination camp is a variation and intensification of the internment camp, which was Europe’s original “solution” for the refugee crisis in the aftermath of the First World War.3 As Arendt explains: “statelessness [is] the newest mass phenomenon in contemporary history, and the existence of an ever-growing new people comprised of stateless persons, the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.”4

This European “solution” is not limited to the interbellum period. Today, perhaps more than ever given the hostile political climate towards refugees, the displaced find themselves in internment camps, in between the worlds they can inhabit, as Nguyen notes in a recent collection of refugee testimonies: “The refugee camp belongs to the same inhuman family as the internment camp, the concentration camp, the death camp. The camp is the place where we keep those who we do not see as fully being human.”5

If stateless refugees are “the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics,” the (internment) camp is among the main phenomena to be examined to understand the crisis of the modern global political order and the dehumanization of the displaced it brings about. In a vocabulary anticipating Agamben’s nuda vita and homo sacer, Arendt notes that the life of displaced is reduced to “the abstract nakedness of being human and nothing but human”; and when encountering them, “[t]he world [finds] nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”6 Instead, the world responds by imprisoning them in camps. As Boochani remarks on his internment in the illegal Manus Prison: “We are a bunch of ordinary human beings locked up simply for seeking refuge.”7 In the refugee reduced to the bare fact of their being human, Abani suggests, we recognize our own physical precariousness; yet, this does not incite generosity in us, but rather a sense of fear and being threatened: “their existence is our deepest fear: that we don’t and never will belong anywhere.”8

Because the loss the displaced have suffered and the exceptional mode of existence they are forced to live in the camp defies the imagination, their experience eludes us without testimony. This means that to understand the camp and the form of existence it produces, it is imperative to listen to the testimony of the displaced as provided in Refugee Tales, The Displaced, No Friend but the Mountains, The Ungrateful Refugee, and many others. Because the camp is a place of exclusion and separation, the ability to give testimony of the camp and its life, is the chance for (re-)establishing a social bond for and with the displaced. Yet, exactly for the same reason – distance in space and understanding – the question is who gives voice to the misery of the displaced. As Nguyen adds to this question: “[T]he people we call voiceless oftentimes are not actually voiceless. […] They are loud, if you get close enough to hear them, if you are capable of listening, if you are aware of what you cannot hear.”9 Yet, how does one get close to a witness confined in a secluded space, separated from us by impenetrable fences and walls and by the gap of unrecognizable, unimaginable experiences?

This essay discusses these questions by exploring three lines of thought. First, the concept of testimony is introduced and some characteristic problems with which the testimony of refugees confronts us are addressed. Second, it is examined what it means to listen to testimony and which role is played therein by the narrative, literary structure of testimony. This line of thought thus deals with the form of testimony. Third, the form of life to which the testimonies of the camp attest, which is described by several witnesses as a life in limbo, is interpreted. This essay concludes with some remarks on the relation between experience and language in testimony.

1 Elements of Witnessing

Witnessing is a human practice with a passive and an active sense.10 Passively understood, to witness something is to experience it. More precisely, it is to experience something that is of significance beyond the witness’s private sphere. Because others need to hear about this experience, the witness renders their experiences public, which is its active sense. This source of this need or demand is plural – the witness may feel intrinsically motivated to share their experiences or sense an external, social demand that to make their experiences public – and, consequently, this demand may take on different forms. Yet, in each of them, it is intrinsically connected to the social significance of what is witnessed. To emphasize this latter connection, the German Sache, not fully adequately translated as “subject matter,” articulates in a more pertinent sense the “something” that is witnessed. As Gadamer notes, Sache translates both res and causa and each of these Latin terms captures an important sense of the Sache of a testimony.11

Res underlines that the witness encounters something real. The significance of every passive witnessing – i.e., that which makes a private experience more than a merely private experience – is derived from this sense of reality. That the witness encountered something real, albeit only within the confines of their limited capacity to experience or perceive, makes it of human significance to the extent that humans are the beings interested in what is and in the truth of what is. While their experiences inform the witness’s own lifeworld and horizon of understanding, thus shaping their sense of self, its significance transcends the mere boundaries of this determined existence: to sense the demand to witness is to understand that one’s experiences should be given the possibility to enrich and shape the social community to which one belongs or that one addresses. In this sense, testimony is not simply a form of communication – of certain facts or information – but rather concerns the constitution of a social bond. By testimony, the reality experienced by the witness can become part of a shared social world and thus gain social significance.

Causa – in German Sache or Ursache – adds a crucial ingredient. The notion has a legal provenance. For humans, reality or being is indeed the causa as Ursache, the primordial “subject matter” that interests us. However, as the legal connotation of causa conveys, the Sache borne witness to is a subject matter in dispute: it can always be contested. A dispute presupposes plurality; there must be at least two contestants. Parallel to the passive and active sense of witnessing, one may distinguish two related, but different disputes concerning the Sache that is witnessed.

