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Beyond Identification in Human Rights Culture: Voice of Witness's Voices from the Storm and Dave Eggers's Zeitoun

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Abstract

In this article, we analyse two testimonial narratives written or published by Dave Eggers, an American author, editor, and publisher whose oeuvre shows a marked interest in harnessing the power of narrative to engage in human rights activism. Both narratives focus on the case of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American who suffered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and at the hands of the state through its response to that natural disaster. Our analysis challenges many of the assumptions with regard to affect that dominate the field of human rights and literature, which often takes for granted the intricate and treacherous process that undergirds a reader’s engagement with testimonial narratives. Affective engagement with the reader is a key feature of Eggers’s works, yet we show how it operates in a way that actively shapes the affective tenets of human rights culture in order to allow the reader to engage with the disempowered on more equal terms.
Beyond Identication in Human Rights Culture: Voice of
WitnesssVoices from the Storm and Dave EggerssZeitoun
Sean Bex
a
, Stef Craps
a
and Pieter Vermeulen
b
a
English Studies, Universiteit Gent, Gent, Belgium;
b
English Literature, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven,
Belgium
ABSTRACT
In this article, we analyse two testimonial narratives written or
published by Dave Eggers, an American author, editor, and
publisher whose oeuvre shows a marked interest in harnessing
the power of narrative to engage in human rights activism. Both
narratives focus on the case of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-
American who suered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and
at the hands of the state through its response to that natural
disaster. Our analysis challenges many of the assumptions with
regard to aect that dominate the eld of human rights and
literature, which often takes for granted the intricate and
treacherous process that undergirds a readers engagement with
testimonial narratives. Aective engagement with the reader is a
key feature of Eggerss works, yet we show how it operates in a
way that actively shapes the aective tenets of human rights
culture in order to allow the reader to engage with the
disempowered on more equal terms.
ARTICLE HISTORY
Received 2 July 2017
Accepted 5 September 2017
In this article, we analyse two testimonial narratives written or published with the help of
Dave Eggers, an American author, editor, and publisher whose oeuvre shows a marked
interest in harnessing the power of narrative to engage in human rights activism. In
doing so, Eggers relies on the aective charge attributed to testimonial narratives within
human rights culture as a critical means of informing and engaging a broad audience.
Specically, the article deals with two separate versions of the same mans testimony,
Abdulrahman Zeitoun, respectively written or published by Eggers in conjunction with
Zeitoun. The rst appears in Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurri-
cane Katrina and Its Aftermath, an oral history collection published as part of the Voice of
Witness book series that Eggers helped to found.
1
The second, Zeitoun, is a narrative non-
ction account that expands on the protagonists experiences before, during, and after
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.
2
As is the case with many human rights nar-
ratives, the explicit goal of these texts is to educate readers about human rights crises,
narrate the humanity and suering of their protagonists, and, by extension, convince
readers to include them in the circle of people whose rights deserve recognition and
© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Sean Bex sean.bex@gmail.com
1
Vollen and Ying, Voices from the Storm.
2
Eggers.
ENGLISH STUDIES
2019, VOL. 100, NO. 2, 170188
https://doi.org/10.1080/0013838X.2019.1566847
protection. In both versions of this testimony, the protagonists humanity and suering are
focalised through the victim, and it is this act of collaborative witnessing that oers victims
the opportunity to claim rights.
In order for a testimonial narrative to full this function within human rights culture,
Kay Schaer and Sidonie Smith explain in Human Rights and Narrated Lives,aectively
charged and sensationalised stories are typically chosen for circulation that target privi-
leged readers in anticipation that they will identify with, contribute to, and become advo-
cates for the cause.
3
The audience for these narratives is mostly made up of rights-
bearing individuals whose engagement with the text is supposed to enable the subjects of
these narratives to claim their place as rights-bearing human beings in their own right.
This means that the ability of a testimonial narrative to cultivate cross-cultural identication
is paramount to its transformative capacity as a rights tool for engaging privileged
audiences. In other words, the disempowered victim of a testimonial narrative presents
him or herself as a human subject demanding recognition, and that demand is rst and
foremost made of the reader. Witness narratives in particular, as Sidonie Smith and Julia
Watson explain, educate and bind readersin that they convince readers that a narrative
is joined to an embodied personand that the reading experience constitutes a cross-cul-
tural encounter through which readers are positioned as ethical subjects within the global
imaginary of human rights advocacy.
4
Identication, we show, is a crucial textual strategy
as well as a communicative process in extending the reach of human rights.
On the one hand, Eggerss testimonial works are typical of a human rights culture that
expects victims to narrate their traumatic experiences in a way that aligns their subjectivity
with the humanin human rights. His works are also characterised by a tendency to
solicit readerly empathy through identication so that readers may recognise the injustice
that befell the narrating or narrated subject and become advocates on their behalf. On the
other hand, these works break with the identicatory paradigm when they foreground the
risk of obfuscating global inequality within a universalist discourse based on fundamental
sameness. This risk, which results from overidentication on the part of the reader fed by a
feeling of universal sameness, is dened by Kimberly Nance in Can Literature Promote
Justice? as fusion,a process by which the reader moves out of the addressee role to
share the subject positionand thereby sheds the ethical commitment to recognise injus-
tice and to take action against it.
5
Eggerss critical assessment of this practice complicates
the ways in which his works aim to aect readers cross-cultural engagement with victims
within a global human rights culture.
In the rst half of this article, we assess the limits of the genre of testimonial narrative in
order to set out the theoretical case for a mode of aective readerly engagement that moves
beyond (without fully abandoning) straightforward identicatory practices. Mark Antaki
has observed that interdisciplinary studies into law and literature such as Lynn Hunts
3
Schaer and Smith, 27.
4
Smith and Watson.
5
Nance, 53. Fusion is one of a series of unproductive reader engagements with a text, according to Nance, all of which shut
down the narratives ability to move the reader to action. The others are the process by which the reader passes respon-
sibility to act on to someone else (Forwarding), the evasion of responsibility (Abjection), and passive engagement with
the text so as to remain beyond its eld of address(53). Fusion is especially relevant here as it pertains to the expec-
tation that readers engage with literature, particularly testimonial narratives, through identication. The issue at hand, as
Nance points out, is that this unhelpful type of identication is accomplished through a multiplicity of uncritical identi-
cations(54, our emphasis). Eggerss works, we argue, warn against such uncritical identications.
ENGLISH STUDIES 171
Inventing Human Rights tend to overstate the ecacy of testimony. In its adherence to
the romantic fantasyof literature as a morally transformative force, he points out,
Hunts work tends to promote so-called progressive genres that allow for criticism of
existing social structuresbut without subjecting these progressive genres themselves to
critique.
6
Theoretically, we argue, postcolonial studies perspectives and more recent
research into human rights informed by those perspectives have much to contribute to
such a critique. These perspectives have shown how narratives of disempowered subjects
are often codied and constrained according to the precepts of human rights discourses,
and are bound by the strictures of simplifying neo-colonial conceptions of postcolonial
subjectivity in the process.
