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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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Reading the ICC Witness Project: Witness #69

fantaThere is something magical about cleanliness. The labor of cleansing, the work of arrangement and order, is an effort to produce a state in which nothing needs to be cleaned–because it already is clean–and to “return” an inhabited space to a status of purity unsullied by the fetid human condition, with its bodily fluids and smells and decay. It is magical because it isn’t real, because it takes a produced arrangement–a space of disciplined and labored arrangement–and presents it as natural, un-marked, un-touched, and un-blemished. All that is not of that space has been removed, leaving that space purified, as it should be, more itself than it has ever been before.


In this sense, Mary Douglas also had it precisely backwards when she famously observed that “Dirt offends against order,” and argued that “Eliminating it is not a negative moment, but a positive effort to organise the environment.” “Dirt” requires order to exist as such; whatever it was before, it only becomes “dirt” once order has decided that it doesn’t fit where it is, and needs to be removed. Which is to say, it is the coming of “order” which declares dirt to be “dirt,” which is offended by it, and which declares its removal to be an improvement, a purification. But whatever becomes “dirt” was already there, before “order” entered the scene. Dirt was already there; it is order which enters and gives the name “dirt” to whatever it was before it was declared to be dirt, in the process, erasing what it had been. Eliminating dirt is a negation, because it is order’s decision to name one thing external to where it is, to define its negation as a positive movement.

ICC Witness #69 fetishizes a particular commodity, a magic panga which in the fantasia of PEV requires no hand to wield it. Like violence, these magic pangas simply are, just do, only happen:


But a careful eye will note a single mark, a single blemish, a single pang, the left-behind and dirty residue of the tale which might be told of its own making.


Reading the ICC Witness Project: (un)Witness #20, #22, #34

volcanoAs Susanne Mueller observed in “Kenya and the International Criminal Court (ICC): politics, the election and the law,” the International Criminal Court must rely on the cooperation of witnesses who are, for the most part, located in Kenya, and so it must also rely on the government of Kenya to protect those witnesses from intimidation. International law requires the government of Kenya to do so, and the ICC has no resources to do much on its ownn. However, since it is the government of Kenya, itself, which is on trial at the ICC–in the person of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto–it should surprise no one that the government of Kenya has been lax in its “protection” of witnesses. One might go so far as to suggest that it has been the government of Kenya itself which is behind the campaign of witness intimidation that has all but destroyed the ICC’s case, which is now on the verge of what seems like an inevitable collapse. In the six years since the post-election violence, witness after witness has recanted, disappeared, or died (and I have pasted Mueller’s account of that steady attrition is in the right column). As the chief prosecutor recently admitted, at present, the case no longer satisfies the high evidentiary standards required to prosecute.

This process is, of course, the origin of the ICC Witness Project, the fact that an event which was witnessed by everyone–the Post-Election Violence which now goes by the cipher “PEV”–suddenly has no credible witnesses. Or, rather, everyone saw what was done to them, but no one now saw who did it. It becomes a thing that happened, apparently spontaneously: PEV just happened. Wikipedia tells us, for instance, that violence is like a volcano, dormant until it “erupts”: “The 2007–08 Kenyan crisis was a political, economic, and humanitarian crisis that erupted in Kenya after incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the presidential election held on December 27, 2007.” Who can know why it does when it does? This was not a civil coup; things just violenced.

Courts and reports create their own realities: the world in which we must live comes into being through the ways we talk about and write about it, and through the letters and laws which our institutions create and maintain. In 2010, the ICC indicted Uhuru Kenyatta for crimes against humanity, and that transformed him into a particular kind of legal subject: he was now “the accused.” He still is, technically, but another institution has, in the intervening years, made him into a different kind of subject: the chair of Kenya’s Electoral Commission has declared him “president of Kenya.” He cannot be both at the same time, and one will supercede the other: either he will be convicted, and (in theory) cease to be president, or he will be acquitted, and cease to be the accused. One of these realities will become true. The other will fade away.

