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Mark Barad
James Boehnlein
Mark Bouton
J. Douglas Bremner
Michael Davis
Byron Good
Laurence Kirmayer
Emeran Mayer
Michael Meaney
Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Arieh Shalev
Stephen Suomi
Bessel van der Kolk
Rachel Yehuda
Allan Young

Un-doing: The Politics of Suffering, Trauma, Resentment and Forgiveness in the New South Africa

The romance with remorse, reparation and healing has emerged as a master narrative of our times as individuals, communities, and entire nations struggle to overcome legacies of violence and suffering ranging from the everyday experiences of rape, crime, and domestic violence to the atrocities of state sponsored "dirty wars", genocides, and ethnic cleansings. In recent years, these processes have been absorbed into highly institutionalized forms of collective bereavement, such as the international tribunals and truth commissions following periods of state and/or communal violence. In contrast to the popular notion of "settling accounts" (with its subtext of "getting even"), I refer, instead, to Hannah Arendt's (1958) more ironic use of the term, un-doing, to convey the near impossibility of the task at hand. In The Human Condition, Arendt grappled with the "burden of irreversibility," and with deeds that one can never un-do because the process that any single human act sets into play "is never [fully] consummated." The only escape from the "predicament of irreversibility," of being unable to undo what one has done is through a kind of grace implied in the power of forgiveness along with the human faculty for making and keeping promises -- especially (in this instance) the promise that this thing, this abomination, will never be repeated. Forgiveness -- always conditional while yet obliging the sufferer to forgive "not once but 7x 70 times" -- and the reciprocal binding of oneself and one's community to new promises offer (in Arendt's view) the only chance for un-doing. While anthropological/ethnographic references to vengeance, blood feuds, counter-sorcery, and witch-hunts are many, descriptions of individual and collective rituals of remorse are few indeed. The lacunae suggests either an appalling oversight by anthropologists, or it alerts us to the very modernist and western nature of these concepts, a topic I shall visit with respect to the South African TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Based on ethnographic research conducted during several periods in South Africa between 1993-1999 my talk will explore what needs to be gotten over if South Africa and South Africans are to cross safely to the other side. Along the way I will address the following issues: What is entailed in 'making sense' -- not only of one's own suffering -- but of the suffering of others? Whose pain is privileged? Whose suffering is ignored? How is grief put into the service of rebuilding a new and "beloved community"? How are deeply embodied memories -- those of victims, perpetrators, collaborators and by-standers alike -- captured and put to work in the process of reconciliation and new nation building? What needs to be remembered? And, despite our present obsessions with memory, what needs to be "forgotten"?

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