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Memory Studies and Human Rights

I would like to shift from vulnerabilities and catastrophes in the past and from the subsequent move into trauma theory to the politics of prevention. As humanists and readers engaged in memory studies, we are legitimately involved in reading extant texts, testimonies, art projects, museum sites, performances. Much of my own work has been in this vein. In recent years, however, I have become increasingly skeptical about the future of memory studies—or, better said, about the role of the future in memory studies. I have begun to ask myself what kind of cognitive and political gain could be made if one reflected on the relation of memory and human rights. We all recognize that there is an intimate link. And yet memory discourse in the humanities has remained largely separate from human rights discourse in law and political theory. To be sure, the critics of the current status of human rights are as vociferous as those of memory studies. No doubt, to some the coupling of these two afflicted and contested bedfellows may exacerbate the problem instead of opening up new venues. And yet it may be worth the effort.

Memory takes its subject matter from the past but is, as we know, of the present. In certain political discourses, memory of the past is meant to guide us in the present and guarantee the future: never again. In the breakup of Yugoslavia, this laudable goal led to military intervention by NATO. Other memory discourses mobilize the past to legitimize violence, ethnic cleansing, genocide. The case of Yugoslavia is one among many: memory of past violence generated violence to stop violence in response to violence generated by memory. We’re not the first ones to discover the political dark side of memory.

But as we recognize that the effects of memory in the present can be deleterious and destructive, memory discourse might want to establish a closer reciprocal relation to human rights, which articulate struggles in the present oriented toward the future even if they are energized by injustices suffered in the past. Memory without justice can lead to revenge. Justice without memory will remain a dull tool. At the same time, a universalist understanding of human rights is no panacea, as long as we don’t acknowledge our own position as beneficiaries and “implicated subjects,” as Michael Rothberg suggests in his essay.

Today both memory studies and human rights politics are vulnerable. Samuel Moyn has called human rights the last utopia. As such it was often naively oriented to an alternative, imagined future. The reproaches to human rights, some of them legitimate, others blatantly self-interested, are legion: abstraction, Eurocentrism, universalism, lack of historical understanding of different cultures and traditions. Memory studies are equally vulnerable where they seek redemption or homeopathic healing through remembrance of the past. The wave of public apologies has shown how absurd this can get. Memory studies are also in danger of getting stuck in trauma. Even the new multidirectionality of trauma studies, valuable as it is in that it moves beyond the limitations of Pierre Nora’s always national lieux de mémoire, may not entirely escape this trap. Traumatic effects are always after, belated. Rights struggles and the securing of rights should prevent trauma from happening. But what rights and what trauma? We are still too used to thinking of trauma in terms of major events and shock experience: massacres, genocide, terror. We forget the slow and simmering trauma of poverty, colonial and postcolonial subjection, the sometimes endless detention of immigrants, untreated disease, radiation, climate change. How can the humanities contribute to trauma prevention? How can we create more robust conceptual and practical links between memory studies and reflections on human rights, links that may benefit both projects?

So far there have been only a few publications that discuss the relation of memory and human rights in a substantive way. W. James Booth, Joachim Savelsberg and Ryan King, Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider are some recent examples in political theory and sociology. Recent books by the political theorist Jean Cohen and the legal scholar Ruti Teitel have greatly expanded our horizon regarding international law and human rights in such a way that links with memory studies can be established. The key issue here is state sovereignty and its relation to human rights. In this debate, scholars distinguish two opposing positions: statists insist on national and state sovereignty in a traditional sense, and liberal cosmopolitans celebrate the waning of state sovereignty and the emergence of an international human rights regime. Cohen, in Globalization and Sovereignty, and Teitel, in Humanity’s Law, articulate more complex positions, drawing on both these extremes and transforming them along the way.

Both Cohen and Teitel acknowledge the shift in international relations from sovereign impunity to a responsibility of states to the international community. Perpetrators of war crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and state terror may be held liable in international courts and tribunals, however incomplete and politically deficient this new regime still is. But Cohen and Teitel differ in their assessment of this development for human rights.

