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  • Insurgent Testimonies: Witnessing Colonial Trauma in Modern and Anglophone Literature by Nicole M. Rizzuto
  • Ryan Topper
Nicole M. Rizzuto. Insurgent Testimonies: Witnessing Colonial Trauma in Modern and Anglophone Literature. New York: Fordham UP, 2015. x + 272 pp.

There are many reasons to admire Nicole Rizzuto's Insurgent Testimonies: Witnessing Colonial Trauma in Modern and Anglophone Literature, but the book's most impressive aspect is Rizzuto's ability to identify and challenge shared assumptions within multiple discourses by practicing what she refers to in her introduction as the "increasingly anachronistic" technique of close reading (33). Joseph Conrad, Rebecca West, H. G. de Lisser, V. S. Reid, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: such a corpus immediately places Rizzuto within the discourses of world literature and postcolonial literature—though the totalizing former seems to be increasingly swallowing the detotalizing latter, a movement that Rizzuto commendably resists—as well as the new modernist studies (that is, modernism beyond Eurocentricism). Furthermore, by focusing on testimonial form, Rizzuto necessarily places the debates surrounding world literature, postcolonial literature, and global modernisms in dialogue with trauma and memory studies. For Rizzuto, what ties these discourses together (and what we must resist) is the attempt to periodize by filtering our interpretations of twentieth-century literary forms through the concept of historical rupture.

When tenets of modernist studies cast World War I as the catalyst of English modernism, and when tenets of trauma and memory studies cast World War II and the Shoah as the catalyst of Continental trauma theory, both groups periodize the twentieth century through the concept of historical rupture. This focus neglects Empire's germinal role in the construction of modernist form by "divert[ing] attention from modernism's imbrication in colonial histories" (3). Worse, the periodizing concept of rupture "explicitly or implicitly characterizes the prewar past, the time of colonial conquest, consolidation, and resistances to these, as 'static' rather than dynamic or violent," as if [End Page 782] life under Empire was not traumatic (4). According to Rizzuto, out of this ideology comes the assumption that Anglo-European modernism "serves as the example that writers from the colonies attempt to reproduce when thy seek to break out of local, national, or regional constraints" in order to become world, rather than postcolonial, writers (15). Postcolonial theory unwittingly shares this assumption by favoring tropes of migrancy at the expense of the local. In short, the boundaries too often assumed to exist around modernist form and culture as well as traumatic form and culture imply a Eurocentric hierarchy that is produced by periodizing modernity as the West's traumatic rupture from a static past. Insurgent Testimonies wagers that testimonial form works against this concept of periodizing rupture by producing, through trauma, not a rupture from the past but a multiplicity of relations between pasts, presents, and futures, which is a phenomenon Rizzuto likens to Walter Benjamin's "dialectical image" (7).

For Rizzuto, this deconstruction of periodization can be witnessed through acts of close reading. In chapter 1, for example, Rizzuto examines the role of confession in Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes and "Poland Revisited," arguing that Conrad's use of confessional form as testimony "creates unintended binds and commitments" with a global community by articulating a "structure of responsibility" beyond the ideological concept of conscious will that permeates debates on cosmopolitanism (38). Unlike Christian forms of confession aimed at expiation through the biographical voice, according to Rizzuto, Conrad writes a confessional form that "fragments, multiplies"—words indebted to Paul de Man's famous reading of confession—producing a need to infinitely confess, which ends up "driving [Conrad's] narrative[s] and generating effects that exceed the biographical" (51). Her reading builds not only on de Man's critique of the biographical as always already caught in the web of the rhetorical, but also on J. M. Coetzee's essay on confession as "double thought" (41).

More explicitly than Coetzee, though, Rizzuto connects confession's rhetorical movement of double thought to the Levinasian ethics of the late Jacques Derrida. For Rizzuto, confession arises from histories of

Western secular and religious thought [that] rely on the autonomous, intending subject as the basis of definitions of moral decision, dissimulating...


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