Reparations and the Human

My remarks on vulnerable times are drawn from my forthcoming book, “Reparations and the Human,” which explores the politics of reparations, the human, and human rights in the context of Cold War Asia. The project is interdisciplinary: reparation is a key term in political theory, but it is also a central concept in psychoanalysis—in particular, object relations—though the two are rarely discussed together. The book investigates how political and psychic genealogies of reparation might supplement each other in the wake of changing conceptions of the human being after genocide and nuclear holocaust. I examine the concepts’ transnational significance in relation to a trans-Pacific archive. I bring together three interlocking events of World War II as well as their Cold War legacies and effects: first, the internment of Japanese Americans by the United States government during World War II; second, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended that war; and, third, contemporary legal claims by comfort women, girls and women conscripted by Japan’s imperial army into sexual slavery.

This essay derives from the afterword to my book, which investigates the history of uranium mining. Most of the world’s uranium supply is mined from indigenous lands. The uranium sourced for the creation of Little Boy, the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 by the United States military, was no exception: it was extracted in part from the lands of the Dene, an indigenous people inhabiting the Sahtu Region in the Northwest Territories of Canada.1 Many of the Sahtu Dene men who labored on behalf of this atomic initiative died of cancer (Nikiforuk). Their families and descendants all suffer from exorbitant rates of malignancy. The water and land on which the Sahtu Dene live are poisoned for tens of thousands of years. Ignorant at the time of how their mining efforts would be applied and of the destination of the ore, the Sahtu Dene nonetheless felt implicated once they learned of Hiroshima’s fate. In response to the atomic disaster, they sent a delegation to Hiroshima to apologize.

I would like to focus on this act of apology, which is recounted in Peter Blow’s 1999 documentary Village of Widows: The Story of the Sahtu Dene and the Atomic Bomb. The first half of Blow’s film relates the suffering of the Sahtu Dene and their failed attempts to gain either acknowledgment or relief from the Canadian government for what environmental scholars describe as new forms of “toxic” or “radioactive colonialism” in the atomic age (Masco 34; see also Kultez; Pasternak). The second half of the documentary follows the delegation’s journey to Japan. There, the Sahtu Dene group attends ceremonies at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park marking the anniversary of the bombing; they apologize to a group of community leaders for their role in the atomic disaster; and they visit a hospital devoted exclusively to Korean hibakusha (“survivors of the atomic bombing”), conscripted laborers from Japan’s colonial empire in East and Southeast Asia forced to work as part of the city’s enormous military industrial complex at the time of the bombing.

Building on Jacques Derrida’s notion of “absolute forgiveness,” I develop a corollary concept of absolute apology. In On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Derrida offers a counterintuitive notion of forgiveness, suggesting that the only thing worth forgiving is, in fact, the unforgivable.2 On the one hand, he suggests that what can be forgiven—what can be pardoned—is invariably tied to political calculation, to a set of intended political consequences and effects. For example, a perpetrator apologizes, and a victim, in the face of this performative demand, is inserted in a dialectic of apology and forgiveness, reparation and reconciliation, a dialectic that serves to underwrite narratives of progress and justice. “The language of forgiveness, at the service of determined finalities,” Derrida observes, is “anything but pure and disinterested. As always in the field of politics” (31). Reparation in this instance functions as a noun—as a political accounting of injury and harm, as a definitive moment of recognition and redress, and as a distinct event that writes a history of violence into the past. This perspective supports a history of reparations in political theory.

On the other hand, to forgive the unforgivable—to forgive in the absence of apology and political demand—shatters such narratives of completion and unity. The calculability of politics thus cleaves to the incalculability of justice. “Forgiveness is not, it should not be, normal, normative, normalizing,” Derrida writes. “It should remain exceptional and extraordinary, in the face of the impossible: as if it interrupted the ordinary course of historical temporality” (32). Dissociating forgiveness from apology, victim from perpetrator, and justice from law, absolute forgiveness functions outside the circuits of sovereign power, authority, and will. In the end, it indexes a “madness of the impossible,” he concludes. “It is even, perhaps, the only thing that arrives, that surprises, like a revolution, the ordinary course of history, politics, and law. Because that means that it remains heterogenous to the order of politics or of the juridical as they are ordinarily understood” (39).

