The Kinds of Selves We Are

Jill Stauffer's Ethical Loneliness reveals the injustice of not being heard

Ethical loneliness is the experience of being abandoned by humanity, compounded by the cruelty of wrongs not being acknowledged. It is the result of multiple lapses on the part of human beings and political institutions that, in failing to listen well to survivors, deny them redress by negating their testimony and thwarting their claims for justice.

In Ethical Loneliness: the injustice of not being heard, Jill Stauffer examines the root causes of ethical loneliness and how those in power revise history to serve their own ends rather than the needs of the abandoned. Out of this discussion, difficult truths about the desire and potential for political forgiveness, transitional justice, and political reconciliation emerge. Moving beyond a singular focus on truth commissions and legal trials, she considers more closely what is lost in the wake of oppression and violence, how selves and worlds are built and demolished, and who is responsible for re-creating lives after they are destroyed. Read a passage from Chapter 1, “Ethical Loneliness”, below.

Ethical Loneliness

Ethical loneliness is the experience of being abandoned by humanity compounded by the experience of not being heard. This chapter advances a phenomenology of sorts, describing how we are formed as selves and how this bears on ethical loneliness. Two thinkers who had deep experience of abandonment — Jean Améry and Emmanuel Levinas — are integral both to the philosophical structure of the argument and to its affective contour.


We tell ourselves stories all the time about the kinds of selves we are. We’re good at singing, bad at cooking. We are well loved by others, or maybe we are not. We are independent — no one’s going to tell us what to do. Or we can’t imagine who we would be separate from a loved one. We love cats, or dogs, or we think animals aren’t meant to be domesticated. We are the type to nurture others, or maybe we tend to show them tough love. We need the help of others, or we don’t. We identify with a gender, race, social class. We succeed. We fail. We belong, or we don’t. We tell ourselves these stories. They may or may not be true. We may believe them whether or not they are true and whether or not they are good for us. In part these stories form who we are, again whether or not they are true or good for us.

Where do the stories come from? They come from our experience of the world, of course, and from our sense of who we are. But they also come from what other people say to us, from the values and truths produced by whatever cultures surround us, and from unspoken affective interactions between persons living alongside one another. For many of us, a deeply embedded story of who we are names us sovereign. We are autonomous selves, capable of consenting — or refusing to consent — to the conditions in which we live. Of course, many of us who tell ourselves that story also know that it leaves out part of the plot, since we didn’t get to give birth to ourselves in a world we designed. Instead, we landed, defenseless and in need of care, in a world already under way and as such full of rules, values, practices, and truths that we did not choose. If we are sovereign, it is in a dependent kind of way. Of course we know that. In this chapter and those that follow I want to highlight moments when we may forget to know that. “We”: a broad and large but not universal kind of first person plural made up of people who care about justice but whose lives have been lived mostly in a world safely taken for granted as benign — if not for everyone, at least for “us.” I ask how well “we” know the limits to our autonomy not in order to rehearse another argument about free will or determinism but to draw attention to justice. Assumptions about the self’s sovereignty are deeply embedded in prevalent ideas about justice. This is easily recognizable in the idea that we are responsible only for things we’ve done and intended, that we are blameworthy when we act with free will against standards we’ve accepted as our own, and that we lack culpability if we did not act freely or had no way of knowing what the rules require. There is nothing wrong with that idea on the face of it. But behind it lurk some problems, and I don’t mean only the deservedly pervasively discussed ones about how social, political, and economic conditions undermine free will. There is something about the idea of autonomy that limits the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. And so we don’t see very well who we are in certain circumstances. And so we may find ourselves developing strange ideas about how to proceed. That might be fine if all it meant is that we are deluded about our own selves. But I said I want to draw our attention to justice. I suspect that when we limit the stories we tell ourselves about what autonomy means for the kinds of beings we are, we miss something that matters more than a personal delusion might. If we misunderstand what autonomy is and what conditions its successful exercise requires, we may fail to comprehend how the selves and worlds of some human beings can be destroyed by other human beings. That might mean that we will have no idea how to listen to those who survive such harrowing loss. And, because we don’t hear, we fail to learn something about the limits to our own autonomy and, more important, simply don’t understand what conditions make successful recovery or reconciliation more or less likely after world-destroying events. Finally, we won’t see how very unjust it is to believe, in some circumstances, that we are responsible only for what we’ve done and intended.