The second half of the article uses the chosen case studies to consider how Eggerss nar-
ratives cultivate diering forms of engagement between their disenfranchised subjects and
their (mostly Western) readership. The Voice of Witness oral history collection stimulates
adiuse form of identication with dierent victims of a single rights abuse or crisis, ren-
dering the crisis itself accessible to readers without automatically universalising the multi-
farious experiences of that crisis for the reader. Zeitoun, for its part, radically emphasises
dierence between its subject and its readers, thus explicitly sabotaging the simplistic
identication that it cultivates at the start in order to create a sense of surprise or even
shock in the reader. Overall, the article shows how Eggerss testimonial work is both
shaped by the narrative directives of human rights discourses and itself actively reshapes
a discourse of universal sameness as a means of engaging the disempowered on fairer,
more equal, and arguably more empowering terms.
A crucial question is whether Eggerss role in the ventriloquism of the subaltern discon-
nects the testimonial subjects narrative from its socio-historical context by reframing it
for Western audiences. Indeed, do these narratives, in their specic attempts at addressing
Western audiences in a more productive way, end up relocating (and thus distorting) the
victims voice and experiences within the boundaries of a Western human rights culture?
The narratives take the important step of carefully managing the readers engagement with
the testimonies they contain, yet they struggle to address fundamentally the rights culture
within which they help these testimonies to circulate. Even though they ask for more than
simplistic identicationand, in doing so, productively reshape part of the existing rights
culture in which they are embedded and which the reader brings to bear on the textthese
narratives also reinforce the idea that the socio-cultural environment in which abuses
occur exists beyond the purview of the narratives rights culture. For all their narrative
eorts in inviting Western audiences to engage their narrators on more equal terms, we
conclude, these texts ultimately fail to embed those narrators and the dierent cultures
from which they emerged into an expanded rights discourse.
Testimony, Alterity, and the Ethics of reading
In an interview with Sean Bex and Stef Craps on the occasion of Eggerssbeingawardedthe
2015 Amnesty International Chair at Ghent University, the author commented on what he
sees as the power of testimonial narratives to illuminate rights issues and violations. Speak-
ing directly to Voice of Witnesssaimofamplifyingunheard voices so as to foster
6
Antaki.
172 S. BEX ET AL.
empathy-based understanding of contemporary human rights crises,
7
he explained his
belief that you almost always have a better understanding of a situation through a rst-
person narrativeseeing what one person says and then seeing a broader view of it.
8
In
order for a testimony to achieve this, he went on to say, it needs to be transformed into a
legible and engaging story that maintains the illusion of direct contact between the reader
and the disempowered subject by replicating as faithfully as possible the latters speech.
According to this logic, victims of rights abuses have a considerable incentive to codify their
experiences according to the protocols of the human rights culture within which their testi-
monies will circulate and be read. Schaer and Smith specically argue that collections of tes-
timonial narratives tend to format the particular experiences of rightsviolations according to
standardized structures and thematics of presentation.
9
These standardisedtexts are charac-
terised by self-assertiveness and narrative clarity on the part of the narrator as a means of
claiming recognition for rights violations and articulating membership of a global rights com-
munity. The problem with narrative requests for access to such a global rights community, as
Schaer and Smith go on to explain, is that empathetic identicationbetween rights-bearers
and disempowered subjects may come with the potential cost of reducing dierence to same-
ness.
10
The key diculty that arises from a discourse based on universal sameness is that it
may end up covering over the glaring inequalities that derive from hierarchical power
relations between Westerners and others instead of illuminating and eroding them. The story-
telling imperative of human rights culture, as Jennifer Rickel explains, is for individuals to
narrate themselves as fully developed human personswho can thereby claim to be part
of a narrative of universal humanism.
11
In other words, the aim is for the testimonial
subject to constitute itself as a complex and particular human being, not a carbon copy of
the readers abstract humanity. The central concern for such texts is thus their capacity to
capture the attention and empathy of rights-bearers as well as unsettle the dynamics of
power that silence those who have to actively clamour for such rights.
One potential problem with this is that rights-bearing audiences can simply decide to
assuage their newfound cross-cultural empathy through simple acts of charity or even
expressions of sympathy rather than address the conditions that allow abuse and violence.
In States of Denial, Stanley Cohen distinguishes three forms of engagement with the
subject of suering in a text: sympathy, empathy, and identication. He explains that
sympathy means feeling sorry for victims; empathy means feeling what their suering
must be like to them; identication means imagining yourself in their position.
12
The
danger, on the basis of these denitions, is that empathic and identicatory engagement
with an individuals particular experiences is all too easily transformed into hierarchy-
reinforcing sympathy for a disempowered collective that readily conrms rather than chal-
lenges existing neo-colonial power relations.
13
When human rights advocates represent
disempowered subjects in a way that shows them as a deprived collective whose
7
About,Voice of Witness, http://voiceofwitness.org/about [cited 25 May 2016].
8
Bex and Craps.
9
Schaer and Smith, 47.
10
Ibid.
11
Rickel.
12
Cohen, 216.
13
It is worth nothing that there is a considerable slippage between these terms. Both empathy and sympathy entail a
certain form of identication, and it is, as we will show, further possible for empathic forms of engagement to slip
into the type of hierarchy-reinforcing sympathy that is under discussion here.
ENGLISH STUDIES 173
suering and humanity is universalised so as to make them deserving of charity, they risk
thereby rendering their individual experiences irrelevant; sympathy can reinforce a chari-
table hierarchy between the privileged West and a reductively blurred group of impover-
ished others rather than promoting horizontal cross-cultural connections based on the
equality that human right ocially promotes.
Dominick LaCapras notion of empathic unsettlementis meant precisely to safeguard
against overidentication to the extent that one becomes a surrogate victim, proposing
instead that one should empathise in such a way that understanding takes place
without a blurring of the subject positions of victim and witness.
14
Still, LaCapra
himself becomes entangled in the terminological complexity besetting the vocabulary of
other-oriented aect when he insists that his notion of empathic unsettlement is to be
kept separate from unproblematic identicationand patronizing sympathy.
15
Even
though we agree with LaCapra that these are to be avoided, precisely because of the unpro-
ductive engagement with the disempowered subject they cultivate, our analysis of Eggerss
testimonial works shows that various forms of identication, empathy, and sympathy can
and, in fact, do co-exist within the same text. Rather than aiming for an elusive conceptual
purity, we want to trace the dierent types of interpersonal awareness displayed by
LaCapra and Cohen, as well as the inevitable slippage between them, in the analysis of
how testimonial narratives engage the reader. If the subtle empathically unsettled connec-
tion with the victim contemplated by LaCapra provides one suggestion as to what an
ethical relationship with victims may entail, it is also the case that more appropriative
or patronising forms of engagement are similarly part of the identicatory cues provided
by a testimonial narrative.
Whereas human rights scholars such as Schaer and Smith have paid attention to how
aect furthers the human rights project, postcolonial critics have sought to illuminate how
access to the narrative and testimonial means to generate such aect can be restricted or
denied to those whose rights are yet the very ones that need to be recognised and pro-
tected. Modes of thinking are thus revealed that perpetuate inequality in a global commu-
nity that purports to have accepted universal equality. In Postcolonial Melancholia, Paul
Gilroy makes the point that continued emphasis on racial dierence obstructs
empathy and make[s] ethnocentrism inescapable. It becomes impossible even to
imagine what it is like to be somebody else.
