Issue 2.1 Homepage

Article Contents
·Ethics in the Field?
·"Human" as Ethical Category
·In the Field
·Collecting Testimony
·Conclusion: How Well Do We Act?
·Works Cited

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Grounded Ethics: Afghanistan
and the Future of Witnessing

Anne Cubilié

About the photos: These photos of internally displaced women and children in Afghanistan were taken for personal use, and I was hesitant to include copies of them with this article. I did not want the photos to read as a sort of "travel digest" to accompany an academic project about a place with which most of us are unfamiliar. Thinking on it, I decided to include them so that at least some of the people with whom I interacted to produce this work would not just be 'faceless' subjects, but would be included in the article in a visual medium that embodies their presence in a very different way.

. . . the task is to operationalise cosmopolitan democracy. This is the idea which at the present stage of history is best calculated to produce a politics of true universalism - an inclusive multicommunity "multilogue", aimed as standard-setting in ways that will reduce human wrongs, and balance a tolerance of diversity with a diversity of tolerance.
                           -Ken Booth, "Three Tyrannies," Human
                           Rights in Global Politics
, 5


I spent the academic year of 2000-2001 in Pakistan and Afghanistan doing initial research for a project on Afghan women and the international aid industry, returning to Washington DC two weeks before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. During that time, I also worked on several projects for the United Nations as a consultant specializing in gender, education, and human rights abuse. As part of one project, I conducted 100 detailed interviews with displaced Afghan women and their families in the isolated northern province of Badakhshan on the subjects both of human rights abuses and war crimes they had suffered and witnessed during the recent fighting and of the general human rights deficit from which they suffer as a result of over 20 years of ongoing warfare in their country. In undertaking such projects, I participated in the structure of international aid and engagement - an uneasy and impossible combination of vast sums of money, political maneuvering by self-interested governments, some committed humanitarian and human rights workers and many careerist bureaucrats. The multiple demands of conducting the interviews in Afghanistan, from issues such as translation and cultural difference to the difficulties of collecting factually solid testimony under conditions of extreme duress for the witnesses, are crucial to the human rights and witnessing project of testimonial. What follows is a reading of the complications these various demands on the production of testimonial create for both the practice of ethical witnessing and the terms "human" and "human rights."

From the center to the field, a movement many Americans would associate more with the terms of baseball than the trajectory of an international aid worker, denotes in both cases the basic structure in and through which certain forms of work and play take place. This discourse, and figuration of a center from which players move across and through a field, carrying with it the whiff of anthropology - the scientific study of the other - and of the trained expert increasingly describes the movement of well-educated and trained elites, based out of New York or major European cities, into zones of almost indescribable devastation. This is generally an orderly enterprise, one played by an elaborate set of rules, guarded by massive bureaucracy, and of both crucial and highly questionable value. One of the questions I want to pose, then, has to do with the different arrangements for thinking of these relationships that may have occurred following this extended moment, beginning on September 11, 2001, when the center literally became the field and the two overlapped (for us) for an extended period of weeks.

I would suggest that we have an ethical obligation to the witnessing of violence that directly countermands the easy spectatorial engagements of mass media. When we consider the ethics of witnessing, we must move from the ground of the theoretical to the ground of the material - and marking this movement is the body of the survivor of atrocity. Ground zero, as the September 11, 2001 site of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York has come to be called, was shocking largely for its lack of survivors. But even events of atrocity that leave many survivors are shocking for the way in which the survivors quickly become living ghosts - disenfranchised - the over-determined mark of the traumatic event whose voice and body speak a moment of history that has been left behind and superseded.

The performative act of witnessing is itself an ethical endeavor and requires accountability not just from the witness/survivor but also the witness/spectator. Spectatorship, with its echoes of theatrical metaphors (theater of war, fourth wall realism, actors) may engage our emotions, even our guilt, but as Brecht and many before and after him have illustrated, it does not impel us toward intervention. News broadcasts, for example the video sound bites of CNN, do not encourage spectators to feel implicated in the various acts of violence being presented from around the globe. Instead, they encourage the spectator to feel overwhelmed by the volume of events happening far beyond one's sphere of living and experience and thus impotent to intervene into situations which seem so massive and removed, as though they are happening in another world.[1] While we might feel guilt over our inaction in the face of atrocity, the guilt itself amplifies and re-enforces our inaction. Testimony, however, requires a difficult and more active engagement - witnessing rather than spectatorship - and works to (re)build structures of responsibility and ethics.

My roles, as I collected the testimony under consideration in this article, moved between those of spectator/"objective" collector and witness, depending on the fluctuating circumstances of my context. In the context of meetings with both local authorities and the internally displaced people I was interviewing, I was aware that my position shifted between spectator and witness in a complex dynamic based not only on my own reactions to the situation, but also on theirs to me. One probably can't, and shouldn't, always claim to or try to witness. But the majority of us happily live our lives as largely disenfranchised spectators who are very rarely mobilized as witnesses. For those of us living in the U.S., this spectatorial position is aided and encouraged by the local social and political ideologies within which we live, as well as by our participation in consumer media culture. We will not occupy an ethical position in relationship to others until we are able to recognize others and engage with them even when they most terrify us - as reminders of the atrocity, mass death, and violence with which we are surrounded, within which many of us live, for which we are all partially responsible, and from which many of us will die. Witnessing the witness to atrocity is one avenue through which we can begin to build the ethical communities, which are likely necessary to our global survival.

S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.