Thursday, October 2, 2014

Human Rights Poetry and the Writing of Disaster

With the grand jury decision not to indict the officers who shot and killed John Crawford, a 22-yr-old black man, in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Wal-mart (only four days before another young Black man, Michael Brown, was killed in Ferguson, Missouri), I can’t help but to gesture toward the way that the global reparative logic of human rights discourse—which I hope to say a few things about in terms of the archive, the intertext, and disaster—is informed by the capacity, as Umut Özsu points out in his also-recent discussion of the newly erected Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, to “nearly always ignore” socio-economic conditions and racialized state violence. Although this distinction between the civil/political and social/economic is often seen as a split within human rights discourse, Özsu argues that every instance of civil or political violation implies a racialized socio-economic violence that cannot be realized in the discourse.

Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, on John Crawford: “And the fact of the matter is, that the video not being released, the political apparatus in Ohio had weeks to criminalize John Crawford in death, the same way that Michael Brown was criminalized in death.” Although the shooting took place on August 5, in response to a now-altered 911 call reporting that Crawford was pointing a gun at customers (it was a BB gun from the store shelves in an open-carry state, and was never pointed at other customers), the Wal-mart surveillance video footage showing the shooting was only released this past Wednesday. And even though the special prosecutor identified Crawford as a “victim,” who did nothing wrong (he not facing the officers when they shot him and did not have time to react), as Robinson points out, in these weeks he was criminalized. It’s not that Crawford has been slandered or dehumanized in this period, even if he has been, that constitutes his criminalization; rather, his death is criminalized to the extent that his death was not made available to witness. The belated identification of Crawford as a victim, then, assures that the disaster, the injustice of his death would not be experienced on the streets, in public.

A critical discussion of human rights discourse turns on this question: How is it possible to have a victim but no crime? And yet we see time and again in cases of human rights abuses that the association of a victim and a crime misses the way that the disaster unfolds per “neoliberal measures of inclusive democracy” that follow a global mandate based on reparation. In Beavercreek Ohio, this occlusion is glaringly apparent in the multilateral operations that ensured that between the corporation of Wal-mart, the attorney general of Ohio, Greene County, and Beavercreek police, a closed circle of mutual protection functioned to prevent witnessing Crawford’s death as a disaster, a product of socio-economic conditions and racialized state violence.

“Since the disaster always takes place after having taken place,” writes Blanchot, “there cannot possibly be any experience of it” (28). Blanchot casts disaster as something that has always happened, which we have yet to have experienced. That this happens without our experience of it is the disaster. We might reformulate this: the (human rights) disaster takes place, then human rights (the disaster) takes place. Further, human rights takes away the possibility of experiencing socio-economic conditions of the disaster once the human rights disaster has taken place. In concrete instances, such as the case of John Crawford described above, the injustice is the disaster. The lag time pointed out by Robinson, the time between the death of John Crawford and this second death (statement from the family following the grand jury decision: “the family feels it has been victimized all over again”), highlights the way that justice has the first word, though it (or its lack) comes after.

In order to consider the limitations inherent in the role of witnessing in human rights discourse, I believe that we find ourselves—for better or worse—situated in the realm of poetry, but to be very clear: not human rights poetry as typified in the pervasive and humanistic association between poet and witness, in which the poet-witness produces the body of the victim, which characterizes what Bob Meister calls the extension of “Auschwitz-based reasoning into a new discourse of global power” (3). Human rights poetry of this sort is called upon to “bear witness” to atrocity, to catastrophe, to violence, following the global reparative logic of the European postwar (embodied in the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights).[1] It is only against this tendency that human rights poetry, as I would like to consider it, can ask its question: what corpi, what bodies, what words gives rise to discourse of human rights?

We can see this equation between poets and witnesses in Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Agamben agrees with Foucault’s effort in the archaeology not to pose the question of the speaking subject, but his main point is to put forth the testimony in contrast to the archive. Foucault’s notion of the archive as a figure between langue, “the system of constructing possible sentences,” and corpus, which “passively collects the words that are spoken” (130), makes it possible to think about the “anonymous field…that defines the possible position of speaking subjects” (122). Agamben wants to clear a space for the speaking subject, but a specific subject: the witness, or the poet. He writes, “Poets—witnesses—found language as what remains.” But like Foucault’s discussion of the speaking subject, Agamben’s reconstruction of the speaking subject as witness seems to rely on the displacement and subsequent fetishization of the corpus, the text, the “poetic word,” which is “situated in the position of a remnant and can, therefore, bear witness” (161).

Human rights poetry, which casts off the role of the speaker as witness to always ask: Who is Speaker? marks the revenant rather than the remanent nature of the corpus, of the book, the text, the word. The revenant, because the disaster consists of that which cannot be experienced in the event of death. In poetry, one is tempted to say, this thwarted question returns: the speaking subject takes place not in, but as the “blank space from which I speak.” In contrast to Foucault, who wishes to ask about the conditions that produce the speaking subject and so comes to the archive as that which includes the very happening of language, via the statement, the possibility of language, human rights poetry proposes to think about how disaster arranges corpi in relation to discourses.

This discourse of the witness justifies itself by producing knowledge about the human, as was predominantly the case, for example, in a recent issue of Qui Parle devoted to the topic of human rights: the “mass intellectuality” of human rights yields new definitions of the “human,” of human “life.” This contains an extended tendency to see rights and genre as instances of law that contribute to our understanding of personhood or as Agamben notes, the human and inhuman. For example, in Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law, Joseph R. Slaughter describes the common “humanistic social” vision of human rights law and the Bildungsroman, both “genres” contain a “shared image of the human person” (4).