16
The point here is not so much that race
should not be a consideration in cross-cultural engagement, but that a radical emphasis
on racial dierence places interlocutors in a prefabricated category of others for whom
empathic interaction is placed beyond the remit of Western readers. Anticipating this dis-
cussion, Gayatri Spivaks famous question Can the Subaltern Speak?not only asks why a
privileged audience may not be open to hearing disempowered subjects, but also allows us
to ask whether the involvement of a privileged author such as Eggers in ventriloquising
their speech may perpetuate their silencing as subjects even while voicing their
experiences.
17
Commenting on Can the Subaltern Speak,Spivak explains that an ethical relationship
with the other must involve a transaction between the speaker and the listener,
14
LaCapra.
15
Ibid., 38.
16
Gilroy, 63.
17
Spivak, Can the Subaltern Speak?
174 S. BEX ET AL.
something which is potentially rendered more dicult if someone other than the subaltern
has stepped in to take on the role of speaker.
18
Spivak notes further that one of the pro-
blems with the assumption that the subaltern will assert themselves and claim (what
Western audiences recognise as) a voice is that it conveniently allows audiences to
remain passive, never requiring them to question their own position in the dialogue:
The eort required for the subaltern to enter into organic intellectuality is ignored by
our desire to have our cake and eat it too: that we can continue to be as we are, and yet
be in touch with the speaking subaltern.
19
For Spivak, there can be no true dialogue
between the subaltern and the privileged without a more substantially transformative
process in which barriers of privilege and power that prevent an ethical engagement
with disempowered others are broken down. As Judith Butler explains, once the frames
that determine whose life is recognised in full start to come apart, it becomes possible
to come into contact with those lives that have hitherto been excluded.
20
This movement,
as Rosalind Morris notes, challenges the slippage between the normative equality upon
which human rights are based and the rather reductive insistence on fundamental same-
ness that stands in for that universalist aspiration in human rights culture. Instead, Morris
arms Spivaks idea that an ethical dialogue with the other asks us to acknowledge their
rights on the basis of a shared humanity as well as their alterityan alterity that, for
Spivak, is fundamental to the very identity of the other.
21
In order for such a dialogue
to be successful, the privileged audience must be willing to acknowledge the equality of
the other precisely by understanding them as both dierent from Western rights-
bearers and yet in possession of the same common humanity in whose name human
rights speak.
The question then becomes to what extent narrative testimonies provide a discursive
space to negotiate shared humanity and dierence. In The Singularity of Literature,
Derek Attridge emphasises the importance of breaking down absolute alterity as a road
towards comprehension: Absolute alterity, as long as it remains absolute, cannot be
apprehended at all.
22
Attridge goes on to stress that literature can be instrumental in
breaking down such absolute alterity in a productive way while preserving the particularity
of the others experiences and allowing the reader to accept (without neutralising) the
other into their frame of reference. This idea centres on Attridges argument that the ima-
ginative process of constructing story-worlds with ctional others is cognitively related to
the readers engagement with the subaltern.
23
Both processes, according to Attridge,
present readers with an other and ask them to make them real and knowable, making
the cultural force of literature dependent upon the eorts of responsible readers.
24
18
Spivak, Subaltern Talk,289.
19
Ibid., 292.
20
Butler, 12.
21
Morris, 97. Spivak, Subaltern Talk,27. It is important to distinguish this alterity, the particular identity of each individual
subject, from the process of othering that lies at the heart of neo-colonial modes of thinking, which erase the particularity
of the subaltern in favour of what Spivak discusses as catachreses in Practical Politics of the Open End.There, she uses
catachresis to refer to master words that transform particular subjects through sweeping denitions for which there are
no literal referents, such as true workeror true woman(104). In this article, alterity is used as a counterweight to
appropriative identication in which the particularity of the other is erased. We will distinguish between the necessary
respect for Zeitouns alterity and the negative implications of radical otheringthrough catachresis by focusing on how
the latter is bound up with Zeitouns mixed roots and the abuse he suers as a result of racial proling.
22
Attridge, 3.
23
Ibid., 32.
24
Ibid., 133.
ENGLISH STUDIES 175
Attridge argues that the reader is able to actualise the other through an identicatory
process in which othernessis introduced into the eld of the samein a way that
reshapes cultural norms and habits.
25
This eld of the same diers from the type of atten-
ing sameness that obscures inequalities in that the distinctive experiences of the other are
preserved in the identicatory process set out by Attridge. Sameness in Attridges more
enabling sense is only extended on the basis of a shared humanity that yet acknowledges
the distinct particularity of the other: To respond fully to the singular otherness of the
other person (and thus render that otherness apprehensible) is creatively to refashion the
existing norms whereby we understand persons as a category, and in that refashioning
necessarily inaugural and singularto nd a way of responding to his or her singularity.
26
While Attridges sophisticated account of textual identication provides an alternative
to the attening identicatory sameness that denies the alterity of the other, it arguably
underestimates the singularity facing readers in a literary texta singularity that may at
times preclude identication. For Gert Buelens and Dominiek Hoens, the force of a literary
text lies in its ability to disrupt the readers interpretative frames rather than, as Attridge
would have it, rendering those existing beyond those frames visible to them through a
process of identication.
27
This opens up a space for the literary text to carve out a
more multidimensional reading experience in which the reader is inected more intensely
and more directly by their encounter with the other whose story they engage with. Buelens
and Hoenss contribution oers a way to overcome the problem of passivity that pervades
less productive and more gratuitous engagements with the subaltern in which Western
audiencesprivilege is not disturbed. It makes it possible to attend to the ways testimonial
narratives present readers with numerous interpretative cues, not all of which are condu-
cive to straightforward identication with the protagonist. It allows a more ne-grained
analysis of the dierent discursive processes by which human rights are negotiated and
contested when disempowered subjects nd ways to speak to rights-bearing audiences.
In the following analyses, we will use these insights to complicate a commonplace
assumption, expressed perhaps most memorably by Richard Rorty, that sad and senti-
mental storiescan move us to recognise and defend the rights of others, in two
ways.
28
First, we will broaden the analysis beyond the central relationship between the nar-
rating (or narrated) subject and the reader, taking into account the full complexity of the
discursive space staged by the text, including its relation to the socio-cultural context
within which these texts operate and that they seek to reform. This will make for a
more nuanced understanding of the rights work performed by testimonial texts.
29
Second, we will focus on dierent forms of other-oriented aect and avoid forcing testi-
monial narratives into narrow and reductive forms of identicatory interpretation. In
this way, we want to explore textual eorts to diversify audience engagement with the dis-
empowered subject that actively seek to counteract a discourse of absolute sameness
25
Ibid., 136.
26
Ibid., 33.
27
Buelens and Hoens.
28
Rorty, 185.
29
In The Diculty of Imagining Other People,Elaine Scarry argues that notions of empathic engagement through identi-
cation have led to an overly optimistic accountof what imagining other people can achieve, to the extent that it is seen
as a legitimate means of bypassing legal provisions and constitutional procedures.She admits that ctional texts bring
other persons to press on our minds,but insists that we must recognize the severe limits of imaginative accomplish-
ment.Scarry, Hoens. 98110.
