Laura Levitt’s newest book, The Objects that Remain is not confessional. I recently participated in a discussion of the book with Dr. Levitt present, and I absorbed a wonderful, far-reaching discussion of its arguments and orientations. One facet that kept returning was how to denominate the narrative of Levitt’s past trauma. We held up words like confessional, personal, intimate, and companionship. Like the objects Levitt writes about–the objects that remain in the wake of trauma, in museums, in personal cabinets, in criminal evidence rooms–these words also channel certain practices and make available certain resonances between non-homologous things. To me, the book is not a confession because the vectoral force of a confession is a circle that leaves the speaking subject only to return to her and to return her self to herself more solidly. Liturgically, confession is a relational speaking, a speaking-with, the point of which is not the relationship itself but the subjectivity and salvation of the one speaking.
Levitt’s careful attention to the scenes of her own trauma do not reveal her ‘self’ to us, her readers, however. Instead, her words initiate a harmonic resonance between the objects in (and of) her traumatic memory and the objects in (and of) other traumas, other experiences, and other wounded sites of memory and loss. In writing toward these resonances, Levitt herself is both in the story and on the banks of its flow, both the object (subject) of reflection–as in a confession–but also able to step outside the flow of the story by showing up the process of thinking and writing. Levitt doesn’t reveal herself for the sake of herself (as would a confession) but reveals the hesitancies, conflicting desires, and writerly frustrations intrinsic to reflecting on and trying to write about trauma. To me Levitt’s formal locutions, which double-over their narrative content without duplicating them, tangibly convey the phenomenology of trauma. Far from enacting a confession, then, Levitt’s book is personal in the way consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s were personal: it teases out how trauma and memory are carried by objects in ways that call into question normative assumptions about subjectivity and justice, for the sake of establishing new forms of self-expression and also new expressions of social justice. [On this point, see J. Oksala’s discussion of C. Heyes in Feminist Experiences, p. 46-50.]
Levitt talked to us about the hard and lengthy task of learning to let go of certainty, and also to let go–or at least loosen–her desire for her day in court, for that specific kind of justice. In writing through this letting-go, in writing against the pervasive tendency to grasp control of the trauma by self-blame or by the fantasy of closure granted by a court trial, Levitt writes into objects and into resonant archives of trauma, memory and loss. In doing so, she writes into companionship. Instead of a confession that requires relation for the sake of building up the selfhood of the one confessing, Laura writes out of herself toward sticky connections with other persons and events that have endured trauma. Perhaps in a manner not unlike Haraway’s writing away from the human with her figuration of “companion species,” we might see Levitt writing away from the trauma victim through her method of what I think of as companion-scholarship.
One example might be Levitt’s torqued use of “justice.” Readers follow her desire for justice as it takes shape in many, changing forms and sites. In the United States, the word “justice” calls to mind the specific site of the courtroom, a place where prosecutors face off with defenders before a judge who is literally seated above them. It is a familiar scene from literature, film, and television and most of us have participated in the catharsis that comes from “winning in court.” But Levitt’s text points to at least two outsides to this fantasized victory: the court’s surrounding carceral system that is riddled with the compacted injustices of anti-black racism, and the countless cases of injustice–like her own–that are closed only moments before they were opened. For reasons that are too complex to engage here, these two “outsides” to the court of law make that kind of justice impossible. Levitt sidesteps them and sets out to “do justice work through the imagination” by a critical engagement with objects that carry the trauma: that is, with relics. Levitt transcribes the sacrality of relics, from bits of matter that refer clearly to some person or thing of transcendent value to cherished objects (or part-objects) whose power is “generative. It proliferates.”
In forming companion-matrices between objects, archives, events, institutions, and persons, Levitt stitches together vulnerability, precarity, and fierce honesty to write justice as a project of the imagination, a project that never leaves the gritty, weedy mess of cultivating an afterlife to the endless reverberations of trauma.