Congratulations on this beautiful and important book. Throughout the book, you discuss what it means to “tell” and listen to a story, especially one that is about state violence and torture. But you never allow this “telling” to become disembodied, and you insist throughout the text that the act of testifying “enlists the body.” Can you comment on how you came to imagine testifying as a kind of embodied practice?
I have long been interested in the sociology of the body and embodiment. However, the notion of testifying as an embodied practice was actually highlighted by women survivors of state terror themselves. In at least two instances (Munú Actis in the book Ese Infierno and Nora Strejilevich in her testimony for Memoria Abierta’s Oral Archive), women who survived captivity in clandestine detention centers referred to the act of giving testimony as poner el cuerpo. This phrase does not translate smoothly to English, as it literally reads “to put the body,” yet its meaning has overlaps with the idea of putting the body on the line or giving the body to a cause. It can connote sacrifice, risk, embodied work, and coherence between words and actions. It is a phrase often used in activist circles in Argentina, and a concept that I analyzed in relation to political protest in my previous book, Bodies in Crisis: Culture, Violence, and Women’s Resistance in Neoliberal Argentina (Rutgers University Press, 2010).
In that sense, we can think of various ways in which testifying involves poner el cuerpo: in the form of embodied emotions, intense embodied efforts to recall events, expenditure of time and energy testifying, the possibility of re-living trauma, and the risk of returning to conditions of bodily harm (for example, in cases of intimidation and threat against witnesses), among others. The embodied dimensions of giving testimony are particularly evident in oral accounts, as bodily gestures and emotions convey meaning, and as the body is mobilized and sensory memories recalled in efforts to produce truthful accounts about what happened, as best recollected by the witnesses. Embodied narratives can also produce powerful effects on those who hear the testimonies, although these effects cannot be determined a priori; they partly depend on the social, historical, and institutional contexts of listening as well as on personal biographies.
Bearing witness to testimonies of atrocity can also be a difficult—but necessary—embodied experience, involving a range of emotions and demanding a particular type of careful and caring approach. As I watched video-recorded testimonies in the oral archive of the human rights organization Memoria Abierta, my embodied presence in the site also elicited caring reactions from others, namely, members of the organization whom I eventually befriended. They noticed I was spending hours in the archive taking notes and dealing with stories that they knew were hard to listen to. I would leave the archive with my back stiff, my muscles aching due to the tension involved in my research. I would sometimes cry as I listened to women’s testimonies of loss and pain; and other times I would laugh with women survivors who managed to deploy a sense of humor in the midst of stories of atrocity. I was described by a member of Memoria Abierta as one of their most “persistent” visitors to the archive. Indeed, I was there for extended periods, and it was important to do so, yet this persistent listening did take a bodily and emotional toll. Thus, for researchers considering research on traumatic histories, it can be important to be aware of this and perhaps plan on self-care strategies as part of the research process.
Finally, thinking of testifying as a kind of poner el cuerpo also raises questions about what kinds of bodies and whose bodies are granted authority to speak which truths. For instance, what does it take for a testimony of rape or torture to be believed? What demands are made of “the body” for such claims to be credible? What are the limitations of relying on the body as the ultimate basis for truth? Which bodies are accounted for or erased in collective memory and historical trauma accounts? What are the risks of making the body (too) visible in such narratives? These are all questions that interest me and that I had to grapple with as I conducted my project.
One of the things that struck me in reading your work was how women struggled to narrate physical pain or other experiences that are not “visible.” Could you speak to the importance of attending to these experiences on the borders of the visible, especially for sociologists?
As a sociologist, I am interested in developing a deep and accurate understanding of the social world. However, the effects of particular social dynamics are not always visible or readily available to comprehension. We struggle to find answers to complex questions, and when it comes to social suffering—at the intersection of personal experiences and power structures—the task can be particularly difficult. To me, delving beyond the “borders of the visible” is partly what it takes to better understand big questions about the social world, the human condition, oppression, survival, and resistance. Paying attention to experiences of the body that cannot be easily articulated or that leave no visible marks may offer cues about the insidious workings of power, extended temporalities of suffering, barriers to empathy and solidarity, and the need to more adequately address and listen to traumatic histories.
Again, I let the testimonies of women I heard be my guide, combined with the work of other scholars in the interdisciplinary fields of collective memory, human rights, body studies, and intersectional and transnational feminisms. As I listened to the testimonies of women survivors, the significance of the body emerged in multiple ways, from the obvious to the subtle. Attention to the body—including visible bodily marks and invisible traces of embodied experience—was important to help me get a better grasp of the relation between gender and state power, and of women’s experiences of oppression and resistance.
The binary of active/passive or vulnerable/invulnerable in relation to the body plays prominently in your work, and you problematize these dichotomies throughout. Can you speak to the importance of attending to these kinds of implicit binaries when it comes to theorizing the body?
Everything about the scenes in clandestine detention centers—for example, shackles, blindfolds, forced nudity, sexual violence, torture, food deprivation, isolation, forced immobility—speak of the extreme vulnerability of the body in places of confinement, and of the repressors’ attempts to create a passive “body with no voice” (to borrow from Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain). However, this enforced vulnerability did not necessarily align with passivity, and the body does not need to be invulnerable in order to cope with or resist oppression. As is evident in the narratives I worked with, multiple forms of embodied resistance may emerge from vulnerability, and setting up dichotomies such as vulnerable/invulnerable bodies, undermine our ability to recognize not only the possibilities of a diversity of bodies, but also may prompt some to strive for illusory bodily invulnerability as self-preservation, instead of addressing the social relations of inequality that create the conditions for harm and injury of certain bodies.