176 S. BEX ET AL.
through straightforward identication. Paying attention to dierent modalities of readerly
engagement, and situating them in a dense discursive context, we show how Eggerss work,
even if it does not warrant Rortys optimism about the ability of texts and aects to move
audiences to action, illustrates the aective force of literary texts as a means of expanding
the universe about whom such moving stories might be told.
30
Diuse Identication in Voice of WitnesssVoices from the Storm
Voice of Witness, the rst case study for our analysis of the aective cues generated by tes-
timonial narratives, is a non-prot organisation that seeks to illuminate human rights crises
across the globe through edited collections of testimonies. The stated aim of the book series
is to foster empathy-based understandingof those crises by amplifying the voices of indi-
viduals most closely aected by injustice.
31
In many ways, the series is typical of anthologies
about rights violations, by Schaer and Smithsdenition of the genre: they write that such
anthologies gain their ethical force by gathering multiple narratives of shared victimization
into one volume whose purpose is to challenge and rewrite history, call the reader to recog-
nition, and spur action.
32
There is a clear similarity between this description and the self-
description in Voice of Witnesss educational guide book The Power of the Story,which
explains that oral history is about combining facts with peoples interpretations of facts in
order to come to a deeper understanding of a historical moment and its memorial afterlife.
33
The guide book, which helps teachers use Voice of Witness books in the classroom, dis-
tinguishes itself from what it calls the dispassionate stance of traditional social science
and instead cultivates a capacity for empathy and identication, for greater joy and
immense indignation and, above all, a willingness to be changed in the process.
34
One of
the interesting ways in which this identicatory logic is reinforced in the exercises suggested
in The Power of the Story is by leaving an open space in a critical reading log.In this log,
students are free to reect in whatever way they choose on the extent to which they feel con-
nected to the testifying subjects in the Voice of Witness books.
The texts included in these books lend themselves to empathic engagement in part because
they have been moulded into a narrative form that suits such an aective relationship. Eggers,
a co-founder of the series, explains this as being one of the hallmarks of the project:
We decided that the Voice of Witness books would edit everyones story . . . into a linear nar-
rative, without changing words. That would be what the reader could rely onthat we would
tell a compelling linear narrative with the narrators original words and phrasings and idio-
syncrasies of speech, which takes some editing.
35
Writing about one of the rst books in the series, Surviving Justice: Americas Wrongfully
Convicted and Exonerated, Barbara Eckstein points out how this narrative effect is created
by the volumes complete effacement of the mediator, since the questions of the original
interviews are sacriced to create a linear narrative.
36
She wonders whether this process
30
Laqueur, 54.
31
About,Voice of Witness, http://voiceofwitness.org/about [cited 25 May 2016].
32
Schaer and Smith, 45.
33
Mayotte, 6.
34
Ibid., 7.
35
Bex and Craps.
36
Eckstein.
ENGLISH STUDIES 177
does not obscure the authority of the interviewing/editing/narrating voicethat necess-
arily shapes the narratives.
37
Eggers explains his role as editor as part of the necessary
mediation required for these testimonial narratives to be made amenable to a Western
audience. He expresses his belief that editors of the series serve the narrators well only
when the book itself is compelling and can be read by a broad audience.
38
Voices from the Storm brings together thirteen dierent testimonies of people aected
in some way by Hurricane Katrina (Zeitouns is one of them), which hit New Orleans in
2005 and occasioned a humanitarian crisis. It is organised chronologically, detailing par-
ticular days or events in the lives of victims as the storm progresses, and structured accord-
ing to major moments before, during, and after the storm. There are two main structuring
devices at work in this volume that have a direct impact on the rights work it performs.
The text is rst divided into four sections that relate to the life-changing impact of Hurri-
cane Katrina, entitled Life before the Storm,”“The Storm,”“The Week After,and
Looking Back.Instead of providing full testimonies from start to nish, Voices from
the Storm breaks them up in order to t them into a chronological day-by-day narrative.
In a very basic sense, this imposes a narrative structure onto the wholethe anthology
becomes a story of Hurricane Katrina narrated by several survivors rather than a collection
of disparate survivor testimonies that happen to deal with the same event. The focus is
shifted away from individual narrators, in other words, and towards the way in which
certain sections of their testimonies contribute to a more encompassing picture of key
moments before, during, and after the storm. Apart from this distinctive chapter division,
the rst device also works through the insertion of a two-page list of Narratorswith two-
line biographies for each at the start of the anthology.
39
The biographies are thus not intro-
duced with each persons story; instead, all of the biographical information is grouped so
as to allow the individual narratives to be split up according to the anthologys overall nar-
rative of Hurricane Katrinaa narrative the introduction to the book calls a rich tapestry
of oral histories.
40
The second structuring device, a list of appendices at the back, works towards the same
goal of focusing attention on the broader crisis and the inadequacy of the governments
response, once again leading the reader away from individual narratives. In the appen-
dices, a picture is created of the ooded city that demonstrates that disempowered
African-Americans (lower wealth, lower educations, fewer means) were disproportio-
nately aected by Hurricane Katrina because they were the ones left stranded in the
city of New Orleans. These appendices make it clear that in having thirteen narrators
from this particular background narrating their hardships, Voices from the Storm has
not skewed its representation towards a select group of victims, but touches on the very
essence of the broader issue at hand. It actively promotes, therefore, a synecdochal
reading of these testimonies as being representative of the broader experience of the sur-
vivor community which largely, disproportionately, and unfairly consisted of disempow-
ered non-white Americans.
Within this collection of oral testimonies, Zeitoun narrates his story in eleven episodes.
Initially his testimony feels out of place in the volume. He does not struggle to survive
37
Ibid., 110.
38
Bex and Craps.
39
Vollen and Ying, Voices from the Storm, 40.
40
Ibid., 1.
178 S. BEX ET AL.
before or during the storm and even has enough food to feed abandoned dogs as he roams
the now almost post-apocalyptic landscape of New Orleans. Yet his interruptions are given
ever more prominence as the volumes story of Hurricane Katrina develops, becoming the
rst narrative fragment on 31 August and 1 September in the build-up to his eventual
arrest and detention without charge on 5 September. The volume narrates the steady pro-
gression in government mismanagement of the crisis, noting particularly the refocusing of
attention on combating looters and terrorists instead of search-and-rescue by Mayor
Nagin on 31 August (that is, precisely when Zeitouns testimonial fragments are given pro-
minence). The image created is one of a gradual creep in government mismanagement,
neglect, and abuse in the wake of Katrina, aecting rst those at the very bottom before
eventually reaching even the well-to-do but still ethnically marked Syrian-American
Muslim Abdulrahman Zeitoun. In other words, while the mismanagement of the
natural disaster by the US government caused the disenfranchised African-American
community to be aected disproportionately, as shown by the appendices, the homeland
security intervention that followed in its wake exacerbated this crisis, according to the text,
by rebranding survivors from dierent (and not just African-American) ethnic minorities
as potential terrorists based on their ethnicity and/or religion.
