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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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A Commencement Address from Jonathan Edwards

queingO student! Your dim prospects make you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards unemployment; and if your Economy let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf, and your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best C.V. and and all your nice shoes, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of unemployment, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock. Were it not for the sovereign pleasure of your Economy, the market would not bear you one moment; for you are a burden to it; the market groans with you; the market is made subject to the bondage of your corruption, not willingly; the job-creators do not willingly shine upon you to give you light to serve sin and Satan; the market does not willingly yield her increase to satisfy your lustful theses; nor is it willingly a stage for your wickedness to be acted upon; the air does not willingly serve you for breath to maintain the flame of life in your vitals, while you spend your life in the service of the ecconomy’s enemies. The market is good, and was made for students to serve Capital with, and does not willingly subserve to any other purpose, and groans when it is abused to purposes so directly contrary to its nature and end. And the market would spew you out, were it not for the sovereign hand of him who hath subjected it in hope. There are the black clouds of the Economy’s wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm, and big with thunder; and were it not for the restraining hand of the Economy, you would immediately be forced to reformulate your C.V. The sovereign pleasure of the Economy, for the present, stays his rough wind; otherwise it would come with fury, and your destruction would come like a whirlwind, and you would be like the chaff on the summer threshing floor.

The wrath of the Economy like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose. It is true, that judgment against your evil works has not been executed hitherto; the floods of the Economy’s vengeance have been withheld; but your guilt in the mean time is constantly increasing, and you are every day treasuring up more wrath; the waters are constantly rising, and waxing more and more mighty; and there is nothing but the mere pleasure of the Economy that holds the waters back, that are unwilling to be stopped, and press hard to go forward. If the Economy should only withdraw his hand from the flood-gate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of Wall Street would rush forth with inconceivable fury, and would come upon you with omnipotent power; and if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is, yea, ten thousand times greater than the strength of the stoutest, sturdiest commencement mortar board, it would be nothing to withstand or endure it.

The bow of economic wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of the Economy, and that of an angry Economy, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. The Economy holds you much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent.

Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that Economy, whose wrath is provoked and incensed. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder and you have nothing to lay hold of to save yourself. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from unemployment every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you have ever received a paycheck; that you were suffered to awake again and write another application. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not already been rendered into Soylent.

America is Hungry, Let’s Eat

It is a truth universally acknowledged that many people are alive who shouldn’t be. To say nothing of the teeming masses of the third world, why must the unemployed exist, or those without start-up capital? By what right do they occupy valuable real estate, choking our cities and impeding innovation?

Look: it is no generosity to suffer their existence. Their lives are a burden to themselves and their families. Yet no one seems to have an answer to the problem. Embattled capital must flee to more hospitable shores, slave to the whims of these lumpen masses, while the government does nothing and innovation is held to ransom.

Our dreams refuse to take wing, weighed down by the human waste accumulated in our cities and factories.

What if we have misunderstood the problem? What if more government—not less—is precisely what we need?

While it is true that burdensome government regulations prevent the private sector from innovating solutions—and responsible members of society suffer the consequences of their inaction—a smarter government, one whose priorities are more in line with the needs of the community, might turn out to innovate the future. After all, who is it that cleared the American frontier of its native detritus, making it possible for us to create this great nation of ours through enterprise and innovation? Cowboy vigilantes played their part, of course, but it was the U.S government which made this virgin soil available to be husbanded, giving entrepreneurs the space the needed to operate!

Who built the reservations which gave American Indians the opportunity to mine uranium and give their lives for American nuclear supremacy? The United States of America.

Reservations are not the answer, however. The reservation, the death-camp… these were adequate for their day, but those pre-industrial and Fordist precursors were far too reliant on state support. Let’s be honest: it simply isn’t viable to build gulag archipelagos in our modern economy. We can’t make the trains run on time. What we need is an Uber-reservation for the 21st century. But if we are mindful of our past, perhaps we can imagine the future.

The capital cities of tomorrow will turn to yesterday’s technology, re-born: the Frontier. In the old world, a “frontier” was a “no man’s land” keeping nations apart, distinguishing one country from another through the lines of fences and guards and impunity that separated one regime of law from another. Between the space of French law and German law, for example, there obtained a different law, no-law. You could kill people there, and nobody cared.

