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Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 105-112

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Violence and Translation

Veena Das
Johns Hopkins University


My writing on the events of September 11th is on two registers—the public event of spectacular destruction in New York and the private events made up of countless stories of grief, fear, and anticipation. 1 I hope I can speak responsibly to both, neither trivializing the suffering of the victims of the September 11 attack and those in mourning for them, as in the rhetoric of "deserved suffering" (as if nations and individuals were painlessly substitutable), nor obscuring the unspeakable suffering of wars and genocides in other parts of the world that framed these events. A recasting of these events into conflicting genealogies by the politics of mourning in the public sphere raises the issue of translation between different formulations through which these events were interpreted and, indeed, experienced.

There are two opposed perspectives on cultural difference that we can discern today—one that emphasizes the antagonism of human cultures as in some version of the thesis on "clash of civilizations" and a second that underlines the production of identities through circulation and, hence, the blurring of boundaries. Both, however, are based on the assumption that human cultures are translatable. Indeed, without some power of self-translatability that makes it possible for one to imagine oneself using the categories of the other, human cultures would not be able to live on any register of the imaginary. The [End Page 105] [Begin Page 107] stark denial of this translatability on both sides of the present conflict concerns me most though I note that this is not to espouse a vision of justice that is somehow even-handed in distributing blame. My concern is of a different kind. I fear that classical concepts in anthropological and sociological theory provide scaffolding to this picture of untranslatability despite our commitment to the understanding of diversity. Obviously, there are specific issues at stake in this particular event of destruction, its time and its space, and the response casting it as a matter of war rather than, say, one concerning crime. But it seems to me that there is a deeper grammar at work here that invites us to investigate the conditions of possibility for this kind of declaration of war—as a genre of speech—to take place.

One of the tenets of postmodern theorization is that the concrete and finite expressions of multiplicity cannot be referred back to a transcendental center—the grounds for judgment cannot be located in either the faculty of reason or in common corporeal experience. Although postmodern theory does not suggest that diversity must be valued for itself—indeed, it is part of the struggle of postmodern theory to provide for conversation and recognition of otherness without any predetermined criteria for the evaluation of divergent claims—it does raise important questions about the withdrawal of recognition to the other. I have suggested elsewhere that difference, when it is cast as non-criterial, becomes untranslatable precisely because it ceases to allow for a mutual future in language. 2 The shadowing of this into skepticism in which trust in categories is completely destroyed and our access to context is removed transforms forms of life into forms of death. Some such issue is at stake here in the Taliban's brutality against women on behalf of a pure Islam on the one hand, and a war waged on behalf of "Western civilization" on the other. After all it is the United States that spawned the very forces it is fighting as a defence against communism—the then enemy of freedom and values of Western democracy. 3 There are no innocent collectivities in the present war, despite the powerful deployment of the figure of the "innocent" killed on both sides of the divide.

Elsewhere I have questioned the purity of the concepts that are put in play when claims are made on behalf of tradition, religious autonomy, modernity, or human rights. The translation of these concepts is not a matter of something external to culture but something internal to it. It is when a...


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