What is a Question?
I was trained as a scholar of poetry, and typically one doesn’t turn to a poem armed with a question. I tend to burrow into a piece of literature, to dwell within it for a time, to let its queries and claims unfold in the course of our encounter. This immersive contemplation has remained my preferred mode of engagement, even as my “materials, objects, and archives” have shifted in focus from nineteenth-century French poetry to aesthetic representations of Holocaust memory, and now, to contemporary refugee testimony. What remains constant, despite the varying degrees of aesthetic mediation in these expressive forms, is a wish to suspend any questions initially, so that the encounter is not determined by a priori criteria—or at the very least, so that the frames of inquiry might emerge from the encounter itself before becoming enmeshed in critical debates and mobilized for theoretical interventions. Of course this kind of reading, listening, hosting, and being hosted requires time, a precious commodity in the busyness of professional scholarly life. Yet the occasional suspension of questions in aesthetic encounters might be worth considering, especially if it is questionable to do so in these instrumental times of academic productivity.
The act of questioning a text or a person is never entirely exempt from the juridical frame of the cross-examination or the policing impetus of an interrogation: we hold people for questioning or interrogation, and risk producing the very evidence we seek, just as we might question a text in order to diagnose [End Page 46] and capture its meanings through “symptomatic reading.” It is significant in this regard that during the Algerian war, la question (the question) was a euphemism for the French military’s routinized use of torture. Even with the best of intentions, the rule of the question can lead to missed encounters that an attentive gaze or ear might otherwise catch. For instance, a psychotherapist who questions asylum applicants for symptoms of PTSD to offer additional diagnostic evidence for their claims also produces the subject that is worthy of asylum according to specific requirements (a victim whose trauma can be verified according to DSM criteria). What gets lost in translation is the singularity and texture of that person’s account of themselves and their story. From poetry to people, then, holding our questions in abeyance may sometimes be the condition of more ethical forms of encounter.
DEBARATI SANYAL is Professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance (2015) and The Violence of Modernity: Baudelaire, Irony and the Poetics of Form (2006). Her research interests include nineteenth-century literature and culture, twentieth-and twenty-first century studies, postwar French and Francophone intellectual culture, Holocaust studies, transcultural memory studies, refugee studies and narratives of political asylum.