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Leave Nothing to the Imagination: Global Forms of Atrocity After 1945

  • Author(s): Donig, Deb
  • Advisor(s): Sharpe, Jennifer A
  • et al.

“Leave Nothing to the Imagination: Global Forms of Atrocity After 1945” argues that in the wake of the Nuremberg trials of 1945-1946, through the Eichmann trial in 1961, concern about how to establish evidence for atrocity becomes the major preoccupation for legal representations of human rights violations. I trace how legal discourse becomes dependent on literary modes of representation in order to substantiate the reality of large-scale violence and human suffering in the context of post-1945 human rights legislation. I argue that at key moments, legal arguments turn to fictions and figurations in their attempts to establish the facts of atrocity. Since fiction can create narrative cohesion that the facts themselves cannot support, legal attempts at redress borrow from the imaginative possibilities of fictional techniques for making atrocity legible. Figuration, moreover, fortifies unstable evidence by enlisting facts from other contexts through a logic of resemblance. Herein, I investigate how the dynamic between factual, fictional, and figurative modes of establishing evidence migrates from its epicenter in post-1945 Europe to diverse geographical spaces and geopolitical contexts, where it takes on internationally recognizable markings of atrocity. I look at the intersections between these geographical and geopolitical sites of atrocity, examining the way they borrow, refer to, and complicate one another, and I identify how these aesthetic exchanges constitute attempts to establish evidence in cases where empirical evidence lacks. I look at how the literature of atrocity after 1945 comes to center around this concern about proving the reality of atrocity, and how this happens simultaneously as atrocity becomes an increasingly international concern, subject to new international human rights legislation.

This dissertation stands at the intersection of three interdisciplinary conversations: first, how human rights defines a concept of universal personhood; second, comparative genocide studies and, more broadly, comparative atrocity; and third, the nature of evidence in law and literature. The central literary figures that this project engages include Kurt Vonnegut, Antjie Krog, M. NourbeSe Philip, Paul Celan, and Indra Sinha; the central theorists I engage include Hannah Arendt, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gayatri Spivak, and Jacques Derrida.

The case studies I include trace out a global trajectory of a discourse of human rights, alongside concern about establishing evidence for human rights violations. In each chapter, I pair literary texts with archival sources, in order to identify how texts in each of these categories maneuver between factual and figurative terms. The formal category that has determined my grouping of primary texts is the category of “legal testimony.”

My first chapter, “Factuality on Trial: The “Real” Eichmann, The Authenticity of Atrocity, and the Evidence of Evil,” examines the Eichmann trials in 1961 and Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the trials in her landmark thesis, Eichmann in Jerusalem: Thesis on the Banality of Evil. This chapter focuses on the Holocaust as a new archetype of atrocity in which the idea of “authentic” representation of atrocity becomes unstable. I chronicle a turning point in the concept of legal evidence as it relates to and is used to establish the reality of atrocity

My next chapter, “Fictions of Evidence: Reconciling Truth in Country of My Skull,” examines the South African Truth and Reconciliation Amnesty Hearings of 1996-1997. The TRC self-consciously fashioned itself against the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, and did so in front of a global audience. In in the context of the TRC, truth becomes fragmented, and reconciliation requires fictions to supplement those fragments. I examine a particular piece of testimony from Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull to illustrate how legal truth in the TRC hearings may be governed by fictions. I show how at the core of the TRC, the concept of evidence itself is located in a specifically literary imaginary.

My third chapter, “Seeing Double in Animal’s People: Local Toxins, Global Toxicity and the Universal Bhopal,” turns to industrial disaster of 1984 in India caused by an American multinational corporation. Bhopal showcases the challenges of providing evidence for and addressing local mass suffering in that global context. Focusing on Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, my chapter examines how this atrocity in Bhopal veers between authenticating itself as atrocity by evidencing its universality, borrowing from facts and stylizations of antecedent atrocity to put Bhopal within the legislative purview of International Human Rights, and simultaneously evidencing its uniqueness, thus taking it outside of the global economy.

My fourth chapter, “Textimony: Zong! and the Poetics of Evidence” pushes my argument into poetic form. M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, a collection of language poetry, is what the author calls an “untelling.” It “untells” the 1781 slave massacre aboard the ship, an atrocity followed by an egregious legal case that framed the atrocity as a property compensation claim pressed by the slave owners. Zong! uses the aesthetic conventions developed by a specifically post-1945 mode of representing atrocity, and a contemporary mode of thinking about human rights and atrocity, and projects these conventions onto a historical event of atrocity—the transatlantic slave trade—that may stand both at the gateway of modern globalization, and as an archetype of atrocity. I consider the politics of comparative memory in a globalized legal context, and the representational and political consequences of a comparative approach to memory that may become competitive.

My research intervenes into the discourses of contemporary international human rights concerns, policy development, and the discursive development of moral pedagogy addressing the lessons and the legacy of global atrocity for future responses and ethical import. My intervention into these conversations seeks to understand how, in the context of post-1945 human rights, which I will argue is inherently comparative, modes and methodologies of comparison typically associated with literary discourse—analogy, figuration, and metaphor—alongside fictions themselves, become forms of evidence, and how they come to mobilize some of the great human rights projects of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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