Witnesses–if their truth was confirmed by institutions like the ICC–would produce one reality, in which Uhuru Kenyatta would become a criminal, not a president. In their absence, Kenyatta will cease to be indicted, and will simply remain president. Some of the ICC Witness poems are not witnesses at all, but un-wittnesses:

Witness #20 is an un-witness:

ICC20As is Witness #22:


Yet if we observe the zero-sum calculation by which Uhuru Kenyatta is either president or criminal–the essential fact that he will either retain state power or become its subject–then we cannot regard un-witnessing as the absence of witnessing, but as testimony to the absence of witnesses. Un-witnessing is not only the witness’s act of not-witnessing, in other words; un-witnessing is a violent act, a transitive verb with “witness” as its direct object. These witnesses have been un-witnessed, to put it in the passive voice; to put it in the active voice, someone has un-witnessed them.

To put it differently, since only one of two realities can become objectively true, un-witnessing is cooperation in the production of the reality in which Uhuru Kenyatta is president, not criminal. Unwitnesses do not simply decline to testify; unwitnesses testify to the fact that violence simply violenced, and in their self-negation, testify to the absence of the violence which suppressed their testimony. If a witness declines to be a witness, than she ceases to exist as such.

Witness #34 is an un-witness, for example, and so his voice does not appear in the poem at all:ICC34But his voice is not absent, even if his absence is being construed as “his act of spontaneous combustion,” and being narrated as somewhere between an action he took and a thing that just happened, spontaneous. In fact, perhaps it’s both: in the absence of an “accelerant,” he must have done it on his own; in the absence of a note, the fire must have happened spontaneously. Yet the reality that emerges out of his catatonic silence is not silence, but speech: the declaration that he is unfit, a performative speech act which produces him as un-witness. We don’t know who is speaking, of course; there is a “we” but it goes unnamed and unpictured. Which is exactly the point: the witness to the un-witnessing is also, in turn, un-witnessed, self-negating.


Reading the ICC Witness Project: Witness #140

This is doggerel, not poetry:


ICC140We know that it isn’t “poetry” because it’s a children’s rhyme, some variation on “tinker, tailor” or a counting rhyme; if there’s a more specific reference to a nursery rhyme buried in there, it doesn’t spring to my mind. But the point is still clear: “poetry” is felt by its absence. This is a nursery rhyme, “poetry” in only the most rudimentary and definitional sense, a kind of of poetic zero-point. Whatever poetry is, in its traditional definitions, “doggerel” is non-poetic poetry.

It is not, however, simply a negation; it is a negation with content. What we are also not reading is: a work of moral cultivation, the kind of literary text whose Nussbaum-ian ambition is to foster greater understanding and civic appreciation for others by cultivating new sensibilities and sympathies. If childrens’ rhymes have a function, after all, it might be to teach you to count, but more often they’re used to lubricate particular social situations, allowing a choice to be made without needing to make a choice (eenie-meenie-minie-moe, duck, duck goose, etc), for example, or as a kind of crude divination. It is not a poem you memorize and recite to demonstrate cultural achievement, or as a means of producing a mental archive of Culture to call upon in times of tribulations. It is not a poem to analyze, either; there is no there there.

As doggerel childrens’ rhyme, such poetry is not part of the liberal tradition which argues for the necessity and importance of literature (perhaps, Literature) by reference to its pedagogical function, the ability of the literary to transform us into better and more sympathetic people. Richard Rorty’s argument, for example, that “the moral educator’s task” is to explain why a person should care about strangers, people who are not kin and whose habits we find disgusting, finds its ideal text in “the sort of long, sad, sentimental story which begins ‘Because this is what it is like to be in her situation — to be far from home, among strangers,’ or ‘Because she might become your daughter-in-law,’ or ‘Because her mother would grieve for her.’”:

Such stories, repeated and varied over the centuries, have induced us, the rich, safe, powerful, people, to tolerate, and even to cherish, powerless people — people whose appearance or habits or beliefs at first seemed an insult to our own moral identity, our sense of the limits of permissible human variation.

Basically, Rorty describes Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a story that, among other things, helped reconcile racism with the abolition of slavery: just because black people were alien children, it taught us (the rich, safe, powerful, people), their inferiority was no reason not to tolerate and even to cherish them.