If, as Derrida suggests, absolute forgiveness demands forgiving that which is unforgivable, I would propose that absolute apology involves apologizing for that which you are not (quite) responsible. The Sahtu Dene’s surprising act of apology interrupts, like uranium itself, the ordinary course of things. Dispossessed of their land through a long history of colonial settlement, targeted by enormous state violence and neglect, and suffering from unspeakable personal losses and long-term environmental devastation, the Sahtu Dene nonetheless apologize. They voluntarily assume the mantle of perpetrator and thus take responsibility for their role in the atomic disaster, for a violence that claims them as much as any other. What is at stake when those who might be considered the most vulnerable—the most dispossessed and victimized—in a long history of colonial violence nonetheless assume the mantle of perpetrator?

The Sahtu Dene, by cleaving to the victims of the atomic bombing, assent to a notion of history, to cite Cathy Caruth, as a phenomenon of being “implicated in each other’s traumas” (24). From another perspective, their act of apology blurs the line between victim and perpetrator. Indeed, it illustrates how one might be victim and perpetrator at once, and it illustrates the ethical stakes of claiming such a position. Those stakes are high, for the Sahtu Dene’s apology presents us with a different notion of responsibility and repair, one in which we must take account of, as well as respond to, events beyond clear notions of agency and will, linear concepts of cause and effect, and even the immediate consequences and results of decisions clearly made by others.3

In demonstrating how violence and responsibility are dissociated from conventional politics of reparation and reconciliation, the Sahtu Dene’s act works to loosen the dialectic of apology and forgiveness—perpetrator and victim—on which legal claims for reparations and human rights are typically predicated. I see the value of the Sahtu Dene’s apology as an ethical ideal at the very limits of the political, indexing “a madness of the impossible.” At the same time, I see the value of their act as a performative, pedagogical moment in which to imagine otherwise a politics of reparation, the human, and human rights. After all, legal claims for reparations and human rights are based on trauma not as a shared phenomenon, in which we are all implicated, but rather as a psychic injury arrogated by one group over another in the calculated politics of victimhood and recognition. If trauma is a thing to be monopolized in conventional understandings of reparations and human rights, the Sahtu Dene’s gesture underscores a notion of repair that encompasses not ownership but rather, in Peter van Wyck’s words, the “infinite character of responsibility” (172). It is an acknowledgment not of sovereign inviolability but of a common vulnerability, an unwilled susceptibility that connects all creatures and things.

Vulnerability from this perspective is neither victimhood nor weakness, as Marianne Hirsch suggests in her statement for this forum. In its embrace of responsibility, vulnerability is not opposed to agency either, emerging instead as a kind of ethical act. This is an act of solidarity, an act of acknowledgment and responsiveness toward unwilled others who have been harmed.

I conclude by suggesting that the history of uranium mining and toxic colonialism to which the Sahtu Dene respond has great resonance with recent scholarship on the Anthropocene and the radically uneven effects of environmental justice movements. Indeed, the story of the Sahtu Dene and the atomic bomb precludes, as Rob Nixon so incisively suggests in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, any temporal possibility of the post- in postcolonial (8). Moreover, it draws disconnected groups across the trans-Pacific into unexpected alignment. It offers, that is, a different narrative of the atomic bombing of Japan and the postwar politics of reparation after nuclear holocaust by connecting a longer history of Native dispossession in the New World with more recent colonial violence and militarism in Cold War Asia. I take these ideas of unanticipated solidarity, of slow violence and the temporal impossibility of the post-, as ones that shatter concepts of sovereignty and sovereign time, transporting us instead into the framework of vulnerable times.

