Eugenio Di Stefano
Erin Graff Zivin’s Figurative Inquisitions (2014) is not the first text to tackle questions that emerge from the intersection of torture and truth. There is a long history of writers that do the same; but what makes her book especially relevant is that these questions are not only placed in dialogue with literature but also are given a certain literary genealogy within the Luso-Hispanic tradition, especially through an engagement with marranismo. This literary genealogy is front and center in the first three chapters of her book, where she seeks to dismantle the notion of “hidden truth” or “secret,” which is at the heart of Inquisitional logic (xiv, viii). In the final chapter, titled “Other Inquisitions,” she departs from these geographical and literary constraints by reading Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) and José Saramago’s Seeing (2004), in order to put forth a more comprehensive understanding of the “logic of torture” and literature (xii). More specifically, she takes on the question of whether literature, or a literary discourse, can somehow promote a different type of logic, a “logic of testimony,” that moves beyond a “logic of proof” that is crucial to The Battle of Algiers (143,144).
In this essay, I want to focus on Graff Zivin’s reading of The Battle of Algiers for several reasons. First, her reading draws attention to her critical claim that literature can produce a “logic of torture;” a logic of torture means, more specifically, the inscription of a “truth” that can be extracted from torture. In this way, the logic of torture follows the same form as her account of Inquisitional logic, which also posits a “hidden truth” or “secret” that can be violently extracted. Second, I want to show that Pontecorvo’s film has less to do with torture, as Graff Zivin suggests, than with the immediate history of colonialism, national liberation, and finally exploitation in Algeria. Third, this insistence on torture is informed by her investment in anti-intentionalism, which, as I will argue, ultimately undermines her account not only of literature, but also of an “ethics of reading as witnessing,” an ethics that requires literature’s fixity (144). Finally, I want to suggest that this anti-intentionalist claim is indicative of a larger post-historical trend that affirms the question of the reader’s experience and interest, and in so doing, consolidates rather than rejects neoliberal logic. In short, the commitment to experience and interest in Figurative Inquisitions reveals a deep compatibility between the primacy of torture and neoliberalism.
The Logic of Torture
The Battle of Algiers is by no means the only work that is accused of producing Inquisitional logic in Figurative Inquisitions. In fact, most of the works Graff Zivin cites can be said to engage in such logic. But where these other texts focus primarily on the Luso-Hispanic world, her analysis of The Battle of Algiers clearly departs from these geographical and literary constraints in order to make a broader claim about the logic of torture, which, as we will see, functions to undermine any historical or political difference. This means that what is essential about The Battle of Algiers is, according to Graff Zivin, the primacy of torture, despite these historical or political differences. For this reason, the film presents a difficult challenge for
thinking the ethnicity of the aesthetic representation of torture. Despite the oppositional stance The Battle of Algiers takes against the use of torture by the French military, I argue that Pontecorvo does little to dismantle the relationship between torture and truth and that, from the very first scene of the film, the violent interrogation of prisoners is shown to extract the “truth” (specifically, the names of FLN operatives) from the body of the other. That one of the earliest cinematic protests against the use of torture ends up reproducing the very logic that makes torture possible points to a highly complex—and problematic—relationship between ethics, politics, and aesthetics in the representation of interrogation. (123)
It is no doubt true that the French tortured Algerians, which the film clearly shows. But one must wonder whether a film that also shows the FLN blowing up cafes and killing “innocent” victims is a “protest against the use of torture,” much less concerned with dismantling its logic. In fact, using this logic, one could just as easily read it as a protest against FLN tactics as well. Instead, if torture (or other terror tactics) was a point of contention in this period – and it certainly was – it was primarily understood as an extension of a larger problem, which was French colonialism, as Sartre had suggested on several occasions. The director Pontecorvo and the screenwriter, Franco Salinas, also echo this same idea in interviews when they state that The Battle of Algiers was about documenting an “anticolonial” movement in Algeria and “an invisible capitalism at home” (Bignardi, 14). Adding to Pontecorvo and Salinas’ critique of “capitalism,” the film historian David Thomson notes that part of the film’s success and credibility is that it shows characters who are “caught up in a larger, politico-economic pattern of exploitation” (Bernstein). The film has been lauded for its realism, which is also undeniably visible in the torture employed by the French and the bombings by the FLN. And as a realist film, it depicts torture and terror in order to accurately represent this historical event. Which is just to say that the realism of The Battle of Algiers is informed more by the desire to capture the “politico-economic pattern of exploitation” occurring in Algeria than it is about either the torture executed by the French or the terror carried out by the FLN. Rather than produce a “cinematic protest against the use of torture,” then, Pontecorvo creates a film that places a critique of exploitation at its center.
