Fragile matters: literature and the scene of torture

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Literary communication faces challenges when addressing torture, an unmediated and untranslatable event that antagonizes representation. Given the radical difference between the act of reading torture and the experience thereof, the representation of the event is never mastered and never truly “works,” revealing literature's fragile dimension. Fragility not only addresses the vulnerability of bare human life but conveys the condition of literary and cultural studies, torn between ethical responsibility and the continuous threat to fail in the process. With a genealogical approach, the article proposes a fourfold typology of torture by looking at representative examples from Aeschylus's Prometheus to Franz Kafka's “In the Penal Colony” and Jean Améry's At the Mind's Limits. The article contends that the incommunicability of torture challenges not only the literary ethics of responsibility for the other but also its ethics and aesthetics of hospitality epitomized in the very structure of literary representation and its intent to create and accommodate (an)other. The fragile nature of the literary, and its precariousness, renders literature a strategic tool for a new humanism based on the recognition of vulnerability and on the reevaluation of affect.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)119-140
Number of pages22
JournalNew German Critique
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Fragility
  • Literary vulnerability
  • Reading strategies
  • Representation
  • Torture


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