Life, Story, Violence: What Narrative Doesn’t Say

“Go ahead and torture me. It will take my death to make me talk, and for your information I’m sorry for every bit of cooperation I have offered in the past,” I said. “First of all, your cooperation was achieved by force. You didn’t have a choice. Nor will you in the future: I am going to make you talk,” ——— said.

—Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantánamo Diary

To name, to give names that it will on occasion be forbidden to pronounce, such is the originary violence of language which consists in inscribing within a difference, in classifying, in suspending the vocative absolute.

—Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology

A plea to a jailer: “Please, I want you guys to understand my story okay, because it really doesn’t matter if they release me or not, I just want my story understood.”1 The life-storyteller willing to trade the possibility of freedom for the release of his detention narrative is Mohamedou Ould Slahi, detainee #760 held in the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay from August 2002 to October 2016. The “guys” whom he wanted to understand his story were the Presiding military officers at his 2005 Administrative Review Board Hearing who would make a recommendation about Slahi’s continued detention at GTMO to someone referred to in the transcripts simply as the “Designated Civilian Official”—a rather perverse pseudonym, as Slahi himself suggests, for what amounts to a bureaucratic version of an “implied reader.” “I am not really upset,” Slahi claims, after being told that the Review Board had no idea about when a decision on his possible release might be made, “but [it is] just amazing that my life is going to be at the hands of one person called the Designated Civilian.”2 At the same Review Board hearing, Slahi announced to the presiding officers, almost offhandedly, the existence of an improbable manuscript composed on scrap pages of interrogation reporting forms: “I just want to mention here that I wrote a book while in jail here recently about my whole story okay. I sent it for release in District [of] Columbia and when it is released I advise you guys to read it.”3 Thus, with both the Board’s recommendation and the hearing transcripts at his or her disposal, the Designated Civilian would seem to hold the fate of both Slahi’s life and his life story in hand.

While its author continued to be held in illegal detention at GTMO, the book whose release Slahi anticipated in 2005 finally saw the light of day in 2015, published as Guantánamo Diary, after a campaign of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests prompted the United States government to release a declassified copy of the handwritten manuscript. The book was published with “more than 2,500 black-bar redactions” of FOIA censorship and expansive editorial comments by journalist and human rights activist Larry Siems.4 The redactions pose a particular challenge to the editor and readers of the text, because they “often serve to impede the sense of narrative, [and] blur the contours of characters,” as Siems remarks.5 Indeed, the black spots on the story, which we might regard as forms of “textual bruising or scarring,” not only represent “dramatic patterns of [human rights] abuse”; they also give visible form to the coordinated assault on narrative that is a central—perhaps the quintessential—feature of contemporary U.S. counterinsurgency policy. And yet, these anti-narrative acts of textual negation, as they frustrate understanding, ultimately reveal the depth of our will-to-narrative as they “excite our narrative imaginations to try to fill in the gaps.”6 In other words, by disrupting the longstanding liberal equation between life and narrative, they pique our humanist desire to see signs of life in every fragmented narrative, or to see signs of narrative in every trace of life. (This is not, however, one more appeal for surface reading; the pitfalls of the surface are no less risky than the dreams of deep meaning.)

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About Joseph R. Slaughter

Joseph R. Slaughter teaches postcolonial literature and theory, human rights, and third-world approaches to international law in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He has published numerous articles on the intersections of comparative literature and international law. His book Human Rights, Inc: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law, which excavates the shared logic underpinning human rights law and the form and ideology of the Bildungsroman, won the 2008 Rene Wellek Prize for Comparative Literature and Cultural Theory. He has co-edited a volume of essays on Latin American, Caribbean, and African literatures and culture entitled The Global South Atlantic (2017), and is currently finishing two books: New Word Orders, on intellectual property law and the institutions of world literature, and Pathetic Fallacies, a collection of essays on human rights and the humanities. He recently completed his term as President of the American Comparative Literature Association.