16 September 2010

Genocide in the Neighborhood Part IV

Read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here...

Cross: I had a hard time with this element of the book (see Part III), as I was sort of attracted and repulsed simultaneously. First, there's the problem of social condemnation and its sort of fuzzy telos. The Westboro Baptist Church was the first object lesson that came to mind so it might not hold as a foil, and I admittedly don't know much about what they hope to achieve through their outrageous protests; that said, they do enact a similarly performative/perhaps-even-sometimes-aesthetic spectacle that "produces" (or hopes to produce) public condemnation/shame for not-so-obvious reasons (do they really hope to "convert" homosexuals to the "straight and narrow" or are they, like HIJOS, using the performance to mark and ostracize "offenders" amongst their peers?). Probably a better example is a bunch of neighbors gaining critical mass and walking down the street to confront a registered sex offender (and there might also be an aesthetic element to how this plays out, maybe through the becoming-mob of the body politic?, but perhaps I'm stretching here!). The question for me is what does this "produce"?

For HIJOS, the answer is "justice." It produces or makes justice. At first I was surprised that Colectivo Situaciones didn't really unpack this concept given their emphasis on "militant" research (it's not so militant to let this slip!). Then I was just sort of incredulous: so this is justice? Shame is justice? As the victim of a Catholic upbringing, I don't think I'll ever be able to make this leap in good faith. And the whole time, of course, I'm catching myself and trying to temper my insistence on operativity, too. I mean, prison (as such) or the death penalty (as the extreme object of the punitive) can't produce justice simply because something happens, right? Because somebody acted? For me, the notion of justice is so deeply imbricated with the notion of revenge that it's hard to unhook the two. On this level, the escrache would be a disaster. Even if the demonstrators/performers/organizers could somehow develop a rubric by which to mete out the right measure of justice, I think most participants understand that the telos of the escrache will never balance the injustice of state-sponsored genocide.

What then? I've recently started to think about it in terms of performing-justice: that a term like justice can only be understood through the convictions of participants and the actions that speak for those convictions (thus the crucial insistence on the aesthetic), and as such a term like justice needs to be reevaluated in its context each and every time it's used. This would explain, of course, why the term skirts definition: if it can only be understood in context, what we call "justice" absolutely depends on praxis. The rub then would be something like this: for HIJOS, making justice means not forgetting, and any act with fidelity to the event is a kind of justice (this is starting to sound like Badiou!). Do you think I'm on the right track here?

Whitener: Let me pick up and try to respond to three points you bring up.

First, about the production of justice. I would say that I agree with you. First, the term is fuzzy as it is used in the book. But as you point out that's because they aren't sure where they are going. I think the best and clearest definition of what this other justice could be is given in the term social condemnation: the idea of turning the neighborhood into the prison.

Second, I'm reading your references to the escrache and the Westboro Church or other types of practices that flirt with either violence or practices that could somehow "go wrong," as raising the issue of ethics in the context of non-liberal political practices, ie practices that go in for something other than representative democracy. I don't want to dwell to much on the specifics of any one example (like you say you're not sure how far you would support these analogies). I think what your question is getting at is how do we distinguish between "good" and "bad" practices on the right and left? Can we? Is the left always "good" and the right always "bad"? This is certainly both an open, hotly debated, and very important question of the current moment.

With the escraches, my very tentative approach is to think we can make a case for the relative merits of left vs right practices and I would attempt to answer it like this: How for example can we say, definitively, that Glenn Beck's event at the Washington Memorial wasn't, as he portrayed it, an important continuation of the civil rights struggle? I think the way to do it is to realize that the elision of difference between Beck and MLK (on Beck's part) or between Westboro or any other practice and the escrache relies on a formalism, or saying that the "form" of the actions are somehow the same, thus they are "similar," equivalent, etc. [This formalism can also be seen in a manner of thinking that is very prevalent nowadays that involves, usually in an ethical register, arguing that certain practices, usually ones that move outside of the framework of liberal democratic politics, are on a slippery slope to fascism, totalitarianism, etc.] However, the result of this formalism, or comparing and contrasting two practices only via their form (shaming, civil rights, etc) is that the context and content of the practices are totally evacuated from consideration. Context and content (and not form) is how we would distinguish Beck from MLK: Beck is not fighting the racial oppression of a minority group (content) and his event is taking place not within a civil rights movement against racial oppression but rather within a war on terror that is based on a global ascendancy of whiteness (context).

The escraches take place in the context of the murder by a state of a generation of political opponents, crimes that are unresolved. The content is a practice that is directed at repairing the social damages of the historical event of the dictatorship. The escrache, I would argue, is not about shame, it's about the re-creation of the social fabric destroyed by the dictatorship, about bringing people together to think about this historical moment, and consider its effects on Argentinean society, and act, respond, do something about it. It's about invention and creation, its about response to injustice and not about the maintenance of a state of injustice.

We might say that in order to distinguish left from right practices our call should be: always situationize! [if we understand a situation as a fusion between context and content or between structure and history or experience] The practices have to be read within a situation, a genealogy, a convergence of context and content, and not be read for formal similarities only which results in just a sterile structuralism. This might be one provisional way of distinguishing right from left practices. Obviously, we're only just touching on the question of violence and on the difficulty of trying to think about ethics during a "war on terror" that has managed, in many instances, to criminalize many types of dissent, thought and action.

Third, I really want to talk more about yr idea of performative justice and fidelity and "the notion of justice is so deeply imbricated with the notion of revenge that it's hard to unhook the two." In your previous email you wrote:

"The rub then would be something like this: for HIJOS, making justice means not forgetting, and any act with fidelity to the event is a kind of justice (this is starting to sound like Badiou!). Do you think I'm on the right track here?"

Well, I think the short answer is yes! However, I would just switch out "fidelity" and "not forgetting" for "production." I think the escrache produces; historical memory is definitely involved but I think the escrache mobilizes this affective reservoir, puts it to work we might say. Another experience that's interesting to think in relation to the escrache is the community justice movement in Guerrero, Mexico. There's a fairly good summary (in English) of the practice here:


What I think is interesting about this practice and the escrache is that they are trying to split the Gordian knot between justice and revenge that you noted. And I think that's the knot that we have to try to untie if we're going to push these conversations around new conceptions of justice further.

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