Zeitoun comments on the authoritiesdecision to arrest him, linking his arrest to the
post-9/11 context of religious and racial tension in the US: First, I think [the arresting
ocer] saw my name, and when he see us together, he overreact. . . . I think he thought
he catch a group of terrorists.
41
This is precisely the type of interaction between the
facts and testimonial narratives the volume hopes readers will pick up on: statistics (repro-
duced in the appendices) tell the story of which people were most aected by the storm,
but testimonial narratives can illustrate just how they were aected and why the govern-
ments response exacerbated an already dreadful situation. What this brief discussion
shows is that Voices from the Storm works towards presenting its testimonies metonymi-
cally, with each fragment becoming a synecdoche that builds a larger picture of govern-
ment crisis mismanagement deteriorating into rights violations in the context of post-9/
11 racial and religious tensions. Both the narrative structure of a chronological story of
the storm and the appendices with their focus on the demographic picture of New
Orleans contribute to our understanding of Zeitouns experiences as part of the wider
racially motivated rights violations in the storms aftermath and the socio-ethnic tensions
in the country more broadly.
This metonymic procedure impacts upon the empathy-based identicatory relation-
ship Voices from the Storm seeks to cultivate, which is also central to human rights
culture more broadly. It is clear from the structural analysis that the focus of Voices
from the Storm leads towards a greater understanding of the overall picture of life in
New Orleans before and after Katrina, with individual narrators serving as conduits to
facilitate that process. This ts with the overall conception of the role of testimonial nar-
ratives in the series as noted by both Eggers himself and Mimi Lok, the seriesexecutive
director and editor. The latter conceives of the stories as pieces of a puzzle that contribute
to an overall picture created in the minds of the reader after they have read through the
various perspectives: I think you get at the universal through the particular. We make
it so that each voice in a collectionthere are usually around thirteen or fteen voices
41
Ibid., 239.
ENGLISH STUDIES 179
per collectionhighlights something dierent, a dierent side of the situation.
42
Eggers
concurs with this view, adding that you almost always have a better understanding of a
situation through a rst-person narrativeseeing what one person says and then seeing a
broader view of it.
43
The stated aims and structural devices thus balance individual nar-
ratorsexperiences with an overall presentation of the crisis.
This balancing act contributes to the texts nuanced approach to identication. With its
tapestry of narrators and fragmented storylines, Voices from the Storm is actively checking
the readers identication every few pages. These checks guide the reader into channelling
their brief spats of empathic engagement into a metonymical impression of the crisis.
Loks description of individual narrators feeds this metonymical logic, as she seems to
understand their experiences as being representative of a typeof person, which allows
the volume to give voice to more than just the individual stories of these particular narra-
tors: Some stories can be taken as emblematic for a crisis, some are surprising in that this
could have happened to this kind of person.
44
Such a metonymical approach would be
detrimental to the preservation of the distinctive experiences of a victim in a singular nar-
rative, as it would amount to having a single victim represent all victims; and as that vic-
timhood would arguably cover every inhabitant of the United States, it might induce U.S.
readers of such narratives to gure themselves as what LaCapra calls surrogate victims
who feel they have a claim on the real victims subject position and think they are entitled
to speak for them, rather than letting them speak.
45
The volume avoids this by bringing
together dierent perspectives, through which the readers metonymical reading experi-
ence is consistently curbed. As a result, while identication is encouraged by each testimo-
nial narrative, an ethically problematic and politically debilitating overall equation of
victims through a logic of sameness is forestalled. With straightforward single-perspective
identication thus ruled out, the textual cue for the reader seems to be one of diuse
identication. This type of aective engagement, as encouraged by the text, allows the
reader to gain greater understanding of the human rights crisis at hand as a result of
their dispersed recognition of and engagement with the humanity of individual victims.
The diuse identicatory processes stimulated by Voices from the Storm achieve three
things with regard to the victims, readers, and overall crisis. First, the complexity of
victims is established through the provision of multiple perspectives. All of these perspec-
tives are grounded in the same rights crisis, but simultaneously show how a wide range of
victims were aected dierently. Second, the straightforward identicatory practice that
sees equality as sameness is forestalled in the text by moving the reader out of the inter-
pretative comfort zone that human rights cultures emphasis on a stable sense of human-
ity. This is achieved by qualifying the identicatory drive with each new perspective that is
introduced. Third, the testimonial narratives and extensive appendices collude to create a
larger picture that transcends the victims and that highlights some of the broader social,
legal, cultural, and political dynamics that lead to rights abuses. As such, the volume can
claim to provoke cross-cultural understanding for rights crises in a way that avoids some
of the pitfalls that plague the rights work usually performed by testimonial narratives in
human rights culture.
42
Bex and Craps.
43
Ibid., 562.
44
Ibid., 562.
45
Lacapra, 78.
180 S. BEX ET AL.
For all this, the volume fails in one important respect: it does not complicate the pos-
ition of the readersomething that is yet crucial for addressing the reasons human rights
crises often remain beyond the purview of the very discourse (human rights) that aims to
address them. In amplifying unheard voices,as its slogan would have it, Voices from the
Storm never gets around to dealing with the question why these voices fall on deaf ears,
why they need amplication; it merely mediates their narratives in such a way that privi-
leged readers are coaxed into engaging with them productively. As such, the project per-
petuates the constraints of the human rights culture and fails to interrogate that cultures
implication in the crises it presents. This means that readers, even if they are invited to
bemoan the rights violations, are equally allowed to maintain their uncomplicated position
as rights-bearers as they gaze at the suering of disempowered others. As we will see, this
privileged position is one that Zeitoun will come to problematise.
Rejecting Identication in Zeitoun
Zeitoun is Eggerss separate narrativization of Zeitouns experiences, told by a journalistic
third-person narrator in a two-part structure that largely shapes the audiences engage-
ment with the protagonist. This third-person narrator alternatingly follows Zeitouns per-
spective and that of his wife Kathy as they are each aected by Katrina and its aftermath.
The rst section takes place before Zeitouns arrest and sees the protagonist function as a
typical hero character. The second section covers his arrest and detention, during which he
is subjected to gross human rights violations. In this second half, he becomes trapped in a
truly Kafkaesque situation in which he is accused of terrorist activities and simultaneously
categorised as an enemy combatant,an extra-legal category that places him beyond the
proper judicial framework. As a result of this, he is unable to challenge the accusation in
question. The contrast with the active hero in part one is conspicuous, and this has a sig-
nicant impact on the aective operations of the text: whereas the character saving others
from the storm is irresistibly likeable and recognisable as an ideal citizen and compassio-
nate human being, the reader is forced to watch that same character become radically
othered,reduced to his essential racial foreignness, following his arrest. This is
reinforced by the narrative when the period covering his detention is narrated more exten-
sively from the perspective of Kathy, who, like the reader, struggles to come to terms with
what has happened to Zeitoun.