In the first place, witnessing is only truly witnessing if it “thwarts an expectation,” if the experience of the witness challenges their own understanding or view of the world or of some being.12 Gadamer comprehends such a contestation of our understanding along Hegelian lines: the conflict or the contestation at stake in experience is understood as a productive negation leading to a new understanding. Yet, in order to prepare our understanding of the experience of refugees as narrated in their testimonies, it might be helpful to suspend the interpretation of this conflict of contestation as a productive negation and instead allow the dialectic conflict between experiences of the world to exist in its unresolved state. This suspension is not a matter of cautiousness, but is rather necessitated by the experience of the refugee. The Sache at stake here is not simply our understanding of this or that entity or event encountered in the world. Rather, the testimony of refugees concerns nothing less than the inhabitability of the world itself. In different degrees, the camp is experienced as an uninhabitable place. Witnessing and experiencing such a place raises a conflict between the memories of a lost inhabitable, human world and the experience of the site in which human life cannot be properly lived beyond its physical necessities. Clearly, this leads to a new understanding – and one might call this “productive,” if one likes – but the two experiences cannot be reconciled because the world as an inhabitable place is a conditio sine qua non for human life beyond its mere physical and biological form.

In the second place, dispute and contestation exist at a social level, between witnesses and addressees. Present-day philosophy of testimony seems especially engaged with understanding this dispute from the level of the addressee, with particular emphasis on the epistemological aspects of this dispute. That is to say, it is guided by the question of whether and under which conditions it is rational to accept testimony. Yet, this particular approach is too narrow to properly bring into view the phenomenological significance of testimony, and in particular of the testimonies at stake here. Let me clarify this by discussing two important approaches in the present-day epistemology of testimony.

First, according to common-sense philosophy as put forward by Reid and reaffirmed today, the human practice of testimony is marked by the principle of credulity.13 We tend to believe the testimonies of others to be true, unless we have good reasons not to, so-called “defeaters.” Yet, this principle is not unconditional (and, hence, it’s not a genuine principle). Moreover, credulity, trust, and belief only exist insofar as their opposites, disbelief and suspicion, are possible. In the context of testimony, disbelief and suspicion are grounded in the fact that any testimony may be false; this latter possibility even haunts testimony, as Ricoeur suggests; it is rooted in the asymmetry between witness and addressee.14 To mention only one, basic aspect of this asymmetry: while testimony communicates its subject matter, it cannot communicate the actual experiencing or witnessing itself, which for the witness is the very epistemic ground of the truth of their testimony from which the Sache itself cannot simply be separated.15 Hence, the addressee can never share in the full evidence the witnesses themselves have. Moreover, a good-natured human being in normal circumstances might respond charitably to a testimony of a recognizable, commonplace experience. Yet, in the social and epistemic circumstances in which refugees witness, these conditions – good-natured humans, normal circumstances, and recognizable, commonplace experience – cannot be taken for granted. In both of these cases – the witness’s evidence and the specific experience of the refugee – the epistemological approach tends to obscure the specific nature of the Sache of testimony.

Second, one might suggest that a refusal to accept testimony of refugees or of other minorities or repressed groups is a simple case of epistemic injustice, as coined by Fricker.16 Indeed, how can one object to the idea that such testimonies deserve to be treated with the same principle of credulity? Phenomenologically, however, the notion of epistemic injustice is not basic enough. The claim that epistemic injustice occurred, presupposes that the witness is already judged to be reliable and authoritative. Yet, exactly this presupposition begs the question. If a witness deserves to be taken seriously, it is obviously an epistemic injustice if they are not heard. Yet, this is a conditional statement of which the condition might be the very dispute between witness and addressee. In fact, this contestation may harbor a fundamental heterogeneity manifesting itself in different experiences of and perspectives on the world and in different social horizons of understanding determined by different societal discourses on what it means to be, in the case at hand, a refugee and what it means to tell the story of what happened or of what one experienced.

Moreover, emphasis of the epistemic nature of this injustice further limits this notion to reach into the depths of the social-phenomenological problem we encounter here. Following Ricoeur, we may call testimony a dialogical situation, as long as we add that it is an asymmetrical one.17 To capture how witness and addressee dialogically share in testimony, it may be helpful to take recourse to Nancy’s notion of partage, often translated as “sharing-in and sharing-out.” In relation to epistemic injustice, a specific idiomatic sense of this term needs to be brought out: le partage des voix.18 In the French, this expression refers to the tie that might occur in a voting. To claim in a situation of contestation epistemic or testimonial injustice is to evoke the simple question: which justice and which rationality? Whose voice is counted here and whose is neglected?

