The Legacy of Rape: Unspeakability and Representation

Posted on December 4th, 2015 by Katherine Franke

the-legacy-of-rape-exhibitIn early December, the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality (IRWGS) at Columbia University, in conjunction with Proof: Media for Social Justice, installed a photographic exhibit entitled The Legacy of Rape.  In connection with this exhibit, IRWGS held a panel titled, Art, Law, and Social Justice, moderated by Marianne Hirsch. I participated as a panelist alongside Patricia Cronin, Leora Kahn, and Anna Di Lellio.  These were my remarks at that panel:

This exhibit suggests, if not insists, that rape has a legacy.  Rape is surely many things, and acts of rape do many things. But what might it mean to claim that “rape has a legacy”? I take the notion of “legacy” to implicate a temporal, usually intergenerational, transfer of meaning or value. A kind of “paying it forward,” if you will. So, what would it mean to document that legacy and to do so with photographs?

Well, one way to think this complex problem would be to posit that rape produces conditions of unspeakability. That is to say, for many people rape accomplishes an undoing, a disassembly of the subject, an “unmaking” as Elaine Scarry describes it, that resists verbal objectification. In this sense, portraying rape’s legacy of unspeakability through photographs might well make much sense.  The project offers the body as witness to trauma, violence, and disassembly by reassembling the subject in the camera’s frame.

Yet I’m not quite sure that is either what the exhibition aims to do or what it actually does. The written material accompanying the exhibit explains: “The Legacy of Rape gives voice to those who have survived rape or sexual violence in armed conflicts.” Yet, in what way does it “give voice” to something beyond language? Should we treat these photographs as a kind of utterance, one that subjectifies the subject through radical acts of translation that overcome a resistance to verbal objectification?

Of course the photographs are accompanied by text, testimony really, describing the sexual violence suffered by women in connection with armed conflict. But I am left wondering: In the panels related to Congo and Nepal the testimony is not associated with any particular photograph. Whereas for the women from Columbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the text is clearly associated with particular images. What are we to make of this presence and absence of association? In the panels from Nepal and Congo where we are unable to link the testimony to a particular image should we infer that the testimony could be associated with any of them? With any of us? Given that the Nepalese and Congolese women’s faces are hidden either by taking the photographs from the back or by veiling the subject’s faces, might we be invited to associate the text with any woman or all women?

But more than this, how should we understand the testimony to bear a relation to the images? If “breaking the silence” may be one of the aims of this exhibit, are there ways that the images do something that points to the inadequacy of language, that compensates for that inadequacy, or that picks up where language leaves off? Is what they portray “outside language” in any way? If so, then why the text? What does it add, what does it risk denying to the power of the images?

When I began thinking about this exhibit I was drawn back to Lorna Simpson’s work.  She too photographed many of her subjects from behind, shielding their faces from view.  Simpson’s powerful photographs of African American women, facing away from the camera, offer gestures of refusal that have been interpreted as acts of rescue that transform African American women from objects to subjects.

Do the photographs in The Legacy of Rape exhibit do something similar?  Do they propose forms of rescue and empowerment for the women they portray?  Of course it mattered to Simpson’s work that she too was an African American woman, self-consciously implicating herself in the work.  The act of looking was informed by the identity of the artist and the work.  Not so with The Legacy of Rape where the photographers’ identity is a marginal fact about the exhibit. Or is it? Of course exhibits of the sort always risk re-objectifying their subjects by instrumentalizing them for a larger political purpose, or as the next important project of a documentary photographer.

So if any rescue is to occur with this exhibit it may be up to the viewer to pull it off. Yet, what do these images ask or expect of the viewer? Do they anticipate or evoke a particular critical response? Does their form suggest a mode of interpretation for the viewer? Might the form suggest or signal a way of metabolizing their substantive content – particularly given the different contexts of Congo, Nepal, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Colombia? It’s worth noting that a different photographer was used for each panel, and as a result the photographs of the women from each country are very different. Consider the images of the Colombian women, more conventional portraits in form, close up, eyes directly addressing the viewer, expressive, and at once vulnerable and fierce. What relationship do these images bear to traditional portraiture? And how are we to understand the atrocities suffered by the women of Colombia when contrasted with the women in the Nepalese panel who are facing away from the camera? Do these differences offer insight into the characters they capture at the same time that they communicate something political in nature?

I must confess that overall it’s not clear to me what kind of interpretative stance we are urged to take in viewing the photographs in The Legacy of Rape.

But then, I’m just a law professor, and have no training in interpreting art.

