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Reviewed by:
  • Adelheid Rundholz
Rebecca Gould, Writers and Rebels. The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016, 336 pp.

The Caucasus is a notoriously difficult region to study due to its cultural and linguistic diversities, and Rebecca Gould may well be the only person in the world—or one of very few—who could have written this book. From Gould's deft handling of a vast range of primary sources emerges a newly configured canon of Caucasus literature and an important addition to world literature. In her beautifully written text, Gould moves through source material in Arabic, Georgian, and Russian and delivers not only a much needed work on the Caucasus but also an important addition to scholarship on imperialism, colonialism, and forms of resistance. Rooted in theoretical scholarship and empirical data, that is, the author's personal encounters and interviews, this book works through the concept of violence and, specifically, the aestheticization of violence as response to the void in political hegemony created in colonial encounters. "In a world where to be recognized is to exist," Gould encapsulates a Chechen twenty-first-century mode of being, "recognition becomes a goal worth dying for and self-destruction acquires a halo of sanctity" (211). Referencing Walter Benjamin's assertion that critiquing violence constitutes the philosophy of its history, Gould's goal is to offer a dialectical understanding of violence as "a generator of value" (27) and to write against the more commonplace and stereotypical interpretation of the Caucasus as a region that has a "natural" propensity for violence. Combining literary methods with those of literary anthropology and ethnography, Gould shows the historical links and genesis of contemporary terrorism and suicide bombings in the Caucasus (and Chechnya, in particular) with a culture of insurgency.

Privileging the literary over the historical, Gould extends the range of postcolonial critique by tracing (literary) insurgency in Chechnya, Daghestan, and Georgia [End Page 366] in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Gould considers the surrender of Shamil in 1859 and Hājjī Murād's execution by decapitation as starting points for her interpretation and introduces 'transgressive sanctity' as her central concept. Transgressive sanctity is an ethics of negation in which insurgency of the conquered (colonized) against the conqueror (colonizer) is perceived as virtuous disobedience and "transgressive sanctity reinscribes," as Gould notes, "sovereignty from the vantage points of the governed" (247). Transgressive sanctity is the scope through which Gould makes visible insightful comparisons and readings not only of diverse and distinct cultures and regions but also of first anti-tsarist and, later, anti-Soviet narratives of insurgency. Transgressive sanctity occurs in systems that are legally plural such as colonial systems in which superimposed colonial law coexists uneasily with local and communal codes of law. In the Caucasus, the situation is further complicated because of the region's diverse cultures and traditions. Gould outlines in great detail and persuasively how colonial law comes into different types of conflict with communal law or—where applicable—with sharia, i.e., the body of laws elaborated by Muslim scholars. For Gould, transgressive sanctity fills the gap "between colonial hegemony and indigenous ethics" (66) and, furthermore, provides the theoretical frame for a meaningful comparison of different cultures across more than a century and a half. Common to all groups under analysis, Gould identifies the 'abrek' (bandit) as the central trope to personify and also perpetuate the meaning of transgressive sanctity. Importantly, the abrek is a controversial figure within indigenous contexts because he is a criminal. Whereas the precolonial abrek violates local or communal laws and values, the colonial abrek becomes a hero and becomes sacred in the estimation of his community. The abrek's transformation from social outcast to hero is linked to the presence of the imperial or colonial power and the subsequent plural legal infrastructure; any crime against the laws of the foreign power is a courageous act of resistance.

Ironically, the abrek's transgressive sanctity comes about because of his internalization and deployment of some aspects of colonial power and especially his appropriation of violence as the means to conflict resolution. Transgressive sanctity, according to Gould's argument and the evidence she investigates, leads to...


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pp. 366-368
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