December 19, 2014, by Josh Bowsher

Vital Theory Paper: Re-membering, human rights and neoliberalism

The human rights project, ostensibly hegemonic since the collapse of communism, has gained most traction in so- called transitional societies, a term which does not describe an anomaly, so much as it does a practice designed to manage the global order of things. It describes the ever more frequent process in which the end of a conflict, or a “totalitarian regime” – very often both at the same time – provides the possibility of reconstituting a society in the already questionable image of a “human rights-respecting” western neoliberal state. I want to understand the role of memory as a human rights practice in these contexts. More precisely, I want to think about the utilisation of memory in the process of “transition.” This investigation, both preliminary and limited by the constraints of time, hopes to attend to this problem.

Of course, the concept of memory has always been important to the work of the human rights movement. I’m sure we’re all familiar the phrase “never again”, which, since the horror of Nazism, has come to animate the work of human rights proponents and activists. With this phrase, the concept of memory has been mobilised as a kind of global solidarity, where together we remember these atrocities ‘so that we resolve always to prevent them.’[1] As Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider anticipated, remembering the holocaust has ‘become the cultural foundation for global human rights politics,’ as a ‘nation-transcending dynamic.’[2] In a sense, remembering the holocaust provides the legitimising function for the work of the human rights movement, which exists in order to ensure “never again”. In this sense, we might agree with Makua Mutua when he argues that the human rights project is anti-catastrophic, in so far as it uses memory to prevent more calamities [and] the production of more victims.’[3] We could rightly argue this has been a spectacular failure.

Nevertheless, I am interested in the use of memory within individual transitional contexts, which does, to be sure, share some commonalities with this overarching thematic of memory in human rights. In an abstract sense, we could point out the same anti-catastrophic logic reproduced in each particular context. Just as the human rights movement asks that we remember the holocaust, so the injunction to remember their recent past requires a constant vigilance from the members of a transitional society. But this does not grasp the full picture, for memory also becomes a ‘reconstructive’ process. The reconstructive element is grasped by Martha Minow, a leading scholar on conflict and memory, who argues that ‘The task is to help the society … not merely recall but also re-member, that is, to reconstitute a community of humanity against which there can be crimes, and within which victims and survivors can be reclaimed as worthy members.’[4] In other words, memory is also forwards-looking; it legitimates and shapes the future of a transitional society. Most simply, we could think about the way in which the rejection of human rights abuse appeals to the legitimation of a society with a strong culture of human rights.

This is the rationale behind the use of institutions such as truth commissions, which attempt to construct a collective memory of the past. They do so by appealing to those identified as victims – as well as perpetrators and survivors – of the past, to retell their experiences of the violent events in which they have been involved, often in public. Doing so, it is argued, will produce a full picture of the violence, which occurred in the tumultuous period preceding the transition. This social production of the past is what comes to be known as a “collective memory”, where ‘what is at stake, is the transformation of … lived and in witnesses embodied memory, into cultural, i.e. institutionally shaped and sustained memory.’[5] Importantly, this is not the free reign of individual experience, but the process of marshalling it to construct a singular coherent narrative about the past. For collective memory is always constructed by discourses, in particular human rights, which selectively utilise and mediate individual experiences, giving them value and meaning within an overarching framework.

This is obvious if we think about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) deployment of  human rights as the overarching framework for creating a collective memory of apartheid. On the one hand, recourse to human rights made the TRC selective about the individual experiences it legitimated, only validating those experiences which met the criteria of human rights violations. Perhaps this might encourage us to think that producing a collective memory is also, in a sense, to forget that which is in excess of the discourses that construct it. On the other hand, the experiences which met this criteria were already transformed into something else, that is, they are constituted not as experience as such, but rather as human rights violations. If it seems crude to think about this as converting trauma into a kind of data, then I would urge you to think about the TRC’s use of quantitive data collection methods and data management software which extracted victim testimonies with recourse to a taxonomy of violations. Each testimony thus organised into four possible categories of violation with an even larger number of subcategories.[6] Through these practices, As Andrea Lollini has argued, ‘in short, all, victims and torturers alike […] had to participate in the construction of the “collective truth”, saying “the same thing”, creating homology of the visions of the past.’[7]

If discourses play a dynamic role in shaping a singular version of past, we must carefully rethink Minow’s claim that memory simply helps to reconstitute a community of humanity as a politically neutral process. Indeed, it is important to think about how discourses construct particular images of the past, which provide an oppositional set of values that legitimate the construction of particular societal forms. We must insist on rejecting any ambitions of political neutrality on this front, for these discourses undoubtedly serve to construct a version of the past, which serves the particular, and frequently neoliberal, future in the process of being served up. Of course, Human rights discourse is seductive, it offers a discourse which powerfully foregrounds individual experiences of suffering, converting individual instance of violence into a collection of criminalised violations. It thus provides a matrix through which individual suffering is not only validated but elevated to a place of primacy within the constructed collective memory of the past. But there are dangers…

