Communicating Violence: Reviewing The Spectral Wound

The Spectral Wound is an ethically complex text to which to respond. Particularly for a left-liberal academic type who is far removed from the events discussed in the book and the individual women and men described in the text (an academic type like myself, for instance), it is intellectually and morally presumptuous to comment on the experience of people who have been sexually assaulted and profoundly wounded during a devastating war. The difficulty of responding is compounded by the fact that The Spectral Wound calls attention to the assumptions that underlie such claims of moral scrupulousness and challenges them. It does so by reflecting on the myriad ways in which anyone responding to an event, to another person, or even to a narrative is implicated in networks of power and liability. As a result, even at this great remove from the ghotona (event, incident) that prompts The Spectral Wound, the book reminds us all that we risk not only failing to hear the fragments of experience reported in the text for reasons of class, race, and geography, but also that we risk profiting from ineptly and most certainly inaccurately retelling these fragments for our own purposes, thus repeating and perhaps exacerbating the wrong done during the Bangladesh War of 1971. At the same time, the book demands the retelling of these fragments. “We must tell these narratives,” the book insists, “in order to communicate how people fold the violence of wartime rape into everyday sociality” (260).

Of course, as The Spectral Wound observes, these narratives are already being told. However, when narratives of sexual violence perpetrated against women and men during the Bangladesh War of 1971 are relayed, they are often used to promote “grand projects of society and state” (260). In The Spectral Wound, Nayanika Mookherjee calls attention to this appropriation and describes the process, a process of “both remembering and occluding” (23) in terms of the metaphor of combing or combing over. According to Mookherjee, different parties with different agendas comb the fragments of stories told for information, raking through them for details, searching for material that may be used in party propaganda and state projects of constitution and reconsolidation, in trials as evidence against collaborators and/or political rivals, in popular narratives retold in novels, soap operas, and films to educate and entertain, in histories collected to confirm the valor and sacrifice of individual men and women for the cause of liberation, and to reaffirm the power of men, in particular as that power is exercised over women. Importantly, Mookherjee notes, combing takes place also in the conversation of acquaintances and the gossip of neighbors. These familiars scour the fragments they permit themselves or are allowed to publicly remember so as to dishonor the birangonas (“war heroines”) or render suspicious their claims to be entitled to compensation from the state for their “service” to the state, thus undermining in one way or another the economic and/or social standing of these women and their families in the community.

At the same time, Mookherjee argues, these same parties attempt to cover and veil knowledge from inspection, combing over rather than through the fragments. So the story of Shiromoni Bhaskar, a famous artist who “comes out” as a birangona in the 1999, and who is, unlike almost all other birangona, portrayed “smiling, testifying at a microphone, and being felicitated as a war heroine by intellectuals,” is retold in celebratory documentaries without details about her relationship with a Pakistani officer. During the war, she worked in a factory to support her widowed mother and younger siblings where she was subjected to repeated sexual violence. A Pakistani officer intervened to stop it and Shirmoni and the officer fell in love (a love that for Shiromoni was born of gratefulness, the book is quick to say). After the war, Shiromoni married her boyfriend who continues to be her husband. During the war her boyfriend helplessly endured what was happening to Shiromoni in the hands of the Bengali collaborators and Pakistani army. But because of her relationship to the Pakistani officer, after the war Shiromoni was accused of being a collaborator and had to constantly move (229).

The story of Birangona Bokul is similarly “combed over” when it appears in a newspaper in 1998. During the war, thirteen-year-old Bokul was captured by the Pakistani army and “subjected to continuous brutal torture” (“i.e., rape,” the book notes). After the war, she was sent to live in a mental hospital where she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. In six months she was cured, but she remained unable to speak of her life in the Pakistani camp. In the 1998 article about Birangona Bokul the explanation given for her silence is that she remembers nothing of her life in the camp. However, Mookherjee finds that Bokul’s body clearly communicates — with tears, gripping hands, gestures, and long pauses — that Bokul is able to remember the beginning of the “chaos.” The journalist simply refused to listen, preferring to satisfy himself with the account of Bokul’s case given by a human rights organization and then to represent Bokul’s time in the Pakistani camp with “gory description of sexual violation” instead of the more difficult, silent truth (219).