In Europe, these spaces were very small, however. It was the United States that recognized the entrepreneurial spirit that could flourish in the spaces of no-law, if they were massively expanded. And so, at the beginning of the 19th century, the American frontier was like it was in Europe, the dividing line between the United States and Indian Country, the space in which vagabond roaming bands of picturesque native peoples were allowed to run free. But the iron laws of economics demanded that they be exterminated, so our founding fathers set out to imagine a solutionnovation. They hacked the frontier: instead of a narrow strip of no-man’s-land separating the United States and its territories from the places where native sovereignty had to be suffered to exist, the fronter became a free-fire zone encompassing everywhere that American law hadn’t yet extended. And just like that, the problem was solved!

What made America great then can make America great again. But in the 21st century, borders will do the work of the frontier, doing everything the reservation and death camp once did, and more. Today, hundreds of people who die crossing the US/Mexico border each year, just as thousands die trying to get from Africa to Europe each year.

We can do better. This is only the beginning.

But to liquidate the excess human beings that clog the arteries of our society, we will need a smart border. It must carefully discriminate between capital and the uncapitalized, between corporate persons and the un-personed.

To build it, we must recognize what has always been true: people without capital are not people.

Without the corporate personhood that gives an individual the right to exist, what are they but parasitic sponges of need, begging for handouts and support from our families and from the government? Without a job and a bank account and a credit score, how can they be said to be a person? The solution has been looking us in the eye, all this time.

America respects the individual. But the masses of interdependent bodies, seething teemingly across and on top of each other, have no rights we need to respect. And there can be no better technology than borders to take individual biological objects—which cohere, which function, which act, which associate, and which are recognizably human—and turn them into an undifferentiable river of meat blood, which can then be disposed of efficiently and deliciously.

Nostalgia for the past would have us defend a way of life that is gone. The rights of man, for example, or the notion that all men are created equal; why, such archaic language screams its sexist obsolescence. No, in a world of flows and movements and circulation, there is no society: there are only individual human beings and a single beautiful river of meat blood, a commons to be dammed, commodified, and consumed.

America is hungry!

As Karl Marx pointed out, history never happens twice, even if you want it to, and you just look silly trying. “Never Again,” as they say. But that’s fine. Why try to re-create the past? No Gatsby, we!

We need to learn from the mistakes and false starts of the past; let us fail forward, fail better.

“It Continues Not To End”: Time, Poetry, and the ICC Witness Project

This is the (mostly unchanged) text of a talk I delivered at UT Austin, last Tuesday.

time witness

Today, I’m going to talk about the ICC Witness Project. This is an archive of poems written and posted to the internet over the last year, starting last March; there are over 150 of them now, with 144 titled as numbered witnesses— “Witness #1, Witness #2.”

The “ICC” refers to the “International Criminal Court,” where a prosecution is currently pending against the sitting president and deputy president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto,  for crimes against humanity committed in the Post-Election Violence of 2007, three months of wide-spread killing and burning across the country, that took on ethnic and gendered overtones and left about 1500 people dead, perhaps a million displaced, and countless thousands sexually assaulted. A church that was burned in Eldoret became one of the central images of the violence, killing those who were sheltering inside.


The expressed aim of the ICC Witness project is to speak for and with witnesses who have been intimidated into silence. But the ICC Witness Project is not a part of the ICC case, and the poets involved are not “witnesses” in the normal sense. Instead, the project very basically questions who counts as a “witness” and is premised on a radical destabilization of what witnessing mean. As an effort to represent voices which have been excluded from the ICC’s truth-making apparatus—modes of subjectivity which cannot be heard in its construction of justice—the term “witness,” itself, becomes an index of the many kinds of testimony which do not and cannot achieve official truth status.

The project is therefore a testimony to what several poems call “un-witnessing,” the manner in which the absent or retracted testimony of silenced witnesses is actually still present, present-as-absent.

Witness #68, for example, testifies to having nothing to testify:

ICC68This is unwitnessing: testimony to the absence of testimony. Or as Witness #144 puts it, “un-witnessing is cooperation in the production of reality in which Uhuru Kenyatta is president..One of these realities will become true: either he will be convicted and cease to be president or he will be acquitted and cease to be the accused.”

Witnesses who do not testify are un-witnesses because they testify to the official absence of a reality which remains subjectively true, even if it never reaches truth-making apparatuses like the ICC. I call the ICC a truth-making apparatus, by the way, because as the poems show, there is no way to opt out: because Uhuru Kenyatta is either president of Kenya or international criminal, un-witnessing becomes testimony to for the defense. In place of a constative report of what happened—a statement of what was witnessed—un-witnessing is a performative speech act indicating that nothing was witnessed, akin to the silence that follows the sentence: “if anyone can show just cause why this couple cannot be married, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.” Silence is forced consent to remain silent. Silence becomes what anthropologist Veena Das calls “poisonous knowledge,” in which containing the knowledge of the violation, in silence, is itself the expression of that knowledge.