Slavoj Žižek has argued that any act of subjective violence can only be properly comprehended if we resist comparing it against the so-called normal non-violent state of everyday life. To understand subjective violence, we have to understand that this so-called normal level is itself constituted and maintained through structural violences, a kind of dark matter, which contributes to these explosions of subjective violence.[8] The danger of human rights is that it offers no real way to interrogate this dark matter. The result is a narrative which focuses on the spectacular instances of violence at the expense of the structural contradictions and antagonisms that are its prerequisite. This is undoubtedly politically expedient for those who see transitional societies as exciting opportunities for new markets through the neoliberal re-structuring of society. For it side-steps, and thus does very little about the inequalities and frequent crises often directly produced as an effect of global capital. Doing so undoubtedly enables the greater expansion of neoliberal policy post-transition to go uninterrogated.

Events in Rwanda serve as an interesting example of a slightly more complex iteration of this process. Efforts to construct a collective memory in Rwanda, be that through the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, or the more participatory neo-traditional Gaçaça courts, have mediated individual experiences through a number of discursive assumptions. Most of all, the collective memory of genocide is constructed through a narrative which foregrounds the role of a totalitarian state apparatus in the genocide. This large and overbearing state apparatus: 1) produced a docile and obedient population, who would unquestioningly follow the orders of a genocidal regime; and 2) provided the perfect administrative machinery to quickly mobilise the obedient masses into action.

This version of the past has been used to justify the shrinking of the Rwandan state through processes of economic liberalisation as well as the responsibilisation of individual Rwandans through economic policies designed to provide them with agency. In rather handily forgetting the role of global capital in the genocide, not least in the massive socio-economic crisis which precipitated it, this collective memory fulfills its reconstructive ambitions. For remembering the genocide also ensures that “never again” can only be achieved by reconstructing Rwandan society in opposition to the totalitarian tendency of the former regime. Thus Rwanda must embrace neoliberalism as the antidote to its tumultuous past.

I’d like to finish by reflecting on a thought, which is little more than that at this stage, I’m afraid. It comes from a question I have been thinking about for a little while: What are to make of the effort of those who have shared their experiences? Minow has argued that ‘remembering requires deliberate hard work to reconstruct and retell what happened, and to do so with full emotion.’[9] It is with this quote in mind, that I am inclined to think of remembering as a kind of labour demanded of individuals in order to produce a collective memory. Most of all, I think about this process as a form of labour not because it necessarily creates value in a direct sense, but because of the possibilities of future value through new markets that might be created in marshalling a successful transition. Of course, so far this is no more than a tempting thought which intrigues me, but I wonder if thinking in this way provides new opportunities to think about the politics of memory. And with that, I’d like to draw to a close and hear your thoughts…

Paper given by Josh Bowsher, PhD student in the Centre for Critical Theory, at Vital Theory, 12 December 2014

[1] A phrase taken from Minow, M. “The Work of Re-Membering: After Genocide and Mass Atrocity,” in Fordham International Law Journal, 23(2), (1999), pp. 429-439.

[2] Levy, D., & Sznaider, N., “Memory Unbound: The Holocaust and the Formation of Cosmopolitan Memory,” in European Journal of Social Theory 5(1), (2002) pp. 87-106 (p. 93)

[3] Mutua, M. “Savages, Victims and Saviours: the Metaphor of Human Rights,” in Harvard International Law Journal, 24(1), (2001) pp. 201-245 (p. 203)

[4] Minow, p. 430

[5] Assman, Jan, “Die Katastrophe des Vergessen. Das Deuteronomium als Paradigma kultureller Mnemotechnik”, in Aleida Assmann and Dietrich Harth (eds.) Mnemosyne. Formen und Funktionen der kulturellen Erinnerung (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1991) pp. 337–55, (p.343), quoted in Levy and Sznaider

[6] For more on this see: Moon, C., Narrating Political Reconciliation: South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2008).

[7] Lollini, A. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Establish a New Hypothesis Post Conflict Culture. In C. Demaria, & C. Wright (eds.), Post-Conflict Cultures: Rituals of Representation (London: Zoilus Press, 2006) pp. 113-132. (p. 125)

[8] Žižek, S. Violence. (London: Profile Books, 2008) pp. 1-2

[9] Minow, p. 431

Posted in ArticlesCentre for Critical TheoryNeoliberalismNews and EventsNottingham Contemporary