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Public Culture 14.2 (2002) 281-304

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Reconciliation after Ethnic Cleansing:
Listening, Retribution, Affiliation

John Borneman

Reconcile: to render no longer opposed. What conditions might make possible reconciliation after violent conflict? This essay addresses reconciliation in the aftermath of the ethnic cleansings and ethnicizations of the twentieth century. It neither elaborates a specific case nor makes detailed historical-cultural comparisons. Its potential contribution is theoretical and temporal: identifying contemporary psychosocial logics and processes integral to reconciliation after violent conflicts. In particular, it focuses on the role of the "third party" and argues for cultivating "practices of listening" after a violent conflict. 1 The arguments presented can apply to reconciliation after conflicts other than those specifically referred to, but I restrict myself largely to a temporal diagnostic of the extreme case of what is today called ethnic cleansing: the attempt, through [End Page 281] measures ranging from forced relocation to extermination, to eliminate from a social body, in whole or in part, a group based on identification as ethnic.

Reconciliation I define not in terms of permanent peace or harmony but as a project of departure from violence. To reconcile is an intersubjective process, an agreement to settle accounts that involves at least two subjects who are related in time. They are related in a temporal sense not in that they necessarily have a shared past or even think of themselves as sharing a concrete future. Consensus about visions of the past or future—in modern parlance, a collective memory—may make reconciliation easier, but it is not necessary. The expectation of social consensus often presupposes what Laura Nader (1990) has dubbed "harmony ideology," and it may in fact awaken counterproductive drives to recover a lost whole or to produce a community without discord. Rather, to reconcile, different subjects must agree only "to render no longer opposed," which means sharing a present, a present that is nonrepetitive (Moore 1987). To agree to a present that does not repeat requires both to create a "sense of ending"—a radical break or rupture from existing relations—and to create a "sense of beginning"—a departure into new relations of affinity marked not by cyclical violence but by trust and care.

Traumatic Loss after Ethnic Cleansing

After ethnic cleansing, victims, and to some extent perpetrators, are engaged in a struggle whose stakes are much higher than mere survival. Hostilities and violence may continue in some form, but physical survival is a solvable problem. It is, on the other hand, one that resolves very little. At a deeper, existential level survivors suffer from despair, an agony or melancholy of inconsolable and inarticulable grief. Despair, following Kierkegaard (1974: 342), does not result from an inability to live, but from "the disconsolateness of not being able to die. . . . What keeps the gnawing pain alive and keeps life in the pain . . . is the reason why he despairs . . . because he cannot consume himself, cannot get rid of himself, cannot become nothing." Because most survivors cannot die, they are continually confronted with the psychic, social, and political tasks of dealing with the ever-present loss of those who did die. They must, in some way, attempt to recuperate or redeem this loss.

Yet the profound loss suffered in an ethnic cleansing—the unbearable loss of loved ones as well as the damage inflicted on one's own standards of self, irrespective of whether one is perpetrator or victim—is never fully recoupable. [End Page 282] Some sense of the loss continually reappears, and because of this continuous and uncontrollable reappearance, survivors remain, necessarily, in a state resembling melancholy, unable to detach themselves from the love object or (as Freud would have it) prone to repetition compulsions.

The possibility of nonrepetition, then, rests on the recuperation of losses that are impossible to recuperate, the reconciliation with an end to which there is no end. This paradox is the key to reconciliation after ethnic cleansing. Two common attempts to recuperate loss are physical reproduction and revenge.

Recuperation of Loss through Physical Reproduction

Following an ethnic cleansing, in the face of a loss that cannot be...