So let me gravitate to more comfortable terrain say a little about the relationship of this exhibit to law by returning to the notion of legacy. Does rape have a legacy in law? Does any of that legacy relate unspeakability? I think it can. And I think it can in a couple of ways.

The exhibit’s curators tell us that “justice is … a collateral damage of rape and sexual violence.  And so silence sets in.” “By lifting the voice of survivors of sexual violence,” they tell us, “this exhibit aims to propel accountability and response from the international community.”   So we are to understand that silence is a kind of legacy or perhaps symptom of injustice, particularly in the context of sexual violence.

In writing on this subject, Martha Minow observes something rather similar, justice amounts to replacing “violence with words and terror with fairness,” and steering a “path between too much memory and too much forgetting.”

The trial, the truth and reconciliation commission, and the human rights report, as examples of fora where “justice gets taken up”, are the institutional contexts where the violated subject, the subject undone, the subject unmade by acts of sexual terror, is asked to offer a narrative of unmaking, to testify to the “truth of the matter”. But of course in these contexts, giving voice to pain and violence is called up in the service of interests that are largely institutional in nature, such as holding perpetrators criminally accountable, transitioning a society from a period of injustice and violence to one of greater justice and fairness, or assembling a critical mass of moving stories that together evidence the systematic nature of human rights abuses in particular political contexts. None of these sites that are charged with addressing the problem of injustice consider their project to include healing the wounded subject. Rather, testimony is extracted and human suffering is instrumentalized for a larger legal or political goal. Law demands the witness to reassemble herself, if only long enough to testify, in such a way that she can narrate a particular kind of annihilation, and in doing so becomes a witness to her own undoing. As Giorgio Agamben has described it, the subject “becomes witness to its own disorder, its own oblivion as a subject.”

So the legacy of rape in the legal context is one that often perpetuates, or worse amplifies the unmaking of the subject. By “setting the record straight” about what happened, law calls up a subject undone, but undone in a way that law expects and needs to hear – the greater the disassembly of the self the better, the less resilient the self the better.

In viewing The Legacy of Rape exhibit, particularly its text, the testimony from its subjects, I worried that it risked something similar. In what way are these images and the testimony that accompany them “bearing witness” in more complex ways than what law demands? Does the exhibit seek to open up a new way of knowing, or does it rather “set the record straight” in a juridical sort of way? In this sense, does the text move the images toward a legal kind of witnessing where the truth is sought and the image stands as a freeze-frame of annihilation? Or on the other hand, does it power as image rather than text offer something that escapes the trap of legalism?

My second, and last, observation about the legacy of rape in law may be found in today’s call to reform sexual assault laws, such that they require affirmative consent from both parties for every step in a sexual encounter. This change in the law is a legacy of the bad old days of rape law that imagined a stranger in the bushes who jumps out with a knife and violently assaults a virtuous woman who resists but cannot overcome his unwelcome advances.

Columbia’s new Gender-Based Misconduct Policy mandates that to avoid disciplinary action, sex between students must be a knowing, willful and mutual decision, revocable at any time. This policy, along with California’s and now Governor Cuomo’s revision of state law on campus-based sexual assault, conjures a rational, choosing subject who has full access to her own desires, capacities and interests and is able to articulate them and negotiate in their name as a kind of enabling condition for a sexual encounter. This sexual subject is a bit of an oxymoron, insofar as it posits the liberal self-interest maximizing agent maintaining a bounded rationality in a context that is essentially devoid of rationality and, at its best, accomplishes a kind of undoing of the self. An undoing, to be sure, different from the body in pain or in terror, but an undoing nevertheless. In this context, human experience resists verbal objectification – but it is precisely verbal objectification – indeed certain speech acts indicating affirmative consent – that the law demands to distinguish sex from violence or assault.

In this conundrum we see a refusal of the legacy of rape in law. These new campus rules can be understood as a repudiation of an intergenerational transfer – a gift as it is often called in law – of the meaning of rape, as unspeakable, as shameful, and as ignored as a real harm. Repudiating rape’s earlier reputation as an excess of passion, the new meaning of rape figures it as a failed negotiation or the absence of a mutual decision. Sex, as a result, becomes a transaction, discursive in nature.

Returning to The Legacy of Rape exhibit, I would ask in what ways it is able to avoid the pitfalls of law’s approach to this subject?  To the extent that the exhibit seems to be making an argument, what work can the images do that offers both justice and healing, that bears witness to the unmaking of the subject while not freezing the subject in her unmade self, and that allows the body to become a narrator of the long history of injustice without being overwhelmed by the text that accompanies it.

We share with you here a number of tweets with embedded video from the panel discussion regarding the exhibition.  You may also review tweets and media from the event on social media by searching #TheLegacyOfRape.

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