In my reflection on memory and rights, I’m particularly struck by Cohen’s political argument that we need to disaggregate the new guarantees of international human security law (e.g., the UN’s adopted norm of a Responsibility to Protect, or R2P) from human rights law proper. It is precisely the shift toward legitimizing humanitarian interventions in the name of security rights and democracy that has Cohen worried about new political, if not neo-imperial, hierarchies of power and a new potentially hegemonic international law. Instead of speaking of a blend of national and international dimensions, as Teitel does, Cohen insists on a dualistic structure that separates the politics of international humanitarian intervention from the pursuit of human rights within the confines of the sovereign national state. Cohen recognizes the Janus face of national law as both authorizing and limiting public power. Her argument, finally, is in favor of two political conceptions. One refers to those human security rights violations, specified by the international community, that can legitimately and legally suspend the sovereignty argument against forceful intervention and other forms of international enforcement; the other refers to international human rights that “function as public standards of critique to which citizens and denizens, domestic rights activists, and social movement actors can refer in their political struggles against domestic oppression, injustice, and arbitrariness” (16). Cohen’s disaggregation of international security law and national struggles for rights in the context of local social movements suggests that memory studies needs to distinguish more clearly among different scales of memory, vulnerability, and violence. This would not require that we give up on the notion of migrating and multidirectional memory discourses across the globe or on cross-regional political alliances and networks. But it would require us to pay more attention to the slow and simmering effects of poverty, migration, and oppressive gender regimes and labor conditions being generated at the local levels where basic rights are denied or not even recognized. Clearly the struggle for such rights cannot be waged in an international forum at this time. It remains subject to local—that is, national—politics, which provide discursive and electoral parameters for social movement actors and the securing or even expansion of rights. There are no transnational multitudes here as political agents, even if successful struggles in one country may nurture similar movements in another (e.g., Occupy Wall Street, the Indignez-vous! campaign in Spain and France, the Bangladesh clothing factories labor movement). A careful look at the scale of vulnerabilities, violations, and disempowerment would, it seems to me, also have to affect trauma studies and perhaps lead to different language when it comes to the injuries of poverty, migration, and other forms of everyday subjection.

Let me conclude with a brief remark on the aesthetic. More than ever, we need artistic works that challenge the perpetuation of racialized and displaced colonial practices in the metropole itself, works that in their aesthetic figuration can break through the second nature of common belief systems, disavowals, and oblivion. One powerful example is Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth, a 2008 installation in London’s Tate Modern. In this work, the theme of immigration enforcement as exclusion and denial of rights is articulated in relation to language and visuality as a widening crack in the floor all along the Tate’s old Turbine Hall. The concrete walls of the crevice are ruptured by a steel-mesh fence—not the barbed wire of the Nazi or Bosnian camps but the steel mesh of today’s border fortifications and the concrete of the walls intended to keep the barbarians outside, whether in Israel or at the Mexican-American border. Shibboleth is the biblical word that cannot be pronounced correctly by the foreigners and that divides the world into friend and foe with deadly consequence. The biblical past and the contemporary present clash in this work that reflects in powerful visual and architectural language on the continuities among colonialism, racism, and immigration. The arc leads not only from the Holocaust and colonialism to Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur but also to migration and the practices of a denial of dignity, if not rights. It points to those fundamental asymmetries of power among human beings in our present that will perhaps one day become part of a politics of memory. One wishes it were that already now.

Works Cited

Booth, W. James. Communities of Memory: On Witness, Identity, and Justice. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2006. Print.

Cohen, Jean L. Globalization and Sovereignty: Rethinking Legality, Legitimacy, and Constitutionalism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.

Levy, Daniel, and Natan Sznaider. The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age. Trans. Assenka Oksiloff. Philadelphia: Temple U, 2006. Print.

Moyn, Samuel. The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010. Print.

Salcedo, Doris. Shibboleth. 9 Oct. 2007–6 Apr. 2008. Art installation. Tate Modern, London. Unilever Ser.

Savelsberg, Joachim J., and Ryan D. King. American Memories: Atrocities and the Law. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011. Print.

Teitel, Ruti G. Humanity’s Law. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Andreas Huyssen is Villard Professor of German and Comparative Literature and founding director of the Center for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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