If, as Elizabeth V. Spelman suggests, we repair only what is valuable to us, the Sahtu Dene’s apology marks a kind of unexpected receptivity and openness to the pain of the enemy, to the vulnerability of the devalued other (8). From this perspective, we might say it is those to whom repair can be offered who become the very sign of the human. The Sahtu Dene’s absolute apology, as well as Blow’s recounting of it in Village of Widows, offers an important insight not just into the political but also into the aesthetic. Despite their fictional nature, film and literature seek to represent yet can never definitively capture the role of either victim or perpetrator. In their proximity to the imaginary, they intersect with the logic of absolute apology, which blurs the line between victim and perpetrator as two entrenched positions. If, as I mentioned earlier, we think of reparation in political theory more as a noun—as a discrete historical event and definitive legal accounting of the past in the name of victims and perpetrators—in the conceptual grammar of psychoanalysis reparation functions more as a verb, as a continuous process of violence and repair subtending the subjective vicissitudes of love and hate that demand the constant retelling of their affective vagaries. Together with the imaginary peregrinations of the aesthetic, reparation as a verb thus facilitates new constellations of the injured to emerge and new atrocities to be apprehended. Such continuous openings of the future for the past might be described as vulnerability in process, another way to think about the political and social emergencies of vulnerable times.


  1. In 2009, the worldwide production of uranium amounted to 50,572 tons. Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia are the top three producers. Together, the three countries account for sixty-three percent of the world’s uranium production. Other important uranium producers are Namibia, Russia, Niger, Uzbekistan, and the United States. Each country produces over a thousand tons per year (see “Uranium Mining”). The uranium for the Manhattan Project, which constructed the two atomic bombs detonated over Japan, came from northwest Canada, the United States (the Colorado Plateau), and the Belgian Congo (see “Manhattan Project”).

  2. Derrida writes: “In order to approach now the very concept of forgiveness, logic and common sense agree for once with the paradox: it is necessary, it seems to me, to begin from the fact that, yes, there is the unforgivable. It this not, in truth, the only thing to forgive? The only thing that calls for forgiveness? If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls ‘venal sin,’ then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear” (32).

  3. I derive this reading from Judith Butler’s Parting Ways. Commenting on Emmanuel Lévinas, Butler writes, “We do not take responsibility for the Other’s suffering only when it is clear that we have caused that suffering. In other words, we do not take responsibility only for the clear choices we have made and the effects they have had. Although, of course, such acts are important components of any account of responsibility, they do not indicate its most fundamental structure. According to Levinas, we affirm the unfreedom at the heart of our relations with others, and only by ceding in this way do we come to understand responsibility. In other words, I cannot disavow my relation to the Other, regardless of what the other does, regardless of what I might will. Indeed, responsibility is not a matter of cultivating a will (as it is for Kantians), but of recognizing an unwilled susceptibility as a resource for being responsive to the Other” (43).

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia UP, 2013. Print.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Kultez, Valerie L. The Tainted Desert: Environmental Ruin in the American West. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.

“Manhattan Project.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

Masco, Joseph. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006. Print.

Nikiforuk, Andrew. “Echoes of the Atomic Age.” Calgary Herald 14 Mar. 1998: n. pag. Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011. Print.

Pasternak, Judy. Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and People Betrayed. New York: Free, 2010. Print.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World. Boston: Beacon, 2003. Print.

“Uranium Mining.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

van Wyck, Peter C. “An Emphatic Geography: Notes on the Ethical Itinerary of Landscape.” Canadian Journal of Communication 33 (2008): 171–91. Print.

Village of Widows: The Story of the Sahtu Dene and the Atomic Bomb. Dir. Peter Blow. Lindum Films, 1999. Film.

David L. Eng is Richard L. Fisher Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.

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