Michael Richardson answered a few questions for us about his new book, Gestures of Testimony: Torture, Trauma, and Affect in Literature.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
Gestures of Testimony argues that writing torture and its traumas in fiction requires re-thinking the relationship between state power, tortured and torturing bodies, and literary witnessing.
What drew to you writing about this subject?
When President Obama was elected in 2008, he immediately declassified additional Torture Memos and associated documents. What they described was shocking and intensely moving. The leaked report form International Committee for the Red Cross, for instance, had these incredibly powerful testimonies from detainees at CIA ‘black sites.’ But at the same time, it seemed to me that they told stories from within the confines of a particular genre: the human rights testimony. What would it take to tell those stories in other ways? What might fiction make possible that factual testimony did not?
How long have you been researching it? How did you come to study it?
Reading those memoranda, I was increasingly fascinated by the problem of how the events and experiences described in them could be account for in fiction. At the time, I was writing speeches for Jack Layton, then the leader of Canada’s NDP, so I was highly attuned to the relationship between writing and politics. But I decided what I was doing wasn’t enough about writing itself. That led me back to academia, and this book grew out of my doctoral work. All said, this book is six years in the making, so the ideas it develops are very lived in. I think that’s its greatest virtue: for all its intense and occasionally speculative theorizing, it is very grounded in practices of reading, thinking and writing.
What does your book focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?
While there are many fine books on torture and even on its relationship to language, they tend to consider torture as an isolating, world-destroying experience. Without minimizing torture’s violence or the radical ways in which it disrupts experience, Gestures of Testimony argues that torture is always in relation to something else: a torturer, state power, an environment, or simply techniques and affects, such as shame, rage, and so on. This makes problematic the reflexive claim in trauma studies that its traumatic consequences are somehow ‘unrepresentable.’ Instead, it argues for an affective, gestural approach to writing torture and its traumas, one that embraces its corporeality and recognizes its complex, unstable and changeable relation to experience.
What initially drew you to Literary Studies?
Writing and imagining, more than anything. I’ve read voraciously since I was young, but I’ve also written for at least as long. For me, literary studies—and the humanities more generally, actually—is a kind of thinking through writing, a means of making sense of imagining in the context of texts, histories, and theories. My research tends to be interdisciplinary (and certainly this book is), so I’m also drawn to the willingness of literary studies to embrace ideas from elsewhere.
Which Bloomsbury Lit Studies books have you read? Which are your favorites, and why?
I’m very much enjoying the couple of books I’ve read in the new Object Lessons series, because they are so concise, personal and evocative. Another book that springs to mind right now is Anthony Uhlmann’s book Thinking in Literature, which does a very fine job of showing how literature can be philosophy.