In the opening scene of Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah (1985), we follow Simon Srebnik, a former Polish prisoner who, along with one other, survived the camp, in his return to Chelmno. As he approaches the site, Srebnik pauses, surveys the space, and nods: “It’s hard to recognize,” he remarks sombrely, “but it was here. They burned people here” (Lanzmann, 1985). During this opening scene, the camera, so far fixed on Srebnik’s devastated expression, cuts to a panning shot of a flat, desiccated clearing, punctuated by the rectangular spaces of what were the camp’s structural foundations. “No one can describe it.” Srebnik says, now walking around the site. “No one can recreate what happened here. Impossible! And no one can understand it. Even, I, here, now…I can’t believe I’m here”
Why has phenomenology so far, failed to attend to this relation between materiality, time, and hauntings? Perhaps one response is that phenomenology’s relationship with place has relied on the notion of place as reinforcing both identity and the symmetry between materiality and time. Places of trauma disrupt, indeed contradict, the Aristotelian claim of place being a border and a container. Far from holding the event in place, the material remains where trauma occurred disperse that event in multiple directions. Quite obviously, such a non-linear account of place stands in direct contrast to the view of place as binding and unified.
If phenomenology has failed to approach the question of trauma from a spatial perspective, then critical theory and deconstructionism, while seizing the concepts of the uncanny and the hauntological, have been equally neglectful of the spatial dimension of these altered modes of temporality. Instead, time and again, the “uncanny” has been deployed as a cultural category, already formed in advance and with minimal focus on the formation of the uncanny as it forms an immanent presence in and through place.
A preliminary question that brings phenomenology directly into view of trauma and hauntology: to what extent is Chelmno still a place? The frequent usage of the term “site” in relation to the memory of trauma testifies to the tension between conflating place with trauma. The connotation of being levelled-out, divested of its specificity, and reduced to a non-place serves to distance the remoteness and fragmentation of trauma with the felt experience of place. Further, unlike place, “site” suggests a location being between other places, a liminal space at once incomplete and in a stage of transition.
Consider Srebnik returning to Chelmno. The encounter attests to the affective gathering of time, but simultaneously exposes the symmetry between the subject who has undergone ruin and the spatial ruins which remain. In the scene from Lanzmann’s film, the disruption of time, together with the erosion and alteration of materiality, only affirms the reality of what took place. The return Srebnik makes, then, is not to bear witness to the end of place, but to recognize the dynamic persistence of an event which continues in spite of the absence of its original containment: in effect, testifying to the intimacy between place and hauntings.