The ICC Witness Project began in February, when this BBC article:


was shared on two listservs, the Concerned Kenyan Writers google-group and the Kenyan Poetry Catalyst google-group. The article concerns the slow-motion collapse of the ICC’s case, as its witnesses have been intimidated into silence. As Fatou Bensouda, the chief ICC prosecutor, has complained:

“The scale of witness interference in the Kenya cases has been unprecedented… the intimidation and interference goes beyond individual witnesses themselves and extends to pressures on their immediate and extended families, relatives and loved ones.”

The ICC has little to no provision for witness protection, and since the government of Kenya has actively sought to block the prosecution at every stage, anonymity has been the witness’s only real protection. Kenyatta and Ruto are powerful establishment elites: Kenyatta is the son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and the country’s richest man, and Ruto is the successor to Kenya’s second president as pre-eminent political leader within the Kalenjin community. Inn 2007, they were political opponents—and they are accused of fomenting violence against each other’s supporters—but the ICC charges gave them a shared interest, so they ran for president and deputy president under what they called the “jubilee” coalition, and last March, they won.

Before the election, about forty poems of what would become the ICC Witness Project had been written and privately circulated on the two listservs, but at that point it was an internal, private dialogue, limited to members of the list. Among those members, however, the poets were publicly known: the poems were titled as numbered witnesses, but they were also clearly identifiable by the email address of the sender. On March 9th, the day Kenyatta was declared the winner, the project went online as an act of protest. Now, however, they were publicly anonymous: no author names and no indications anywhere on the site who was behind it, other than “Kenyan poets, in Kenya itself and in the diaspora.” The poems that circulated on the listservs are stylistically all over the map. A number of them are structured by what I’d call narrative by subtraction;

ICC6 and 9Witness #9 is the same poem as Witness #6, except one line has been removed, and there are several others that play with this kind of aesthetic. But after the project went online, it takes on a more coherent voice, even as more poets became involved. Now anonymous, collective, a collective voice for the project begins to emerge, what I would characterize  as: a ghostly subjectivity of a form of life which is not supposed to exist, and knows it, and which feels itself to be a problem to be solved, but for which no solution is possible.

90 poems were online by the end of March, and another thirty by the end of June, and not nearly so many since. But the project does continue: a new poem was posted last week, and four new poems were posted between the time I taught the text in the fall semester and the time I taught it in the spring. This sense of openness is crucial, as is the manner in which we are forced to read it: we start at the end, and read backwards, into the past (perhaps something like Benjamin’s Angel of History). In this way, it not only responds to ongoing events in Kenya, but as events in Kenya go on, so does the project. Since Kenya “continues not to end,” the project cannot come to a close, cannot end its labor.

We need to do a kind of critical work to make this text legible. The ICC Witness Project is a digital project, which uses poetry to perform an intervention into how Kenyan history is told, so I’m going to structure the remainder of my talk by these three frames of reference: the digital, the historical, and the performative. These frames overlap and bleed into each other, of course, but the structure allows me to give a sense of the different stakes of the project.

First, the digital: The ICC Witness Project is a digital artifact, or a digital archive, or a digital project; each of those terms captures an important aspect of what it is, and my inability to settle on only one speaks to the formal innovations which the digital medium enables, which I’ll discuss. I’ll also place this text within the digitization of Kenyan and African literature more broadly.

Second, the historical. This text is very much of a particular moment in Kenyan literary culture, what I would characterize as the disillusionment of the post-Moi period. When Moi left power in 2002, there was a real burst of enthusiasm around the new beginning for Kenya it was seen to represent, but in both form and content, the poems testify to the deepening repression and violence of the present, what many fear is a return to the past. It also demonstrates a schism that is emerging within the Kenyan literary community: those who hew to an “Africa Rising” narrative of a country on the move—putting its past behind it, and striding optimistically into the future—and those whose sense of the present is of a past that will not stop happening, which continues not to end.

Third, the Poetic, or Performative. Discussions of human rights literature tend to privilege narrative realism, and authenticated legal testimony is perhaps the ultimate form of narrative realism. Poetry can be realist and narrative, of course, but I will argue that this poetry performs its antagonism towards narrative History by its formal aesthetics—its non-narrative, non-prose form—and by the way its forward movement is chronological without being teleological: time is an oppressively repetitive sequence, not a progression towards resolution or transcendence. But performance allows static time to become an artifact of human expression, malleable and social. So I’ll close with a few words on what I’m calling the social life of this poetry: the manner in which a different chronology than mere repetition emerges from the circulation of these poems as a shared text for performance. These are, ultimately, poems which testify to the forms of human life which cannot be recognized as human, which are available for genocidal imaginations. But as performance, the project strives to make such forms of life thinkable and livable, to create community out of atrocity.