This insistence on exploitation should come as no surprise since the film was made in a moment marked by national liberation movements, and framed largely around a Cold War ideological divide between socialism and liberalism. More surprising, however, is that since its theatrical re-release in 2003 the question of exploitation has been replaced by a conversation about torture, although, as I am asserting, the film has less to say on that topic. In many ways, Graff Zivin follows a logic analogous to Idelber Avelar’s argument in The Letter of Violence (2004). In a footnote in that book, Avelar writes that Mario Benedetti’s play Pedro y el Capitán (1979) also attempts to critique torture while reproducing its logic. Published in 1979 at the height of authoritarian repression in Uruguay, the play, as I have argued elsewhere, is not about torture, but rather is a critique of “private property” (Benedetti, 27). The central tension in the play revolves around the Captain who wants Pedro to name names, but the real objective for the Captain is to win the war against socialism. (Pedro too, wants to win the war against liberalism). What is important in the play is not the difference between an interrogator and a tortured subject, but rather, as Benedetti himself declares, recognizing that what divides them “above all” is “ideological, and maybe this is the key for [understanding] all the other differences […]” (Benedetti, 18). What Avelar does not see, or simply is not interested in taking into consideration, is that torture is simply irrelevant to the conversation between the Captain and Pedro; what is relevant is that by the the last act Pedro wins the ideological battle at the play centers. That is, liberalism loses, and socialism wins. In short, the drama that revolves around the confession does not serve to protest torture, but rather to name history itself; that is, to represent the battle between socialism and liberalism.
To place the play, like the film The Battle of Algiers, squarely into a conversation about torture is to miss the ideological point. What we see in both Benedetti and Pontecorvo are works that are committed more to eradicating capitalism than to eradicating torture, that is, they are committed to denouncing the system of exploitation that produces torture, rather than the torture itself. This shift from ideology to torture has much to do with the emergence of a human rights discourse in the 1970s, which effectively begins to erase a conversation about class inequality, and replaces it with a conversation about rights, a conversation that has only increased in recent years. Indeed, it is worth recalling that in the 1970s it was precisely in Benedetti’s Uruguay that Amnesty International had begun a radically new campaign against torture, a first of its kind, which many militants were against since it effectively shifted focus away from their political project to a question of tactics. Within this discourse of human rights, however, torture becomes an end in itself, and with it, so too ends a political project that sought to eliminate exploitation.
“The Logic of Proof” and Intentionalism
Graff Zivin, of course, foresees this problem and asserts that the conversation she wishes to have about torture should not be framed within a discourse of human rights; instead, she might see human rights as a further articulation of what she calls a “logic of proof”(144). What she means by a logic of proof is a cognitive or constative element found in legal or scientific discourse, or even literary criticism, that endorses the idea of empirical fact, evidence, conversions and confessions, as well as the idea of truth, authorial intention and univocal meaning (5). According to her reading, what is problematic about the logic of proof is that it not only produces, but also justifies, many of the political practices we continue to carry out, including torture. For example, we justify the usage of torture by suggesting that “evidence” can be extracted from the tortured subject. But as she argues, following Elaine Scarry, this information turns out to be “largely irrelevant” (5). In this way, for her, a logic of proof keeps us interrogating, and keeps us trapped within the logic of torture. And like the legal and scientific discourses, literary criticism too “obeys a logic of proof” by interrogating, and by insisting on a univocal meaning that can be extracted from the text (144).