What you have to notice about those kinds of arguments for the utility of literature, of course, is that they inherit from John Locke a sympathetic ambition to overcome and transcend various forms of difference which they nevertheless reiterate and reinforce: if these stories have induced “us, the rich, safe, powerful, people” to cherish and tolerate the powerless people, it is precisely so that the antagonisms of hierarchy or stranger-danger no longer seem to emanate from class difference, or from the relations of oppression that accompany and enable the difference between powerful us and powerless them. To put it as sharply as possible, poetry as pedagogy is about producing a society safe for inequality, teaching the betters to “cherish” their inferiors, the better to enjoy their superiority. The result is that, as a marker of cultural difference, an appreciation for the finer things transforms difference into educational hierarchy: cultural repertoires that do not suit one for a professorship at Stanford or Chicago, for example, become retroactive justification for the fact that one has not climbed that ladder of success.

Witness #140 isn’t just not the thing it isn’t, however; it’s also a thing in its own right. As a counting rhyme–with shades of incantatory divination–it marks the time which has passed, in years, since 2007, when PEV became an acronym for “Post Election Violence.”But you canot count time in this way. After all, these kinds of counting and divination games work by creating a temporal sequence out of a spatial arrangement, turning a circle of heads into a line of ducks and geese, or selecting from two simultaneous (but spatially distinct) choices by drawing a line that bobs back and forth: Eenie, meenie, minie, moe. You cannot count the passage of time in this way, unless the poem becomes a Borgesian map of the country which it charts, in which you dutifully reciting a line each year. The poem must stop time, therefore, in order to count it, narrating the passage of subjective time from a poetic still point, changing the earth’s objective passage around the sun into an endless maddening procession of the same. Each year is the same, just one more; “how many?” asks the poet, knowing it doesn’t matter: the years will keep coming, but nothing will change. And yet.

Reading the ICC Witness Project: Witness #124

ICC124If this was a question—a simple prose sentence—it would open outward: in the answer to the question, we would find its wholeness, completion. It would open up a problem, which would, in being answered, be resolved. Question follows answer, answer completes question, turning an unsettling question mark into a settled period. But it tells a complete story even by its incompletion, since it propels its unsettling remainder outward, onto the resolution that doesn’t come. In other words, since it does not resolve—and is not answered—its lack of answer still completes the story: the lack of closure is the answer, the impossible status of not being able to forgive the murderer of my father, a rhetorical question because it is unanswerable, because there is no answer. That lack of answer is the punctuation mark, the absent period that converts a question into a statement. An answer to the question, expressed as a desire to know how, becomes the completion of that desire, its fulfillment. The question is a problem, an itch that is solved by being scratched and made to disappear.

Calling it a poem, however, condemns us to remain with the text, preventing it from becoming a simple question which could then have a simple answer. The text moves under our hands, comes alive: an aspiration to forgive the murderer—to find in that event a solution to the problem—can become a self-critique, even a condemnation: How is it that I do this? It can become a outraged demand that this has happened, apparently without the knowledge of the speaker: How do *I* of all people can forgive the murderer of my own father? It might even defamiliarize the word “forgive”: forgive, forgive, forgive, for, give, for-give, How Do I For Give… the more times you repeat it, the more strange it becomes. How is it that I do this thing forgive? What even is forgive?

Calling it a poem, in other words, produces simultaneity and multiplicity where there was, before, a longing for singularity. Constative utterances aspire to a condition of truth, such that a question demands the statement that truthfully answers. But in its non-constative function, a performative utterance—and what is a “poem” but words, performed?—refuses to allow that to happen. Calling this question a “poem” renders it something more than simply unanswered; it renders it unanswerable.  There is no space in which is could be answered, precisely because it is complete (the poem ends) in its completion. It does not want an answer. It does not want a truth.




“This is when things got weird. And ugly.”