I. The Digital

Valorizations of the digital are often ahistorical celebrations of modernity’s transcendence of the pre-modern, and often obscure the ways modernity is structured by continuity with the past. The digital is often taken to be another Gutenberg moment. But African literary history reminds us that things are more complicated than that: in Africa, a fetishization of oral literature was a decisively post-print development, a renewal of interest in orality as a cultural alternative to the various print-literatures that were tainted by their colonial origins. It was print culture, in other words, that made “orality” newly important.

Something similar is true for African digital publishing: “online” is not a transcendence of the print form, but a development within it, and made legible as such only by a crisis within print culture itself.

Kenyan literature, for example, is experiencing a literary renaissance right now, and digital media are a crucial part of it.


Binyavanga Wainaina, for example, has been at the center of the the post-2002 proliferation of new Kenyan writing and all of his early writing was born online—including much that would later be published in print—and the viral circulation of his essay “How to Write About Africa” allowed it to reach an audience exponentially larger and for a much longer time than the original Granta print run. You can’t find it in print even if you want to, though there is a print version available in Kenya; but everyone’s read it online. It’s an incredibly influential document; citing it is almost second nature, and it continues to circulate. People still email it to me.

More generally, some of the most interesting and innovative new writing I’ve seen from Kenya has been online: the ICC Witness Project, for one, but also the Jalada writers collective—whose anthology is coming out soon as an e-book—a site called Brainstorm Kenya, which just released an important e-book on Kenyan feminisms, #WhenWomenSpeak, and the project which most immediately precedes the ICC Witness Project and overlaps with it, the Koroga project, a tumblr series of images and texts.

In a broad sense, I would suggest that the digital has become central to African literary production for many reasons. One is that it allows writers and writers collectives to sidestep traditional literary gatekeepers, a fact that is particularly crucial in places where publishing and academia have become sclerotic and nepotistic, and sometimes, to evade state censorship. But it’s also a simple function of economic obstacles like the expense and high start-up costs for print-based publishing.

For example, when I asked one of the ICC poets what kind of poetry he read, she answered,

“whatever poets I can find…I grew up on old white men but recently moved my reading to people of colour. The thing is though, it’s very hard to get poetry books here. So I mainly rely on blogs and such.

And she named a few, both personal blogs—with both copied and original work—and sites like Poetryfoundation.ord.

In this sense, the digital is not “post-book.” Situating this archive within its digitized 21st-century context does require accounting for changes in the textual ecosystem that have occurred over the last few years, but the timeline is not two-dimensional: history is always layered and develops unevenly across geography. To understand what the ICC Witness Project says that is new—and to frame why it says it this way—we have to place that novelty within a specifically African and Kenyan context, where, for example, old white men books are available, but poems by people of color circulate online.

This is the particular “history of the book” that obtains there, so let’s move to the historical, historicizing the digital.

II. The Historical

The ICC Witness poems were written and circulate online, but “online” is only meaningful within a textual ecosystem that still gives the printed word a pride of place and that defers to the authority of the authoritative text. The ICC Witness Project’s subordinate relation to “the book” is part of what makes it a subaltern form. Precisely because these poems do not aspire to the status of authoritative text, they are not texts that easily accrue legibility, cultural capital, or authority. Anonymous witnesses lack testimonial authority, for one thing, and if “realism” marks discursive claim to some kind of empirical, objective validity, then these poems are, as poems, subjective and decidedly anti-realist.

At the same time, the kinds of texts which do accrue legibility, capital, and authority are implicated in the political imperatives of the post-Moi moment, a literary moment dominated by the NGO and civil sector, and by the forms of writing which it produces. The poet and critic Keguro Macharia called this form of writing “Report Realism” and traced the imperative to report to the rise of the NGO-industrial complex in post-Moi Kenya.

“Over the past 15 years and more specifically the past ten years or so, Kenyan writing has been shaped by NGO demands: the “report” has become the dominant aesthetic foundation. Whether personal and confessional or empirical and factual or creative and imaginative, report-based writing privileges donors’ desires: to help, but not too much; to save, but not too fast; to uplift, but never to foster equality…The believable and the realistic are bounded by NGO narratives and perspectives. And too many writers believe that the only writing worth anything is the believable and the realistic: to be a “committed” writer requires adhering to report realism. Report realism believes in the power of “truth,” whether contemporary or historical, with a faith that borders on fundamentalism. In report realism, the truth will set us free.”