Literature, or the literary moment, on the other hand, does something different, or at least has the potential to do so, since it follows a “logic of testimony” (143). What she means by a “logic of testimony” is the performative quality of literature, which, citing Derrida, “remains irreducibly heterogeneous to proof” by “necessarily failing to prove without doubt” (143). This dismantling of the logic of proof will, at the same time, signal “albeit obliquely – a tentative ethics and aesthetics of the impossible” something like, as she notes elsewhere in the book “the other side of reunification, nationalism, and colonialism, as well as the necessary failure of these political religious, and identitary projects” (143, 23). In this way, literature points to a potential beyond these politics. Furthermore, “Literature, or the literary moment in aesthetic discourse, is to be defined as the device for recording and producing undecidabilities, as well as the writing practice that allows readers to formulate ethical responses to states of affairs found not only in literary works, but in the world at large” (144). In this way, by “registering and producing undecidabilities,” literature points to a logic of testimony and the “impossible,” and away from a logic of proof, and a politics of the same.
This raises an important point about how to undermine the logic of proof when a text, like The Battle of Algiers, insists on it. That is, how do we deconstruct this logic of proof in order to get something closer to the logic of testimony? As we noted above, this logic of proof is associated with intentionalism, which is understood as promoting the idea of a univocal meaning that can be extracted from the text. It is perhaps for this reason that part of her theoretical project seeks to undermine authorial intention, which she calls “outmoded” and an “overdetermined relationship of equivalence between past and present” (61,72). Furthermore, she wants to “downplay the idea of intentionality […], whether understood as aesthetic or political” (72). Following her logic, once the author’s intended meaning is disconnected from the work of art, the work no longer becomes a place where a “meaning” can be extracted. Which is just to say that, part of the desire, or force of anti-intentionalism, is that it provides a theoretical mechanism to understand how meaning is not fixed or decidable.
What is more, anti-intentionalism not only allows for her to move beyond the logic of proof, but also implies a different way of approaching text. Indeed, this commitment entails a shift away from interpretation to the reader’s experience, which underscores “the unexpected, surprising elements” of the text (72). Delinking intention from the text permits “that with each work we encounter, in the act of reading, discursive shards [will] pierce each performance or interpretation” (59). In short, once intention is disconnected from meaning, “shards” or effects can pierce the reader in ways that authorial intent might thwart.
But if this question of overcoming the role of authorial intent is central to recovering the “discursive shard” Graff Zivin values, it also more broadly in the field of Latin American studies, has been crucial to recovering the importance of marginalized identities. In this shift to identity, disagreements about the meaning of the text are re-described as differences of experience and effects, which effectively eliminate the question of interpretation. As Charles Hatfield notes:
This produces a conversation of disagreements into difference because […] without intention, or the idea that a text’s meaning exists independently from our individual experience of it, we cannot have interpretive disagreements. In order to disagree with someone about a text’s meaning, in other words, we must not only think that our interpretation is in fact the interpretation but also that our different experiences as readers is irrelevant. (nonsite)
While Graff Zivin sees her arguments as an attempt to deconstruct identity, her commitment to anti-intentionalism, nevertheless, still leads her back to the same formal structure of experience that eliminates not only interpretation, but also the “text’s meaning.” Furthermore, for her, this shift to experience permits not only something “unexpected” and “surprising” to emerge, but also an “ethics of reading as witnessing” (144). We will return to the question of an “ethics of reading as witnessing” below, but for now what is important to note is that the shift to experience is meant to free the reader from the constraints not only of the logic of proof, but also of interpretation as a critical practice.
The Loss of the Literary Object
If Graff Zivin’s anti-intentionalism eliminates meaning, it also undermines what I find most significant about her study: literature. What I want to show below, through a reading of de Man’s “The Purloined Ribbon,” is that although she insists on literature, anti-intentionalism properly understood makes not only meaning undecidable, but also the very distinction between art and nonart undecidable, a distinction that is necessary if she wishes to assert that literature gestures toward the “impossible.” In short, she eliminates the space for making such claims.
