Remembering Violence and the Transvaluation of the Public Sphere

Allen Feldman, Anthropology, National Development and Research Institutes

Research Grant, 1997-2000

My South African research brings the two poles of structural violence and transacted violence into greater proximity through the very tissue of historical memory. In the debates that have surrounded the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), there has been much comment about the Commission’s focus on “exceptional,” “extreme,” and “gross” acts of human rights violation to the extent that the inquiry risks normalizing and backgrounding the everyday structural violence of apartheid’s socioeconomic institutions in South Africa. From certain perspectives, the emphasis on “gross human rights violations” is seen as an artificial separation of the political dimensions of the apartheid regime from its economic character and everyday structural underpinnings. However, once analyzed from the perspective of both the commodification of the body and critical race theory, such acts come into focus as present-day expressions of a depth archeology. At different stages in the history of the colonial and postcolonial political economy, transacted violence and structural violence served as symbolic lubricant for each other. Egregious labor discipline as act, threat, and spectacle facilitated the ideological and structural reproduction of the colonial economy. Structural nostalgia for this class and racial hierarchy haunted the reenactments of repressive violence from 1964 to 1992 as a form of historical desire, magic, and fantasy that was materialized in disfigurement and pain and that rechanneled and consumed the recalcitrant Black body as a renewed productive fuel for state power.

In accessing alternative memory, I was compelled to inject the absent notion of racially fetishized violence into the deliberations of the TRC. For the concept of racialized violence I deploy contains embedded layers of historical and somatic meaning that were filtered out of the TRC’s engagement with state violence due to its juridical-positivist approach to history. In this context, I view racism not as a form of civil rights discrimination, nor as a psychological pathology, but rather as the fetishization of the body of color in the labor objectification/coercion of colonially subjugated populations. I argue that “European” regimes of labor discipline in colonial and postcolonial South Africa deployed the body of color both as an instrumental-economic and magical substance. I show that in South Africa, the performative signifiers of race- and class-based economic domination were eventually, in a time of postcolonial crisis, transposed into the sphere of state political ritual, thereby symbolically ordering counterinsurgency performance and consequently normalizing and legitimating what has been subsequently termed “gross” violations of human rights.

Hence, the cultural memory of “White” economic dominance was mobilized as self-conscious political agency that translated the residual economy of the colonial body into emerging economies of transacted postcolonial political violence. This dynamic of transposition by which the so-called “instrumental” practice of the political economy was refigured as the legitimating semiology of domination in recent state violence points to the magical invocation of the memory of economic domination in the performance culture of political repression.

Racialized and disproportionate violence became juridical blind-spots and historical recesses where alternative historical memories and political experiences could be accessed.

My research strategically deploys racialized somatic fetishism as an alternative analytic to the liberal-rationalist reductions of the TRC concerning politically motivated and thus indemnifiable human rights violations. Nor do I completely reject the norm of human rights promoted by the truth commission, rather I connect the suppressed discussion of racialized violence to the equally evaded human rights norm of “disproportionate violence” originally mandated yet conveniently forgotten by the TRC. The TRC could not reconcile politically rationalized violence with disproportionate excessive violence–its notion of political violence remained resolutely within an enlightenment framework. Amnesty applicants were thus indemnified for political justifications of human rights violations. Steve Biko’s assailants were not denied amnesty for their coercive interrogation methods but for their post-interrogation medical neglect of their prisoner; the latter could not be politically justified but torture could. Racialized violence and disproportionate violence are an excluded locus of a fundamental contradiction within the liberal-rationalist historiography of the TRC; thus the identification and condemnation of excessive violence was subject to structural forgetfulness by the human rights paradigm. Racialized and disproportionate violence became juridical blind-spots and historical recesses where alternative historical memories and political experiences could be accessed.

In part my goal in this project was to examine how the history of certain memory formations mediated the reproduction of certain types of excessive and racialized violence that were given short shrift by the TRC. By treating memory as a utilitarian and unproblematic transparency largely residing in individuals or as a neutral juridical technology, the TRC ignored social memory as a normative institutionalized formation with its own political history. And in doing so the TRC ended up stressing memory’s therapeutic possibilities at the expense of establishing its pathogenic connection to institutional violence and that violence’s inherence in economic racism; a connection that would more explicitly relate the TRC’s project with the historical evisceration of apartheid’s economic and spatial violence. In neglecting the hegemonic contours of institutional memory, the TRC failed to develop a self-reflexive relationship to its own technologies of memory and failed to confront the human rights danger in not recalling the disproportionate character of so-called politically motivated institutional violence. The TRC has left an ambivalent and contradictory moral legacy to the degree that it has ceded to future generations an important archive of political terror and violence experience, witnessed largely from the previously unwritten perspective of Black history and embodiment, and yet failed to adequately confront the institutional procedures that reproduce and bureaucratically routinize such violence–an important prophylaxis for future democratic institution building in South Africa.

I have triangulated racialized victim fetishism by the state apparatus—a form of state sorcery—with the human rights notion of disproportionate, surplus-excessive violence, and with specific historical-economic coordinates of production and symbolic consumption. In effect, surplus disproportionate and excessive violence functioned as a cipher or code for excessive, surplus unnarrated, unrecognized and unwanted (by the TRC) historical memory, perception, and experience. By accessing alternative historiographies, located in labor history, in local moral geographies, indigenous norms of healing and “folk” theories of sorcery and the demonic, I posed and began to answer the difficult question of how a political culture fashions power (symbolic and pragmatic) from techniques of production and substances of consumption–a question any truth commission could benefit from contemplating. A question that, if not addressed, leaves all truth commissions in a morass of symptomology and ad hoc moral condemnation that will ultimately make human rights discourse a laughing-stock or a circus-like spectacle. At the same time the salvaging of surplus historical memory tied to surplus and officially unnarrated political violence can promote the subjecthood and agency of those communities and individuals who have been the recipients of consuming colonial and postcolonial intrusions of their person and embodiment. And is not the dignified restoration of subjecthood and personhood one of the primary goals of human rights projects?

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