The first poem in the ICC Witness project deconstructs this mode of realism:

As the first poem in the series, this sets the tone for the project, not because of what it reports, but because of what it doesn’t, and can’t. “They killed my family” is a painfully direct report of a horrific event, in painfully simple words. But these four words, three lines, two stanzas, and one poem are such a forced constriction of form to the production of a report—the fact that the speaker’s family was killed by “them”—that the poem collapses the very discursive structure through which it might signify. It reports everything and nothing, and this is its provocation, which started the project moving. This is the fundamental truth of the witness—and in the broader sense in which “Family” speaks to the dismembering of the Kenyan national family—it reflects the ways intimate violence was also political, and political violence was also intimate. But in reporting what happened it performs the inadequacy of doing so. To the extent that it is true of everyone in Kenya, it is true of no one in particular.

This kind of reality is something which the many commissioned official reports on the Post Election Violence have been unable to address. The Waki commission produced a report which jump-started the ICC prosecution, and a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission was established to determine what the long-term causes of the violence had been. But these truth-making processes have run their course and accomplished little, beyond producing enormous authoritative reports. The government has barely even bothered to repress them; without a political will to revisit the past, they are meaningless. The TJRC report is, itself, a kind of un-witness. Its recommendations carry the force of law, but the government of Kenya has simply pretended it doesn’t, and ignored it. That becomes the new truth as a result.

But the conclusions of these reports helps produce a sense of history as finished, as settled, and this might be the crux of “report realism,” the way it produces a sense of time, the finality of a reality which has been reported on. This is the narrative which Kenyatta and Ruto have taken their electoral mandate to have ratified, the fact that “Kenya is moving on.” At his victory, Kenyatta declared that

“This year marks 50 years since the birth of our nation – this is our jubilee year. As the Bible tells us the year of the Jubilee is the year of healing and forgiveness. It is the year of renewal. My brother William Ruto and I were once on opposite sides but we agreed to put our differences aside and come together as leaders to end this cycle of violence and bring enduring peace, this has been our Jubilee journey.”

Impunity for perpetrators, however, is barely even subtext; on the eve of the election, Kenyatta told Al-Jazeera, explicitly, that “if Kenyans do vote for us, it will mean that Kenyans themselves have questioned the process that has landed us at the International Criminal Court.”

Witness #47, I think, is the poem that most clearly articulates the poetic retort:


It begins with Kenyatta’s own words, but in the voice of the president, the statement of “need” becomes an imperative, a governmental command. Yet the poem highlights the absurdity of this official fantasy: moving on seems to literally require moving backwards. Victims are healed by using machetes to re-attach severed limbs, stuffing children back into their wombs, and watching as scattered stones and rubble magically rises to construct houses, which promptly unburn themselves up from the ground.

Note that this magical healing is a burden placed on the victims, a “need” which is a command:

  • Those who were killed need to undie
  • women need to guard their wombs
  • [women need to] erase their memories
  • And those IDPs! They need to move

The roadblock to moving on is the victims whose continued existence (as victims) stands as the obstacle to amnesia. And IDPs—an acronym meaning internally displaced persons—remain as the residue of the violence, the mess that has been left over, and which it is the job of the government of Kenya to clean up. Or, in government and NGO speak, “to integrate.” However, to integrate IDPs is to solve the problem by making its subjects disappear: as IDPs become the logistical problem of “integrating” them into new communities, the problem is solved when they cease to be IDPs. A report from last year reads, for example, that “Out of the more than 660,000 people displaced, the government considers that over 300,000 or around 47 percent have been ‘integrated’ in communities across the country.” Kenya’s progress, then, is measured by the number of IDPs that do not continue as IDPs; Kenya moves on when IDPs move on.

In the reality that statistics don’t measure, of course, violence that cannot be construed numerically still exists. What statistics don’t measure, to paraphrase, is how it feels to be a problem. There was widespread sexual violence during the PEV, for example, but such violence is not conducive to statistics, and as a result, a focus on statistics effectively un-narrates the forms of violence which leave their victims alive, especially true when victims are socially stigmatized. The truth often does not set rape victims free, or men who have been castrated or forcibly circumcised, a category of victim for whom public tribunals are particularly ill-suited, and in many cases, an exacerbation of the original violation.

