Fred Ribkoff


Ethical Acts of Witnessing Trauma


This past summer I was struck by the polarized debate surrounding the Israel-Hezbollah war. In the midst of such polarized political debate, how does one find a complex ethical foot hold?
Based on my readings of tragic drama and trauma theory, I believe that the key to an ethical response to traumatic events lies in acknowledging and engaging what Laub and Felman refer to as a “crisis of witnessing” in which the witness to horrific events is “engulfed by the event itself.” But this crisis does not stop at those who have witnessed such horrors first hand. It is passed on to psychotherapists who act as witnesses to the “unimaginable” and the general public through the media. Indeed, what is missing in the contemporary public realm is a form and forum capable of acknowledging and engaging such a crisis in complex ethical terms. In ancient Greek tragedy and the Dionysian theatre, however, such a form and forum did seem to exist. This paper begins with a reading of Greek tragedy that serves to unearth a multi-layered dramatization of the crisis of witnessing that enables the audience—the bulk of the citizenry of the polis—to integrate and ethically respond to overwhelming situations and ambivalent feelings without falling into polar moral or political positions.
But how does one translate this ancient Greek act of witnessing into our world? In a seven minute collaborative audio presentation of text by two survivors of the Nazi concentration camps and one historian, I attempt to illustrate how. The paper concludes with a story and analysis of the compositional process of this auditory act of witnessing and its reception at a conference on genocide and ethnocide at Kwantlen University College on March 31 st, 2007.


Fred Ribkoff has a Ph.D. in English from Simon Fraser University and teaches at Kwantlen University College. His research focuses on representations of trauma and recovery in literature and the media. He has published articles on the works of Daphne Marlatt and Arthur Miller. Recently, he presented an audio presentation based on text written by Charlotte Delbo and Primo Levi at a conference on “Genocide, Ethnocide, and Human Rights,” and he will be presenting papers on literary and journalistic representations of trauma at the upcoming ACCUTE and ACLALS conferences. He is also writing a book on the plays of Tennessee Williams and editing a book on the Stanford Prison Experiment.