The testimonies I heard defy strict separations between active/passive and, going back to the question about the invisible, what at first glance might appear as passivity may actually be active resistance. For instance, one of the women whose testimonies I heard, Marta García de Candeloro, spoke about how she generated a certain realm of freedom based on the hood that she was forced to wear in captivity. This was meant to deprive her from sight, fostering disorientation and isolation. Yet she was able to construct an interior world behind the hood, a world to which the repressors did not have access. She could smile, cry, and be herself behind the hood. The hood—a paradigmatic symbol of oppression and enforced vulnerability—was radically retooled by this woman during her captivity in a torture center. Surviving State Terror narrates this and many other examples of embodied resistance, tactical performances of body and emotions, ways of “leaving the body” temporarily to survive atrocity, and other forms of agency that suggest that binaries such as active/passive or vulnerable/invulnerable are not necessarily useful to comprehend the nuances of embodied experience.
You center the body and gender in your theorization of state power throughout the book. What investment does the state have in producing tortured or disappeared bodies, and how can sociologists attend more carefully to the place of embodiment in the operations of state power?
My book engages state power in its extreme manifestation—not only the state’s ability to regulate bodies through laws and institutional policies, but through the brutal deployment of its punitive arm—military, police, and security forces enlisted to enforce political, social, cultural, and economic agendas through utterly repressive methods. The body plays a prominent role in this type of project. The bodies of the citizenry were not only expected to comply with norms of body appearance, sexual and gender relations, restrictions on movement and assembly, and so on, but dissident bodies were meant to be silenced, severely punished, and even eliminated. Enforced disappearance is not only a tool for targeting dissident bodies and promoting terror among the population, but a way of getting rid of the “body evidence” that state crimes did occur. Enforced disappearance wreaks havoc on the social fabric of a community and denies the disappeared person’s relatives, friends, and comrades a body to mourn. In the case of people who were assassinated while in captivity, but this fact was denied by authorities, the disappearance of bodies perpetuates uncertainty and can function to guarantee impunity.
In my work, I also pay attention to torture at the hands of the state. Needless to say, this is an extreme embodied experience. As I analyze women’s testimonies of torture, I discuss gender as an implicit script. I do this by examining how torture overlaps with social constructs associated with femininity, including the treatment of women as if they were just bodies, the construction of femininity as vulnerability, the imperative for women to be hyperaware of their bodies, and the association of women with monstrosity. I do not claim that these are inherently feminine attributes or experiences, but examine how they are deployed through torture in ways that might be helpful to understand the experiences of people of various genders. I ask questions about the investment of the state in these dynamics, pointing to the significance of gender inequalities and ideologies to state power.
As sociologists, we can trace the workings and effects of state power on “the body”—the social body, the body politic, and the concrete material bodies and embodied experiences of individuals. This means paying attention to the interplay between state power and social inequalities, and how these social forces are experienced and contested by different groups of people through their bodies. It also means that even in the age of “disciplinary power” theorized by Foucault, we still need to pay attention to repressive forms of state power that have continued to target the body—even through torture—as key sites of violent control and brutal punishment in contexts of confinement.
The women whose stories you analyze talk a great deal about their bodies, about their embodied experiences. Do you have any advice for scholars whose research participants or subject matter is less clearly embodied? How can we excavate stories about the body when the theme is less present or available?
Everything we do involve our bodies in one way or another, though, as sociologists of the body have discussed, the body might not be constantly at the forefront of our consciousness or discourse.This has also been the case for much of sociological theory and social sciences scholarship, in which the body is taken for granted. For those who are interested in including the body in sociological analysis, the challenge is how to theorize, conduct research, and write in ways that makes the body’s presence and significance evident. How to acknowledge not “the body,” but concrete and diverse bodies shaped and constituted through social discourses and material inequalities? This partly has to do with the questions we ask and the concerns that drive our research.
For instance, if conducting qualitative research, we might want to include questions that are operationalized in ways that encourage interviewees to talk about sensory experiences, embodied emotions, what bodies do or feel, etc. However, even in the case of data that does not have bodies and embodiment as a central focus, stories about the body may still be there, and could be excavated through close listening. In my research for Surviving State Terror, I heard women telling stories that were obviously about the body, such as narratives about torture. However, they also told other stories that were relevant to embodied experience and knowledge, but were more “buried” in the narratives, or told in passing as part of accounts that were apparently about something else. These instances might be missed, might not be noticed, unless one’s ears are attuned to them.
Even in relation to topics that appear to be farfetched in terms of their relevancy to the body, there is still the possibility of retrieving body-related matters. For example, seemingly abstract and large-scale phenomena, such as the economy, might not be obviously about the body, and yet depending on how we approach the study we may discover important connections between the body and macro-economic forces. This is something I explored in my previous book, Bodies in Crisis, as I traced the ways in which women’s bodies were affected by neoliberal economic policies, how women spoke about the economic crisis in embodied ways, and how they used their bodies to protest economic forces that intersected with other systems of power. In that research, I developed a technique based on the use of “concept cards,” which yielded rich body stories. I offer an account of this research approach in my article, “Playful Cards, Serious Talk,” published in Qualitative Research. There are many other research innovations that aim to better convey embodiment, embodied emotions, and social dynamics involving the body. These require interventions at the level of theory, data collection, interview transcription, analytic and interpretative strategies, writing, and/or other forms of dissemination of results. In the last few years, new articles have been published that describe such approaches and synthesize the literature on embodied research and methodology. I look forward to learning more about and applying some of these innovations.