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The Brink

Healing as a Metaphor? An Interview with Laura Levitt

“‘I think that the ways that we move through time and space and objects move through time and space connects us…They can occasion a kind of connection.’ It is ‘our tender care’ for these objects, not merely their proximity to violent suffering, that transforms them into sacred objects.”

This interview appears as the introduction to the most recent issue of Political Theology. Please find the interview, and the rest of our latest issue, here

In the opening line of her new book, The Objects that Remain (Penn State University Press, 2020), Laura Levitt writes, “I have always liked things” (xiii). In The Objects that Remain she specifically considers the significance of the objects that remain after experiences of suffering: Levitt’s own sweatpants, a child’s sweater, pantyhose. The sweatpants were Levitt’s own, collected as evidence following the rape she experienced in her Atlanta home in 1989. They, along with all of the evidence collected, went missing and were never found by Atlanta police. A photograph of them in the police report, a copy of which Levitt received in 2014, is what now remains, while the sweatpants themselves are inaccessible. The child’s small green sweater is “rescued evidence” of the Holocaust, currently held in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s off-site storage facility. The sweater was worn by Kristine Keren while she hid from the Nazis in the sewers of Lvov, Poland, and ultimately donated by her to the museum. And the pantyhose, holding DNA evidence, were in the box of material evidence from the murder of Maggie Nelson’s aunt. All three are the objects that witnessed the suffering imposed through violence. Levitt considers such objects and the way in which they are animate and must be cared for so that they might remain animate. In a conversation that I had with Levitt about The Objects that Remain, Levitt noted that these objects, while marked by the suffering imposed by violence, were once ordinary objects but have lost their function and have become something else. She said, “I think that the ways that we move through time and space and objects move through time and space connects us…They can occasion a kind of connection.” It is “our tender care” for these objects, not merely their proximity to violent suffering, that transforms them into sacred objects. 

Levitt frames the text with her story of the rape she experienced in her own home when she was a graduate student and with her exploration of the significance of objects that are witnesses to violence that began more than fifteen years later. As she describes in the book, she began to consider what happened to her own collection of evidence, taken from her home in 1989 by Atlanta police, after meeting Maggie Nelson at a dinner party. There, she heard Nelson’s story about the murder of her aunt before she was born and the reopening of the cold case; it was in the courtroom that Nelson saw her aunt’s evidence and clothing for the first time. It was hearing Nelson’s own story and reflecting on her aunt’s clothing that pushed Levitt to question what had happened to her own evidence, including the clothing taken from her home by the police, all of it missing. Levitt began to explore not only what happened to her own evidence, but the way in which such objects are animate, the care and preservation of evidence, and the often hidden work that is behind the holding of objects marked by suffering. As Levitt notes, 

The story before you is about trauma and loss and how material objects embody such suffering. It is also a tale of life after such violence and the things, the artifacts and the places, that make them manifest. Such objects keep the event tangible, suspended, and within our reach. This resonance between artifacts and their power to witness to crimes against humanity, against individuals, and their ability to make holy the profane, this is the essence of this volume. (6) 

In our conversation, Levitt noted that while her own distressing story orients the book, she’s also looking to say other things about the significance of objects, some of which are somewhat hopeful. However, she reflected, “I don’t have a happy and healing story. I don’t like healing as a kind of metaphor.” Levitt rejects a vision that’s prevalent in the dominant culture that suggests that we can somehow “get back to normal” despite the fact that normal will never be the same. “What’s so hard for so many of us is carrying a desire for getting back to ‘normal’ but normal will never be the same…A lot of what ‘healing’ does is assumes a restoration of what was before. What interests me and what I live with is, I don’t know what my life would have been had this not happened to me. I can’t touch that other trajectory.” She noted that people who suffer experience a significant loneliness which is what she was trying to “go after in the book.” Levitt said that she was not going after healing, but rather was pursuing the idea of “diasporic intimacy.” “When you’ve really lost everything, you could be surprised by moments of tenderness. And I think that sometimes materiality—in particular in my case material objects, but I also think bodies—can be sites where you make those kinds of connections.” 

While her book pushes the reader to consider the way in which objects are, and are made, animate, the text itself confronts the reader with many such objects, making them and their power present. There is an almost tactile dimension to Levitt’s use of words. And the pull to reach out toward such objects was made even more real with her inclusion of vivid photographs in the text. Of course, for those objects that remain accessible, many, such as the artifacts held as evidence at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, cannot be touched, but must be carefully preserved. Yet there are others, such as Levitt’s sweatpants, taken as evidence by the Atlanta police and forever lost, that cannot be accessed. Yet even here, her powerful writing makes the sweatpants real to the reader; they are inaccessible to Levitt and us, but in their absence, they are made present and animate by her use of language. Although she noted that “the challenge with this work is that I didn’t have access to my stuff,” Levitt explained, “Language can be a site where inaccessible objects are made accessible, or through art, or through other forms—it could be music.” Her writing allows those objects that are inaccessible to the reader to continue to encounter these material objects marked by suffering. 

