- Rethinking Rupture
Just three years before Nicole M. Rizzuto published Insurgent Testimonies: Witnessing Colonial Trauma in Modern and Anglophone Literature, Danny Boyle directed a remarkable spectacle that kicked off the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. In a one-hour performance depicting Great Britain’s modern history, a model village from some prelapsarian rural fantasy (complete with Maypole and singing children) gave way to a scene of pandemonium: an influx of hundreds of people flooded the stadium as model factory chimney stacks and other icons of the industrial revolution arose from the stage. This homage to British ingenuity and mechanical dominance transitioned into a minute of silence for the dead of World Wars I and II and, shortly thereafter, into a parade of people disembarking from the Empire Windrush, representing the midcentury wave of West Indian and colonial immigration into the metropole. Critically acclaimed and touted as a celebration of modern, multicultural, cosmopolitan Britain, this abridged history omitted the part about how and why the nation came to be multicultural in the first place. Aside from the celebratory parade of immigrants, the only testimony Boyle’s production made to the nation’s “histories of colonial trauma, violence, and law” (5) was a gap in the narrative—an industrial revolution that seemingly sprang out of nothing. [End Page 453]
Of course, Olympic ceremonies aren’t typically venues for the representation of national collective trauma, let alone for the analysis of how touchstones of contemporary cultural mythology are penetrated by centuries-long histories of colonial violence. But as Rizzuto contends, even texts that engage in imperial “cultural, state, legal, and literary discourses” can be undercut from within by “testimony” that “interrupts the dominant representations of colonial history” (2). Her study addresses what she describes as a “body of work that has generally fallen beyond the purview of explorations of trauma, testimony, and law” (3)—namely, twentieth-century Anglophone writings about cultural memory whose ambivalence about empire and anticolonial resistance makes them “incompatible with the Anglophone/World Literature market today and illegible within the discipline of postcolonial literary studies” (12).
Rizzuto takes as her critical point of departure two “premises underlying approaches to trauma in modernist studies and trauma and memory studies” (2): the notion that World War I is “the exemplary rupture of modernity” (3), and that the meaning of historical trauma can be determined primarily or exclusively through an interpretation of World War II’s impact. Turning her attention to “[t]he overlooked itineraries of testimony” in literature published in the period “between the great nineteenth-century novels of the legal profession . . . and the vast body of contemporary literature that addresses suspensions of rights under neocolonialism,” Rizzuto argues the following: first, that by upholding World War I as “the exemplary rupture of modernity,” modernist literary criticism has obscured “the structural violence of imperialism inhabiting everyday life in both colonies and metropoles”; and second, that by focusing predominantly on “the impact of World War II and the Shoah on continental European literary forms,” trauma theory has promoted a “dominant definition of trauma as rupture” that effaces “modernism’s imbrication in colonial histories” (3). The problem, as Rizzuto frames it, isn’t merely that modernist and memory studies have propagated the wrong origin story, whether in world wars or the Holocaust. The problem is that the appeal to historical “rupture” crystallizes an idealized vision of a static prewar past that elides both “the instabilities generated by imperialism and anti-imperialism” [End Page 454] (91) and the ways in which these chronic instabilities influenced the “formal procedures” of modern and contemporary Anglophone writing. In other words, by fixating on World War I as the foundation for modernist formal experimentation and on World War II as the basis for theoretical explorations of cultural memory, critics have not only obscured how systematic acts of violence since the late nineteenth century have shaped the literature we now classify as modernist, colonial, or postcolonial; they have also promoted an ideologically driven understanding of “twentieth-century trauma” as “a...