Rita Kesselring’s Bodies of Truth: Law, Memory, and Emancipation in Post-Apartheid South Africa interrogates the limits of law as a mechanism for translating “experiences of suffering, survival, and solidarity” into new forms of sociality that are capable of grounding political and social change. Her study invites the reader to move between a more analytical consideration of struggles in post-apartheid South Africa around modes of justice-making and reconciliation and the more elusive phenomenologies of embodied harm. This is a difficult task, in part because Kesselring’s theoretical framework demands as much introspection as application, since one of the major contributions of her book is to show how even the most expansive discourses of injustice cannot fully encompass experiences of suffering and the ultimately bounded fact of what she describes as “pain’s isolating nature.”
Kesselring’s study is the result of almost two years of ethnographic research in South Africa between 2009 and 2013. Her project took her throughout the country, and her writing is infused with a strong sense of intersubjective connection and empathy as she grapples with the task of rendering analytically meaningful the personal journeys among her interlocutors, from what she calls “victimhood” to “victim subjectivity.” Even the photographs in the book reflect a keen sensitivity to the nuanced inflections of everyday life in the still-segregated townships on the outskirts of Cape Town: the weary man pausing between bites of porridge; the street-side food merchant in the midst of serving lunch; two ladies playing with a pet tortoise. The images speak to one of Kesselring’s central arguments: that there is an immediacy to lived experiences that resists translation into the categories of identity that are recognized by the state, social psychiatry, and the law. At the same time, by following the trajectories of her interlocutors through political activism, legal argument, and social mobilization, Kesselring’s study moves away from trends in phenomenology and practice theory that tend to reduce experience to the embodied self.
And there is also an urgency to Bodies of Truth well beyond its theoretical and ethnographic contributions. As Kesselring explains, it has been almost twenty years since the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) completed its work, and yet its enduring impact, its effectiveness in serving its broad goals, is still difficult to assess. This has important consequences, since the South African TRC established a global model for responding to fraught periods of transition after autocratic rule and racial violence, one in which “reconciliatory and restorative measures [were] combined with an investigation in past human rights violations.” But as her research demonstrates, it is perhaps not possible to evaluate the South African TRC simply in terms of its original objectives, since the meaning of the TRC and its relation to what she calls “embodied memories of violence” continue to evolve, shift, and defy categorization.
Because of this, Kesselring’s study forces us to take seriously responses to suffering beyond legal, political, and psychological categories. As she puts it, “a person is not primarily a victim because the law [has] defined him or her as such.” Through her ethnography, we see how victims of apartheid come to form new associations, new forms of solidarity, by sharing with others what must remain, in the end, their own “sedimented perceptions of the world.” As Kesselring’s challenging volume suggests, it is to these small spaces of “nonpredicated” sociality—rather than to the grand gestures of law—that victims of injustice in South Africa will ultimately find emancipation from the body’s knowledge of harm.
Stanford Studies in Human Rights