It is the curation and care for these material objects to that allows them to be preserved and become animate. The curation of material objects as itself a kind of evidence offers an alternative form of justice when perpetrators cannot be held to account or when survivors or the families of those who have been victimized are not interested in the criminal justice system. In our conversation, Levitt noted that she is hoping to leverage the potential of language by putting together a space online where people who have suffered from violent crimes tell their story through an object. For many, such objects are not accessible, but instead, as she said, “It’s about a kind of invocation. And my sense is that the tactility and the sort of materiality is a kind of way in, so that somebody else can think about their own clothes.” As she highlighted in our conversation, in these cases, not only are most of the objects inaccessible, but the “vast majority of people who have experienced sexual violence, a murder, and really horrific crimes, those never make it to court. This is a kind of alternative vision of what that would be. A little StoryCorps-ish, but in a much smaller scale.” 

What kind of justice could this kind of project could allow for? Levitt points to the Holocaust Museum, reflecting , “The thing that is kind of painful to me about it is that it comes into existence in the early 90s, and in part the excess of evidence…it’s proof positive that the Holocaust happened and its over against the claims of deniers. And that is part of the justification for the museum and for all this stuff. So, it’s still within this weirdly juridical, historical, empirical mode. And it’s kind of unfortunate.” Despite this original intent of the museum, none of the archived collection is going to court. So why have it? What purpose does it serve? In her book, Levitt considers the individual child’s sweater and the pile of 4,000 victims’ shoes. Both allow for the witnessing of violent suffering but do so in different ways. When I asked her about the way both function, she explained, “I think what happens in the Holocaust is that the amassed objects are profoundly moving in one way. They do stand in for the mass: the eyeglasses, or those suitcases, or the hair, which is so horrible. It gives you a sort of sense of the vastness of the crimes that were committed. And they make them palpable…When you see an amassed thing you get the sense of a very large crime. But what bringing our own stories to these kinds of legacies of genocidal violence [does] is that each of those pairs of shoes belongs to someone, and they had a story. It helps us remember the bothness of it: the vast and then the specific. And I think that the specificity is easier to wrap your head around, but also is in some ways more devastating because it’s closer to home.” As she writes in the book, the shoes “bring visitors into proximity to that horrific place and time, enabling a kind of vicarious witnessing” (110). 

And yet, as Levitt quickly observes, “The inescapable fact is that close proximity even to mountains of material evidence cannot offer unmediated access to the Holocaust” (110). She draws on the work of James Young, a scholar of Holocaust memory, who warns against taking the objects for the whole of the history, to which we have only mediated access through the work of historians who shape the stories we tell about these artifacts. As Levitt notes, Young is concerned that “We risk fetishizing artifacts, granting them magical power to invoke the past of which they are only traces” (111). In our conversation, Levitt said early on, almost in passing, that she did not have a problem with fetishization. I returned to this idea near the end of our discussion, recalling her engagement with Young. She said, “I think that the invocation is usually simply a dismissal, that that’s atavistic, unsophisticated, and therefore not worthy with engaging,” as if engaging with material objects in this way makes us unsophisticated thinkers, and therefore we should avoid it. She went on, “What fetishization as a process does is, it is another way of animating. You are recognizing the power, and you are producing it through your fascination and engagement. That was really important to me.” She pushes against the notion that we should avoid the language of fetishizing. Because how else are we to mourn? And why is there such a focus on rescuing all these objects if these objects are not going to court as evidence? She queried, “How do these things do justice to this legacy [of the Holocaust] otherwise? They do it by enabling this ongoing critical engagement, whether that’s by artists, and writers, and poets, and scholars.” Acknowledging problems with power relations to what is and isn’t in an archive, Levitt maintained that “there is a kind of promise there, that engaging with their holdings, there isn’t one way to tell their stories.” Instead, archives can be read differently by different people; the narrative about history cannot be controlled. 

Levitt’s The Objects That Remain not only considers these themes and others but progresses as if the reader were accompanying her in her searching and consideration of the book’s themes. She writes in the text, “This is not a history. This book operates on an associative logic. It offers an idiosyncratic take, a meditation on why we are drawn to particular texts, objects, and practices, and how they become meaningful” (16). She carries the reader not only through her engagement with texts, some of which she described as her “companions,” but on her travels to discover and learn about the custody of objects, the care for evidence, and the preservation that goes into them. She described feeling her way when doing the work for this project, saying “I was following my gut at each turn.” And in the book she describes taking a course on the care for criminal evidence and her visit to the Holocaust Museum to meet with the chief conservator as she explores what it means to care for objects, preserve them, allow them to remain animate. This searching and associative logic invites the reader to meditate on the ideas, mull them over, and perhaps reread the text after reading the texts that were Levitt’s companions. 

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