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Introduction: On Texts and Performatics

From: College Literature
Volume 40, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 9-14 | 10.1353/lit.2013.0030

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At the heart of the human rights project for both its supporters and detractors lies the problem of how human rights may be claimed and by whom; or in other words, the question of the derivation of the discursive and institutional norms that govern the legibility of suffering, the sufferer, and the perpetrator. If, as Kate Nash argues, “human rights are not just supported by culture: human rights are cultural” (2009, 8; emphasis in original), then the interplay between different forms of human rights storytelling—both juridical and cultural—becomes vital to our understanding of how its norms develop and who and what they protect or exclude. The essays in this special issue are bound by their collective desire to interrogate how literary and cultural texts engage with the “archive and the repertoire” of human rights storytelling (Taylor 2003). The ‘first wave’ of scholarship in human rights and literature primarily addressed the textual archive, as opposed to the what Diane Taylor has called the “performatic”: “the nondiscursive realm of performance” where “performatic, digital, and visual fields [are] separate from, though always embroiled with, the discursive one so privileged by Western logocentrism” (6). In other words, this initial burst of scholarly interest focused on those texts (historical, literary, cinematic, etc.) that are “supposedly resistant to change” (19), although of course their enunciations, interpretations, and effects are anything but static. Consequently, scholars focused largely on the intersections of law and literature; on the ethics of representation in contexts of violations defined by their ‘unspeakability’; and on the role of literary narrative, particularly the bildungsroman form, in charting (and disrupting) the growth of human rights and its incumbent ‘person’ (citizen). Working from that foundational scholarship, the authors represented here consider how literary and cultural texts also call for closer analysis of performatic texts as well as the literary archive, and indeed of the performatic dimension of the archive. Whereas Taylor’s groundbreaking analysis maintains a distinction between the discursive archive and performatic repertoire, the essays that follow in this special issue focus on the entanglement of those categories—in forms ranging from narrative literature and poetry to dramatic texts and performance, film and video, and other technologies of perception and surveillance—in order to investigate how historical context, aesthetic representation, and staging give shape to material, embodied suffering. In these essays, the archive is performative, experiential, material.

In her recent essay “Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art,” Carolyn Forché finds one dimension of this dynamic exchange between the literary and the experiential within witness poetry. Such poetry, Forché demonstrates, constitutes an archive of evidence not only through its content—which “bear[s] the legible trace of atrocity” (2012, 141)—but also through its form, in its “rupture of the first-person” and of language itself, which too has been damaged by catastrophe (140). In this way Forché envisions the archive as living rather than static and sees witness as a mode of reading as well as of writing. This practice, which requires responsibility from and faith in the reader, comprises what she calls an “ethical forensics” (141, 140). Given its etymological origins in the Latin forensis (meaning “of or before the forum”), the term forensics refers to both the presentation of legal evidence and the category of public presentation, affording it a distinctly rhetorical, performatic, and representational significance. For Forché, poetry written in the wake of human rights catastrophe is not written “after such experiences, but in their aftermath—in languages that had also passed through—languages that also continued to bear wounds, legible in the line-breaks, in constellations of imagery, in ruptures of utterance, in silences and fissures of written speech” (137; emphasis in original). In keeping with Forché’s charge to read such work as “evidence rather than representation” (140), our contributors define other approaches to the cathexis of human rights across different cultural forms through the theoretical lenses of humanism, cosmopolitanism, and transnationalism, as well as in the rhetorical and aesthetic tropes of prosopopoeia, kairos, the representation of trauma, and specularity itself. The texts and performatics discussed herein shift the terms of critical conversation. Rather than continue the debate over whether cultural forms express or dismantle...



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