Bringing to light the repressed or combed over details of particular narratives like these is illustrative of how the stories of the birangonas are presented in various contexts for various purposes. However, calling attention to what is left out is not sufficient to the task The Spectral Wound sets for itself, and for us. Again, that task is to “communicate how people fold the violence of wartime rape into everyday sociality.” Hence, The Spectral Wound includes something like more traditional ethnographies of four birangonas. Significantly, these “studies” are presented in bits and pieces, assuming at times disorienting intimacy and at others familiarity with formal and distant state institutions as well as local networks of patronage. What emerges from these bits and pieces is the way in which the ghotona is incorporated into the bodies of these women, taken in but never fully digested, marking them under the skin, as it were, and sometimes very literally. One birangona, Rohima, suffers from a severe ulcer and a shrinking alimentary canal so she can eat only mashed rice and other bland food. Since the rape, she is acutely anemic due to excessive bleeding from her menstruation. She also experiences continuous palpitations in her heart and feels startled all the time (112-3). In the bodies of the birangonas then, the ghotona is present though not visible, made manifest but not evidently so in every interaction and relation the women have with their own bodies, their surroundings, and with others. The spectral character of the wound renders it simultaneously illegible and unspeakable, and yet iterable, so that it can be cited by the women as well as the people with whom they have more or less daily encounters as a justification for pain, scorn, mistreatment, suspicion, pride, dishonor, poverty, entitlement, and feelings of worthlessness.

Indeed, the most provocative argument made by the book is that the bodily experiences cited by the birangonas and the people with whom they live are not the effects of past events but are rather triggers of memory. This argument suggests that iterations of the wound reveal the meaning of what the women experience, and that this meaning is not determined by a past event but rather “draws from everyday experiences and from outside of the body” (115). In other words, the violence experienced by the birangonas is immanent in the places and in the relations in which they live. When this violence is actualized — by an unexpected clap of thunder, the sight of a broken wall, or a particular sensation on the skin — it activates memories of violence experienced in other contexts. Thus, the violence of the wartime rape is folded into the everyday life of those who have been touched by it.

Trauma studies encourage a working through of an injury that is repressed and cannot be acknowledged, so that the injury may be mourned and not fester in melancholia. But the working through described in The Spectral Wound is not the laying down of a burden, or an expulsion, catharsis, or even a movement toward resolution or dilution of pain, suffering or shock (108). Instead, the working through of The Spectal Wound is as a thread in piece of woven cloth worn every day. Hiding in plain sight in the fabric, this thread is obvious in the stitches that make up the material but is obscured by being presented (and used) in such a mundane fashion. Nevertheless, the thread touches everyone who brushes against the piece in which it is essentially intertwined, unexpectedly hurting them and disturbing their routines.

In this way, the violence of the ghotona is affectively conveyed in the narratives we must tell. The intensity of the responses of those who are touched by the narratives — responses of denial, hiding, pity, guilt, (self)-righteousness, sweeping away, pushing back, exhilaration — betray as they relay the violence the narratives communicate. Yet this violence never gives itself away, for it is part of the fabric of everyday life and cannot be easily distinguished from the rest of what makes up normal sociality.

Is there any kind of response that can help create a memory that these women can localize or hold on to so that what they have endured can be acknowledged and finally set aside? In other words, why must we tell these narratives and risk (re)inflicting the violence they communicate? Wouldn’t it be better just to listen, as Mookherjee does when she visits Bokul, gripping the woman’s hands as Bokul recalls vague memories of the beginning of gondogol, both of them crying (218)? Or perhaps it would be better to bear witness, as the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, fails to do in 1998 when she meets with the four birangonas Mookherjee has come to know? By then the women had given up on receiving any material assistance from the prime minister but they still “wanted to tell her about our sorrows beyond 1971” (101). Would “taking” their narratives, as Rohima’s husband had hoped the prime minister would do, help?

Mookherjee gives the reader little reason to believe that it would. Unlike other recent discussions of “the injustice of not being heard,” Mookherjee does not seem concerned with the ethics of listening or teaching others to “listen well.” Perhaps this is because the wound she describes is not alleviated by recognition or acknowledgement, careful attention to silences or expressions of sorrow, claims of responsibility for the past or revisions of the possibilities of the present for the future. On the contrary, Mookherjee’s brave insight is that the fragments she has caught may never be put aside or put to rest. Instead, they are more likely to continue to appear when they can be most effectively used in the daily lives of the birangonas to further some agenda of their own or the purposes of some other.

