Undoing sovereignty - History and culture

The future of trauma theory - Edited by Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant and Robert Eaglestone 2008

Undoing sovereignty
History and culture

Towards a theory of critical mourning

Sam Durrant

But we have more to say of the living vesicle with its receptive cortical layer. This little fragment of living substance is suspended in the middle of an external world charged with the most powerful energies; and it would be killed by the stimulation emanating from these if it were not provided with a protective shield against stimuli: its outermost surface ceases to have the structure proper to living matter, becomes to some degree inorganic and thenceforward functions as a special envelope or membrane resistant to stimuli. … By its death, the outer layer has saved all the deeper ones from a similar fate—unless that is to say, stimuli reach it which are so strong that they break through the dead shield. Protection against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living organism than reception of stimuli.

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle 299

Let’s face it. We’re undone by one another. Or if we’re not, we’re missing something.

Judith Butler, Precarious Life 23

Freud’s paradoxical recourse to biological organisms such as the vesicle1 in order to explain—or, more precisely, to image—the non-organic phenomenon of psychic trauma has often been noted. But in the passage quoted above, something particularly odd is taking place: the organic turns out to itself contain both an organic (living) interior and an inorganic (dead) exterior, an outer layer that has sacrificed itself for the greater good of the organism. The primary problem that concerns Freud at this juncture in Beyond the Pleasure Principle is not how human beings become traumatized through overexposure to certain powerful stimuli, but how it is that human beings are able to ward off the majority of such stimuli. Freud’s analogy solves this conundrum by positing a primary vulnerability of the organism, a vulnerability that triggers an evolutionary process by which part of the organism becomes so deadened or ’baked through’ (Freud 297) by stimuli that it becomes impervious, incapable of feeling. While his essay will famously conclude that ’the aim of all life is death’ (311), here the reverse seems to be true: only by becoming partially dead or ’to some degree inorganic’ does the organism ensure its survival.

Judith Butler returns us to a sense of our primary vulnerability in the wake of that breach in homeland security that we (all) refer to by the figures 9/11 (as if American time has now definitively become everyone’s time). But Butler’s agenda is very different from Freud’s: far from marvelling at the subject’s ability to protect itself against stimuli by surrounding itself with a layer of inanimate matter, Butler urges us to remain fully animate, open to stimuli, undone. Against the normative, psychoanalytic account of mourning as a reconstitution of the subject’s borders, a withdrawing of the ties that bind or bound us to others, Butler argues that traumatic losses are occasions for a kind of ethical growth, whereby we come to understand that ’we’ were never simply ourselves but were always part of others, that our ’common corporeal vulnerability’ (Butler 2004: 42) is the very condition of our relationality, our very ability to love more than ourselves.

Precarious Life, with its explicit debt to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, can be read as a late product of the so-called ethical turn in the humanities, and as a more politically urgent variant of the trauma theory established in the early nineties by the work of Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman et al. As the title of Butler’s celebrated early work, Bodies that Matter, implies, a broadly deconstructive ethics leads us towards a materialism whose end or purpose is the end of the individuated human subject and the beginning of an attunement to the broader field of ’matter’; that is, a commitment to all material life forms in so far as each presents ’us’ with a potentially equal and infinite claim to matter, to be of ethical weight or consequence. Although drawing on the insights of deconstruction, Butler’s work has always been of a more immediately political—activist, feminist—nature than that of the Yale School critics. As such, Butler’s work constitutes something of a limit case for a field that, shuttling between literature, deconstruction and psychoanalysis, has tended to produce ethical as opposed to political insights (assuming for the moment that the ethical and the political can indeed be opposed).

Trauma studies gains a more obviously political purchase in the shift from individual to collective trauma—a move that Butler herself makes even while she draws attention to the problem involved in theorizing the USA as a national subject: ’nations are not the same as individual psyches but both can be described as subjects, albeit of different orders’ (2004 41). Rather than imagining a traumatized collective psyche, trauma studies is on surer ground when it theorizes the state’s role in the process of subjectification, as Butler does in The Psychic Life of Power. The distinction between historical (event-based) and structural trauma would seem to have been eclipsed by the recent turn to the biopolitical.2 Where once talk of structural trauma seemed to constitute a depoliticization of discrete or even ’unique’ events such as the Holocaust, the work of theorists as diverse as Slavoj Žižek, Giorgio Agamben, Achille Mbembe, Jenny Edkins and Butler herself has emphasized the importance of understanding trauma as an inevitable part of our ideological construction as subjects, our subjection to the state and the myriad forces of modernity. While this biopolitical turn has, of course, taken its cue from the work of Michel Foucault, it also draws much from the Lacanian understanding of trauma as both constitutive of the subject’s entrance into the social (’symbolic’) order and as something that is re-experienced whenever the fabric of that social order is ripped. As Žižek in particular has revealed, Lacanian psychoanalysis was always already a political critique: the Lacanian Symbolic is another version of Freud’s protective shield, but one which reveals the role of ideology not only in subject-formation but also in insulating the subject from the various forms of violence that simultaneously underwrite and threaten its existence.