In the case of the testimony of refugees, that is, of stateless people whose subject-position in the asymmetric dialogical situation of testimony is not supported by an equality for the law, the tension in this partage des voix becomes violent.19 Here, the ambiguity of sharing in and sharing out acquires a profoundly existential sense. Testimony becomes the stage in which the dispute between sharing in a social world and being excluded from this social world is decided. That is to say, the testimony of refugees is not simply part of a social world, to which it adds its own experiences in order to be taken into account by others belonging to the same social world. It rather concerns the very entrance – or exclusion from – this world. Testimony takes place on the threshold of camp and world.

Before we can turn to the question of how to get close and listen to the testimony of refugees, one more issue needs to be raised. It is well-known that testimony of eyewitnesses is often unreliable. Especially in stressful situations, the capacity of humans to register correctly what happened is limited. Moreover, human memory is flawed and the meaning of experiences can change over time, the facts perceived reordered. Finally, the interaction with addressees – for instance, an interrogation by the police immediately after the event witnessed – can strongly influence a testimony. These basic psychological considerations indicate that contestation is not simply a given in the dialogical situation of testimony, but in particular cases a necessity: for a testimony to be accepted, it should be able to pass the test of a critical examination. That eyewitnesses who are not part of the event under assessment – such as, for instance, eyewitnesses of a traffic accident – are subjected to such criticism is only reasonable if one needs to get a reliable sense of what actually happened. However, in the case of refugees and their testimony, the problems encountered in eyewitness testimony take on a completely different sense and meaning. The traumatic event of having to leave one’s home and to experience different forms of peril on the way to a new environment, influences what one can and cannot tell and may render one incapable of telling properly. As Abani notes:

So, you’re always left with the annoying aftertaste of this particular trauma and its repetitive wounding without the necessary words to convey the experience. As details shift in telling and retelling you doubt your own experience of it. What is yours, what belongs to your family’s recollection, what belongs to the media of the time, what belongs to what you have revisited, becomes unclear.20

Moreover, there is a linguistic threshold. The language barrier the displaced have to cross is not simply a matter of knowing – usually – the English vocabulary, but also of the cultural forms of narration and persuasion: different cultures tell stories differently. Rather than speaking freely in the forms and the language they have at their disposal to bear witness to their experiences, the refugee is forced to narrate, persuade, and speak in a language in which they are not at home. Reflecting on her experiences of a refugee storytelling workshop she helped organizing, Nayeri wonders why the people actually attended:

Maybe they want to create something different now, or to finally tell their story truly, raw and full of dirty details, in the authentic storytelling language of their youth. Because to pass an asylum interview, you don’t just need a true story. You need to tell that story the English way, or Dutch or American way. Americans enjoy drama; they want to be moved. The Dutch want facts. The English have precedents, stories from each country deemed true that year, that month.21

The tension mentioned here is not a matter of rhetoric or narrative freedom. It rather shows how the contestation of the testimony of refugees as well as the form it adopts, deprives the refugees of their (full) capacity to narrate.

2 Fact and Significance

The considerations at the end of the previous section bring us back to Nguyen’s remark that the voiceless often actually do speak: “They are loud, if you get close enough to hear them, if you are capable of listening, if you are aware of what you cannot hear.” How to get close? How to be capable of listening? How to be aware of what one cannot hear? In order to address these questions and obtain a sense of the different modes of listening to testimony, let us recall that the first question is really a matter of place, proximity, and passageway. In relation to the testimony of refugees, the principle of credulity turns out not to be a rule, but rather a task – and, perhaps, in its most elementary sense, an impossible one. When the refugee is interned in a camp and is not allowed access to the social environment of their intended addressees, how can their stories reach these addressees? The camp creates thus a social aporia, the lack of a proper passageway for communication.

Yet, in a certain way, one might argue, the borders of the camp are permeable. Societies have developed policies to determine whether or not refugees should be granted asylum. On the threshold of the camp, we find officers of the immigration services, members of the state’s police. Here, refugees’ testimonies are heard; yet the officer’s “listening” is a hearing in a legal sense, an interrogation that aims to establish a legal judgment concerning the application for asylum. Testimony is reduced to an element in a technical, legal practice. The impact of this legal use of testimony in an interrogation is captured by Gadamer:

Anyone who has experienced an interrogation – even if only as a witness – knows what it is to make a statement and how little it is a statement of what one means. In a statement the horizon of meaning of what is to be said is concealed by methodical exactness; what remains is the “pure” sense of the statements. That is what goes on record. But meaning thus reduced to what is stated is always distorted meaning.22

