Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Traffic in Women Reconsidered: On Debra Bergoffen's Contesting the Politics of Genocidal Rape

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Traffic in Women Reconsidered: On Debra Bergoffen's Contesting the Politics of Genocidal Rape

Article excerpt

Debra Bergoffen's book joins a growing body of feminist work on the topic of genocidal rape.1 The singularity of her approach in Contesting the Politics of Genocidal Rape: Affirming the Dignity of the Vulnerable Body lies in Bergoffen's focus on the ontological underpinnings of human rights law.2 On Bergoffen's account, the reality and ubiquity of genocidal rape solicit action in the venue of the International Criminal Court, but they also solicit careful thinking about the ontology of the human: "We see that however essential it is to identify rape as a crime against humanity, and however crucial it is to convict and punish those guilty of this crime, we will not succeed in eradicating heterosexual rape as an effective military tactic until and unless we reconceive the meaning of men's and women's bodies" (28). Her book makes a compelling case for the claim that the task of reconceiving "the meaning of men's and women's bodies" is in part a philosophical one. Honing in on the February 22, 2001, ruling of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which convicted three Bosnian-Serb soldiers of crimes against humanity for acts of genocidal rape, Bergoffen argues that this judgment implies something crucial for human rights law: "The verdict was groundbreaking not only because it identified rape as a crime against humanity (not just a crime against women) but also because it signaled that a human rights offense should now be understood not as an assault on the integrity of an imaginary invulnerable body, but as an attack against the humanity of our embodied vulnerability" (2).

Bergoffen does not only ask us to consider what philosophy can do when confronted with sexual violence, and what resources it can bring to bear; it also asks that we consider what the theorization of this kind of violence does to philosophy. In response to genocidal rape, international human rights law may be "recalibrated" as Bergoffen suggests, but so too is philosophy. Bergoffen's book argues for the recalibration of the meanings of "vulnerability," "integrity" and "dignity" in the wake of of the 2001 ruling by the International Criminal Tribunal. Targeting the tendency of traditional human rights protocols to unreflectively legitimate the idea that the "normal" body is an invulnerable body, Bergoffen argues that this ruling signals that vulnerability must not be understood as a pathology, deficit, or liability so much as a constitutive feature of the human. Beyond this, the ruling signaled the court's admission that autonomy (understood as invulnerability) can be nominated as paradigmatic neither of the human condition nor of human rights law (2).

Vulnerability implies ambiguity, the body's availability to care and abuse, as well as the capacity of every body to wound and to be wounded. In her own discussion of vulnerability, Bergoffen draws on resources from the work of Judith Butler and Adriana Cavarero. Inspired by Judith Butler's recent meditations on "precariousness," which Bergoffen describes as "the pre-political, existential condition of being dependent on and exposed to others," Bergoffen reads Butler as claiming that "we cannot rely on logic to guarantee that our shared condition of precariousness will be respected and not exploited" (102-03).3 At stake is "the trajectory of desire and affect" as opposed to the directives of logic (103). Yet Butler has argued that there are indeed some obligations that are imposed upon us by virtue of our embodied precariousness. What, exactly, are these obligations? What shape do they assume concretely? What moral obligation is imposed through recognition of a generalized and anonymous condition of mutual exposure? Moreover, what would be implied by the claim that vulnerability is normative to the human being and what should or must this dictate in the register of human rights law? In Bergoffen's language, it is a question of what sorts of ethical or political prescriptions can be mined from "an immanent ontology of the lived body that operates universally" (30). …

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