Words describing Suey Park and her campaign in the last three paragraphs of Jay Caspian Kang’s “The Campaign to “Cancel” Colbert“:

self-promotion race hustling ideological motivation distasteful silly dumb wrong distasteful shrill misguided frivolous annoying infuriating disingenuous and self-aggrandizing incite this particular riot mess she leaves in her wake cheapened by the ease, and sometimes frivolity

And this is a column which is explicitly suggests that Park is probably smarter than she seems, more savvy than she has been made to appear; Kang acknowledges, at the end of the piece, that “after speaking to Park about what she hoped to accomplish with all this (a paternalistic question if there ever was one), I wonder if we might be witnessing the development of a more compelling—and sometimes annoying and infuriating—form of protest.” He acknowledges the paternalism of his own framing, says some smart things, and does a much better job of actually listening to what Park is saying than most who have commented on the whole thing (a low bar, but still). This is one of the good articles on this issue.

Yet what is this column saying? What is its “thesis”? There isn’t an easy answer to that question, because the ambivalence towards Park is almost explicit, and threatens to overwhelm whatever else might be ostensible in it. Indeed, that parade of negatives at the end of the column might be an attempt to maintain and demonstrate “objectivity” towards the subject, to show by disavowal that though he became more sympathetic towards her, after speaking to her, he still recognizes how she seems to us, who haven’t. Our rational sense of the objective facts can remain respectable, and we can gently speculate about whether we might possibly be seeing a new form of protest (compelling, though also annoying and infuriating), as long as we also acknowledge that it sure seems awful (and be a “we” by reference to that apprehensive recoil). It just might not be as bad as it seems! Just maybe!

I’m struck, in other words, by the way the background rises up to overshadow the foreground. This is a column which is mostly sympathetic to Suey Park (or at least charts a trajectory towards sympathizing with her), but its urge to sympathy runs aground on the urge to reinforce and renew the writer’s own objectivity. Phrases like “If we are to take Park’s explanation in good faith” work to stage her as a possibly not-untrustworthy witness–since her good faith cannot be presumed, but must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt–and yet doubt seems to remain the default reasonable position: “I do not know if I believe that Park set out to.” Meanwhile, a phrase like “I am ten years older than Suey Park, and, like her, I grew up in a suburban Korean household” positions the author as a reasonable version of her; one who is older, wiser, sympathetic to her passion, but skeptical of her reasons. That gender marks the difference is not explicit, but it sure as hell does mark the difference.

Gender also marks the difference in a post at Deadspin, which apparently sets out to offend in its very title (but satirically!):

The two authors of this post happen to be Korean-American—one of them, like Suey Park, is a Korean-American from Illinois. We find Suey Park’s reading of the joke to be, as the activists like to say, incredibly problematic; it flattens out all meaning and pretends, in effect, that there is no ironic distance between Jonathan Swift’s satire and actual cannibalism, not to mention that it’s tighter-assed than life itself.

I am left, then, with Park’s own statement that “There’s no reason for me to act reasonable because I won’t be taken seriously anyway.” For one thing, this is obviously true. When we are told that Suey Park “does not make any claim to objectivity or fairness,” we are seeing a sharp limit to how much a journalist in a fact-checked journalism publication can fully see from her perspective, or allow himself to, without bringing his own narrative frame into peril. Sympathizing with an activist makes it hard to make claims to objectivity or fairness; it makes people wonder if you might be an activist too, and therefore untrustworthy. Quick, better make her unsympathetic!

But there’s also a flip-side to what Park said, there, and that’s that she will be taken seriously; or, rather, she will be taken seriously, by serious dudes, as un-serious. The Deadspin dudes will pretend to be mimicking activist discourse–”We find Suey Park’s reading of the joke to be, as the activists like to say, incredibly problematic”–but, of course, they are not: most of Park’s schtick is pure performative critique, and placing her in the position of humorless activist is just cheap recourse to stereotype. After all, Park didn’t drily observe that it was problematic; more recently, in fact, she’s attempted to show that it was by adopting a male persona (Stewy Park) and observing how differently she was observed to be. She satirized her mansplainers, in other words, who have been meanwhile soberly and reasonably explaining how jokes work, to the humorless feminist she must be, as a consequence of being an activist. Which brings me back to something @millicentsomer likes to observe: nothing will more quickly and reliably transform male defenders of comedy into humorless, pearl-clutching neo-Victorian mansplainers–defending reason and propriety–than a woman observing that their joke isn’t funny.