Even if the protagonist is typical of the kind of self-assertive rights-claiming individuals
that human rights culture promotes, Zeitoun is something of an outsider in that the rst
half of the narrative only marginally arms the protagonists claim to victimhood. As the
analysis of the Voices from the Storm collection already emphasised, Zeitoun is not overly
aected by the storm, does not have to struggle to survive, and engages in numerous make-
shift rescue operations. If the theatre of rolesto which David Kennedy likens human
rights culture is typically populated by victims who are passive and innocent, violators
who are abnormal, and human rights professionals who are heroic, Zeitoun complicates
this distribution of roles: it aligns the protagonist with the role of the heroic activist
rather than the helpless victim, and he thus becomes a strong candidate for the readers
identication.
46
A. G. Keeble makes the further observation that this version of the
46
Kennedy, 14.
ENGLISH STUDIES 181
Zeitoun character resembles the American heroesin the ocial emergency services who
helped deal with the aftermath of 9/11.
47
This is particularly signicant because this section of the narrative works hard to allow
Zeitouns Syrian-Muslim identity to coincide with his role as the quintessential American
citizen-hero. When the storm hits, the images used by the text are initially derived from
myth and legend, and only then home in on Zeitouns particular character and experi-
ences. The images used to describe the protagonists feelings about the ooded city are
not directly taken from the Quran, quotes from which periodically intersect the narrative,
but from a cross-religious mythical hero recognisable to a Judeo-Christian audience. As
the water oods the city, Zeitoun could only think of Judgment Day, of Noah and
forty days of rain.
48
In eect, the protagonist himself becomes a Noah-like gure in
the following section, concerned only with salvaging people and animals from the ood
in his canoe. He is an emphatically American Noah gure, though, because the image
also echoes the American mythology of explorers and settlers conquering an exotic new
land:
He imagined oating, alone, through the streets of his city. In a way, this was a new world,
uncharted. He could be an explorer. . . . He thought of the animals. The squirrels, the mice,
rats, frogs, possums, lizards. All gone. Millions of animals drowned. . . . He was conicted
about what he was seeing. . . . The novelty of the new world brought forth the adventurer
in himhe wanted to see it all, the whole city, what had become of it. But the builder in
him thought of the damage, how long it would take to rebuild.
49
As such, the position of the subaltern, which, as Joseph Slaughter explains, often reinforces
apatronizing sense of moral superiority,is rendered in such a way that it is not only
available as an identicatory perspective but positively desirable, as it coincides with a
subject position deeply ingrained in the privileged readersworldview.
50
By re-writing
the mixed roots migrant as an American hero, the narrativesrst half makes the charac-
terincluding his Syrian roots and his migrant experience, sometimes illustrated by old
photographs of his childhood and life at seaa desirable object of identication.
This intermingling of vastly dierent identity markers would be highly problematic in
its partial erasure of Zeitouns distinctive cultural background, were it not for the sudden
narrative break following his arrest. The fact that American heroes are meant to be repre-
sentative of the nation as a whole makes it especially striking that this dramatic narrative
shift is caused by a state-sanctioned intervention in New Orleans. The ocial rescue oper-
ation, bungled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is shown to fail
utterly as it lets the city transform into a post-civilizational setting in which the normal
social and legal order is suspended. Subsequently, the authoritiesheavy-handed response
to the perceived threat of terrorism in this extra-legal space marks the end of the Zeitoun
characters heroic antics in the ooded city; at this point, the reality of the Syrian migrant
is severed from the mythical image of the American hero. Zeitoun explains that, until he
was arrested, he had no experience with prolingand had, therefore, been able to live as
a hyphenated Syrian-American.
51
The process of his arrest and detention radically breaks
47
Keeble, 183.
48
Eggers, 94.
49
Ibid., 95.
50
Slaughter, 104.
51
Eggers, 213.
182 S. BEX ET AL.
this dual identity, with the extra-legal space of the ooded city opening the gate for prac-
tices normally associated with socio-cultural contexts existing beyond the purview of
human rights. As if to reinforce the similarity between the rights violations taking place
in this chaotic setting on U.S. soil and the (neo-)colonial stereotype of pre-civilizational
third world countries rife with barbaric legal systems, the protagonist perceives the
former in terms of the latter: Zeitoun was in disbelief. . . . arrested at gunpoint in a
home he owned, brought to an impromptu military base built inside a bus station,
accused of terrorism, and locked in an outdoor cage. It surpassed the most surreal
accounts hed heard of third-world law enforcement.
52
Further emphasising the neo-
colonial resonances of this extra-legal landscape, the protagonist experiences his incar-
ceration in animalistic terms, with the narrator describing those experiences as those of
an exotic beast, a hunters prize.
53
Zeitoun calls into question the supposedly universal
availability of rights within the United States by exposing the extent to which his hyphe-
nated identity can be reduced to a position outside of the U.S. hegemony. The text does so
by ascribing the fate of the protagonist to the surrealneo-colonial imaginary of so-called
third-world countries, which is fantastical, unreal, and disorienting in its reliance on
stereotypical visions of distant, uncivilised, and dangerous lands of others. This process
of otheringmakes Zeitoun unavailable for readersidentication; while he still holds
narrative interest, the terms in which he does so are too alien to warrant identication.
What makes Zeitouns exposure to the absurdities of law and democracy dierent from
that found in Franz KafkasThe Trial, a benchmark of the literary imagination of the
absurdities of administration, is that Eggerss protagonist, unlike Kafkas Joseph K., is
initially presented in realist terms that invite identication; the reader is not immediately
plunged into an alienated world.
54
This only occurs after the reader has already identied
with the character and the setting before they undergo a shift towards such a world; as
soon as the storm hits New Orleans, the novels setting changes and the protagonist
becomes an enticing object of identication, claiming the heroic status of an adventurous
character in a dangerous setting. Zeitouns narrative structure is fundamentally disruptive;
readersaect is manipulated to shift from identication with Zeitoun to alienation from
the hero in the second half. In the second half, and much like Joseph K. already at the
outset of The Trial, the protagonist becomes an abstract human being suering at the
hands of a simultaneously devastating and absurd anti-terror operation. As if to match
the way he is reductively otheredby the authorities, the narrative strips the character
of the depth that stimulates the readers identication with him in the rst half. The
post-arrest section, when told from the perspective of Zeitoun, contains no photographic
material reinforcing his image as a loving father, proud brother, and adventurous traveller.
As such, he becomes unavailable as a particular individual with which the reader can con-
tinue to identify. Following Zeitouns arrest, the text maintains two versions of the prota-
gonist: with increasing force, the reader is continually confronted by the contrasting
images of the bare life form of a man inhumanly detained and the likeable and particular
character of Zeitoun that lingers on in his wife Kathys storyline as well as the readers
memory of the rst half of the narrative.
52
Ibid., 218.
53
Ibid., 213.
54
Kafka.
ENGLISH STUDIES 183
As the reader is ejected from Zeitouns perspective, Kathy becomes increasingly enti-
cing as an identicatory perspective as she seeks to nd out what happened to her
husband after they lose contact following his arrest. Kathy is a sympathetic character,
introduced to the reader before the storm hits as a caring mother and a competent
manager of the family business. She is an American who converted to Islam just before
meeting her husband. As such, she too claims a precarious hyphenated identity as an
American and a Muslim. As Zeitoun roams the estranging space of post-Katrina New
Orleans, Kathy ees the city with their children, staying initially with her brother in
Baton Rouge, eighty miles outside of the ooded city, and eventually with a friend,
Yuko. As her husband is otheredin the setting of New Orleans following his arrest,
Kathy experiences related forms of othering within a more ostensibly American setting.