By the final refrain of witness 47, then, “Kenya is moving on,” we see the hidden violence of time: the labor of moving on is placed on the shoulders of the victims, whose responsibility it is to erase themselves as victims. As they “crawl from their graves in solidarity,” one might say, they have a patriotic duty to not be dead. Yet this un-doing only exacerbates the original violations, a traumatic repetition. As the injunction to move on rehearses each category of victim—killed, raped, displaced—we relive the instant of the violation. To assent to the official fantasy, the dead must rise from the grave like zombies. If you fail to perform the miracle, you are a failed subject.

While poems like Witness #47 directly satirize the Jubilee narrative, many more of the poems describe how it feels to be a problem, speaking from the position of a trauma that can find no public expression. This ghostly non-existence—the feeling of being out of place with the nation narrative, lagging behind as Kenya moves on—gets expressed in a variety of poems in which witnesses apologize for their existence.

Witness #122 writes “we are sorry for being roadblocks on the highway to national reconciliation”

Witness #49, begins:

Move on,
They tell me.

Why can’t you
pick yourself up
and move on?

I’m sorry if I offend you…

And Witness #129 writes

We are very sorry that the president
(and his deputy) were involved
in not committing these crimes:

We are sorry that Wanjiku acted
of her own accord, when she gathered
her children in a burning church;

Reality is, however, more absurd than fiction: on October 25—well after these were posted—K24TV tweeted the following, a quote from an actual ICC witness in court:

Witness: I am sorry if I offended anybody in my appearance in this court. I am sorry. #ICCTrialsKE

This tweet, however, has since been deleted. I remember seeing it—as you can imagine, it caused quite an uproar—but in going back into the archive, I couldn’t find any trace of it. Instead, it only exists because Shailja Patel, a Kenyan poet, re-tweeted it, and because of various other commentaries and exclamations of horror and disgust. The voice of that witness, such as it is, can only be heard through the fossil of its suppression.


I want to close, now, by talking about how poetry becomes performance, how texts becomes vital. If the project begins with the genocidal imagination that turns people into problems, victims into numbers, and statecraft into violence, the poetry achieves its goal when it turns textual reports into lived subjectivity. A crucial part of the project, then, is what happens after it has been written, the modes of circulation by which the poetry works its way into the social life of the nation.

III. The Social Life of Poetry

Officially, the poets in this project are anonymous, with some limited exceptions. Within the archive proper, however, anonymity is an important fictive component of the project. I use the word “fictive” because it involves a suspension of not of disbelief, but of knowledge. This seems to have applied to the poets themselves; as one told me (but many said something similar):

“part of the mental model of preserving the anonymity of some of the writers has actually made me ‘forget’ (at least, temporarily) who wrote what…looking at the older email threads has revealed the poets again, but I know there are times I’ve looked at the project and failed to recognise even my own voice”

As this poet acknowledges, there exists a relatively clear record of who wrote what, in hundreds of inboxes, including mine. I have access to many of the original emails, because I’ve been a member of the CKW google-group since last July. But it’s easy to pierce the anonymity of the process, because it wasn’t very anonymous, originally. Anonymity was added in, after the fact, at the precise moment when Kenyatta and Ruto were declared the winners of the election, when the poetry went online. The effect was to take a digital dialog between poets who know each other, and are fairly well known, and to turn it into a single first-person plural sequence, voiced by a national subject who witnessed the violence, in the broadest sense of the word. As one poet put it,

“anonymity allows us to be a collective of poets writing beyond whatever categories of difference ostensibly divide us. I’d like us to think of how our collective art can provide a space and method for being together as Kenyans.”

Anonymity de-individualizes the poets whose names might mark them as less Kenyan that Kenyan; as with most Kenyans, the poets all have names which activate stories about ethnicity and gender, which would tempt the reader to read them in particular ways: Male Muslim, Kikuyu woman, etc. Anonymity removes that temptation; in practical terms, it enables a form of sympathetic identification that ethnic and gender marks could preclude. To go back to the first poem, “They killed my family,” a Kalenjin whose family was killed by Kikuyu can identify with a Kikuyu whose family was killed by Kalenjin. And any Kenyan who felt that post-election violence killed the Kenyan national family—a common way to construe it—could feel implicated in the poetry.

Put differently, when the poetry is voiced anonymously, it speaks a national subjectivity defined only by the experience of witnessing PEV, and by how it feels to be a problem, the problem of being forced to do the impossible, to cease existing.

I’ve taken my title from Witness #97, which reads:

ICC97My talk is almost over; if you’ve been watching the clock, then be cheered: it will only continue not to end a little longer.

