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 7 of 7)

Conclusion: How Well Do We Act?

Witnessing, as a performative act that requires an ethical engagement different from that of spectatorship and other forms of viewing, entails as one of the ethical considerations necessary for such witnessing to occur, the recognition of the survivor as more than just the over-determined trace of a traumatic event. The witness must recognize the survivor as both bearing the trace of the atrocity event and as a human with a particularity and historical location in the present moment they both occupy. Paradox, in testimonial, is perhaps the articulated manifestation of the traumatic event, a balancing of impossibilities that mirrors the interstitial existence of the atrocity in memory. Thus, for these women, to tell their stories in the context of my detail-oriented and repetitive questions brought to the fore both their lack of "knowledge" of the very events they were relating - for example, the specifics of date and time, or the lapses of memory that blanked out certain elements of events they had witnessed - and their authority to speak as witnesses to crimes and events that had affected them.

Such testifying results in the doubled role of testimony as the political and ethical act of witnessing an event that has been radically denied - through silence, inattention and the practices of the authorities - and the individual necessity to rebuild one's historical link to the experience by recounting one's memories of it in front of a witness - language and representation serve to give substance and "reality" to an experience that no longer materially exists or seems real.[2] Or, as Peter Van Der Veer has formulated it, "There is no true story of violence. Violence is a total phenomenon, but it comes to us totally as a fragment. . . . the fragment shows the limits of historical knowledge" (199). These women, because of their cultural positions, the extreme exigencies of survival, and lack of interest by outsiders, seemed not to have parsed out, previously, the extremity of the violence they had witnessed from the possibilities for different ways of remembering and living. The fragmentary nature of the total phenomenon, in Van Der Veer's words. I am not suggesting that they did not understand their rights to live in a conflict-free environment - despite their rural isolation and lack of education, they clearly articulated themselves to be humans with a solid understanding of their basic rights, including education. But in contrast to some of the men I interviewed, who clearly at the time of violent events had a sense that they might later be called upon to witness them, these women had never thought of themselves as witnesses in the way it is articulated as a public dynamic - whether in a local level gathering of elders, a juridical setting, or a therapeutic setting.

Just as extreme violence blurs the boundaries of the public and the private for the people who experience it, so survivors of extreme violence blur the boundaries of culturally sanctioned historical narrative and the narratives of extreme atrocity that the present moment "forgets." From the most private of acts that a person is forced to perform for others during torture, to the extreme lack of privacy experienced by the inmate of the concentration camp, to the total violation of bodies by war crimes, the body of the person who experiences atrocity becomes "public" in a way that violates their deepest cultural norms. Likewise, the body and person of the survivor of such atrocity becomes the over-determined marker of cultural trauma, visually indistinguishable at first glance from non-survivors, perhaps, they nonetheless become the trace or ghost of the event itself. While cultures in various ways memorialize and mark moments of massive atrocity, these actions also serve to seal the events in a historical past. Thus, the survivor's very bodily existence is a mark of the event that the cultural "suture" forgets. Even the act of valorizing the survivors is an act of setting them apart as survivors; one does not need to hear their stories over and over again, as one already "knows" the story. In the situation of Afghanistan, where the crimes and atrocities are on-going and have been for decades, these people are still within the frame of the atrocity event. They do not yet have a "normative" culture to which to attempt to return, and their stories of atrocity and violence are part of an ongoing process of trauma that is largely invisible - both to those inside the event, because of their proximity, and to those outside the event, us the potential witnesses that do not care to know.

The most important possibility that testimonial suggests is that the performative enactment of the witnessing produces an effect that exceeds that of the individuals involved in the witnessing itself. Although testimony might be a project deeply rooted in the internal faith act of testifying, it is exactly the acknowledgement of the impossibility of this act, while at the same time performing it, that marks testimonial as the expressive genre inextricably bound with the totalitarian violences of the current and past century. The recognition of the scar, the trace of the sutured wound, marks the site of instability where the performative act of testimony occurs, where the witnessing to the trauma is acknowledged as an always impossible act, yet still insists on action. It denies both the universal identification of the modernist "I" of the narrator and the particularity of "authentic" individualism, rejecting the compassion of the liberal subject for the victim. Instead, among other things, it demands a traumatic identification - an identification that occurs partially outside the discursive realm - with the delusional ideology of the event that, as Laub notes, prevents one from witnessing from within the event itself. Although, as Derrida states, "the act of faith demanded in bearing witness exceeds, through its structure, all intuition and all proof, all knowledge," the witnessing engaged in through the testimonial of survivors thoroughly destabilizes this very act of faith upon which bearing witness depends (16).

But the failed ability to witness from within the event has been made powerfully apparent recently by the very public genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. Despite the fact of extensive news coverage of atrocities being committed, which in Bosnia was often almost simultaneous, no greater intervention was apparent on the part of the world community that watched. The axiom of "never again" took on a hypocritical and hollow resonance as publics across the globe watched the failure of the world community to intervene into ongoing events of mass death. Witnessing occurred through the iconic journalistic representations of atrocity and was unable to call forth an active, ethical engagement either with past atrocities or the current atrocities being represented (as has been nicely elaborated by Zelizer). While well-known survivors such as Elie Wiesel spoke out strongly of the need for active response, their arguments were met with a blank and uncomprehending inaction.

As the various testimonial texts and performances suggest, testimony is itself a performative process necessitating witnessing as opposed to spectatorship. Witnessing necessarily happens in a performative dynamic, and it is in this performative dynamic that a space for justice, as Derrida terms it, might be created. This is just as crucial for the wartime gathering of testimony in conflict zones as it is for more academic considerations of literary testimony. To conduct testimonial interviews in conflict zones is a politically as well as ethically weighted act: as a form of intervention with possible juridical consequences, as a form of "capacity building" within the local community as women speak their stories in narrativized ways, and as a form of academic analysis. Spectatorship is not enough; it is in active witnessing that the ethical demand occurs. The survivor who is marked as a survivor does not by her/his very existence compel an ethical engagement with atrocity. But there might be an ethical position to witnessing, as a performative act between the historical dead, the survivor and the witness to the survivor, which resists both the cultural forgetting implied by iconic journalistic representations (the men behind barbed wire, the woman holding a baby) and the depletion of the self effected by the pervasive possibility of extinction within which we all now exist - by nuclear explosion, biological warfare, genocide, terrorism.

But perhaps what we must build is what we most resist; an ethical relationship that engages the survivor through all the facets of her human-ness so that witnessing can take place within a mutually constructed frame. Ethical witnessing can only take place through such an engagement, rather than one disciplined by the demands of the spectator, the representative of the "normative" culture that fears the contamination of atrocity through its survivor. We must resist the siren call of nationalisms, instead seeking out the difficult engagements with difference that mark both the ethical relationship between individuals and the ground on which dynamic and humane civil societies are built.


1. Barbara Zelizer, in Remembering to Forget, has an excellent analysis of this mechanism in her final chapter. [Return to text]

2. I am particularly indebted to Dori Laub's work on testimony for this formulation. [Return to text]

Works Cited

Booth, Ken. "Three Tyrannies" Human Rights in Global Politics, ed. Tim Dunne and Nicholas J. Wheeler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Cubili&eactue;, Anne. Unpublished manuscript. Limits of Culture: Testimonial Witnessing and the Constraints of Human Rights Discourse. 2002.

Derrida, Jacques. "Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority,'" Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, Eds. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Van Der Veer, Peter. "The Victim's Tale: Memory and Forgetting in the Story of Violence," Violence, Identity and Self-Determination, ed. Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Zelizer, Barbara. Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera's Eye. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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