Trauma studies’ biopolitical turn is anticipated by the multiple invocations of the work of Walter Benjamin and his sense of the traumatic experience of modernity. His famous description of the ’tiny fragile human body’ caught in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions’ (84) recalls Freud’s account of the vulnerability of the vesicle ’suspended in the middle of an external world charged with the most powerful energies’, an echo that reminds us that both works are concerned with the traumatic after-effects of the First World War. While critics such as Roger Luckhurst have historicized the rise of trauma as a medico—legal category that has its origins in the technological innovations of modernity (such as the train), Benjamin’s sense of trauma is not so readily historicisable. His reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus has become the figure for the traumatized witness, a witness not to one historically locatable event but to history itself, as one long catastrophe.

And it is not coincidental that postcolonial studies turns to Benjamin almost as frequently as it does to Frantz Fanon in its attempt to convey the traumatic nature of colonial and postcolonial experience. Homi Bhabha, for instance, cites Benjamin’s description of the traumatic onset of modernity in order to prepare us for the doubly traumatic entrance of the postcolonial subject into a modernity that was never its own, the ’profound perplexity of the living’ (Benjamin quoted in Bhabha 161) complicated by the fact that ’his migration is like an event in a dream dreamt by another’ (Berger quoted in Bhabha 165). Interestingly, Bhabha’s essay comes close to Butler’s later work in attempting to make an inter or anti-nationalist virtue out of trauma, casting Gibreel, the schizophrenic migrant from Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, as the traumatic return of the history that happened overseas, as that which will rupture the ideological shield protecting the English national subject from knowledge of its irrevocable hybridity (168). Bhabha’s essay, published in 1990, emanates from a different historical moment and a very different sensibility to Butler’s post 9/11 work. Indeed, Bhabha’s almost wilful misreading of The Satanic Verses, a novel which ends not with the hybridization of the English but with the suicide of Gibreel and the return home to India of his fellow migrant and reluctant travelling companion, prevents us from seeing the historical lines that might be drawn from The Satanic Verses and its hostile reception in parts of what suddenly became known as ’the Muslim world’ through to the ’blowback’ events of 9/11, the subsequent shoring up of national defences and the ’war on terror’, more accurately phrased as a war on foreign bodies and migrant stimuli, a neo-colonial resumption (and denial) of the history that happened overseas.

Taking Butler’s response to 9/11 as my guide to our bleak historical times, my argument will be that the end of trauma theory (its purpose, future, utopian horizon) is something like a shared consciousness of our common corporeal vulnerability. Rather than constructing yet another model of deconstructive ethics, my aim is to theorize a properly critical mourning, a mourning that works to undo not simply ’the idea of the sovereign subject’ but sovereignty itself, property relations, and the human assumption of sovereignty over nature. Firstly, I explore David Lloyd’s materialist critique of the way in which the memorialization of the Irish Famine is complicit with the drive of a ’therapeutic modernity’ that teaches postcolonial subjects how to ’lose our loss’ and thereby ’enter more lightly into the new world order’ (222). Secondly, I return to Horkeimer and Adorno’s famous reading of The Odyssey as the legitimation of modernity and of the not quite successful attempt to simultaneously record and suppress the memory of the traumatic violence involved in the process of (re) establishing settlement. Their reading of the epic suggests that literary form is another version of Freud’s protective shield, that the ideology of form insulates the subject from consciousness of its own constitutive violence. And thirdly, I explore a cycle of poems on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the South African poet Ingrid de Kok, a cycle which works to recover a sense of our common corporeality precisely by being critical of its own mourning work, by undoing both its own lyric form and its ideological status as literature of, or ’for’, reconciliation. Precisely because form is historically determined, or what Adorno describes as ’sedimented content’, its auto-critique becomes a critical questioning of the terms of post-apartheid settlement. Throughout this essay, my interest will be in the relationship between mourning and property; the integrity of a term such as critical mourning forever depends upon its capacity to unsettle the claims of sovereignty, in its colonial and postcolonial guises alike.

The critique of postcolonial mourning3

David Lloyd begins his provocative essay, ’Colonial Trauma/Postcolonial Recovery?’ by showing how colonized cultures manifest the clinical symptoms of individual trauma. However, the ease with which we are able to map the ’psychological effects of trauma onto the cultures that undergo colonization’ (214), should give us pause for thought. The seemingly widespread assumption that a postcolonial culture of mourning offers a way of recovering from colonial trauma ignores the question of what sort of postcolonial subject is thereby ’recovered’:

The commemoration of the Famine becomes unhappily one with a set of current cultural and political tendencies in Ireland that are thrusting the country uncritically into European and transnational modernity … If we allow commemoration of the dead to become a means to enter more lightly into the new world order, are we not in fact reproducing the attitudes of the colonialism that destroyed them, as well as reproducing those attitudes in the present with regards to other postcolonial peoples that are undergoing the catastrophes of development? If the function of therapeutic modernity is to have us lose our loss in order to become good subjects, then the very process of mourning the dead is at once their condemnation, their devaluation.


The essay is distinct from many of the countless studies that reveal the counter-intuitively amnesiac effect of contemporary practices of memorialization in the way in which it urges us to think in particular about the relation between mourning and property. It is not simply that mourning prescribes a form of letting go, or reconciliation to loss, that is at odds with a postcolonial desire to reclaim or recover that which was lost/stolen. Instead, Lloyd seeks to recover the traces of a moral economy that would contest property relations per se. The essay ends by quoting a passage that is not about the Famine itself but its after-effects, namely a scene of eviction as recollected by a descendant. Having evicted the tenant farmers and their furniture, the British soldiers demand the key to the house:

But god help us, there was no lock to the door. A hasp on the outside, and a bar of iron from wall to wall was used to make it fast on the inside, but it was never used, the door was always unbarred, and a sod always burned on the hearth, for the poor carriers to come in to light their pipes when passing, either day or night.