Once she reaches her family, the narrator explains, she could expect to be told to take
oher hijab by siblings unwilling to recognise her conversion to Islam as genuine and
seeing it instead as an obligation imposed on her by her husband.
55
Asides such as
these, focalised through Kathy, underscore the socio-cultural attitudes underlying the
extreme racial proling experienced by Zeitoun. Kathys perspective matters further,
however, because it remains available to the reader as a point of identication within
the narrative from which to perceive the story of Zeitouns victimisation. No matter
how many times Kathy recalls prejudiced behaviour towards her, she does so from an
American perspective in a recognisably American setting. A scene early on in the book
in which Kathy confronts an instance of Islamophobia serves as a useful example. After
a young girl throws insults at her and tries to remove her hijab, Kathy returns in kind:
They assumed, no doubt, that a Muslim woman, presumably submissive and shy with
her English, would allow her hijab to be ripped from her head without retaliation. But
Kathy let loose a fusillade of pungent suggestions, leaving them dumbfounded and
momentarily speechless.
56
Despite her hyphenated identity, scenes such as these serve
to distance the reader from their potential prejudices and make Kathys perspective
easier to relate to. Through Kathy, the reader is led into seeing the individual prejudice
she successfully confronts turned into a systemic violation of rights less easily combated
at an individual level.
In the second half of Zeitoun, neither the setting of the protagonists incarceration nor
the character of Zeitoun stimulate any form of identication informed by ideas of same-
ness or relatability for an audience of privileged Western readers. As much as the rst half
invites precisely such identication, the second half disavows it entirely. In the extra-legal
space of the makeshift prison, Zeitoun realises the cells there are purpose-built for those
agged up by a system of racial proling: It was as if the entire operation, this bus-station-
turned-military base, had been arranged for them.
57
It contains a twisted echo of Kafkas
famous parable about the man from the countryside, which reects Joseph Ks situation in
an abstract way. This parable tells the story of a man who waits in vain in front of a door
that will allow him access to the Law, only to discover the gate was built especially for him.
Similarly, Zeitoun is incarcerated in a purpose-built prison to which he is given access
once he has been relabelled a terrorist by the guards who will not let him leave and will not
55
Eggers, 57.
56
Ibid., 46.
57
Ibid., 211.
184 S. BEX ET AL.
reasonably answer any questions. The comfortable perspective of Kathy, into which the
reader can more easily settle, further encourages the reader to recognise the irreconcilable
dierence of Zeitouns situation. Upon his release, and underscoring the extent to which
her husband had been otheredthroughout his detention, she demands that Zeitouns
wallet be returned to him with his ID card, so that she has proof that her country recog-
nized her husband as a citizen.
58
Despite this interlude in which the protagonist is
stripped of his status as the full citizen upon which human rights is based, the reader
remains invested in the protagonist throughout the story, as a result of the pre-arrest
section of the narrative and the sympathetic perspective of Kathy, which provides
readers with a strong cue to maintain some form of relationship to him. Once the narrative
explains how Zeitoun is dehumanised by a discourse that collectively labels people like
him terroristsand erases the relatable person described in the rst half, the text
invites the reader to re-establish that humanity. In Zeitouns emphasis on the alienating
quality of both the setting and the person wrongfully imprisoned, however, the only
way for that re-humanizing process to take place is for the reader to identify with
Zeitoun as a human being (rather than, say, as a fellow American). In eect, the text
asks the reader to construct the humanin human rights in order to nd a means of
maintaining a connection with the now thoroughly otheredcharacter whose rights
are being violated.
Zeitoun oers an interesting variation on the way narrative typically functions in human
rights culture in that it shifts straightforward identication with the victim to a process of
mediated identication through the abstracted humanin human rights. It does so, as
we have shown, by facilitating a move towards disidentication on the part of the reader
in their negotiation of the two halves of the protagonists story. This is important because
it not only counteracts the process by which dierence is allowed to elide into sameness,
but it also undermines readings of Zeitoun in which his ethnically diverse roots are essen-
tialized and subsequently perceived as a threat. Kelly Oliver explains the latter process when
she writes: If we conceive of ourselves as self-identical, and we conceive of identity as
opposed to dierence, and we conceive of anything or anyone outside of the boundaries
of ourselves as dierent, then we will conceive of anything dierent or outside of ourselves
as a threat to our own identity.
59
In Zeitoun, the protagonist is drawn from within recog-
nisable and relatable circumstances into a position of being outsideand dierent,and
this movement ultimately prevents him from being constructed as a radical otherunre-
lated to the reader. Instead, the reader is confronted with various complex versions of the
protagonist, which include the straightforwardly identiable, the (only intermittently) radi-
cally other, and, perhaps most importantly, the abstractly human. As such, the traditional
pattern, in which privileged readers recognise disempowered subjects and in doing so recre-
ate a subject-other/object hierarchy,is disrupted.
60
Even if it avoids the twin dangers of overidentication with victims and abstraction,
Zeitoun only partially overcomes the central identicatory issue at the heart of human
rights culture. It is important to stress at this stage that the reader is only able to form a pro-
ductive relationship with Zeitoun, one in which his rights claim is recognised in a non-
58
Ibid., 317.
59
Oliver, 2.
60
Ibid., 9.
ENGLISH STUDIES 185
appropriative way, once he has been arrested and his rights have been violated. As such, the
rights claim in the narrative is only introduced once the protocols of identication have been
destabilised and the readersaective engagement has been channelled to a subject who is
American rst, and only then Syrian and Muslim. While this is certainly productive as a
mean of recovering Zeitoun as a human being worth caring about, it problematically
erases his specically Syrian-Muslim background that lies at the heart of the rights violations
he endures. The Syrianaspect of his Syrian-Americancitizenship never appears in any-
thing more than a reductively assimilated form in the hero section of the narrative, where the
protagonists migrant background is incorporated into the far more amenable prototype of
the American hero. Once he has been arrested, his Syrian identity is subsumed under the
stock character of the enemy combatant.The racial proling that allows the protagonists
rights to be violated in the extra-legal space of post-Katrina New Orleans is only addressed in
the form of an abstracted humanity made available to the reader for aective engagement.
Consequently, when the character is reintroduced into U.S. society upon his release, he
emerges, in the eyes of the reader, simply as a human being able to be incorporated into
American society. The latter is underscored by his wife, who forcefully asserts Zeitouns
place in that society by insisting that state ocials return documents proving her husbands
American citizenship rights.
61
His diverse cultural aliations, central to the rights violations
he endured, thus fade into the background. In the nal pages, Zeitoun only exists as a model
citizen contributing to the re-building of New Orleans. As in the mythical model of the city
on the hill, he vows that New Orleans should be better,that the storm removed the rot,
and that the foundations are being strengthened.