Graff Zivin alludes to de Man’s classic argument in “The Purloined Ribbon” (1977) to make her anti-intentional claim, an essay that in fact attempts to dismantle the distinction between art and nonart. De Man’s essay centers on an episode in Rousseau’s Confessions in which Rousseau steals a “pink and silver ribbon” and later blames the fellow servant Marion for having given it to him. What concerns Rousseau (and de Man) in the Confessions, however, is not the crime of stealing the ribbon, but rather the crime of slander that gets Marion fired. Rousseau’s text provides several excuses for why he uttered the word “Marion” (28). Indeed, de Man himself is interested in the several ways in which Rousseau’s uttering of the word “Marion” may have functioned as excuses, excuses that center on the desire to either blame or possess Marion, or even the desire for Rousseau to get attention.
It is only when de Man considers what Rousseau surely never meant as a proper excuse –that the utterance “Marion” was “almost unconscious”– that it becomes the best “excuse” of all (37). The reasons why it is the best “excuse” is because “Marion” properly understood meant nothing at all – it is meaningless. “Marion just happened to be the first thing that came to mind; any other word, any other sound or noise could have done just as well and Marion’s entry into the discourse is a mere effect of chance. She is a free signifier” (36). The point, then, is that the “free signifier” properly understood would at once resolve the problem that the “utterance” sets in motion, “If the essential non-signification of the statement had been properly interpreted, if Rousseau’s accusers had realized that Marion’s name was the ‘le premier object qui s’offrit,’ they would have understood his lack of guilt as well as Marion’s innocence”(40). For de Man the idea is not necessarily to argue that this “excuse” is a convincing one. Rather for de Man the point is that the “excuse” serves as a springboard for the much larger claim about the function of language more generally. The “non-signification” of the utterance is not simply something that it is particular to Rousseau’s confession but rather it is a phenomenon particular to all language as such – all utterances are ultimately meaningless.
The real nature of language is “entirely free with regard to referential meaning” (40). For this reason de Man claims that what we as readers understand as the meaning of a text is itself an “illusion of meaning;” and every interpretation is a misinterpretation (44). The revelation of the internal logic of language, however, for de Man, does not signify the end of the text as such; on the contrary it is only because of the “moment” in which language “stands free of any signification” that a “text is conceivable” (40). In other words, in order for the text to operate as a text, it requires a “moment” when the “referential function” of language is “radically suspended” (37) from the author’s intention. Once divorced from the author’s intended meaning the object becomes, as he declared in “Form and Content,” a “stone” (23). The signifier, in short, is pure materiality. De Man continues,
It seems to be impossible to isolate the moment in which the fiction stands free of any signification; in the very moment at which it is posited, as well as in the context that it generates, it gets at once misinterpreted into a determination which is, ipso facto, overdetermined. Yet without this moment, never allowed to exist as such, no such thing as a text is conceivable. (40)
Thus, the true force of deconstruction, on de Man’s account, is not that the text has one or many meanings but rather that it has no meaning whatsoever. Which is just to say that the closest one can get to understanding this reality of the text is by the reader resisting “all temptation to give any significance” (37) to the utterance “Marion.” To resist assigning a meaning to this utterance reveals two important points: The first is that the true nature of the object is one in which the difference between art and nonart is erased; that is, the “stone” eliminates this meaning. The second is that it reveals the “meaning” of the “text” it is not determined by the author’s intention, but rather by those of us who (mistakenly) assign it “meaning.” For de Man, anti-intentionalism, in short, makes “meaning” undecidable.
As we saw above, what Graff Zivin wants is a literature as a device of “recording and producing undecidabilities;” and she thinks that anti-intentionalism can produce this device because it allows for undecidabilities. But as we see with de Man’s account, anti-intentionalism properly understood, and against Graff Zivin, eliminates not only univocal meaning, but also the literary object that is meant to register these undecidabilities. That is, anti-intentionalism transforms the literary object into a “stone.” As such, anti-intentionalism eliminates literature, and with it, the very power of “impossibility” she wishes literature to produce. Which is just to say that one can’t have a literature of undecidability when there is no literature to register that undecidability in the first place. Of course, there’s another possibility that becomes available here, namely, that the reader is a part of a larger community who determines the “meaning” of the “stone,” and names it “literature.”  But this position only reaffirms the reader’s experience that was noted above, but now extends it to a larger community of “readers” who determine its “meaning.” Some communities will assign it the “meaning” literature, other communities will not. Either way, this commitment only serves to reinforce the idea of the undecidability of literature rather than a literature of undecidability. Literature, theoretically, vanishes from her account despite her affirmations of its centrality.