The old man brought out the bar, and he said afterwards, what he’d like to have done with it was to give the soldier a blow of it. But he didn’t he threw it towards him on the road.

’Yo damn swine’ muttered the soldier, as he rode off with his men to the next house.


Earlier in his essay, Lloyd asks whether ’rage might not be a more proper response to those deaths and other sufferings for which our mourning is redundant now, rage even at the frustration that our mourning changes nothing?’ (221), a question that is equally pertinent to post-apartheid South Africa, and the rage that its own culture of mourning suppressed. But here I simply want to note how Lloyd turns the old man’s gesture into the symbol not simply of rage but also of ’incommensurable economies’:

what is thrown before the officer is the antithesis of the key that he demands: an item without use since there is no property to be protected and no barring of the door in the moral economy of the poor … Lying athwart the path of the soldier, the iron bar … marks, in a minimal gesture perhaps, the persistence of an ethos that escapes the logic of property and economic reason.


Like the early work of Gayatri Spivak,4 Lloyd’s essay is performative rather than simply descriptive of its ’postcolonial commitment’ in so far as it provides us with an image of resistance that it seeks to suspend in time precisely in order to rescue it from its obliteration by the triumph of modernity, an image with which, pace Walter Benjamin, we might seek to redeem, or indeed unlock, the future. Lloyd’s essay ends with an invocation:

As for us, rather than lament the futility of that gesture or rush to trace in it the contours of a resistance that will emerge in more articulate forms, we should perhaps suspend for a moment the image of this iron bar cast on the road as the die turns in the air before it falls to the ground. In the very cusp of catastrophe, this turning bespeaks the memory of alternative possibilities that live on athwart the mournful logic of historicized events.


What is both exhilarating and slightly troubling about this final flourish is the way in which the essay reads the archive5 in such a way as to turn itself into the gesture which it has recovered. Lloyd cannot help but be complicit in the culture of memorialization that he seeks to critique. In asking his readers to ’suspend for a moment’ the image of this falling bar, he almost seems to be asking us to suspend the rage of the evicted tenant as much as the time of capitalist modernity that will render such rage futile. Ultimately he leaves us with an appropriately unresolved image of a rage, owned and disowned, appropriated and sublimated, barely transmuted into the ’possibility of alternative possibilities of living on’, an image that lives on precisely through its resistance to resolution, its refusal to reconcile incommensurable historical trajectories.6

Although he isn’t quite explicit enough about what he is up to, Lloyd in effect reverses the formula that he sets out to question in his title; instead of postcolonial mourning as the cure for colonial trauma, the ’living on’ of colonial trauma disrupts the therapeutic culture of postcolonial modernity. Like Butler, Lloyd is interested in how we might respond to trauma and loss in a way that doesn’t simply serve to shore up the boundaries of the subject and the state:

The discourse of the subject that I have been outlining here proposes that the overcoming of loss is achieved by the direction of the subject towards identification with the state (or with the aesthetic disposition that prefigures it) as the representation of a lost wholeness or harmony.


In other words, postcolonial mourning problematically colludes in the production of an illusory moment of reconciliation:

The claim to a correspondence between the form of a subject and the forms of the social must be seen, then, not as the grounds for therapeutic resolution of the traumatic contradictions of colonial subjectivity, but as a constitutive element of the common sense of domination.


The question thus becomes how to imagine a recalcitrant, anti-therapeutic form of mourning that, rather than accommodating the subject to postcolonial modernity, would instead invoke a ’common sense of domination’.

The psychopathology of nostos

As we have seen, Lloyd’s essay finds in the historical archive an image of the critical, unreconciled mourning he is after, but he doesn’t meditate on the performative move he makes from theoretical analysis to lyrical evocation. I want to turn now to the work of Adorno7 not in order to reinvoke his (in) famous remark about the dangers of such lyricism, but precisely in order to garner a fuller sense of how the aesthetic sphere might work to produce ’the common sense of domination’. The first point to make here is that the work of art must work against itself if it is to avoid the naturalizing function of the postcolonial memorializing practices that Lloyd sets out to critique. In Adorno’s aesthetics we might say that the form of the artwork mimes the formation of the subject in so far as form is understood as ’sedimented content’. That is, the form of the artwork has a social history and is thus determined or ’preformed’ by its specific historical moment. In this sense we might conceive of artistic form as another version of Freud’s dead(ening) protective shield. But what makes Adorno’s aesthetics interesting is that, beyond the oft-quoted critique of the numbing effect of the culture industry, Adorno also sees the aesthetic sphere as the one sphere capable of administering the kind of shock that would liberate us from our ideological insulation and awaken us to the fact of our domination (both of ourselves and of others).