The meaning of what a witness has to say, is distorted when they are forced to speak in statements. Interrogation is the scene in which the weaknesses of (eyewitness) testimony as mentioned in the previous section, are actually weaknesses. As Nayeri notes: “Memories are full of inconsistencies. […] It’s like fighting on clouds. The Dutch [officers], all they listen for is inconsistency: is the time or location you gave at the start of the interview different from the end? If you fumble and give two answers, this is proof of dishonesty, not human error.”23 Officers listen in a particular way, as Nayeri emphasizes, looking for mistakes, inconsistencies, elements of stories that are too abstract, too general, or not convincing (enough). Their way of listening is a direct consequence of their own interest and task; they are ordered to examine possible inconsistencies by recording and comparing statements and, in this way, to establish the facts, including the reliability of the witness. Interrogation introduces a hierarchy that reverses the asymmetry of testimony: the officer is granted the power to assess the refugee’s appeal, while the refugee is interned and locked up; and “human frailty,” as Nayeri subtly remarks, does not only manifest itself in the refugee’s capacity to remember correctly but also in the officer’s capacity to deal justly with the power bestowed on them.24

The linguistic distinction between statement and significance reflects the ontological distinction between facts and subject matter or Sache. In its abstracted, legal form, statements and facts are derived from a testimony and their consistency and reliability are assessed.25 Yet, the testimony of refugees – this time in a non-legal sense of the word – offers us a multitude of examples in which exactly the attempt to establish facts by interrogating and recording statements hides and distorts the Sache about which the refugee speaks and thus obscures it. This is a variation of Lyotard’s différend: by reducing testimony to its technical, legal sense, to statements, an interrogation deprives the witness of the linguistic means and thus of their capacity to really tell their story and disclose their Sache in its fully significance. Language is the medium in which the experiences of the refugee are made public; however, if the language used is not up to the task and imposes itself between the witness and the addressee like a screen, the experiences of the former remain hidden from the sphere in which their social significance can appear. If this is the official, legal relation between a society and its refugees, the aporia of testimony is reinstalled. Are there other modes of hearing? Can the testimony of refugees cross the threshold of the camp?

Boochani’s testimony about Manus Prison could only find its way to the outside world thanks to a mobile phone, which he kept hidden in his bed. He wrote thousands of messages in Farsi and sent them to his translator so that his experiences could be made public.26 The conception of this testimony is a pars pro toto of how getting close to the interned refugee is both a spatial matter of how to pass the borders of the camp and a linguistic or hermeneutic matter of finding the words to reach the addressees and enter their horizon of understanding, limited as it is by their experiences of a normal, everyday world. That the exclusion of the refugee is both spatial and linguistic seems a universal truth, as Herd notes: “For the person who visits a detention center, it is a striking element of the process that one is not allowed to carry a pen and paper into the building. […] this holding of the detainee and the ex-detainee outside the language is replicated across the asylum system.”27

Getting in close proximity as a hermeneutic task implies that mediators need to invent the proper hermeneutic, rhetoric, and literary form that allows to convey the refugee’s experiences in their complexity. “Mediators” does not necessarily refer to people who are not refugees. In fact, given the literature I examined, three different configurations can be distinguished. First, Boochani’s novel No Friend but the Mountains offers a firsthand experience. The one who witnessed and suffered is the one who testifies. Yet, the novel is more than a testimony of the specific facts and circumstances of Boochani’s seeking refuge and internment in the camp. When reading it, the reader begins to understand what it is like to be a refugee and what it is like to exist in a camp; the reader gets a sense of what it means when a refugee’s life is reduced to the bare fact of living. This significance of the book goes beyond the singular event of Boochani’s life and becomes a singular universal, a pars pro toto of refugee lives in the camps.

Second, Nayeri’s novel The Ungrateful Refugee explicitly posits itself as a novel that does not only bear witness to her own firsthand experiences as a refugee but also tells the stories of others. About this, she tellingly writes:

Though the truth of these stories struck me hard, I know that I, a writer, was peeking in different corners than the authorities. I wasn’t looking for discrepancies. I abhor cynical traps that favor better translators and catch out trauma victims for their memory lapses. I don’t have accent-verifying software. I saw the truth of these stories in corroborating scars, in distinct lenses on a single event, one seeing the back as vividly as another sees the front – no flat cutouts. I saw truth in grieving, fearful eyes, in shaking hands, in the anxiety of children and the sorrow of the elderly.

