CfP: Silence after Violence: Mass atrocities and their aftermaths

May 22 & 23, 2014

An International Workshop sponsored by the Institute for Reconciliation and Justice, the University of the Free State and the Holocaust Studies Center, The University of Vermont
To be held in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Since the 1960s survivors and participants of violence, both mass and individual, as well as bystanding witnesses have been urged “to talk about it”. Increasingly any reluctance to recall and give-witness (note the religious phrasing) about all that had happened is framed as pathological, as a symptom of trauma. It is taken as an indice both of the harm already done as well as having continuing harmful effects in its own right. Silence or arguing for the right and the role of forgetting has been effectively delegitimized, and in some cases strongly advised against.

Emerging by the 1990s as the near hegemonic paradigm, indeed advocated as the only way available to all people from all cultures and in all contexts, this confessional-model underpinned the construction of elaborate institutional frameworks and organizations (Truth and Reconciliation committees; archives of testimonies; testimonies-based museums and commemoration sites; witness-giving survivors as tour guides and so forth).

These in turn continue to reproduce and further entrench the confessional model. Indeed it is clear that this development is part of a broader globalizing discourse which prioritizes psycho-analytic concepts based on the US experience. Sometimes these psycho-analytic and human rights concepts have merged with one another because they presume human subjects who are intelligible and may become “objects of care” without reference to social context.
This model is institutionalized by now in the Center of Transitional Justice, and in particular in the version of the South African TUC has been ‘exported’, i.a. to Sierra Leone and Liberia. At the same time, the concept of Truth (and Reconciliation) Commissions has seen a large measure of evolution which also can be read as a transnational learning experience.

To be sure, talking about potentially traumatic past experiences is often a positive, indeed healing event, both in terms of the individual’s psychological wellness as well in terms of the political culture of the communities involved. Silencing: the imposition of taboos; marginalization and de-legitimization of certain experiences and narratives, are often harmful on the individual level and poisonous and unsustainable on the collective level. However this is not always the case.

More so, the truth as such and in its entirety (assuming this is at all intelligible) is never really welcomed, but only some parts of it that are to be framed in particular terms and not in others. Indeed, social theorists ranging as far back as Renan or Simmel to contemporary scholars like Taussig have stressed the necessity of silence, secrets and the uncanny in creating social order.

To paraphrase the folklorist Wendy Doniger:
(Truth-telling or Confession) is like a mercenary, it can be made to fight anyone. Every telling puts a different spin on it, implicitly inviting the teller, the listener or the commentator to moralise. Although the word is often used nowadays to designate an idea….., (confession) most certainly is not an idea. It is a narrative that makes possible any number of ideas, but that does not commit itself to any single one. Its ability to contain in latent form several different attitudes to the events it depicts allows each different telling to draw out the attitude it finds sympathetic (2004;19).

This Workshop/Symposium will examine the role of Silence, Secrets and the Unsaid in the aftermath of mass atrocities. It seeks to enrich the confessional mode by problematizing these issues by placing them within a wider political economy framework.

Much can be gained from a constructive critical assessment of the confessional model. What were the particular reasons and actors involved in its emergence? Can one challenge the dichotomy silence – confession by describing and analyzing a continuum or a multiplicity of discursive strategies that has been taking place in the aftermath of mass violence in different places and historical contexts during the 20thcentury such as: the Armenian genocide, the Nazi genocidal campaigns, Yugoslavia after the Second World War, the USSR during and after the Stalinist era, Indonesia, Cambodia after 1979, Argentina Chile and Uruguay after the dictatorships, Mozambique Namibia and Angola, Rwanda the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa.

Paper proposals not exceeding 400 words with a short CV should be sent to:

Deadline for submissions 01.12.2013

Organizing Committee:

Yohanatan Alsheh, Wilfrid Laurier University and University of the Free State.

Rob Gordon, University of the Free State & University of Vermont.

Andre Keet, Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice, University of the Free State.

Christian Williams, University of the Western Cape

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