Adorno is often critiqued, like the Yale School trauma theorists, for privileging modernist artworks, those ’anti-realist’ artworks which insist on drawing attention to their own formal nature. But his analysis of The Odyssey makes it clear that all forms of art need to be read dialectically: on the one hand as forms of subjective expression that cannot but naturalize the subject’s conceptual domination of the world, and on the other as works that flinch at the very process of domination in which they are implicated. David Quint’s Epic and Empire has made it clear that epic is about the production of master narratives, that the form of epic is programmed to produce a feeling of awe before the spectacle of heroic might, an awe that prevents us from feeling any real sympathy for the losers, for those on the wrong side of history. Adorno’s reading of The Odyssey concurs with this New Historicist analysis of epic in so far as both readings begin from the assumption that epic form constitutes an ideology that naturalizes domination. But, unlike Quint’s book, Adorno’s essay works to make epic conscious of its own violence by suspending the force of its telos, by suggesting, like Lloyd, the possibility of alternate historical trajectories. Odysseus’s drive to return home to Ithaca is shown to be the self-alienating drive of the modern, patriarchal subject to escape his home in nature (in the mythical, precivilized forms of life that Circe and the lotus eaters offer him) and instead (re)install himself as lord and master of the private property that he mistakes for a homeland.

Adorno’s critique of the concept of homeland is rather more far-reaching than Lloyd’s suspended nostalgia for the pre-capitalist economy of the Irish poor:

Precipitated in epic is the memory of an historical age in which nomadism gave way to settlement, the precondition of any homeland. If the fixed order of property implicit in settlement is the source of human alienation, in which all homesickness and longing spring from a lost primal state, at the same time it is towards settlement and fixed property, on which alone the concept of homeland is based, that all longing and homesickness are directed.


Part of the reason why postcolonial mourning is not the answer to colonial trauma is that it retrospectively constructs the pre-colonial homeland as an ideal, non-alienated state. Critical mourning must recognize that nostalgia or homesickness is itself an alienated pathology, in so far as it fails to recognize that the origins of its malaise lie not in colonialism per se but in fixed property relations. The trauma that it seeks to address is not simply the historical trauma of colonialism, but the structural trauma that is the precondition of all settlement.

But Adorno’s allegorical reading of The Odyssey as the birth (and annihilation) of the modern subject does more than simply recalibrate our historical conception of modernity. It is also a meditation on the dialectical process by which the artwork both conceals and reveals the traumatic violence it narrates. The long, last paragraph of the essay considers the excessive violence of Odysseus’s homecoming, the putting to death not only of Penelope’s suitors but also of the ’faithless maidservants who have sunk into harlotry’:

It is not in the content of the deeds reported that civilization transcends [the primeval world]. It is in the self-reflection which causes violence to pause at the moment of narrating such deeds. Speech itself, language as opposed to mythical song, the possibility of holding fast the past atrocity through memory, is the law of Homeric escape.


This moment of self-reflection is the moment at which the epic becomes conscious of itself as ideology, and catches itself in the act of providing a protective shield that would neutralize the traumatic impact of the past atrocity that it nevertheless records. In his first move, Adorno suggests speech/language is opposed to the self-forgetful nature of mythic song (that song, for instance, sung by the sirens, wherein the subject loses its instinct for self-preservation) in its capacity to hold fast the memory of atrocity. However, this very capacity to remember constitutes ’the law of Homeric escape’, Odysseus’s capacity to escape from the clutches of myth into modernity and thereby into another form of self-forgetfulness. As in Lloyd’s essay, memorialization turns out to be an alibi, a therapeutic mode of remembering in order to forget. But Adorno’s dialectal critique also contains a redemptive moment: language contains within it the structural possibility (memory, even) of its own cessation, and it is in this cessation or pause that a different kind of memory arises.

The cold detachment of the narrative, which describes even the horrible as if for entertainment, for the first time reveals in all their clarity the horrors which in song are solemnly confused with fate [i.e. supposed to be inevitable]. But when speech pauses, the caesura allows the events to flash up a semblance of freedom that civilization has been wholly unable to extinguish ever since.


Adorno locates this pause or caesura as a kind of after-echo of language itself. The epic narrative describes the hanging of the maidservants with an ’unmoved composure’, ’expressionlessly’ comparing the victims to birds caught in a trap. However, the simile is followed with the remark ’For a little while their feet kicked out, but not for very long’:

The exactitude of the description, which already exhibits the coldness of anatomy and vivisection, keeps a record, as in a novel, of the twitching of the subjugated women, who, under the aegis of justice and the law, are thrust down into the realm from which Odysseus the judge has escaped … But after the words, ’not for long’ the inner flow of the narrative comes to rest. ’Not for long?’ the narrator asks by this device, giving the lie to his own composure. In being brought to a standstill, the report is prevented from forgetting the victims of the execution and lays bare the unspeakable torment of the single second in which the maids fought against death.


Like Lloyd, Adorno ends his essay with an image of suspension, not simply the literal suspension of the maidservants, but the suspension of the narrative itself as it becomes fleetingly conscious of the human cost of its narrative drive, its misguided telos, the homecoming that is in fact the guarantee of Odysseus’s—and our own—alienation. The ’semblance of freedom’ lies in the way that the narrative itself (dis)sembles, the way in which its own pause mimes the suspension of the hanged women and thereby betrays its secret affinity with their suffering.

As Adorno makes clear in his passing reference to the novel in the passage quoted above, all art forms are capable of recording and thereby forgetting suffering. Each art form has its own logic or telos, its own self-justificatory end. If Adorno champions certain works of art or aesthetic movements over others, he does so because of their tendency to reflect on their own form and, in so doing, momentarily suspend their internal logic. It is this mimetic capacity of art that Adorno champions in modernism: its ability to signal, via the suspension of its own form, an affinity with the suffering that it must thrust down into the realm of the forgotten through its very ability to record. By mimesis, Adorno means not the direct, content-based representation of the world—what in the above passages he refers to as reporting or recording—but rather the moment at which the artwork, through reflecting (on) its own form, suspends its own impulse towards domination. Thus Adorno argues on the one hand that ’the mimesis of works of art is resemblance to themselves’ and on the other that this self-resembling produces an affinity with what lies outside the artwork: ’expression in art is mimetic, just as the expression of living creatures is the expression of pain’ (Adorno quoted in Nicholsen 146). This last gnomic pronouncement makes it clear that the artwork operates by a form of non-conceptual analogy: The Odyssey is capable of registering (or more precisely, ’prevented from forgetting’) the death of the maidservants only by its own ’twitching’. Critical or material mourning would be this empathic twitching or flinching of form, the refusal/inability of the artwork to maintain its own protective shield.

Post-apartheid literature and the critique of reconciliation

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) represents a classic example of the equation that Lloyd positions himself against: the multiple traumas of the apartheid era were memorialized through a series of hearings in which both victims and perpetrators were called upon to testify, to serve as witnesses and confessors to a range of human rights violations.8 Although the commission repeatedly attempted to reassure its audience that forgiving did not mean forgetting, its emphasis on the cathartic power of (re)telling painful stories in public, its power to grant amnesty in return for full disclosure of crimes committed during apartheid, and its tendency to absorb disparate—and disparately motivated—individual narratives into a national narrative of reconciliation had a similar effect to the Irish state’s attempt to memorialize the Famine, namely the production (in theory at least) of ’good’ or ’docile’ citizens. To requote Lloyd: ’the overcoming of loss is achieved by the direction of the subject towards identification with the state’ (218). The hegemonic force of the TRC is reflected in the reception of post-apartheid literature as literature of, or for, reconciliation, as if such literature’s primary role was to replicate and extend, rather than critique, the TRC’s mourning work. Critical Mourning thus names the recalcitrance of this literature, the way in which even those texts that set out to endorse the project of national reconciliation end up exposing its contradictions.

Here I have space to mention only two works. The first I mention briefly as an example of a text that attempts to endorse the project of reconciliation and the second I deal with more fully in order to show how its critical distance from the attempt to produce a unified national subject allows for a mimetic affirmation of corporeal community.

Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother explicitly addresses itself to the American mother of a white woman killed in a black township by the narrator’s son, only to jeopardize its own reconciliatory impulse by jamming the TRC’s narrative of personal responsibility: just as she refuses to claim responsibility either for her son’s birth (figured as an immaculate conception) or his upbringing (disrupted by the long hours she was forced to work as a domestic servant), she pictures her son as ’only an agent, executing the long-simmering dark desires of his race’ (210). Anger at the bleak conditions that determined her son’s actions (in particular the family’s forced removal to the bleak environment of the Cape Flats) outweighs the novel’s ostensible impulse towards reconciliation: despite its best intentions, the novel is in secret accord with Lloyd’s rhetorical question: ’would not rage be a more proper response to those deaths and other sufferings for which our mourning is redundant?’ (221). During the TRC hearings mourning, far from being understood as redundant, was cast as the potential agent of reconciliation, a collective joining in condolence, as Mark Sanders describes it.9 But as Mother to Mother reveals, the ’end’ of grief may not be reconciliation but a rage that learns to redirect itself not, as in the normative psychoanalytic account, against the lost object but against the state itself. A decade and a half after the TRC submitted its report, the Khulumani Support Group, initially set up to provide psychological support for the bereaved, has found its vocation in holding the state to account.10 In the absence of the structural economic reparations that the TRC initially promised, grief can operate to suspend rather than confirm the subject’s submission to ’therapeutic modernity’.

The title of my second example, Ingrid de Kok’s cycle of poems ’A Room Full of Questions’, would seem to draw an analogy between the space of the hearings and the lyric space of witnessing that the poems themselves constitute. However, the title also intimates a critical doubling, a turning of tables, in which it is the Commission, rather than the witness, that is questioned, for the way in which trauma is ’transpose[d] into the dialectic of record’ (Kok ’Parts of Speech’). Instead of reproducing the testimony and thereby turning the grief and/or guilt of others into elegiac (and thus consolatory) lyric, the poems testify to the pain of the testimonial process itself, establishing a mimetic or non-linguistic form of solidarity with the witness called upon to turn trauma into words. Critical mourning here amounts to the suspension of the memorializing function of the TRC, the refusal to become complicit in the therapeutic reproduction of a compliant post-apartheid subject.

Crucially, the poems are only able to open up this mimetic space of solidarity through a form of auto-critique, a critique of their own lyric form. The cycle of poems was first published as part of de Kok’s 2002 collection, Terrestrial Things, a title taken from Hardy’s famous elegy, ’The Darkling Thrush’, in which the poet is perplexed by the thrush’s ’ecstatic sound’ because there seems to him ’So little cause for carolings … written on terrestrial things.’ The ecstatic caroling of Hardy’s thrush sings of ’some blessed hope’ to which the poet himself does not have access. While lyric poetry is traditionally aligned with song, Hardy’s elegy complicates this traditional association: song, hope, is now something outside the poem’s orbit. In interview, de Kok responds to the suggestion that references in her poems to birds and birdsong are about ’challenging readers to redefine conventional understandings of freedom’ with the counter-possibility that ’I am trying to redefine, for myself, aspects of the lyric as “song” or as imagined transcendence’ (Kelly 35). As we shall see, in de Kok’s poetry freedom is glimpsed not through transcendence but precisely through suspending the lyric poem’s ability to transcend terrestrial things.

The last verse of Hardy’s elegy forms the epigraph to de Kok’s collection, and seems to announce the depths of the despair to which the poet has been brought by her witnessing of terrestrial things. This sense of a blasted, almost apocalyptic terrestriality is enhanced by the cover artwork, a photomonatage by Jane Alexander featuring a mournful therianthropic creature in a bleak, recognizably South African landscape of scrubland and koppie (rocky outcrop). Its outsized, wide open eyes and ears render it hyper-receptive, while its sealed and shadowed muzzle indicate an inability to speak of what it has seen and heard.

This mute, naked figure is described in interview by de Kok as a ’strangely tender construction’, an almost oxymoronic phrase that tells us much about the mixture of closeness and distance that marks the poems’ relation to the ’common corporeal vulnerability’, the common terrestriality, of those who come before the TRC. The poems respond mimetically to the spectacle of ’damaged life’ (Adorno’s phrase) by focusing on the physical impact of testimony, both on those who testify and on those who receive the testimony. Noting that, among the professionals engaged in TRC reporting, the highest turnover was apparently among reporters editing sound for radio, she even includes a poem in which the blood of a sound engineer ’drums the vellum of his brain’ until he ’hears/his own tympanic membrane tear’. The imagery used throughout is markedly anti-metaphorical in its refusal of abstraction, its insistence on the bodily, relentlessly terrestrial nature of hearing.

I have space to focus on just two poems in the cycle. If the first poem I turn to bears witness to how the TRC turned souls into things, the second bears witness to an animistic ritual that might reendow things, discarded corporeal matter, with souls.11

’Parts of Speech’, which opens the cycle, does not concern a specific testimony, but is instead a meditation on a difficulty, perhaps even a core inexpressibility, at the heart of traumatic testimony:

Some stories don’t want to be told.

They walk away, carrying their suitcases

Held together with grey string.

Look at their disappearing curved spines.

Hunchbacks. Harmed ones. Hold-alls.

The poem countermands the TRC’s cathartic slogan that ’revealing is healing’, ’terrestrializing’ the very possibility of revelation. Those who bring these untenable stories to the ’Room Full of Questions’ are present only as their own baggage, as suitcases fragilely held together with grey string. The untellability of the stories is indicated by their materiality, first as suitcases and then as figures that lie somewhere between suitcases and human beings. As they walk away, defeated, weighed down by the burdens which they embody, we are invited to note their ’disappearing curved spines’; they exist somewhere between human hunchbacks and ’hold-alls’, humans that have been transmogrified into objects not only by the inhuman, brutalizing force of apartheid but also by their need to ’hold-all’ their pain, as if that pain has become so much a part of them that they cannot afford to share it. Like the cover figure, they have become mute, misshapen bodies lost in their own landscapes of despair.

The second stanza restates this impossibility/refusal of story but complicates it by suggesting that to tell their stories would have been a demeaning show or performance:

Some stories refuse to be danced or mimed,

drop their scuffed canes

and clattering tap-shoes,

erase their traces in nursery rhymes

or ancient games like blindman’s bluff.

The paradox here is that to speak, to verbalize their losses, would itself be a kind of dumb show, a tap-dance, a mime, at best a nursery rhyme or, most worryingly, a game of blindman’s bluff (in which a blindfolded figure is spun around and made to search out comrades without the use of his or her eyes). To suggest that those who testify might in fact find themselves involved in this brutal child’s game is to raise the question of whether the process of testimony might constitute a new kind of torture, a dark spectacle of groping in which the witness has once again become the victim.

The third stanza reinforces this suggestion, turning the public process of extracting testimony itself into an industrial process. Far from its promise of cathartic liberation, the TRC’s version of therapeutic modernity is revealed to be complicit with the thingification of the human:

And at this stained place words

are scraped from resinous tongues,

wrung like washing, hung on the lines

of courtroom and confessional,

transposed into the dialect of record.

The words of the stories that would not be told are nevertheless violently stripped from the body, as if they were membranes attached to the testifiers’ tongues, and then ’wrung out like washing’ and ’hung’ out to dry. The sequence of near and full rhyme (tongues—wrung—hung) suggests an inexorable process, but also a continuing resistance: the words remain scraped rather than spoken, transcribed without ever being verbalized. The process of extracting the testimony seems almost akin to the ancient process of making vellum, paper derived from the split skin of animals.12 Here it is as if the stories have been stripped from the bodies of the testifiers themselves, as if testimony were a process of flaying live bodies in order to produce a written ’record’.