But as the experience of academic talks often shows us, time can be labor. The poets I’ve talked to are exhausted. The election is over, the TJRC is over, the ICC case might be over, and the Jubilee narrative insists that any hope of justice or reparations for the victims is over. Closure is officially mandated from on high, and especially because the election seems to represent a kind of broad, apparent acceptance of the status quo, across much of Kenyan society, it also represents a way in which the Kenyan “family” has been killed, metaphorically; one poet described wanting to “divorce” Kenya, but being unable to do so.

In this sense, the openness of the form reflects the refusal of the wound to close on its own: each poem is an instant in time, but they do not resolve into a story, only an interminable unresolved and plural present. There is no closure or resolution immanent to the text itself.

There is, however, a progress narrative that you can tell about the poems as they circulate. These poems were performed at World Cafe at the Hague, on the eve of a trial hearing, and a version was performed at the Storymoja festival in Nairobi; some of the poets, I know, are planning another performance. These performances are acts of world-making, imaginations of community. One of the poets involved in the performance told me that:

“I cannot, now, think of this poem without thinking of @Zinduko’s choreography (unrecorded) of its performance. some of the poems you’re interpreting are now kind of “muscle memory,” associated with spaces of rehearsal and sites of performance (houses, theaters, gardens, museums)”

I’ve heard more than a few variations on this sentiment. The poems have become a common text, to be adapted and used, re-set, re-interpreted, and re-circulated (something which the internet particularly facilitates). As texts they testify to the injustice which has occurred. But as spaces of performance and association, they become public imaginations of community, new ways of performing Kenyanness through witness and solidarity. As performed—and as the performances are witnessed—they testify to the un-un-witnessing of the many Kenyans who have been un-witnessed. They demonstrate that others also remember, and they help to produce a different common sense than the official narrative of Kenya on the move; PEV becomes something that binds Kenyans together in structures of intimate relations, rather than the structures of negative ethnicity and misogyny which make some forms of like killable, un-grievable.

Finally, in the context of an increasingly repressive media atmosphere in Kenya, an important part of the project has been to test the waters and see if such things could still be said. The Moi years were a period of violent repression, and his departure twelve years ago was to mark a change. With Kenyatta’s presidency, it’s far from clear that that is still the case; government harassment of journalists and activists is both official and bureaucratic and seems to be escalating. As one of the poets put it, “Suddenly, for the first time in a long time, we couldn’t assume we still officially possess the freedom to speak. The ICC Witness project is a way to take – and test – that freedom.”

After all, if free speech, political association, and the right to assemble to demand redress of grievances are fundamental civil rights, they are also, always, only a promissory note, up until the check is cashed. In that sense, while the ICC Witness poems individually attempt to recall and remember the moments of past trauma, and to testify to stuck-ness of the present, the project, as a whole, actually is a project of moving forward, through the work of calling into existence a Kenya where such things can be remembered as something that will not continue to happen.

Thank you.

Reading the ICC Witness Project: Witness #47

I want to re-visit Witness #47, which gets at the core of what, for me, the ICC Witness Project is doing:


The poem begins with the president-elect’s injunction to move on, and when voiced in that voice of authority, “Kenya needs to” becomes an imperative, a command. It’s absurd, of course; moving on seems to literally require moving backwards, like starting a video of an atrocity at the end, and running it backwards to the beginning. [it’s like the joke about listening to country music backwards: you get your dog, your woman, and your job back.]

At the same time, though, let’s look closer at what it means for PEV to un-happen: “needs” become commands.

  • “Those who were killed need to undie”
  • “women need to guard their wombs”
  • “[women need to] erase their memories as they become whole”
  • “And those IDPs! They need to move”


The poem expresses the hidden violence of “moving on,” in which all the labor of moving on is placed on the shoulders of the victims, whose responsibility it is to erase themselves as victims. As they “crawl from their graves in solidarity,” in fact, we have a patriotic public duty placed on the victims to not be dead; Kenya needs to stop it, get over it. But the flip side of that absurdity is the way it exacerbates the original violations: not only does the injunction to move on rehearse each of the categories of victim—killed, raped, displaced—reliving the instant of the violation, but it refuses to allow the dead to rest in peace, forcing them to rise from the grave like zombies. Despite the substantive content of the statement “Kenya is moving on,” the form of the poem contradicts that sentiment, which it repeats and reiterates without actually demonstrating.


Reading the ICC Witness Project: About Witness #26 and #47

What is the ICC Witness ProjectAbout“?