And yet, to recreate these stories, I was forced to invent scenes and dialogue, like retouching a faded photograph. Writers and refugees often find themselves imagining their way to the truth. What choice is there?28

The hermeneutic task involved in telling one’s own story obviously has its own poetic and literary dimension. Yet, the one involved in telling the stories of others makes it more complicated in relation to truth, as Nayeri indicates. Or, rather, her comments implicitly indicate that the truth of facts, established by the practice of interrogation, differs from the truth that brings out the full significance of the experiences of other refugees and that allows the disclosure of the Sache they witnessed. Nayeri notes that her stories are, in particular respects, fabricated and imagined. They contain moments of imagination, fiction, and literary composition. Therefore, they would not stand the scrutinous examination of the officers that aim to establish the facts. Given the specific orientation of an interrogation, any use of literature infuses testimony with a certain rhetorical, compositional falsity – if not worse – thus making it an easy prey for the asylum officers looking for reasons to doubt the credibility of what is told them. “Be the asylum officer,” Nayeri defies her readers.29

This opposition between literature and truth, however, only makes sense in the mode of interrogation. This mode tends to hide that the facts the officers aim to establish are fabricated in their own way, appearing only as a result of the practice of interrogation, with its specific rules and conditions. Interrogation tends to hide that the basic practice of human testimony is not about establishing such facts, but about disclosing the Sache encountered by the witness in its significance. This disclosure sometimes requires that the faded photo is retouched, as Nayeri notes, so that the image is shown in its proper light again. This comment is much in line with Gadamer’s considerations on the relation of Sache and Bedeutsamkeit, subject matter and significance: “the subject matter [Sache] appears truly significant [bedeutsam] only when it is properly portrayed for us. Thus we are certainly interested in the subject matter, but it acquires its life only from the light in which it is presented to us.”30 Nayeri’s literary retouching thus gives a voice to refugees who are not able to tell themselves about their experiences – in the same way, on the same platform, or even at all.31

Third, the idea of Refugee Tales is professional writers such as novelists telling the story of a refugee because the latter is not in the position to tell their own story.32 Smith’s “The Detainee’s Tale” offers a striking version of this third relation between witness and mediator, between the one who experiences and the one who bears witness in public.33 Smith describes in a plain, almost hushed language her visit to a detainee. She can be a mediator in this way because she visits and thus gets physically close to the detained refugee, a Vietnamese young man. While she cannot be the witness of “what it is to be a detainee,” but “only what it’s like to visit a detainee,” she can describe the experience of getting close to the Vietnamese young man.34

What is striking about her testimony is the inhuman indifference of the guards – other representatives of the state’s police in the detainee center. The Vietnamese young man did not speak any English at all when arriving, as Smith tells, but has a dictionary to make himself known. “He’ll have his dictionary in his hand, a Pocket Vietnamese-English paperback. Its spine will be several times broken. The guards will jaunt up and down the room, joking over and about our conversation.”35 While the Vietnamese young man does his utmost to render his dreadful experience in a language foreign to him, the guards are joking – perhaps about his pronunciation. After this conversation, when Smith is guided outside the prison, she writes: “The man unlocking the doors will small-talk […] me about the weather.” The small-talk and the joking, normal events in everyday life, become absurd and the sign of cruel indifference in the proximity of the young refugee.

The figures of the officer and the guard, their interrogation and their indifference, mirror the political attitude of a society that does not want to get close and does not want to listen, does not allow the refugees’ experiences to be disclosed in their significance, in what it tells about their existence and about the society that excludes them. Literature and its poetic, compositional dimension must find its way into testimonies because they are indispensable for generating – erzeugen – understanding. This generative capacity of literature is not in itself a guarantee for success, as Nayeri points out. Not only the officer or the guard mishear and fail to understand. A reader, she notes, may feel educated by these stories, may find them entertaining or threatening; and one may read as if reading letters from the distant past “because the dead want nothing from us.”36 Yet, in each of these modes of listening, one fails to understand the demand reverberating in the stories – a demand for the acknowledgment of the unhabitable place and the crisis it exemplifies; and by consequence, a demand for the self-understanding of a society that has produced such places and the forms of life found therein.

3 Life in Limbo

What is the subject matter disclosed in the stories of refugees? Each story is unique. Yet, at the same time, each story is universal. For this reason, as noted in relation to Boochani’s testimony, each story is a singular universal disclosing uniquely what it is like to be an interned or detained refugee. Each story, thus, also speaks in the place of those experiences that can and will never be told. Moreover, several themes and motifs connect these stories. They all speak of loss, as Arendt did: “the loss of their homes, and this means the loss of the entire social texture into which they were born and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world.” They all speak of trauma, due to the hardships and misery endured in the world they fled from and endured “simply for seeking refuge.” They also speak of waiting and “demoralization.”37 The interned refugees live the indefinite deferral of entering a new world. Existing between two social worlds, one that is already lost and one that has not yet allowed – and perhaps never will allow – them to enter, they live in limbo. The testimonies speak of the representatives the society they seek to enter has sent to guard and interrogate them, and how they refrain from human contact even though the displaced are completely dependent on them. The distance between camp and society is thus reenacted by the representatives of the state’s police. Their behavior is exemplary for what Arendt called “the nobody.” Yet, in the camp, this behavior is a strategy. It keeps the refugees at bay, avoiding any real social bond from arising so that they can be dealt with as object, deprived of dignity and reduced to the abstract nakedness of being human. How to analyze phenomenologically the distance and its dehumanizing effect as well as the form of existence that appears in the refugee’s loss, trauma, and waiting?