I call this a brave insight because it echoes a familiar (resentful and flatfooted) critique of the anthropologist (and the reviewer) for making a (good) living off of the stories of the (poor) lives of (distant, suffering) others. Except, in this instance, those others exploit themselves. But then, as this is the case, Mookherjee’s insight might seem to suggest that anthropologist (and reviewer) is risking nothing indecent when they tell these narratives. In effect, the exploitation is mitigated by its ordinariness. However, I think Mookherjee is making a much more important point than such a petty (and invalid) conclusion indicates. While the victims of The Spectral Wound are specific women and men who endure their suffering in particular contexts and under unique circumstances, Mookherjee shows how the violence they experienced and continue to experience does not persist in the space of a sequestered, individual conscious or unconscious mind. Rather it endures in everyday life, shared and private moments in domestic and public spaces, as well as in nature and man-made objects. When violence is folded into everyday life sociality, it is difficult to imagine how anyone can interact with anyone or anything else and not become implicated in the perpetration of violence. Where the very atmosphere is imbued with force and an empty field may be sown with triggers of devastating pain, it is not possible to remain safely “above or “beyond” the fray.

Attending to how wartime violence is folded in everyday sociality, Mookherjee does not pretend to a distant point of view or detached interpretation. Mookherjee listens but she is not a passive bystander. As an interested party, she does not seize the opportunity to pronounce on the truth of the claims made by or for the birangonas, however. To do so would be to deny the character of the reality Mookherjee has come to know. Instead, she shows the reader of The Spectral Wound how she herself responds to the stories that touch her and in which she finds herself inevitably entangled. She becomes a character in the stories of the birangonas. Thus, for example, despite her protests that she has no power or connections Mookherjee finds herself carrying letters to NGO heads, intellectuals, and feminists on behalf of the women and families she meets in the village where most of the birangonas she knows live. She even confronts an activist the women believe has documented their stories without their consent. However, after doing so, Mookherjee herself becomes the subject of a newspaper article written by that activist. The article not only distorts their conversation but also suggests that Mookherjee is working with him. Fearing that the article may cause the birangonas to lose their trust in her, Mookherjee writes a rejoinder. Mookherjee then finds that support for her research and her capacity to remain in Bangladesh is threatened by male colleagues who had otherwise seemed quite “progressive” (256). As a result, Mookherjee withdraws the rejoinder.

Commenting on her experience, Mookherjee observes, “The appropriation process had finally come full circle, with myself as the researcher also having been appropriated like the women from western Bangladesh” (256). Sharing the story of the birangonas, Mookherjee experiences personally a form of the violence the stories communicate, the violence of being used to further the purposes of a state or civil society project. Significantly, Mookherjee notes, “the question of rehabilitation for the birangonas — the whole point of my conversation with the activist — remained unanswered” (256). With this remark, Mookherjee reminds the reader that conversation does not necessarily inform or persuade with facts and reason. Instead, conversation brings people into confused relations of intention, indifference, chance, and consequence. Mookherjee may have had a point or a question when she started speaking with the activist but she could not determine what happened in the exchange. Despite her education and her contacts and her sophisticated understanding of the context, the conversation took on a life of its own and the activist skillfully took advantage. On the other hand, in The Spectral Wound Mookherjee has appropriated the conversation for her own purposes and the activist now serves the cause of her book.

Still, I am not sure how profound Mookherjee finds or means this observation about conversation, telling narratives, and the appropriation of the women of Western Bangladesh to be. At times, particularly at those moments when she describes the combing over process in terms of remembering to forget and when she insists on the extraordinary character of the violence of wartime rape, there are traces of a more conventional idea of the wounded psyche and of the familiar assumption that particularly horrific experiences cannot be processed “normally.” I find Mookherjee most inspiring when her observations seem to suggest that such a model of the psyche is too autonomous and self-contained. The ancient ruined city Freud describes to illustrate the unconscious need not be understood as an internal space but may actually be experienced in the bits and pieces of the world in which we live. When we see how people tremble when the sky darkens, we may acknowledge how people fold the violence of wartime rape into everyday sociality and understand not only how people cope with extraordinary violation and terror but also how we all experience the intensities of everyday life.


Jennifer L. Culbert is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. She teaches courses in political theory and law. She has interests in a wide range of subjects, including state violence, jurisprudence, ethics, judgment, aesthetics, and language. She is the author of Dead Certainty: The Death Penalty and the Problem of Judgment (Stanford University Press, 2008) and the co-editor, with Austin Sarat, of States of Violence: War, Capital Punishment, and Letting Die (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

One Response to Communicating Violence: Reviewing The Spectral Wound

  1. Pingback: Book Forum — Nayanika Mookherjee’s The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 | Somatosphere

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