Personal Effects: The Testimonial Uses of Life Writing
vol. 27, no. 1, Winter 2004
Guest Editors: Cynthia G. Franklin & Laura E. Lyons
“The Intricate Machine of Untruth” by Claudia Bernardi. Fresco on paper. 24″ x 24″. © 1996 and reprinted by kind permission of Claudia Bernardi, all rights reserved.
“Bodies of Evidence and the Intricate Machines of Untruth” by Cynthia G. Franklin and Laura E. Lyons
Franklin and Lyons discuss how the essays and interviews in this volume evidence the important ways that the agency that witnesses to human rights abuses possess is both circumscribed by state institutions and ideologies, and asserted in the face of state violence, past and present. They also analyze two contexts not addressed within the special issue. In examining Argentinian Claudia Bernardi’s artwork, pictured on the cover, they consider the connections between anthropological excavation of massacre sites and the forensic uses of human rights testimony in the public sphere. Concluding with a reading of Nancy Stohlman and Laurieann Aladin’s Live from Palestine, Franklin and Lyons explore how this collection provides testimony to the horrors of the Occupation that speaks to both individual responses and collective resistance, demonstrating important possibilities for the testimonial uses of life writing.
“Conjunctions: Life Narratives in the Field of Human Rights” by Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith
In the fifty years during which human rights have gained an international currency, personal narratives have become a potent vehicle for advancing human rights claims. This article considers the importance of storytelling within an emerging and increasingly fractured human rights discourse as the circulation and reception of stories result in unpredictable readings and outcomes that both make visible and also forestall new rights claimants, subjectivities, and futures.
“Memory, Authority, and Identity: Holocaust Studies in Light of the Wilkomirski Debate” by Andrew S. Gross and Michael J. Hoffman
Holocaust scholars often privilege survivor testimony by contrasting it with the more detached way history is traditionally studied. By communicating affect rather than fact through its gaps and inconsistencies, testimony’s emotional intensity guarantees its authority. The scandal surrounding Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments, the false testimony of a troubled man, challenges trauma theory’s tendency to identify with victims by showing that the author’s trauma can be authentic even when his testimony is not. It is clear that Wilkomirski validated his personal suffering by attributing it to a broad human catastrophe. That such mistaken memory, or memory envy, could be so widely acclaimed challenges the ways we study and use the Holocaust within both American and American-Jewish culture.
Stolen Generations testimonies offer insights into the history, effects, and legacies of colonization in Australia—a history that is currently being contested in the public domain. In this essay, I analyze the ways in which these testimonies address audiences, and the ways in which listeners respond, taking my classroom as a particular site of reception. Based on an analysis of some of my students’ responses, I suggest that Stolen Generations testimonies sometimes provoke non-Indigenous teachers and students to become aware of our own subject-positions as the inheritors of a post/colonial legacy, a consciousness that can potentially contribute to the reconciliation process in Australia.
“Racism, Moral Community, and Australian Aboriginal Autobiographical Testimony” by Tikka Jan Wilson
From almost the first moment of colonization in 1788, British authorities sought to “civilize” Aboriginal Australians by separating Aboriginal children from their families. Racist discourse located Aboriginal people as not quite human Others who were outside moral community with white colonists. As excluded Others, Aboriginals were subject to treatment that would be deemed “criminal” if inflicted on persons located within the moral community. Autobiographical testimony by Aboriginal people separated from their families has been a significant political tool for undermining racialized moral exclusion. This article explores how Margaret Tucker’s If Anyone Cared (1977) uses autobiography to challenge assumptions of white moral superiority, and to call white readers into moral community with Aboriginal speakers.
“Documenting Violations: Rhetorical Witnessing and the Spectacle of Distant Suffering” by Wendy S. Hesford
If one of the prominent rhetorical features in human rights documentaries is to create a rhetorical space of intersubjectivity—of bearing witness—how to account for ruptures in identification? Hesford explores the documentation of rape warfare and ethnic violence as human rights violations and the ethical challenges such representations pose for us as witnesses, and as scholars, teachers, and members of the international community.
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission generated the extraordinary hope that individual testimonies would bring about national catharsis. This article asks whether narrative structure, shaped by the language and rituals of the church, psychotherapy, and nation-building, encourages an orientation towards the future that sanctions forgetting as well as remembering.
“Memory Theatres, Virtual Witnessing, and the Trauma-Aesthetic” by Allen Feldman
To enclave the human rights violation story at a primordial scene of violence is already to preselect the restorative powers of legal, medical, media, and textual rationalities as post-violent. Where violence is and is not positioned in the narrative of witness and the witnessing of narrative is the concern of this essay. I pose this question: Does the cultural intelligibility of the biographical and witnessing artifact depend on the violence of the signifier—by which I mean repressive authentication by various expert knowledge practices, truth-claiming procedures, and mass media circuits? And if so, how do we witness this particular violence?
“ʻOn the Cusp of the Personal and the Impersonalʻ: An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak” by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Laura E. Lyons, and Cynthia G. Franklin
In her recent research, Spivak has been a vocal critic of those who attempt to redress human rights abuses through “quick fix” models or glib forms of liberalism that do not adequately address the material conditions and structures on the ground. By contrast, Spivak works in rural areas of India as a self-subsidized volunteer through small local non-governmental organizations to train teachers for teaching democratic habits of mind through elementary education. Her work in these schools exemplifies the difficult process of “learning to learn from below” that is so necessary to effecting the kind of cultural transformation that has a chance of creating a more just world. She addresses these and a wide range of other issues relevant to life writing in the interview below.
“Land, Leadership, and Nation: Haunani-Kay Trask on the Testimonial Uses of Life Writing in Hawai’i” by Cynthia G. Franklin and Laura E. Lyons
As Trask reflects on the Hawaiian struggle for sovereignty, she also provides insights into popular forms of testimony that often go unrecognized as such, and she does so in a way that brings together theory and practice.