Human rights poetry, the version I’m attempting to re-value, which raises the question of who is speaking, does not share this concern with the knowledge about the human person. It contains what Foucault might call otherwise “meaningless” sentences. He writes, “to say a sentence like this is meaningless presupposes that one has already excluded a number of possibilities—that it describes a dream, that it is part of a poetic text, that it is a coded message, that it is spoken like a drug addict” (90). For Foucault, a poetic text is able to give meaning to words, then, because it is able to index a still very functional human person. Consider this poem, then, which I confess to writing:
Map of 2014 Human Rights Risk Index 
Syria, Sudan
DR Congo Pakistan Somalia
Afghanistan Iraq
This poem, which takes as intertext the caption to a 2014 Map put out by the corporation Maplecroft, presents a corpus of knowledge, words “passively collected.” To what archive, what discursive formation do they give rise?

To what belongs a list of nations gathered by a corporation in a poem written by a person who does not witness? If poetry, it’s because poetry arrests the production of knowledge about the human, not because there is something essential or particular about poetry as genre, or form. It concerns the capacity of the person who witnesses to create a space for experiencing the “(human rights) disaster” by refraining from choraling it all into a discourse of justice, of witnessing, and in this refrain, working to set out the terms of the first disaster, the terms that describe the socio-economic conditions acting upon what Denise Ferreira da Silva would call affectable bodies. Human rights poetry is not a genre, not a law, but the explication of the problem of how the corpus, the passively collected words, the text, rearticulates the position of the speaking subject.

The subject of human rights poetry is always passing out of existence; it is a non-witness becoming non-victim, a human being “criminalized in death,” and it is the space of waiting that the poet articulates as a means of experiencing disaster. Consider these lines from the Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail’s Diary of a Wave Outside of the Sea, which depicts the US-led intervention in Iraq in 1991, offering an account of the disaster that marked one of the United States’s first military actions in the post-Cold War period:
One evening…

No…One Morning…
No…I don’t know…One waiting…
Death passed before our eyes, as it did every day.

I was not waiting by myself;
the river was there, too,
and the smoke that rose from the explosions
and from the cigarette of a lover
who contemplated his loneliness
like a pawn in the corner of a chessboard.” (5)
The proposal here is that witnessing changes its tune when it becomes everyday. Slipping into waiting, the subject of human rights poetry shifts between what Denise Ferreira da Silva would call the transparent “I,” a witness, who registers a world “passed before our eyes” and the affectable “I,” who is acted upon by the passing of time (“One evening…No…One Morning…No…I don’t know…One waiting…”).

In this space persists the potentiality of victimhood; the witness persists, but in the disaster, through disaster, she waits, neither as witness nor as victim—but as corpus, something to be “passively collected” after the fact, about the disaster. The poem establishes the tension between this state of waiting, on the one hand, and the forces of intervention, on the other. But Mikhail is not thinking about his contradiction between the rhetoric of the witness, via intervention, and the experience of a potential witness-victim. She wishes to point to a space for the waiting of a body that eschews these positions of witness and victim because, above all, the “responsibility” that inheres between them is “a response to the impossible” (Blanchot 26). “Responsibility,” says Blanchot further, “is itself disastrous” (27). The word—the corpus, the text—intervenes in the archive as an intertext, as Blanchot’s disaster enters Mikhail’s text:
The disaster watches over us at night
—our recurring, endless night—
like a verb with no subject or object.

And look, here we are,
trying in vain to jump over it
—over the disaster—
so that we stumble from nowhere
every time.

We become acquainted with death at the wrong time,
and no one uses their “veto.”

You think, therefore you realize the disaster.

Maurice Blanchot, the French intellectual,
thought that while disaster removes the haven that is the thought of death,
and turns us from the grievous or surprising thing,
and makes us dispense with any will or movement,
it does not, however, give us an opportunity
to raise this question:
What have you done to realize [gain knowledge of] the disaster? (20)
In the poem, Blanchot’s words, which come from early on in The Writing of Disaster, “while disaster removes the haven that is the thought of death, / and turns us from the grievous or surprising thing, / and makes us dispense with any will or movement,” extend the terms of the waiting-processes. The disaster is not the waiting, or the bombing, or intervention, or a veto of intervention. It is none of these things and yet it involves each of them; it is the aggression or violence that cannot be experienced in each. What I’d like to note about Mikhail’s use of Blanchot is the way that the terms of disaster enter into the problem of witnessing that Mikhail proposes: the contradiction between mere thinking or being as a realization of disaster and the subject’s responsibility for realizing disaster.

At the same time that it is a testimony to the atrocity of Desert Storm, the poem struggles with the question that is not posed—what have you done to realize the disaster? Although the question seems to concern one’s complicity in the disaster, or one’s responsibility for preventing it—ultimately, it is a question about that which is impossible. To return to the question with which I began: what corpi, what bodies, what words gives rise to discourse of human rights? The words of disaster, which speak in and through waiting, will always be realized in the human person, but each instance of this realization, each “haven” taken “in the thought of death” crops out the socio-economic conditions of the non-witness.

[1] The ambiguities of witnessing have been theoretically grounded in Holocaust testimony, predominantly through Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s Testimony, in which they conceptualize witnessing as a crisis of literature, “insofar as literature becomes a witness” (xviii). The discourse of human rights assumes this literary function of witnessing, as the terms of Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, make explicit, in which victim and listener merge in the experience of witnessing in order to “co-own” the atrocity (Laub 57).

Note: This is an abbreviated version of a paper given at "Intellectual Properties," a graduate student conference at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, September 26–27, 2014.

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