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Reflections on Literary Silence

Shirah Kraus's picture

I wonder if this was Anne's secret mysterious alterior motive, but upon reflecting on our reader-response activity and the density of Balaev's work, I have been thinking about how readers are silenced by literature. When we were discussing in class this sort of censorship of seemingly irrelevant reader-reactions which is a silencing of sorts. When we read out loud or to ourselves, there are thoughts that emerge in our minds and we silence them. But maybe that isn't so bad. Maybe mentioning a random craving for a grilled cheese is not productive or relevant. I think Balav's writing is reflective of a silencing academic form of writing. Academia often uses its prestige to silence marginalized or dissenting voices. Yet those in academia have a motive for preserving their power and for using their data to do so.

Over the course of the conference I attended, I spoke to a high school student who is interning with an organization called Stand With Us, which is "supporting Israel around the world." She emphasized the organization's emphasis on facts. Facts are complicated though, because they can be hand-selected and interpreted to support a specific world view. (Of course facts are better than lies.) Moreover, they take away the power and legitimacy of people's real lived experiences. At a session at the conference, a sociologist was presenting his findings on Jewish college students in the U.S. and their connections to Judaism and Israel. But the way he defined "connection to Israel" was unclear and he was selective about which data he used. He has done a lot of research on Birthright (all-expense paid 10-day trip to Israel for 18-26 year old American Jews) and has been paid by Birthright to conduct this research: he certainly has an interest in using this research to promote Birthright. While I was sitting in this session with another student, though, we felt that his data did not actually reflect our qualitative experiences. Noah argued that in some cases Birthright can actually alienate Jews rather than connect them. The sociologist did not address this cohort of students. The academia and veneer of facts threatened to overtake real experiences.

This reminds me of discussions from Feminist Theory about how ignorance and knowlege are manufactured to perpetuate systems of oppression and "facts" are used to silence marginalized voices and justify oppression. But, according to standpoint theory, oppressed groups actually have epistemic privilege. I envision this as if we are all sitting in a classroom and the people sitting in the back (oppressed people) can see the people in the front, but those in the front cannot see those behind them unless they turn around. However, if we all sit and look ahead, we only see the backs of the people in front of us. And how do we know where we are sitting? There are many rows and columns. Seeing Jews or Israel only as oppressed or only as oppressors is wrong. This brings us back to complex personhood. And how does this relate to complex peoplehood, as in the complexity of a whole people? Balaev talks about collective memory and trauma, with the understanding that a group of people who have experienced trauma exists beyond their trauma. She points out the damage-based perspective of contemporary trauma theory: "A central claim of contemporary literary << >> trauma theory asserts that << >> trauma creates a speechless fright that divides or destroys identity" (1). Balaev argues that understanding the complex personhood and peoplehood of those who have experienced personal or collective trauma necessitates a complex and heterogenenous (and I would add, particularist) trauma theory. Our understanding of complex personhood and peoplehood should not excuse or distract from oppression and injustice that exist in the world, but rather deepen our understanding of such injustice and help us to move forward and create the world as it we think it should be.