In these testimonies, the camp appears as an uninhabitable place. The primordial experience of the loss of a world is intensified and prolonged by the camp as a limbo in between two worlds. The camp is thus unheimlich, in Heidegger’s sense of the word. Unheimlichkeit is not only uncanniness. The camp is a site in which one cannot be at home; there, humans exist in the mode of Un-zuhause, not-at-home.38 Let us consider to what extent the analysis in which Heidegger introduces this terminology, focusing especially on §§ 40, 57, and 58 of Being and Time, can be adapted so that it has something to say about life in limbo.39

Heidegger opposes the uncanny experience of not-being-at-home to the “being-at-home of publicness”; for him, to be entangled in the world is the flight from not-being-at-home.40 In terms of the distinction between camp and social world, a flight into publicness is not possible for the detainees. Rather, this flight is characteristic for those who are capable of living their normal, everyday lives in the society in which they are at home. They conceive of the sight of the camp and the bare life therein, as a threat for the public life and the society in which they feel at home and secure. The refugee represents an uncanny form of life that confronts them with the uncertainty of their own existence – perhaps less with their mortality than with the possibility that their lives can also be reduced to the abstract nakedness of being human. In the words of Abani: “their existence is our deepest fear: that we don’t and never will belong anywhere.”41 Therefore, the refugee has to be kept at bay spatially and linguistically.

Heidegger uses the notions of testimony, Zeugnis, and attestation, Bezeugung, in a pertinent way; they articulate how the uncanniness makes itself known to those entangled in the flight from it.42 Testimony is the call, Ruf, and demand made by that which is uncanny in existence to that which flees away from it. The sense of erzeugen, to generate, strongly resonates in Heidegger’s use of Zeugnis and Bezeugung. Testimony has the capacity to generate new ways of listening. It is a call and a demand on the addressee not to flee away and to pay attention to the uncanniness the addressees ban from their everyday understanding. It generates a new direction and orientation for their attention.

The relation of exclusion or abandonment between camp and society, can be torn down by testimony in this strong Heideggerian sense of the word. The testimony of the refugee is a tear in and an interruption of the horizon of understanding of the addressees and confronts them with the refugee’s life in limbo, which is nothing but their own existence deprived of the security and protection of the society in which one is at home. It also confronts them with the fact that their own fleeing from this sight, their incapacity to confront this “potentiality-of-being” is what keeps the separation between camp and society in place.

The reference in the previous sentence to Heidegger’s Seinkönnen, potentiality-of-being, as an additional term to describe the misery of the life in limbo is more than circumstantial. First, if one is willing to listen to Heidegger’s vocabulary of Ruf, Bezeugung, Unheimlichkeit, and Seinkönnen in light of the proposed adaptation, the following dense sentence gains a new significance:

[The caller] is Da-sein in its uncanniness, primordially thrown being-in-the-world, as not-at-home, the naked “that” in the nothingness of the world. The caller is unfamiliar to the everyday they-self, it is something like an alien voice.43

Is life in limbo not a singular universal and paradigmatic example of “the naked ‘that’ in the nothingness of the world”? The nakedness of life to which Arendt and Agamben each refer in their own way thus has a remarkable precursor in Heidegger’s thought. It is this bare existence that indeed calls with “something like an alien voice,” namely as someone coming from elsewhere and with their voice of misery. The call of testimony has the capacity to overcome the attempts to prevent the alien voice from addressing us.

Second, following Agamben’s understanding of the camp, the significance of this site is that it unleashes potentiality and possibility. Secured by a stable society and its legal protection, the possibilities of our existence are likewise bounded. By contrast, as a demonic reversal of Kierkegaard’s famous suggestion that “for God, all things are possible,” Agamben argues in reference to Arendt that the principle of the camp is “the principle according to which ‘everything is possible.’”44 What “common sense obstinately refuses to admit” is that no limitations exist to the dehumanization that humans produce in the camp – or allow to be produced in the name of their society. In this sense, it is a site in which a dangerous experiment with human life is taking place in which the human potentiality-of-being is separated from its social context. For Agamben, this idea is so important, that it is the motto of Remnants of Auschwitz: “To be exposed to everything is to be capable of everything.” In the book, he explicates this as follows: “This means that humans bear within themselves the mark of the inhuman, that their spirit contains at its very center the wound of non-spirit, non-human chaos atrociously consigned to its own being capable of everything.”45 The creation of the camp is the sign that humans are capable of everything; and life in limbo is the life exposed to and forced to experience everything.