ICCAboutIf you give the “About” page no more than a cursory reading, the ICC Witness Project is essentially a project to remember. As such, there is nothing very controversial or dangerous about it. Who, after all, could dispute the necessity to remember? Memory is passive, a noun not a verb, and the verb “to remember” is barely a verb at all. Even presidents who exhort us to “look forward, not back” when it comes to substantive matters (like prosecutions) can also easily pay lip service to the importance of memory and history; it easy to convert the imperative to remember the past into the act of moving forward into the future. We must move on.

In part, this is because we tend to construe “memory” as a relatively passive act, because we are simply recalling to mind things that we already remember, which are already there. The act of remembering them, then, is simply recognizing the trace of past experience as it has already been inscribed in the present, reading the pages of a book that has already been written. If the memory is there, it’s there because we already remember it; if it isn’t, then, by definition, we can’t remember it. In this way of thinking about it, then, “remembering” has no real consequences, because doing so changes nothing: either you remember or you don’t.

This way of thinking about memory, however, is very flawed, has it completely backwards. As neuroscientists tell us, memory is anything but passive: we construct and reconstruct what we think we know about the past on a daily basis, especially while we are apparently doing nothing, sleeping. Memory is active; it’s forgetting that’s passive. You have memories because you remember them, not the other way around.

In this sense, our long term memories are better understood as memories of memory, the act of remembering the copy which we have made of a copy of a copy of a copy of our original—but now long-lost—short-term impressions and experience. Memory, in this sense, is not the nightmare from which we are trying to awake; it’s the reality to which we awake, at the end of the cognitive process which makes our short-term into long-term memory, by processing and digesting a messy aggregation of thoughts and sense-data into a much more simplified and streamlined narrative of what happened. This is where narrative comes in, the net that catches memories and prevents them from falling away. We forget the vast majority of what we once knew, and there’s no way to avoid that, nor would we want to; right now, you can all remember what you ate for breakfast this morning, but unless there’s some reason to remember it, that memory will be neglected, will fade, and eventually will simply drop out of your mind, forgotten and irrelevant. Which is to say, unless it becomes part of a story—“I was eating oatmeal when I saw the flying saucer”—it won’t even become a memory. It will just be data that was left out, forgotten, noise that never became a sound.

This is why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable. Even when witnesses think they are telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, they are in no position to know for certain. At most, they are telling the story that they have told themselves about what happened, and they can have no direct access to the original event. After all, we have forgotten all the things that we have forgotten, including the fact that we forgot it, so memory is not a process that we can have direct knowledge of or control over: it is literally the limit-point of our conscious minds, by definition, what divides consciousness from unconsciousness, intention from immanence.

In practice, then, we have no choice but to trust the narratives which we have produced of our past; they’re all we have, and we use them because we have to. Knowing their limitations doesn’t change that fact; all we know is what we know, even if we know we don’t really know it. This is why ideology is a good word for acting as if we know and believe something we know we don’t know or believe; we lack an alternative. There’s no other candidate to vote for.

The more we engage with this limitation, however, the more thoroughly we must revise our understanding of memory’s passivity, and therefore, of its consequences: to remember is to create new stories, a process which, in turn, makes it possible to create new memories. If forgetting is the default, the baseline, then the exceptional case is our active work of remembering, the manner in which we convert “what happened” into a narrative memory. Forgetting, then, is not an act of erasure; it is the passivity of not remembering, an inaction connected to a lack of desire. By contrast, a desire to remember produces the act of narrativizing, and that production of a narrative makes the past becomes present.

The ICC Witness Project is animated by a desire to remember, and it does so actively and with a clear purpose: to tell a story of Kenya in which all Kenyans are human.

Here, I turn to Judith Butler’s observation that obituaries are about building the nation, or to use Benedict Anderson’s term of art, “imagined communities”: we imagine the life that is not life by failing to grieve it, and we imagine community by telling the story of our regret for a life that is no longer alive:

obituaryIf we do not make memory through our grief, then life is not grievable; if we forget that someone was alive, then they never were.

While the ICC Witness Project begins from a presumption of active repression–the notion that witnesses are being intimidated and bullied into silence and complicity, something most observers pretty much accept–I want to suggest that what is being cultivated, here, is not memory, per se, but the desire to remember. After all, the ICC Witness Project is not, itself, connected to or part of the actual ICC trial, nor are the “witnesses” who speak in each poem “witnesses” in a literal sense. And yet–and here might be an apparent contradiction–one of the things the poems most tenaciously “witness” is the desire to do something other than remember the dead. To have peace and stability for business, for example:


Or to move on, to live in the futurity of development, and to construe “need” by reference to the desire that victims not exist: