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on testifying, silence, and ghosts

(trigger warning: rape, sexual assault, abuse, trauma)

(A longer version of the conversation around this.)

There is a kind of performative contradiction in speaking about silence, or in being critical of the centering of testimony while putting this on the Internet. Is this testimony about testifying, even while it evades a certain trauma narrative? I don’t know. But H, who knows more about technology than I do, once said to me that what’s on the internet stays there (regardless of any right to be forgotten). Aware of possible contradictions, then –

A primer on where I’m trying to slot this: if we understand discourses to have their own kind of bounded field with internal coherence, logic, rules, and narratives, then we see how within certain discourses it only makes sense to say certain things. Only certain statements are intelligible within the parameters and rules of the discourse. Discourse, importantly, isn’t just linguistic but organises our ways of thinking about the world into the way that we act in the world. Some statements are discursively impossible (though discourses are constantly refashioned and renegotiated, they are never entirely closed systems, allowing interventions to be possible).

What I want to apply this to is the discourse around (and also our societal understandings of) silences and speaking, specifically on the issue of violence, abuse, and trauma. We valorise the speaking “survivor” or subject. We consider “speaking” itself a form of bravery, to speak about the trauma one has undergone or lived through or lived is itself important. We place testimonial at the centre of much of the work that we do. I’ve been troubled for a long time by this – particularly by the frequent Facebook statuses, often from my friends over the last year or so in response to (yet another) rape “scandal” in the papers, urging “survivors” to “report” to save others.

Guilt here is used in the place of political responsibility, and frequently I wondered who was being absolved by pinning blame upon the body that did not speak, the person that chose silence. (The answer is self-evident.) Guilt functions to hold some morally culpable, while absolving others; while if we had chosen political responsibility, it may have asked many of us to stand up against a state that was invoking the death penalty and legislating harsh laws in our name. It is easier to hold rape culture to account by individualising – speaking to accuse. (Maybe this is what can be so threatening about silence – part of what it does is circulate, asking that we interrogate the atmosphere itself, rather than allowing for blame and victimhood to be localised onto individual bodies.)

In Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Audre Lorde tells us: “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you (emphasis added). […] The machine will try grind you to dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.”

So we will live in fear whether or not we speak, so we have no reason not to. Of course Lorde speaks in the context of speaking out as solidarity-building (and as B pointed out, would probably not see speaking out as an end in itself herself), but her words are often read as supporting a kind of testimonial for the sake of testimonial. The politics of organising around sexual assault and harassment on the university campus often strategises in terms around speaking too: the collection of stories of “victims”/”survivors”, the dissemination of them. Testimonials convince that there is a problem – though the fact that we had to convince is itself telling. Who needed to be convinced that sexual assault was an endemic problem? Certainly not those of us who have lived it. Testimonial accumulation builds “awareness” (and then, of course, there is sometimes a surfeit of awareness and no moving from there). Testifying and speaking out is central to our understanding of justice, whether that’s in courtrooms or activist spaces. We speak in the courtroom, which functions as a theatre of truth-production, that renders some bodies legible and legal, and this is a process of inviting testimony. Testimony is often a form of catharsis – the legal process is intended to heal and provide restitution – and it listens with the air of objectivity or neutrality. It invites speaking out, and the legal discourse goes on to collect evidence, interpret, adjudicate using testimony whether this is in words, or otherwise. Testimony does not always have to be language. My body bore bruises for days; this felt like testimony to me, more than evidence.

The courtroom invites testimony, and often this is the reason why people use the legal process, for the sense of feeling heard (and research on people’s tribunals and the opportunity to speak, as some kind of cleansing, illustrates the need felt to give testimony, bear witness as community healing). The legal process listens with some amount of compassion, but the feminist method does not adjudicate (explicitly, or at least with the state’s coercive power, though it certainly exerts its own strength of coercion) but invites testimony and offers compassion. To listen without compassion is a form of “disembodied deafness”, it negates our ethical responsibility to other people.

In the feminist discourse on abuse and trauma, there are accepted scripts on how to respond to testimony of violence, and within this discourse, its own rules of interpretation. There are things that make sense within this narrative, and some that fall away. The listener is listening for specific things; hears some things and does not hear others. The reaction to a story follows a script, and aims in some way to collect evidence of harm – much like a courtroom. This is speaking out outside the realm of the law, but retains many of its methods of interpretation, evidence collection, its focus on rehabilitation, restitution, apology, statement, and the focus on ensuring that the speaker feels heard.

But what happens when the listener is listening for something? If listening itself, no matter how much it attempts at compassion, is following a discursive pattern, looking for some things? When we listen to a story to identify what parts of it slot into our script or commonplace understanding of trauma, we are negating other possibilities, other parts of the story that are impossible to this narrative, that are illegible within it. Other parts of the story are negated when they fall outside the script. This isn’t just listening, this is hegemonic listening: the speaking itself is meant to be cathartic, but the listener isn’t just listening but is actively looking for certain things. Certain parts of the story register, and others don’t.

Part of my own reluctance to speak (and I suspect this is true for others) is to resist this hegemonic listening: to resist knowing that my story will be slotted into the narratives that we currently have to understand trauma, that some parts will go unheard. Equally, that the response to this story from the listener fits a script ofhow to respond – it invokes a politics of injury and innocence upon the teller of the story, that seems affirmed by the listener. Victimhood can often feel like performance – you are the right kind of victim when you are brave, and braver still if you speak out. If you make your pain legible and articulate it, often for the consumption (sometimes profit) of others.

But who is this fictive audience to whom we narrate our pain? If speaking is catharsis, who do we speak to? (Because here, we certainly aren’t speaking to the state.) To choose victimhood is like asking us to claim injury and innocence at once even when neither fit quite right. And then the act of telling, or speaking out, becomes that much more difficult. How do you speak, affirm that assault happened and trauma resulted, without imputing onto oneself all the narratives that encircle this affirmation?

Speaking is political – we already know this – but then perhaps choosing silence, or choosing not to speak, is as political in the face of the overwhelming compulsion that speaking is a necessary feminist act, an end-goal in itself. A subversive silence might resist the interpretation of injury and innocence, the negation of some parts of itself in exchange for the affirmation of others. A subversive silence deviates from the script by sitting at the margins.

Political awareness can mean having to navigate these ruptures, breaks, and fragments in consciousness. If there are ruptures between our feminist method in collecting knowledge, of finding these stories and making them valid and our lived experience of subversive silence precisely against this method, then the method must either change or account for the existence of its own script of listening. Feminist epistemology reclaims the experiences of those who have never been the speaker of truth-claims, who have been dismissed as incapable of rising above their subjectivities, claims their de-validated words and renders them legitimate and valid as knowledge. Feminist method crucially also looks for silence – but where do we begin to look for subversive silence, silence that precisely resists the logic of feminist method? Where do we account for the existence of subversive silence that resists the hegemonic (even if compassionate) listener? The epistemological difficulty of silence is that it is intangible, entirely out of reach. It doesn’t just exist in the margins, it defiantly refuses to be given shape at all.

It seems like an impossible question to me, simply because there might not be a way to entirely escape hegemonic listening –– even when it is compassionate. Discourses may well always have scripts and the attendant behaviours that come with it: there will always be statements that make more sense within the discourse and others that are impossible to its logic. But part of what I’m trying to challenge is the very idea that knowledge must be tangible, that it exists to be collected in some way. What do we lose with our obsession with testifying? What do we miss in the self-congratulatory way we talk about getting people to “speak up”, “break the silence”? I do also mean in a very real material sense – there are entire industries that secure funding off the claim to empower women in some way, to facilitate a process by which they allow women to speak. We fixate on the testifying subject, or the subject that wants to be heard. Testimonial as activism means that we may be missing those that resist its form.

Not all silence is intentionally subversive (as S pointed out), or even intentional, willed. Many of us do not speak for other reasons – in fraught situations, speaking is not an option afforded to us. Subversive silence is not inherently more valuable as a tool of resistance, and it’s dangerous to romanticise silence precisely because of the possibilities that speaking too offers. But subversive silence againsthegemonic listening is not the silence that feminists are often pointing to when we condemn cultures of silence, and reward the speaking subject (either with our praise, retweets, or money). Picking out subversive silence that operates against our scripts of understanding trauma, however, allows us to see how our methods of listening (or failure to listen) hides people and stories. All silences are often combinations of unintentional silences, reflective silences, and subversive silences – and feminism has a responsibility to account for this. Feminism will never push a person to “report” to the authorities, but still places a premium on speaking as knowledge. My criticism isn’t to glorify silence as resistance – speaking out is something we cannot not want – but I contest that speaking out is the only way to produce knowledge, claim pain, and transcend pain. Silence embodies itself through gesture – passed through knowing glance, offhand comment – between generations and groups.

(And, of course, there are contradictions within this too: my own subversive silence is being enacted, brought to life in my very acknowledgement here that it exists. What’s fascinating about social media and internet feminist activism is that it circumvents the juridical process and its claim to truth, its claim of arbitrating justice, and the ways it fails marginalised groups –– but it continues to affirm testifying. “Reporting” assault and trauma might have different meanings in this sphere; sometimes I think that even acknowledging that it has occurred is a form of recording it, and reporting it. It offers a way of legibility and healing outside the legal process, while still absorbing many of its impulses.)

If justice is an infinite project, and also a project that is continually deferred, then one way of approaching justice might be to resist the use of hegemonic scripts to understand and narrate harassment, violence, and trauma. One possible way of living the revolution is to “live the ethical life” –– in the here and now –– and that requires a listening that does not search, that does more than extend our ears and sight. It might involve being wary of the limits of the discursive understanding of violence that we have (which is limited in so many other ways than the ones I’ve outlined), and it might avoid the script that collects knowledge, that valorises those that speak out, that prescribes a correct method of listening to a story and affirming the injured body.

I’ve been obsessed for a long time with the metaphorical idea of the feminist “surviving” body and the precarity of its silence, as a ghost body. I’m referring to the silence – while acknowledging the danger in engaging in metaphors that seem to suggest that the surviving body is diminished somehow, or less human (seeing as we have patriarchal discourse do enough of that for us anyway). Often, in the aftermath of my own experiences of assault, I would seek confirmation in everyday objects and actions that I still occupied corporeal form: I would look for my reflection, I would check the mirrors above the bus doors before exiting, crane my neck to look at the CCTV camera on the upper deck, bite my lip hard to make sure I was still there. There’s a physicality and an unsureness of it that was generated within my body (though I’m not sure if this fits the standard survivor script; maybe me speaking about it now will absorb it into that script). The idea of the ghostly subversive silences that animate the work that we do, that haunt the projects we embark on might be a useful methodological tool. Not in that we are the ghosts, but rather, that we are aware of their presence when we invoke hegemonic narratives to understand and speak of trauma. If subversive silence, or any silence, is enacted through gesture and omission, then it is the ghost in the house hiding from dominant understandings of violence. Unpicking subversive silences specifically (as opposed to other silences) is not to place it as more valuable, but to demonstrate that it exists against us, not patriarchy.

The ghost shimmers. At night, it might bang on a few creaky pipes. It is tangible enough for us to remember that subversive silences exist, enough for us to alter our method to be quiet enough to hear the pipes, but not enough for us to question, to force testimony out of. It resists our penetrating questions and resists the fitting of its story into a larger hegemonic narrative of what it is to be abused, assaulted, ghostly. It animates the work that we do, because we know it might be around us. It informs our approach by simply asking us to be aware of the bodies and stories that resist our method, while being able to claim silence and intangibility as knowledge itself. The ghost cannot offer testimony, and by definition it mocks the idea of a trial, but it could still occupy the witness stand.

This piece was cross posted with permission from Shruti Iyer’s blog. Click here to see it in its original format. 

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