Date of Degree

9-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Kandice Chuh

Committee Members

Sonali Perera

Siraj Ahmed

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature

Keywords

human rights, humanitarianism, secondary witnessing, testimonial literature

Abstract

This dissertation is preoccupied with secondary witnessing—the process of readerly subjects receiving and responding to testimonial accounts of state-sponsored torture and genocide that they themselves have not experienced firsthand. It examines how certain secondary witnessing postures and practices have been made commonsense for readers—public readerly subjectivities as well as professionalized ones such as literary critics—by liberal discourses, technologies, and institutions, while others have been rendered imperceptible by being represented as too delayed, too quixotic, or too unfeasible. My dissertation understands ‘liberalism’ as a tripartite entity: first, the onto-epistemologies inaugurated and normalized by the Enlightenment, that also authorized the violent processes of colonialism, imperialism, and racial capitalism; second, the chronotrope of ‘late liberalism’—a mode of governance that emerged in the wake of, and responded to, the legitimacy crisis posed by anticolonial and other social justice movements by accommodating and defusing the radical potential of difference; third, it also encompasses neoliberalism, as a form of biopower that differentially distributes vulnerability and protection to populations based on their alignment, or lack thereof, with market thinking. My project thus attends to the discursive and material harms that these commonsense liberal secondary witnessing attitudes and praxes disburse, taking as its exigency the fact that since the means to liberation themselves have been enlisted for the ends of power-amplification, the paths to more emancipatory futures need to be dreamed anew.

My dissertation excavates the secondary witnessing possibilities represented as nonviable by hegemonic liberal infrastructures—‘illiberal’ secondary witnessing alternatives—by reading a global archive of twentieth and twenty-first century testimonial narratives attesting to state-sponsored torture and genocide. The textual archive this project curates and works through, toward the aforementioned ends, spans Guantánamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir, Guantánamo Diary, Syrian writer Mustafa Khalifa’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Shell, Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya’s testimonial novel, Senselessness, Guatemalan Mayan peasant woman’s eponymous testimonio, I, Rigoberta Menchú, Egyptian feminist writer Nawal el Sa’adawi’s prison memoir, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison, and Boubacar Boris Diop’s novel about the Rwandan genocide, Murambi. My project holds that these testimonial narratives make illiberal secondary witnessing alternatives legible through metaphoric pedagogies. While the term ‘pedagogies’ clarifies my project’s critical relationship to these testimonial texts—of following their lead and illuminating the non-normative secondary witnessing praxes that they instruct readerly subjects in, the adjective ‘metaphoric’ seeks to highlight the figurative form in which these illiberal secondary witnessing possibilities take shape across these testimonial accounts: the analogies, similes, and metaphors, sometimes implicit and at other times explicit, through which they are articulated. I organize this dissertation through an unpacking of three metaphoric constructions, embedded in these testimonial narratives, to explore the illiberal secondary witnessing onto-epistemologies and practices that they gesture toward.

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