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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Anne Cubilié, "Grounded Ethics: Afghanistan and the Future of Witnessing" (page 2 of 7)

Ethics in the Field?

In trying to puzzle out some of the problems and connections raised by my previous distinction between center, field, and ground, I want to move from thinking about our role as spectators and participants at the "center" to thinking about the "field" by considering conditions in Afghanistan during the time in which the testimony I gathered was collected. Written testimony, published for an international audience as a literary form to be read or a dramatic form to be produced, is surely the elite strata of testimonial practice. The vast majority of survivors of human rights abuses, war crimes, or other forms of massive violence never have an opportunity to testify - beyond perhaps the confines of their family, social group, or local rehabilitation programs through storytelling. In particular, women and men who have suffered the sexual violence that is endemic in situations of mass violence are often unable to speak of the experience for fear of social or community ostracization or even death. The oral testimonies collected by human rights workers, therapists, oral historians, and others, then, occupy an important intermediary position in this hierarchy. Unpublished, often confidential, and sometimes given in transcribed written form to the survivor, such testimony makes small but important inroads into communities that have survived mass violence. Written testimony often gives an important voice to some of these communities, but it is usually a single voice standing in for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. As an example, during the fall of 2000 when I was collecting the testimony under consideration here, there were an estimated 80,000 internally displaced people in the province of Badakhshan, at least 80 percent of whom were illiterate. I was the only person in the province collecting testimonies at this time, and I spoke to just over 100 people. There were no trauma recovery programs being run.

Witnessing carries within the act itself an ethical imperative. It is a performative act that requires care and self-consciousness on the part of the interviewer/listener/audience - an awareness of his/her own role in the testimonial process - and a humane engagement with the act of testimony itself. Testimony and witnessing are foundationally communal acts, taking place within and an integral aspect of communal situations. They are also potentially juridical acts, requiring the assumption of a distinct individual subject who can swear, under oath perhaps, that the witnessing story he/she tells is a true and authentic history. As I have argued elsewhere, many written testimonial texts by survivors of mass atrocities (such as the Holocaust, State torture in Latin America, and the genocide in former Yugoslavia) employ a fractured testimonial voice that insists both on the distinct individuality of the witnessing voice and at the same time on the always already fragmented identity of the survivor, thus complicating the notion of the universal subject of human rights upon which juridical categories depend (Cubilié 2002). Oral testimony such as I collected in Badakhshan, however, carries with it an even higher burden of "authenticity." Such testimony is both the rawest material from which human rights abuse allegations are formulated and the least regarded aspect of the process. The various pathways though which the story of the experience is told - from the possible trauma of the experience itself and the meandering ways of memory to the interaction between the translator, interviewer, and other community members present - result in a wholly fragmented text that is then reassembled in narrative form for the transcription. This produces both a stable and "authentic" record of testimony and a text which is always considered tainted, unstable, and incomplete from the juridical, and sometimes the historical, standpoint. The witnesses, both to the acts themselves and to the testimony, thus become crucial links in the re-formulation of the universalized subject of human rights. All subjects engaged in the act of witnessing are altered through its dynamic. However, to what extent can and should our understanding of categories such as "human" and "rights" be understood to be altered by the accretion of acts of testimonial upon the authentic historical structures of knowing foundational to our cultures?

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