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Remaking a WorldReview - Remaking a World
Violence, Social Suffering, and Recovery
by Veena Das, et al.
University of California Press, 2001
Review by Rob Fisher, Ph.D.
Oct 16th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 42)

Remaking the World is a remarkable book which emerges from an ambitious project to 'examine anthropological questions on the relation of violence to states, local communities, and individuals' (p. vii). The authors are members of the Committee on Culture, Health, and Human Development of the Social Science Research Council based in New York. This volume is the third in a planned series; volume one, Social Suffering (1997), focused primarily on political violence and its impact on social adversity, looking particularly at how culture and community shape individual responses to terror and how bureaucracy often aggravates the problems it seeks to alleviate. Volume two, Violence and Subjectivity (2000), looked at the complex ways that social forces turn into political violence, examining the way people, institutions, communities often unwittingly contribute to collective violence.

Remaking the World continues the work of the previous volumes, but changes the emphasis to try to show how communities 'cope' with traumatic violence and other forms of social suffering. In particular, the focus here is on the individual and the interpersonal consequences of societal violence in all its forms, using comparative ethnographies to provide concrete examples of the points being made. There are six chapters, each dealing with how 'ordinary' people from across the world are affected by and deal with the violence which affects them on a daily basis. The word 'ordinary' is important, coming from the previous volume where it was used 'as a site for understanding the nature of sociality in local communities' (p. 2). In this volume, the authors substitute the word 'ordinary' for a slightly different term - 'normal'. And what they are doing here is, I think, quite right. When tragedy or violence strike, people are shaken out of their normal routines, the ways of living that provide daily security and stability; and part of the effort involved in responding to violence or tragedy is the attempt to 'get back to normal' (if that is indeed possible). By focusing on how people make this effort, the authors have a key to understanding how social violence affects people.

In order to understand the various ways in which people react to social suffering and violence the chapters revolve around four central issues. First, the relation between collective and individual memory; second, the emergence of alternative public spaces for recounting and telling the experience of what happened which has been silenced by 'official' narratives; third, finding a voice in the face of violence and tragedy; and fourth, finding the meaning of healing and returning to everyday living. Responding to violence and tragedy involves repairing relationships at all levels - family, friends, neighborhood, and community. 'The recovery of the everyday, resuming the task of living (and not only surviving), asks for a renewed capability to address the future' (p. 4). Again, it is easy to see what they doing - to get on with the task of living is no easy thing; but it involves taking what has happened into the very heart of who you are as a person and allowing it to become integrated with the way you live and in relationship to the others with whom you live. This isn't easy; it demands tremendous effort - all the time; and my suspicion is that the authors are not always aware of the sheer depths of hurt which have to overcome before people can 'get back to normal'.

Indeed, I am not convinced that the prize championed by the authors at the outset of this book - the return to and the recovery of the 'ordinary' - is either possible or desirable. For example, how is it possible to 'return to normal' when you have lost a child? How can you recover or recognize the 'ordinary' when you have watched your partner of 40 years degenerate and die of a terminal illness? Life goes on - yes; but it is never the same life and it is never 'normal' again. The event is carried within yourself - and the art is how to live, daily, with that event in the context of all the relationships we share with people. Some days we manage the pain reasonably well; but other days the pain is just as raw and angry as the day it first happened. The world is a different place. And I do not think the authors pay this sufficient attention.

Now take this thought beyond the context of the individual to the level of a community. How does a Holocaust survivor recover the ordinariness of life? The authors argue that 'while everyday life may be seen as the site of the ordinary, this ordinariness is itself recovered in the face of the most recalcitrant of tragedies: it is the site of many buried memories and experiences' (p. 4). Given my example, their wording is unfortunate. For a Holocaust survivor, it is precisely what is buried in the ordinary that makes the return to normality impossible - memories of what is no longer there, the people who conspired (actively or through indifference) and who are still there, make even the thought of 'normal' relationships strained. It is not 'recalcitrance' of the tragedy which is the problem. It is the more human - who wants to live in and with those who killed my family? And this can be applied to contemporary scenarios - in Bosnia, Rwanda, Indonesia. As the authors say, the polis - society - is based the capacity to be able to speak for oneself, to be a voice in a community of voices. But what they neglect - particularly in the example I have used here - is what happens when the voices have been silenced. How can the dead speak for themselves? How can those who have been ethnically cleansed ever hope to recover the ordinary and the normal?

Fortunately the authors are alive to such concerns and aware of the problems I am raising. And this is what makes this such a remarkable book. The ethnographies which are used are perhaps they only way possible of approaching these issues. They start from the context of the ordinary - from where people are, and then seek to expand and develop what is found there. I will use only one chapter as an example - 'The Bomb's Womb? Women and the Atom Bomb' by Maya Todeschini. Here you already have a national and local history whereby women survivors of Hiroshima are 'officially' designated as the 'dignified suffering mother'. This is a role prescribed to them by the world, but in the process, such prescription negates whole worlds of language and expression they might choose for themselves. Questions of how they represent themselves in public spaces compete with the sense they have of themselves as individuals, as women, as mothers, who then stand in relationship with others. What stories should they tell? And in what language should they tell? This is where all the chapters in this volume come into their own - because they take these tensions seriously. This is a rare quality for any book - but in dealing with the subject of social violence and suffering, it is an achievement which deserves high commendation. The sufferer is never neglected; the sufferer is never silenced; and the 'shadows that fall between what is regarded as truth and what as fiction' are given full exposure.

The other chapters make equally compulsive reading, each paying care and attention to detail, context, circumstance. I am grateful that the authors recognize that 'it would appear that no glib appeal to "our common humanity" can restore confidence to inhabit each other's lives again'. But I am not so grateful they immediately follow this sentiment up by saying: 'Instead it is by first reformulating their notions of "normality" as a changing norm, much as the experience of a disease changes our expectations of health, that communities can respond to the destruction of trust in their everyday lives' (p. 23). They are right to suppose that acknowledgment of the pain of the victims and the role of the perpetrators in causing that pain is a step towards 'healing'. But again, what bothers me is that, just as recovering from an illness leaves scars of one sort another on or within the body, so the scars of social violence are left within the people and communities who were traumatized by these events. Acknowledging their pain is one thing; living with the scars - sometimes painfully visible and public - is another.

The authors voice a laudable hope - that 'the three volumes will be read as part of the same project of addressing social suffering, violence, and the remaking of worlds - a quest which did not yield any final destinations but pointed to some resting places, some temporary closures, stories of hope and despair (p. 27). I agree - and I think the trilogy deserves an extensive readership for the quality of insight and sheer perceptiveness brought to bear on questions which trouble us all. My hope is that there will be a volume four - and that it will deal with those scars which will not, or through the sheer violence of history, can never now heal. Then, I think, the project will have dealt properly with the remaking of worlds.

© 2001 Rob Fisher

Dr Rob Fisher runs Wickedness.net. He lives in Britain.


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