62
As such, his incarceration has thus not
only distances the protagonist from the Syrian-Muslim part of his identity, but the storm
that made his detention possible is presented as having magically cleansed the country of
the prejudices that caused his rights to be violated. In this sense, the rights-claim in the nar-
rative is never brought to bear on the particularity of Zeitoun as a character, with all its
attendant hostility, and only on his abstracted humanity. The purview of Western human
rights culture is thus not extended through the narratives careful negotiation of the
readersaective engagement with it. Instead, Zeitoun carefully reimagines Zeitouns char-
acter in such a way that it can be accommodated by the existing rights culture without dis-
turbing that cultures fundamental limitations and problems.
Conclusion
In this article, we have examined at a textual level how Eggerss collaborative testimonial
projects, involving both individuals and collectives, cultivate aective engagement with
their readership in order to participate and intervene in human rights culture. Our
approach, which brings together recent understandings of the centrality of aect and
identication to human rights culture with the cross-cultural and geopolitical awareness
of postcolonial studies, lays bare some of the aordances and constraints of the testimonial
narrative and of the ways in which this genre is used in human rights culture. Testimonial
narratives are often reduced to a means of enforcing straightforward identication
through a crushing notion of human sameness that denies those dierences that are
61
Eggers, 317.
62
Ibid., 325.
186 S. BEX ET AL.
typically at the heart of rights crises. Designed to expose these blind spots, our analytical
approach complicates our understanding of the functioning of testimonial narrative.
The analyses of Voice of WitnesssVoices from the Storm and Zeitoun have shown that
Eggerss projects complicate the role of aect and identication in signicant ways
through a form of diuse identication in the former and through disidentication or sabo-
taged identication in the latter. In Zeitoun, this provides a strong cue for Zeitouns basic
humanity to be recognised while rendering his experiences in the extra-legal space of
post-Katrina New Orleans beyond straightforward identication. The type of sustained
attention to the textual function performed by testimonial narratives in our discussion com-
plicates some of the commonplace assumptions held about the nature of those narratives
contribution to human understanding and empathy, and it shows Eggersseort to establish
the disempowered subject as recognisable and equal in a way that does not reinforce a neo-
colonial dynamic of rights-bearers patronisingly granting that recognition and equality.
Additionally, however, parts of Eggerss textual strategies and manoeuvring are some-
what compromised by the constraints of the testimonial narrative as a genre within human
rights culture. Even though Voices from the Storm is able to convey the diversity of experi-
ence of the crisis in New Orleans, it fails to complicate the essentially biased perspective of
privileged readers as it upholds their position as rights-bearers gazing at the suering of
others. Zeitoun overcomes this limitation by focusing explicitly on disrupting the
readers interpretative framework in such a way that they are forced to recognise the pro-
tagonists humanity when he is forcefully abused as a result of racial proling. However,
the narrative struggles to bring its rights-claiming eorts to bear on the particularity of the
protagonists cultural aliations, despite their centrality to his incarceration. The racial
proling that leads to his arrest and detention are cordoned oin the extra-legal setting
of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Careful attention to these
aective textual negotiations in texts such as Eggerss collaborative testimonial works
can help us understand the obstacles, challenges, and outright contradictory processes
behind the progressive use of testimonial narratives in human rights culture.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
Funding
This work was supported by Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek: [Grant Number G0A9812N].
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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Personal narratives have become one of the most potent vehicles for advancing human rights claims across the world. These two contemporary domains, personal narrative and human rights, literature and international politics, are commonly understood to operate on separate planes. This study however, examines the ways these intersecting realms unfold and are enfolded in one another in ways both productive of and problematic for the achievement of social justice. Human Rights and Narrated Lives explores what happens when autobiographical narratives are produced, received, and circulated in the field of human rights. It asks how personal narratives emerge in local settings; how international rights discourse enables and constrains individual and collective subjectivities in narration; how personal narratives circulate and take on new meanings in new contexts; and how and under what conditions they feed into, affect, and are affected by the reorganizations of politics in the post cold war, postcolonial, globalizing human rights contexts. To explore these intersections, the authors attend the production, circulation, reception, and affective currents of stories in action across local, national, transnational, and global arenas. They do so by looking at five case studies: in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation processes in South Africa; the National Inquiry into the Forced Removal of Indigenous Children from their Families in Australia; activism on behalf of former 'comfort women' from South/East Asia; U.S. prison activism; and democratic reforms in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China.
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Literature and the literary have proved singularly resistant to definition. Derek Attridge argues that such resistance represents not a dead end, but a crucial starting point from which to explore anew the power and practices of Western art. In this lively, original volume, the author: considers the implications of regarding the literary work as an innovative cultural event, both in its time and for later generations;. provides a rich new vocabulary for discussions of literature, rethinking such terms as invention, singularity, otherness, alterity, performance and form;. returns literature to the realm of ethics, and argues the ethical importance of the literary institution to a culture;. demonstrates how a new understanding of the literary might be put to work in a 'responsible,' creative mode of reading. The Singularity of Literature is not only a major contribution to the theory of literature, but also a celebration of the extraordinary pleasure of the literary, for reader, writer, student or critic.
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While the initial literary and cultural response to 9/11 consisted mostly of domestic narratives of trauma and mourning that avoided explicit political discourse, narrative representations of Hurricane Katrina, from the beginning, have been highly political. This is a profound, if simplistic, inversion: an act of political violence is de-politicized by its cultural response, while a natural disaster is overtly politicized. While the politicization of Hurricane Katrina is clearly, in part, down to the many accusations of negligence and racism that were immediately leveled at the American government after the post-Katrina flooding of New Orleans, this article argues that a major politicizing factor is and was the de-politicization of 9/11. Many narratives of Hurricane Katrina, therefore, are loaded with an aggregation of dissent and political discourse that relates not just to Katrina but also to 9/11 and the War on Terror. This article focuses specifically on Dave Eggers’s narrative non-fiction account of Katrina, Zeitoun (2009) and the way it responds to the domestication of 9/11 in these early instances of 9/11 fiction, and, in particular Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). It argues that Zeitoun responds to The Road’s conservative, messianic allegory, its retrograde formulation of frontier masculinity and unlikely recourse to the domestic. Eggers’s narrative non-fiction account of Katrina is also a migrant story and it is able to both dramatize the social realities of the War on Terror and build a surprising and affecting narrative of community and pluralism in the wake of disaster. Ultimately, this comparative analysis illuminates a wider and revealing departure from the cultural representation of 9/11 in the cultural response to Hurricane Katrina where texts like Zeitoun, are overtly political and loaded with the weight of two catastrophes.
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One possible response to allegations of hoaxing that surround the contemporary traffic in witness narratives is to re-theorize issues central to testimonial narration. Rather than arguing that the truth or falsity of witness narratives can be definitively determined, we complicate the transparency of the first-person narrator in testimony and the claim of authenticity that has become the guarantor of that subject position. To do so, we explore how the effect of authenticity is produced by certain "metrics," and how differing "I"-formations - here, composite, coalitional, translated, and negotiated - generate the aura of authenticity a text projects, as well as the imagined relation of readers to personal stories of witness. After tracking the metrics of authenticity in four exemplary texts - "Souad"'s Burned Alive, the Sangtin Collective's Playing with Fire, Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone, and Dave Eggers's What is the What? - we suggest an alternative reading practice to "rescue" the reading often associated with testimonial narratives.