At the beginning of his essay “At the Mind’s Limits,” Jean Améry admits that “the little word ‘I’ will have to appear here more often than I like, namely wherever I cannot take for granted that others have shared my personal experience.” How many of us have shared his experience? Raised in Austria, half Jewish and half Catholic by birth, a secular intellectual with a love of philosophy, he fled Austria in 1938 for France and then Belgium, where he spent time in the Belgian Resistance. Then came arrest, torture, and years in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen. Having changed his birth name, Hans Maier, to the Gallicized anagram Améry, after liberation he remained in exile, a writer composing in German but, for many years, refusing all German and Austrian outlets. Not many share his experience, not only because it is his own but also because it is made up of many layers of imposed isolation. It is that isolation — his ethical loneliness — that we need to understand in order to see what it was he sought to overcome in the postwar years, and what that search can tell us about the limits and possibilities of reconciliation.

At this historical moment some might not remember that there was a time after World War II when the Holocaust was not yet named or widely acknowledged for what it was. Jean Améry committed suicide in 1978, at about the time Germany began to deal with its Nazi past in ways that stretched beyond the legalism of the Nuremberg and Auschwitz trials and into public consciousness by means of monuments, memorial sites, and civic education. Ruth Kluger, another survivor of the camps, describes in her memoir various of her experiences trying to communicate about her past in the United States in the years after World War II. Attending Hunter College in the 1940s, she found that in the consciousness of the Americans she encountered, “the Holocaust had no name yet, and hence it wasn’t even an idea, only an event: among the other disasters of the Second World War, a lot of Jews had died.” It was not widely known that there had been a concerted effort to eliminate a group of people from the earth. Anton Gill shows how, between 1945 and the Eichmann trial (1961), even in Israel there was a tremendous silence around the Holocaust, an unwillingness to hear survivors’ stories. That puts Améry’s struggle in a wider context: his resistance to forgiveness was in part a way to demand a wider recognition of the specific harms he had suffered, since no preexisting general term would capture adequately the horror of what he survived. As Kluger puts it, “A concept without a name is like a stray dog or feral cat. To domesticate it, you have to call it something.” Améry’s resistance to the passing of time seeks a proper name for what happened to him.

What happened to Améry? I’ve already said that he was arrested, tortured, and interned in concentration camps. Readers understand what those things are. But those who have never been beaten, tortured, or otherwise dehumanized may lack the kind of understanding that brings to the fore the harm of these crimes. Améry himself admits that he thought he knew what was in store for him after his arrest. He had heard about beatings and torture and had prepared himself for the possibility that such things might befall him: “I regarded myself . . . as an old, hardened expert on the system, its men and its methods. . . . I thought there could be nothing new for me in this area. What would take place would then have to be incorporated into the relevant literature, as it were. Prison, interrogation, blows, torture; in the end, most probably death.” That police officers in both fascist and non-fascist states sometimes strike those they arrest is common knowledge, and often the public doesn’t even protest, whether because they believe that those who get arrested are “bad guys” or they think physical abuse may be necessary to police interrogation, or they are certain such things could never happen to them. In all those cases, the idea of police brutality is just that — an abstraction. Améry thought his theoretical knowledge of what was in store for him had prepared him. But all that evaporated in the face of what he calls “the first blow”:

Simple blows, which really are entirely incommensurable with actual torture, may almost never create a far-reaching echo among the public, but for the person who suffers them they are still experiences that leave deep marks. . . . The first blow brings home to the prisoner that he is helpless, and thus it already contains in the bud everything that is to come. (2)

Améry learned firsthand that no amount of knowledge can prepare a person for what physical abuse does. As he puts it, it turns a human being into a body. It does that in part by demonstrating to a person that he is powerless. That is why, though a gulf separates a punch in the face from torture, the first blow already begins to teach torture’s lesson about power. For Améry, the reality of the first blow, rather than emerging as an interruption of the concrete everyday, reveals everyday life to be mostly a “codified abstraction,” something that keeps us from standing “face to face with the event and, with it, reality” (26). The blow is real; daily life is abstract. He writes, “What one tends to call ‘normal life’ may coincide with anticipatory imagination and trivial statement” (26); the outcomes of our everyday actions tend to correspond with our expectations because of how mundane details get codified by our unreflective adherence to norms. As Jamie O’Connell points out, most people possess a basic sense of security in the world: they go through daily life fairly confident that they will not be subjected to emotional or physical attack without warning, except perhaps in places they know to be particularly dangerous. Brutal abuse by another human being can shatter this, leaving the survivor constantly terrified of being subjected to the same torment again.