The poem reaches its nadir at this point, with this vision of testimony as physical torture; the images work in an alarmingly anti-metaphorical way, in mimetic sympathy with the objectification of the witness. However, the last two stanzas shift our attention from the complicity of the TRC to the complicity of lyric poetry, its own potential betrayal of the witnesses’ dumb materiality.

Why still believe stories can rise

with wings, on currents, as silver flares,

levitate unweighted by stones,

begin in pain and move towards grace,

aerating history with recovered breath?

Why still imagine whole words, whole worlds:

the flame splutter of consonants,

deep sea anemone vowels,

birth-cable syntax, rhymes that start in the heart,

and verbs, verbs that move mountains?

The question marks effect something like the pause or suspension that Adorno posits at the end of The Odyssey, putting on hold the lyrical tradition that would enact a flight from this moment of despair. But the auto-critical turn also allows for the possibility of a ’negated’ faith in the poem’s own formal nature. Even in the absence of the thrush’s ’ecstatic carolings’ language itself retains the memory of hope, a messianic motive, a faith in itself that, despite the poet’s own crisis of faith, might still move mountains.

’Parts of Speech’ thus announces the cycle of poems as witness to a testimonial impasse. A certain distance is maintained between the poet and those who testify before the Commission, a distance brought about by the (near) impossibility of verbalizing trauma. At the same time, a mimetic solidarity is affirmed in so far as the poem, like the disappearing spines, is also weighed down by the weight of the untold stories, also falls into despair at the inadequacy of language. And a secret line of sympathy is established that runs counter to the sympathy of the Commissioners, those who ask the questions and scrape the resinous tongues of those who testify: a sympathy with those who are unable to believe in the banners of the TRC, those who remain outside the ambit of a catharsis that might ’aerate history’.

Corporeal community here names a solidarity between a testimony that retains its silence and a poem that suspends, or at least puts on hold, its own lyric potentiality. The very corporeality of the testifiers becomes their testimony; grief takes on a material weight that, precisely because it remains unverbalized, resists abstraction and thus instrumentalization. The poem ’approximates’ the TRC by restaging it as a dumb show, an extra-linguistic mime, that allows testimony to be or embody itself without being transposed ’into the dialect of record’. We might say that the poem, like the therianthropic creature of the cover, corporealizes mourning. In conventional Freudian terms, this refusal of verbalization, substitution and abstraction would be pathologized as melancholia, that state of stasis which refuses to be moved, which refuses the very temporality of mourning. But perhaps this pausing, this lack of movement, is precisely how the artwork resists the historical drive that would appropriate mournful testimony as national archive, and thereby achieve that separation which would allow the nation to move on. Like Benjamin’s angel of history, the artwork remembers precisely by refusing the movement of history and the ’homogeneous empty time’ in which Benedict Anderson locates the imagined communities of the modern nation state, organized around that universal abstraction of death, the tomb of the unknown soldier. Anderson argues that such tombs have to remain empty in order for the nation’s powerful discourses of heroism and sacrifice to function. If, as Marc Redfield writes in a recent reconsideration of Anderson’s thesis, ’the corpse may be read as the remainder, the excess that nationalism’s official scene of mourning excludes’ (68), then de Kok’s poem, in its corporealization of testimony, disrupts the national imaginary and instantiates an alternative form of community.

I want to end, though, by considering the cycle’s penultimate poem, so as to heed Butler’s call to remember those non-national lives that the state has rendered ungrievable. ’Some there be’ (32) gestures towards a scene of remembrance that is itself unremembered, an animistic time of remembrance that lies outside the time of the Truth Commission. Appropriately, the poem takes its cue from Apocrypha, from those books that were themselves forgotten, retrospectively excluded from the biblical account of the Jewish people’s history because they were not originally written in Hebrew.

Some there be

There be of them, that have left a name behind, that their praises might be reported. And some there be, which have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been, and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.’ APOCRYPHA

Only the rustle of reeds

thin pipe smoke

a flickering paraffin lamp

women in blankets bent over

their faces lost to the light.

And remnants:

gate without hinges

stones in a half circle

afterbirths buried in silt.

Can the forgotten

be born again

into a land of names?

The poem’s opening line recalls Hardy’s ’Only a man harrowing clods’, the opening line of ’In Time of “The Breaking of Nations’” (1916) which turns away from the noise of war in order to affirm the quiet, restorative rhythms of agricultural labour, deliberate in its belief that these rhythms will ’go onward the same/though dynasties pass’. De Kok’s poem offers no such reassurance in her (anti)-pastoral scene of ’women in blankets’ whose faces are ’lost to the light’. These are the unnamed, the unmemorialized, those whose losses will not be the subject of Truth Commissions. We cannot know for sure why these women are gathered, or what they are doing.

However, the second verse speaks of ’remnants’ suggesting a rudimentary burial site that is only partially demarcated from the land, itself in danger of being forgotten: ’gate without hinges/stones in a half circle/afterbirths buried in silt’. Whether the women are performing their own rites of remembrance is not something which the poem allows us to make out, as if the poem is marking the limits of its own memorial power—even as it gestures beyond its own limits to the possible powers of conjuration demarcated by the women’s half-circle, a ’damaged’ version, perhaps, of the magic circle with which humans once endowed the world with spirit.13 The poem contains the memory of a magical power to which, like the thrush’s song, it no longer has access, an inner circle that, unlike Freud’s protective shield, would leave open the possibility of exchange between self and world, the human and the non-human. One might say that the poem’s very inability to name the scene is precisely what gives rise to a non-conceptual, non-verbal affinity between the poem and those who reside in the land beyond names.

