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Biography 24.3 (2001) 570-588

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Disarming Testimony:
Speakers' Resistance to Readers' Defenses in Latin American Testimonio

Kimberly Nance

In Latin American testimonio, speaking subjects narrate their own lives as part of an explicitly social and political project, crossing between life world and textual world in an attempt to invoke obligations and evoke actions on the part of readers. To accomplish this, speakers must manage to break out of external, governmental containment strategies--forms of censorship that determine what they are permitted to say, when, how, and to whom. Work on trauma narrative suggests that speakers must at the same time resist another form of censorship, the internalized psychosocial barriers that frequently constrain personal narratives of murder, torture, and rape (Tal 7). Next, speakers must gain access to a larger forum through publication--in itself no mean feat. The very existence of testimonial texts is therefore something of a wonder, but as it happens, governmental restrictions, personal reticences, and practical barriers to publication are only preliminary obstacles to the genre's social project. Testimonio's potential to provoke change threatens not only governments but also collaborating writers, critics, and readers themselves. 1 Members of these groups generate their own containment strategies, in the form of cognitive and psychological defenses against feeling called to action when confronted with injustice.

Governmental containment efforts at least come from an identified enemy; the critical and readerly equivalent of friendly fire is far more difficult to evade. Writers, critics, and readers of goodwill, people who see themselves as solidly on the side of the testimonial speaker, can still do unwitting harm to the project. For several reasons, I will insist on the importance of the acknowledgment of this goodwill. As Georg Gugelberger notes in his introduction to The Real Thing, the dominant tone of testimonial criticism [End Page 570] has recently passed from a general celebration of the actions of everyone involved, to an atmosphere of deep suspicion about motives, and doubts about the possibilities of change (1-19). To me, both positions seem to accept the intentional fallacy. In the beginning, this fallacy was applied with a forward trajectory. In the celebratory moment--the period Gugelberger has termed "second wave"--many if not most critics assumed that sheer goodwill was bound to produce good social results. With the "third wave" the direction changed, as critics charged that lack of good social result was caused by bad intent, or at least incompetence, on the part of readers.

This article examines the disjuncture between goals and outcomes--between good intent and bad result--a combination as yet little explored in testimonial criticism. Explicitly recognizing goodwill toward the project is also important because that spirit itself can make the writer, critic, or reader especially vulnerable to the pain that testimonio can cause, and thus can evoke especially strong resistance. From a practical standpoint, resistance by politically sympathetic writers, critics, and readers is especially troubling since it channels off the energies of precisely those who might otherwise intervene in favor of social justice. The action of disarming mentioned in my title thus figures here in both of its senses. I will first describe some of the ways in which collaborating writers, critics, and readers tend to disarm testimonio, diminishing the genre's social potential. I will then examine the rhetorical attempts of speakers to forestall and counter such resistance--to speak, as it were, disarmingly. Finally, I will analyze the dynamics of this appropriation and resistance, and propose an alternative model for approaching readerly and critical reception of testimonio.

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Critics have generally agreed that reading testimonio can and indeed should cause discomfort. John Beverley cites testimonio's demand for "general social change in which the stability of the reader's world must be brought into question" ("Margin" 84); René Jara writes of testimonial literature as a "naturalization of the exotic, a brutal deconstruction of tranquilizing versions" (3); and Jean Franco states flatly that testimonio should make the reader's world less attractive (514-15). In another context, Ariel Dorfman labels the reader content to consume calls for...


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