For those who have never been left truly helpless, most of life passes without much demand that they confront the risks and responsibilities they incur simply by existing. For that reason, Améry takes issue with Arendt’s thesis on the “banality” of evil: “When an event places the most extreme demands on us, one ought not speak of banality. For at this point there is no longer any abstraction and never an imaginative power that could even approach its reality.” (9) Here Améry (like many others) misunderstands Arendt’s meaning in using the term; he would likely agree that part of what was evil about how Nazis and many ordinary Germans treated Jewish persons was its banality — the everyday ease with which they dehumanized people without applying moral categories. But Améry’s point is that the inescapable reality of violence cannot be called banal by those who suffer it. He argues that, while it may have been initially shocking to him that Gestapo officers possessed, in addition to pistols and leather coats, ordinary faces, his treatment by those officers destroyed in him “all abstractive imagination,” converting them back into faces of evil because of “how evil overlays and exceeds banality” (25).

He was beaten by the police officers who arrested him. He didn’t give up any information, at least in part because he had no information to give up: his unit of the Resistance was organized in such a way that operatives did not know the names or locations of other operatives. And so he was transferred to Fort Breendonk, where he was tortured. Here is his initial description of what happened:

In the bunker there hung from the vaulted ceiling a chain that above ran into a roll. At its bottom end it bore a heavy, broadly curved iron hook. I was led to the instrument. The hook gripped into the shackle that held my hands together behind my back. Then I was raised with the chain until I hung about a meter over the floor. In such a position, or rather, when hanging this way, with your hands behind your back, for a short time you can hold at half-oblique through muscular force. During these few minutes, when you are already expending your utmost strength, when sweat has already appeared on your forehead and lips, and you are breathing in gasps, you will not answer any questions. Accomplices? Addresses? Meeting places? You hardly hear it. All your life is gathered in a single, limited area of the body, the shoulder joints, and it does not react; for it exhausts itself completely in the expenditure of energy. But this cannot last long, even with people who have a strong physical condition. As for me, I had to give up rather quickly. And now there was a crackling and splintering in my shoulders that my body has not forgotten until this hour. The balls sprang from their sockets. My own body weight caused luxation; I fell into a void and now hung by my dislocated arms, which had been torn high from behind and were now twisted over my head. Torture, from Latin torquere, to twist. What visual instruction in etymology! At the same time, the blows from the horsewhip showered down upon my body, and some of them sliced cleanly through the light summer trousers that I was wearing on this twenty-third of July 1943. (32–33)

He points out that this is not the worst torture that can befall a captive. But he was broken, and not only because his shoulders were dislocated. Harm, when it is imposed by another human being, leaving neither hope of the self’s resistance or another’s assistance, may destroy a self: “You yourself suffer on your body the counterman that your fellow man became. If no help can be expected, this physical overwhelming by the other then becomes an existential consummation of destruction altogether” (28). Dehumanization is a common enough word, used to classify certain forms of bad treatment whereby human beings are deprived of their status as human beings, and it can describe many different kinds of bad treatment, so it may be necessary to describe further this particular denial of humanity, because understanding what dehumanizes also helps us determine what we take a human being to be. What Améry lost was his capacity to expect just treatment or help in the absence of such treatment. He writes that when harm is inflicted “against which there can be no defense and which no helping hand will ward off, a part of our life ends and it can never again be revived” (29). He calls what he underwent “the border violation of myself by the other, which can be neither neutralized by the expectation of help nor rectified through resistance” (33). He also names it a death — a death that was then drawn out over years of abuse and deprivation in concentration camps, where he was beaten, starved, forced to work without adequate clothing in freezing temperatures and to witness the deaths of his comrades. His humanity was denied consistently for years.

Améry tells us multiple times that his sovereignty was violated and that he never recovered: “Frail in the face of violence, yelling out in pain, awaiting no help, capable of no resistance” (33). But it is important to note that in the narrative he constructs, what is irreparable about what befell him is made up of equal parts loss of sovereignty and despair of all help. Human beings are always autonomous and dependent at the same time. If dehumanization destroys in a human being the capacity to expect help or just treatment, then part of what we take humanity to encompass is that the expectation of help or just treatment should be rewarded. That means that even beings who call themselves sovereign should know that they will need the help of others if that sovereignty is to be meaningful — sovereignty always relies on others who acknowledge its worth and thus observe its boundaries. Dehumanization is, in part, the refusal of that response. Sovereignty is dependence.

Excerpted from Jill Staufer’s Ethical Loneliness (Columbia University Press). It is available for purchase online the CUP website here, and on Amazon here.

Jill Stauffer is associate professor of philosophy and director of the concentration in peace, justice, and human rights at Haverford College. She is the coeditor with Bettina Bergo of Nietzsche and Levinas: “After the Death of a Certain God” (Columbia, 2008) and has published widely on issues of responsibility within and beyond legality. 

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