From the Stone to Interest
This raises an important question about an “ethics of reading as witnessing” which insists on the status of literature as a place not only of impossibility, but also of practice to counter the logic of proof that is arguably found in a film like The Battle of Algiers. Graff Zivin states,
I want to propose, as a mode of conclusion, an ethics of reading as witnessing that, in its departure from the logic of proof, abandons Inquisitional logic in favor of something more expansive, but also more dangerous. If, at its worst, literary criticism, too, obeys a logic of proof, in which the interrogation of a text results in the narrowing of that rather than its expansion, can we begin to imagine a critical practice that would hold open multiple possibilities of interpretation? This critical practice would bring us closer to what we now understand literature to be. (144)
As we noted above, Graff Zivin’s anti-intentionalism eliminates the literary object. But I’d like to focus on the question of witnessing, and bearing witness, which she associates with reading, and with Badiou’s idea of truth. Of course, the shift from a conventional reader to a witness is meant to suggest a type of ethical position now connected to literature. It imagines a sort of political responsibility or political subject who is now called upon to testify to the truth of a (literary) event. But what kind of ethics can literature as event generate when its status has already been compromised? What kind of (textual) truth can interpellate a subject in the Badiousian sense when the literary “truth” is ipso facto determined by the reader or his or her community who assigns it “meaning?” “Truth” becomes nothing more than a doubling down on one’s experience. Or said from a different position, if there is no literary truth, since there is no literature, truth must be understood as a “truth” that the community imposes on the object. By imagining that meaning can be divorced from intention, the question of truth is transformed into the reaffirmation of the reader’s experience, a reaffirmation of whatever desires and interests may guide the reader (or community), whether that be identity, anti-identity, torture or even tastes.
This commitment to experience undoubtedly follows a larger historical trend. As Walter Benn Michaels has noted, our post-historical moment is primarily defined by our interests rather than the beliefs that transcend these interests. As we recall above, the Cold War was organized around beliefs (socialism and liberalism) rather than by interest, whether that be determined by one’s race, ethnicity, gender or abilities etc. What this means is that if one was committed to socialism, the idea was that socialism was right for all regardless of one’s particular position. Beliefs, in short, transcend rather than insist on experience. The post-historical moment transforms beliefs into experiences that inform one’s interest; it also transforms history into memories that inform one’s past. From this post-historical position, anti-intentionalism serves not only to deconstruct literature, but also to dismantle history insofar as literature no longer becomes a place where a historical truth outside of one’s interest is available. In other words, once literature disappears, the object only serves to reflect who we are and what we want to see. To bring this back to Pedro y el Capitán or The Battle of Algiers, by claiming one’s interest (in torture, for example), a history that sought to eliminate class inequality is made invisible. It allows one to substitute a reading that would engage with the historical and political realities that affected Benedetti and Pontecorvo and motivated them to make their work (their intentions) for an engagement with whatever reactions, feelings and responses viewers have in the present. Or to say this differently still, anti-intentionalism function as a mechanism not only to eliminate literature, but also to see all politics, even class politics, as primarily a question of one’s present interests.
If the post-historical moment is defined by a certain commitment to interest in the present, that commitment is given a genealogy by erasing the discussion of class equality in the past. Which is just to say that while interests are certainly multiple, their multiplicity serves primarily to make neoliberalism’s triumph more apparent, since they are representative not only of a certain irrelevance to the question of exploitation and equality in the present, but also to extending that irrelevance to the past. My point here is not that a conversation about torture is irrelevant. Instead, the point is that by insisting on the primacy of torture while ignoring the ideological conflict that brought it about, plays right into neoliberal agendas by effectively neutralizing a possible critique of capitalism; a critique that is desperately needed today as the gap between rich and poor widens. In other words, the assertion of torture at the expense of the author’s intention not only theoretically (through the loss of literature and emphasis on experience) but also dialogically (through the loss of a conversation on exploitation) is symptomatic of a larger project to eliminate an anti-capitalist discourse, which, in turn, has been and is central to neoliberalism’s consolidation.
