Primo Levi and the genre of testimony

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15 Citations (Scopus)


Following on from spectral geographical studies of the disruptive aspects of memory, this paper further develops recent interest in the nonrepresentational and paradoxical dynamics of witnessing by drawing out the possibility of a historiography based on the capacity of testimony to interrupt and suspend representational closure. This possibility is posited in relation to the specific historiographical challenges posed by places and events of atrocity, whereby the extreme nature that makes these events so real threatens at the same time to render them the product of a self‐enclosed, alien and absolutely distant world. Through a close reading of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, I argue that the genre of testimony is predisposed towards generating disruptive encounters that force the reader of such works to take co‐responsibility in making sense of the text. Focusing upon Levi’s famous distinction between ‘the drowned and the saved’ of the camp, and the multiple possible interpretations of this distinction, I further argue that by establishing a space of uncertainty in which audiences must make an interpretive decision about the text without authorial guarantee, the disruptive form of memory that characterises witness testimony has the capacity to cultivate a fleeting recognition of a shared world between witness and reader, past and present.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)287-300
Number of pages14
JournalTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • human geography
  • Holocaust studies
  • camp studies
  • Primo Levi
  • literature
  • testimony
  • spatial theory
  • memory
  • deconstruction
  • poststructuralism


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