Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Narratives and Rights: Zlata's Diary and the Circulation of Stories of Suffering Ethnicity

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Narratives and Rights: Zlata's Diary and the Circulation of Stories of Suffering Ethnicity

Article excerpt

At this historical moment, the human rights regime is the primary global project for managing injustice and immiseration around the world (Farmer 2003,49), and life stories are at once ground and grist of rights work, rights instrumentalities, and rights politics. This conjunction of life narration, broadly defined, and contemporary human rights activisms, is indeed, as Kay Schaffer and I argue in Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition, a productive and problematic yoking of the decidedly intimate with the global.' Since the language of human rights is the contemporary lingua franca for addressing the problem of suffering (Ignatieff 2001, 7), the attachment of personal storytelling to the discourse and the institutions of the human rights regime enables survivors of and witnesses to injury and harm to make their grievances public and to draw attention to specific environments of suffering around the world. At the same time, this yoking of personal narrative and international rights politics affects the kinds of life stories and the narrative subject positions that can gain a global audience.

Take, for instance, the post-Cold War resurgence of ethnic nationalism, with the attendant reorganization of politics in Eastern Europe, that has set large numbers of people in motion-into refugee camps, resettlement programs, and diasporic communities in receiving nations such as the United States. Under violent assault, displaced, haunted by traumatic memories, members of ethnic communities turn to life storytelling to extend global recognition of the violence unleashed against people on the basis of their ethnic identification. Their acts of narration emerge out of local contexts of rights violations. But to the extent that local movements "go international," these witnesses participate through their storytelling in global processes that create a climate for the intelligibility, reception, and recognition of new stories about ethnicity under assault. Gillian Whitlock calls this breakthrough to public attention a "discursive threshold" (2000,144).

Through their stories of ethnic suffering, witnesses expose the violence inflicted by those pursuing the project of ethnic nationalism as a goal of state formation. They also reveal the complexities and conundrums involved in telling stories of ethnic difference and grievance through frameworks and institutions founded on the concept of abstract universality. For many witnesses, the embeddedness of stories of ethnic suffering in the discourses, institutions, and practices of the human rights regime provides the previously unheard and invisible a narrative framework, a context and occasion, an audience, and a subject position from which to makes claims. And yet, in order to circulate their stories within the global circuits of the human rights regime and bring crises of violence and suffering to a larger public, witnesses give their stories over to journalists, publishers, publicity agents, marketers, and rights activists whose framings of personal narratives participate in the commodification of suffering, the reification of the universalized subject position of innocent victim, and the displacement of historical complexity by the feel-good opportunities of empathetic identification.

This case of personal storytelling in the regime of human rights suggests how it is that life narration reproduces, is animated by, and contributes to a paradox at the heart of human rights discourse and practice: the uneasy enfolding of the universal in the ethnic particular. Elicited, framed, produced, circulated, and received within the contemporary regime of human rights, the life story of ethnic suffering at once ennobles an authentic (and sentimentalized) voice of suffering and depersonalizes that voice precisely because of the commodification of suffering in the global flows of the human rights regime. Emerging from a local site of ethnic struggle, the story enters the Westerndominated global circuits, through which it can lose its local specificity. …

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