I want to be clear that my claim here is not that all readings must reductively return to the question of class inequality. Nor is my point that we need to promote a more traditional and conventional Marxian readings. One doesn’t have to be a Marxist to see why we might want to care about exploitation. Nor does one have to endorse a return to a previous form of (Cold War) politics in order to produce a politics that openly confronts these present day concerns. My point, instead, has been to note some of the theoretical and historical implications of the logic of the testimonio, which keeps us not only firmly within the realm of interest, but also firmly anchored within a larger neoliberal project. Indeed, it seems to me that rather than the logic of testimony, the point of departure should be a turn to a logic of proof – that is, the commitment to intention, truth, history, and finally literature – which makes available an anti-capitalist reading, as is the case with of The Battle of Algiers; or at the very least, intention provides us with a concrete literary object – a foundation, if you will – with which we can either agree or disagree. By insisting on the logic of the testimonio and anti-intentionalism, that foundation instead disappears into of our interest and the shadows of the neoliberal present.
Avelar, Idelber. Letters of Violence: Essays on Narrative, Ethics, and Politics. Palgrave Macmillian, 2004.
Benedetti, Mario. Pedro y el Capitán. Nueva Imagen, 1979.
Bernstein, Adam. “Film Director Gillo Pontecorvo; ‘Battle of Algiers Broke Ground.”
Washington Post. Washington Post, 16 Oct. 2006. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.
Bignardi, Irene. “The Making of the Battle of Algiers.” Cineaste. 25.2, 2000, 14-22.
De Man, Paul. “Form and Intent in the American New Criticism.” Blindness and
Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. University of
Minnesota Press, 1983.
—. “The Purloined Ribbon.” Glyph 1: 39, 1977, pp. 28-49.
Di Stefano, Eugenio. “From Revolution to Human Rights in Mario Benedetti’s Pedro y el Capitán.”Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies. 20.2, 2011, pp. 121–37.
Graff Zivin, Erin. Figurative Inquisitions: Torture and Truth in the Luso-Hispanic Atlantic. Northwestern University Press, 2014.
Hatfield, Charles. “From Posthegemony to Pierre Menard.” Nonsite.org. 13, 2014, n. Pag. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.
Markarian, Vania. Left in Transformation: Uruguayan Exiles and the Latin American Human Rights Network, 1967-1984. London: Routlouge, 2005. Print.
Michaels, Walter Benn. The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History. Princeton University Press, 2004.
Sartre, Jean Paul. “Une victoire.” Situations V. Gallimard, 1967.
The Battle of Algiers. Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo. Perf. Brahim Hadjadj and Jean Martin. Igor Films, 1966, DVD.
 A marrano is a Christianized Jew who coverts to Christianity often to avoid persecution., According to Graff Zivin, idea of the marrano or “cryptic-Jew” is always imagined as a “subject who guards a secret par excellence” (xiii).
 Graff Zivin attributes the term “Inquisitional logic” to Alberto Moreiras who declares that “Spanish imperial reason was strongly, if certainly not exclusively, marked by the process that led to the establishment of the Inquisition, first and by both the discursive and material relations that Spain developed with the natives of the New World” (“Spanish Narration Formation” 5).
 See, for example, Sartre’s essay, “Une Victoire,” in L’Express, No. 350, March 6 1958.
 See my essay “From Revolution to Human Rights in Mario Benedetti’s Pedro y el
 Of course, what was happening outside of the interrogation room in Uruguay was mass repression, including the obliteration of leftist groups like the MLN-Tupamaros. The interrogation room reflects this reality. Nevertheless, the conversation and the downfall of Captain at the play’s end posit a utopian space where that ideological battle could still be won.
 See, Markarian.
 All quotations refer to the “The Purloined Ribbon” that was first published in Glyph 1 (1977): 39
 See, Fish’s Is there a text in this class?
 Hatfield also notes a similar point in Graff Zivin’s edited volume The Ethics of Latin American Literary Criticism: Reading Otherwise (2007), where he draws on her question of whether the act of reading can be understood as an event. If the answer is “yes,” then the event only serves to insist on the reader’s experience rather than the truth that stands outside of that experience.