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Re-articulating Political Community: Testimonial Narratives and the Formation of an Audience

November 7, 2011 @ 3:00 pm - 5:00 pm

Portrait image of Marian Halls standing in the IRH library in front of book shelves wearing a white frilled shirt

Monday Seminar:

Marian Halls

Dana-Allen Dissertation Fellow (2011-2012)

Comparative Literature, UW-Madison


How and why do testimonial narratives emerge as a privileged mode of remembering times of political violence or catastrophe? As one point of departure, Dori Laub’s assertion in Felman and Laub’s Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (1992), that “the listener becomes the… witness before the narrator does” underscores the way in which the possibility of listening as witness serves as a precondition for testimony to historical crisis. At stake, in other words, is the question of the audience of the testimony: to whom is the narrative told, and how does the audience condition what is heard? Laub’s analysis of the role of the listener points to the suggestion that testimony requires first the possibility of communicability – a communicability which events of massive upheaval and violence may erode. My reading of Laub’s analysis, through the specificity of three twentieth-century historical contexts, poses this question: Does the possibility of testimony rely not only on communicability, but on an imagined community of listeners? Does the ability, however tenuous, to re-imagine or re-articulate a community after the crisis serve as a necessary precondition for the narrative act of bearing witness to take place? In my analysis of the factors conditioning testimonial production in Brazil’s political trials, in Guatemala’s post-war truth commissions, and in survivor testimonies given on the stand during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, I aim to push further Laub’s insight into the role of the addressee, in order to posit a critical distinction between the audience constructed to receive a testimony, and the addressee who hears it.


Marian Halls, a Dana-Allen Dissertation Fellow, is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at UW-Madison. Her research develops a comparative framework for understanding the emergence and development of testimonial narratives across distinct political and cultural contexts. In support of this project, she received a George Mosse Exchange Fellowship to conduct research at the archives of the Yad Vashem Research Center in Jerusalem, Israel. Halls is also the recipient of the UW Mellon Dissertation Fellowship, the UW-Madison Nave Award, and the University Prize Fellowship. Her essay, “The Bone that Writes: Desaparecidos and the Disappearance of Literature” is forthcoming in the book, Provocation and Negotiation: Essays in Comparative Criticism (ed. Tim Mathews). She received a dual B.A. in Ethnomusicology and Comparative Literature from the University of California at Los Angeles.


November 7, 2011
3:00 pm - 5:00 pm
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University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States