And perhaps one should leave things there, except for the insistence of the final, questioning stanza. I do not think that much would be served by hauling such women before the TRC, by extending its remit of remembrance beyond the spectacular abuses of human rights to the realm of what Laura Brown has termed ’everyday’ or ’insidious trauma’. This would be to recall the women to that particular ’land of names’ that is the modern nation state, to recall them only to absorb them into a different form of anonymity and objectification. The challenge is to reimagine what ’a land of names’ might consist of, and the clue lies in the poem’s mention of ’afterbirths buried in silt’. For this burial site may not be a graveyard in the modern sense of the word, not a place of the dead. Alongside the forgetful temporality of modernity, alongside that alienated sense of belonging that comes with the idea of land ownership, cultures exist, in Africa and elsewhere, in which one buries a child’s afterbirth in order to secure the future of the child, to protect it from harm, to prevent it from straying too far from the land in which that which once connected it to its mother, that corporeal evidence of its and our interconnectedness, is buried.14 Such burial rites allow us to dream of a different land of names, a place where, to recall the mysterious ending of J. M. Coetzee’s Foe, ’bodies are their own signs’ (157).

From Freud’s protective shield, that protects only by sealing the subject off from the external world, we have arrived at a very different conception of protection, whereby safety is ensured only by acknowledging corporeal connection. Might this poem, or rather the rites that it barely mimes, teach us a different form of nostos, a different sense of return that has to do with belonging but not with ownership? And does it matter that these women are forced to bury their afterbirths in silt, in shifting sands that can only provide an uncertain burial and thus an uncertain future for the women’s children? Or is silt, in fact, the very proof that land itself is not fixed, that its very fertility is predicated on geological movement? Freud speaks of trauma as a point where ’there is no longer any possibility of preventing the mental apparatus from being flooded’ (301). But perhaps, while not forgetting the many ways in which we are overwhelmed by ’external’ forces that painfully remind us of our constitutive vulnerability, we should also learn to think of the self, trauma and flooding in a different light:

You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ’Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. … Still, like water, I remember where I was before I was ’straightened out’.

(Morrison 199)

Morrison begins her essay by wryly noting that her presence in an essay collection on autobiography and memoir is ’not entirely a misalliance’ (185). She ends it by reminding us that the story of the singular, straightened, biopolitical subject, the story of houses, settlement and liveable acreage, is a story of dominance masquerading as a story of protection, a story no less mythical than the civilization it serves to legitimate.


1 The OED’s primary definition of a vesicle reads: ’a small bladder-like vessel in an animal body; a cavity or cell with a membranous integument; a small sac or cyst’.

2 Nouri Gana nevertheless rightly reminds us, in his contribution to this volume, of the political dangers of assuming all trauma is structural and therefore inevitable.

3 This subtitle itself contains autocritical traces, insofar as my 2004 study, Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning, was indebted to the ethical turn and perhaps insufficiently attentive to the possibilities of a properly materialist mourning.

4 I am thinking of Spivak’s essays on Mahasweta Devi as much as her more famous essay ’Can the Subaltern Speak’, all three of which end with an image of a female body turned into an image of resistance in the instance of its obliteration. See Durrant, Postcolonial 16—17.

5 Lloyd is quoting from the records of the Irish Folklore Commission.

6 Lloyd is aware of the risk of mythologizing the virtue of some pre-modern state of nature: the moral economy of the poor is no more ’natural or primordial’ than the capitalism that supplants it (228).

7 Without belittling the contribution of Horkheimer to the Dialectic of Enlightenment, it is reasonably well established that Adorno wrote the excursus on The Odyssey, and my analysis is informed by my reading of Adorno’s later work.

8 TRC’s Final report is accessible at http://www.justice.gov.za/trc/report. See vol. 1 for a detailed outline of the Commission’s genesis, basis and rationale. I have no space here to rehearse the multiple debates surrounding the TRC. For a trenchant political critique see Mamdani. For an intricate deconstructive consideration, see Sanders.

9 ’Mourning would make good for the violations of apartheid. As a system of social separation, apartheid would be undone through condolence’ (49). The conditional mood of Sanders analysis indicates another mode of critical suspension; his book is partly a meditation on what the TRC might have been.

10 See the Khulumani group’s impressive website at http://www.khulumani.net.

11 In the preface to The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer famously remarked: ’Animism had endowed things with souls; industrialism makes souls into things’ (21).

12 Indeed a later poem uses the same image to focus on the reception of the testimony: the tympanic membrane of the sound engineer’s inner ear is described as the ’vellum of the brain’ (33).

13 ’Art has in common with magic the postulation of a special, self-contained sphere removed from the context of profane existence. Within it special laws prevail. Just as the sorcerer begins the ceremony by marking out from all its surroundings the place in which sacred forces come into play, each work of art is closed off from reality by its circumference. The very renunciation of external effects by which art is distinguished from magic binds art only more deeply to the heritage of magic’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 13—14).

14 For the amaXhosa, for instance, the burial of the cord and the placenta seals the baby’s attachment to his/her ancestral lands and the same word, ’inkaba’, is used to denote both the ceremony and this attachment.

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