This is a profoundly Heideggerian idea, at least if we connect Unheimlichkeit to his later understanding of the chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone: “Der Mensch ist mit einem Wort τὸ δεινότατον, das Unheimlichste.”46 That such a kinship between Agamben and Heidegger exists on this point is affirmed by Schmidt’s account of this passage: “The vulnerability, the fragility and exposure of human life to what is strange and foreign, to what today is referred as ‘alterity,’ is, in part, what seems common to the tragic arts. It is, according to Greek tragedy, the source of human greatness and ruin at once.”47

The self-attestation of Unheimlichkeit in Being and Time bear witness to the fact that human existence is always out of place. This being-out-of-place is the very source of the human capacity to bring about something new and unheard-of in the world. In that sense, it is “the source of human greatness.” Yet, it harbors a danger that consists in the substantivizing of this being-out-of-place into a new place. The substantivizing of being-out-of-place in the uninhabitable site of the camp produces the life in limbo, which, in a reversal of Heidegger’s characterization of death, is the impossibility of possibility. Arendt, who experienced what it meant to be a refugee, saw this most clearly: being-out-of-place is a mode of being that cannot exist humanly without the possibility to (re-)insert oneself into the world. In a crucial passage in The Human Condition, Arendt refers in exactly this way to “the naked ‘that’ of existence” when writing: “With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance.”48 The loss of the world that marks life in limbo, is that this human life is not granted the capacity to insert itself in the world to which it takes refuge. The witness’s demand to be heard is a demand to be acknowledged and, therefore, a demand to be given (back) the capacity to insert oneself into the world.49 Testimony is the call that demands this capacity. And testimony is the first (re-)insertion of those living in limbo into the social world because by bearing witness they show and share with the world who they are and what they experienced.

4 On Experience and Language

To conclude, let us consider Herd’s remark on the project of Refugee Tales:

[T]he experience being relayed grafts onto and alters the listener’s language. […] [The refugees] were relieved the account was being passed on […]; a story that belongs to one person now, also, belongs to other people […]. These are tales, in other words, that call for and generate a collective; tales that need to be told and re-told so that the situation they emerge from might be collectively addressed.50

Testimony and witnessing are exemplary loci of what Heidegger calls the promise or commitment, Zusage, of language.51 For experiences of the world and of human existence that have not yet been articulated, testimony exemplifies the promise that language will grant the words to render them publicly available. To bear witness is to trust this commitment of language. In turn, by testimony, language changes, the public language shared by all in a society. This is testimony’s fulfilment of the promise and commitment of language. The generative capacity of language to change is reflected in the attempts by novelists such as Smith, who have sensed, as Herd notes, how their own language changed when carefully listening and paying attention to the detained refugee whose story they pass on, their own language giving way to the experience of the other. In these cases, “the true word” to which language is committed and for which the poet and novelist hunger, is the word that lets the other speak in one’s own, changed language, so that the other receives a voice in one’s own, changed language.52

In section 2, I discussed what the question of truth in relation to the testimonial word means. In its legal, technical sense, testimony is used to the establish facts, based on the registration and comparison of statements. While the statement has its own conception of truth – correspondence of the witness’s statement with the established facts – this conception and its linguistic form deprive language of the full disclosure of the significance of Sache of testimony. Truth as the disclosure of this significance requires another linguistic form, namely that of narration and literature. The Sage and Zusage of language to grant the true word is also in the case of refugee tales a matter of muthos and poetics.

Once told, stories need to be retold. Language is also a locus of gathering – legein – in which testimonies are kept and preserved. As the later Heidegger notes, this offers us in the Germanic languages another sense of truth or Wahrheit: wahren, bewahren, verwahren.53 The truth of language is also this capacity to preserve and protect the experiences that are borne witness to so that they may become part of our collective memory, so that they may be retold and circulated among us – part of the language that, from now on, we speak with one another, heedful of the uninhabitable places that humans are capable of creating for each other.


Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: Harcourt, 1968), 267–302; Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 126–35.


Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 293.


Agamben, Homo Sacer, 117.


Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 277.


Viet Thanh Nguyen, ed., The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (New York: Abrams Press, 2018), 17. See also David Herd and Anna Pincus, eds., Refugee Tales, 4 vols (Manchester: Comma Press, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2021), 4:146–47.


Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 297, 299. See also Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in The Jewish Writings, ed. Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 264–74; at 273.


Behrouz Boochani, No Friend But the Mountains, trans. Omid Tofighian (London: Picador, 2019), 124.


Chris Abani, “The Road,” in The Displaced, ed. Nguyen, 23–30; at 27.


Nguyen, The Displaced, 19.


See Gert-Jan van der Heiden, Testimony and Engagement: On the Four Elements of Witnessing,” Studia Phaenomenologica 21 (2021): 21–39; and The Voice of Misery: A Continental Philosophy of Testimony (Albany: SUNY Press, 2020), 125–37, 169–75.


Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Die Natur der Sache und die Sprache der Dinge,” in Hermeneutik II, GW 2 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1990), 66–76; at 67.


Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 362–65.


Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense (London: Thomas Tegg, 1823), 232–33.


Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 302.


Therefore, Derrida argues that every testimony keeps a secret; Jacques Derrida, Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 29–33.


Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).


Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 164.


Partage is coined in a text with exactly this title: Jean-Luc Nancy, Le partage des voix (Paris: Galilée, 1982).


Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 294–95.


Abani, “The Road,” 25.


Dina Nayeri, The Ungrateful Refugee (Edinburgh: Cannongate, 2019), 241.


Gadamer, Truth and Method, 485.


Nayeri, The Ungrateful Refugee, 272–73.


Ibid., 273.


Gadamer, Truth and Method, 345.


Boochani, No Friend but The Mountain, Foreword.


Herd and Pincus, Refugee Tales, 1:140.


Nayeri, The Ungrateful Refugee, 14–15.


Ibid., 15. A similar problem is addressed by Derrida, Demeure, 54–56.


Gadamer, Truth and Method, 296.


The privilege of the witness who can bear witness is affirmed by the literature on the extermination camps, see, e.g., Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 33–34. The privileged experience a demand to bear witness for those who cannot, see Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Random House, 1989), 83–84; see also Van der Heiden, The Voice of Misery, 251–52.


Herd and Pincus, Refugee Tales, 1:141.


Ali Smith, “The Detainee’s Tale,” in Refugee Tales, ed. Herd and Pincus, 1:49–62.


Ibid., 1:55.


Ibid., 1:59.


Nayeri, The Ungrateful Refugee, 15.


Herd and Pincus, Refugee Tales, 1:136.


Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, GA 2 (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1977), 251. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), 177.


For what follows, see Gert-Jan van der Heiden, “‘The One Who Must Bear Witness to What He Is’: Heidegger on Attestation and Testimony,” Tijdschrift voor Filosofie 82, no. 4 (2020): 675–98; and The Voice of Misery, 151–75.


Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 251; Being and Time, 177.


Abani, “The Road,” 27. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009) points out the same: by exemplifying a precariousness shared by all humans, “they are cast as threats to human life as we know it rather than as living populations in need of protection” (ibid., 31). See also Aleksandar Hemon, “God’s Fate,” in The Displaced, ed. Nguyen, 99–112; at 100.


Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 354–55; Being and Time, 246–47.


Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 367; Being and Time, 255; first emphasis added.


Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling. Repetition, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 46; Agamben, Homo Sacer, 170.


Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 77.


Martin Heidegger, Einführung in die Metaphysik, GA 40 (Frankfurt, Klostermann, 1983), 158. “Many things are formidable [τὰ δεινὰ], and none more formidable [δεινότερον] than man.” Sophocles, Antigone 332–33.


Dennis Schmidt, On Germans and Other Greeks: Tragedy and Ethical Life (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 15, 246–49.


Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 176–77.


“Each existent demands [esige] its proper possibility, it demands that it become possible.” Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 39; see also Van der Heiden, The Voice of Misery, 207–11.


Herd and Pincus, Refugee Tales, 1:141–42.


Martin Heidegger, “Das Wesen der Sprache,” in Unterwegs zur Sprache, GA 12 (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1985), 147–204, esp. 158–70.


For “the true word,” see Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Wer bin Ich und wer bist Du?” in Ästhetik und Poetik II, GW 9 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1990), 383–451. A Derridean hesitation might point out that the chance of letting – laisser – the other speak, cannot be disentangled from the risk of making – faire – the other speak. Yet, the sense and value of “making” is itself ambiguous: to make to the other speak may mean to force the other to speak what they would never say themselves, but to make also refers to poiēsis, to the poetic moment that is necessarily part of the giving of a voice and of letting the other speak. See also Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, 181 n. 53.


Heidegger, “Der Spruch des Anaximander,” in Holzwege, GA 5 (Frankfurt, Klostermann, 1977), 321–74; at 348; see also Van der Heiden, “‘The One Who Must Bear Witness,’” 689–95.

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