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Vernacularization as Anthropological Ethics

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Abstract

Chapter in Festschrift volume in honor of Sally Engle Merry, edited by Philip Alston.
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Vernacularization-as-Anthropological-Ethics-
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Mark!Goodale!
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Introduction:+An+anthropologist+among+the+philosophers+
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!In!October!2016,!I!was!surprised!to!be!invited!to!a!conference!organized!
at!the!University!of!Michigan!Law!School.!The!invitation!was!a!surprise!because!
the!event!was!meant!to!be!a!gathering!of!the!great!and!good!from!the!domains!of!
human!rights!philosophy,!human!rights!law,!and!comparative!international!law,!
brought!together!around!the!collective!ambition!to!"retheorize!the!practice!of!
human!rights."!Why,!I!wondered,!was!an!anthropologist!being!invited!to!
contribute!to!a!major!philosophical!debate!over!a!category!like!"human!rights!
practice"?!
! !It!is!true!that!I!had!coedited!a!volume!in!2007!with!Sally!Engle!Merry!
entitled!"The!Practice!of!Human!Rights"!and!that!this!volume!had,!in!the!
intervening!years,!become!a!fairly!widely!used!text!among!certain!constituencies.!
Yet!notably!thin!among!this!readershipas!far!as!we!could!tell—were!
philosophers!of!human!rights,!international!human!rights!scholars,!comparative!
international!legal!scholars,!political!theorists!who!focused!on!human!rights,!and!
political!scientists!and!international!relations!specialists;!in!short,!those!working!
across!the!spectrum!of!disciplines!and!orientations!that,!taken!together,!were!
responsible!for!producing!most!of!the!concepts,!critiques,!and!frameworks!that!
constituted!human!rights!theory.!!
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!This!sense!of!epistemological!marginality—that!is,!that!the!anthropology!
of!human!rights!did!not!form!part!of!the!intellectual!raw!materials!from!which!
orthodox!human!rights!theory!was!builtwas!confirmed!even!before!the!
meeting!in!Ann!Arbor!began.!In!reading!the!large!number!of!pre-circulated!
papers!in!preparation!for!the!conference,!a!conference,!again,!whose!
distinguished!participants!(unarguably,!many!of!the!doyennes!and!doyens!of!the!
field)!were!planning!to!"retheorize!the!practice!of!human!rights,"!it!was!striking!
that!not!a!single!contribution!made!substantive!reference!to!literature!in!the!
anthropology!of!human!rights,!including,!perhaps!most!tellingly,!our!edited!
volume!on!the!practice!of!human!rights.!!
!Yet!the!reason!for!the!near!absence!of!the!anthropology!of!human!rights!
from!the!regard!of!the!human!rights!theorists!and!philosophers!soon!became!
clear:!the!ways!in!which!they!understood!the!meaning!of!"practice"!itself!were,!
from!an!anthropological!perspective,!highly!technical!and!restrictive,!even!
unrecognizable.!Or,!to!put!it!in!a!way!that!accurately!reflects!the!hierarchy!of!
epistemological!priority!(and,!thus,!of!power):!the!way!we!anthropologists!
defined!the!"practice!of!human!rights"!was!apparently!so!conceptually!exotic!
that!it!remained!beyond!the!boundaries!of!theoretical!debate!in!the!field,!
unknown!(and,!perhaps,!unknowable)!to!the!leading!citizens!of!the!theoretical!
metropole.!!
! So,!with!unfamiliar!(to!me,!that!is)!philosophical!distinctions!like!those!
between!"practice-independent"!and!"practice-dependent"!theories!of!human!
rights!in!my!mind's!eye,!I!greeted!the!opening!of!the!conference!with!a!mix!of!
trepidation!and!nervous!anticipation.!On!the!one!hand,!I!arrived!as!an!
anthropological!outsider,!an!interloper,!perhaps!someone—in!the!bleakest!of!
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scenarios—who!had!been!invited!as!something!like!intellectual!cannon!fodder!
for!the!giants!seated!around!the!imposing!conference!table,!someone!whose!odd!
ideas!about!the!"practice"!of!human!rights!could!easily!be!disposed!of!when!the!
participants!needed!to!blow!off!steam.!But!on!the!other!hand,!I!was!defensively!
eager!to!make!sure!concepts!from!the!anthropology!of!human!rights!got!a!full!
hearing!during!the!coming!debates,!less!in!order!to!try!and!rearrange!the!lines!of!
philosophical!prioritywhich!would!have!been!a!doomed!mission,!in!any!case
than!to!provide!an!opening,!however!temporary,!onto!the!vast!and!normatively!
diverse!landscapes!on!which!anthropologists!had!been!conducting!research!on!
human!rights!for!almost!thirty!years.!!
!In!the!event,!this!opening!was!created!not!in!terms!of!an!anthropological!
definition!of!human!rights!practice—"all!the!many!ways!in!which!social!actors!.!.!.!
talk!about,!advocate!for,!criticize,!study,![and]!legally!enact!.!.!.!the!idea!of!human!
rights"
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which!remained,!for!the!gathered!philosophers,!too!far!afield!
theoretically,!too!conceptually!expansive,!a!definition!that!likely!raised!more!
questions!than!it!answered.!Rather,!any!ripples!that!my!anthropological!
interventions!during!the!event!managed!to!produce!were!the!result!of!something!
quite!different:!the!insistence!that!the!practice!of!human!rights!must!not!be!
understood!first!and!foremost!as!an!expression!of!a!set!of!ideas,!but!rather!the!
mechanism!that!constitutes!them,!and!that!the!complex!processes!through!which!
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!Mark!Goodale,!"Introduction:!Locating!rights,!envisioning!law!between!the!global!and!the!local."!
In!The!Practice!of!Human!Rights:!Tracking!Law!Between!the!Global!and!the!Local,!M.!Goodale!and!
S.!E.!Merry,!eds.!(Cambridge:!Cambridge!University!Press,!2007,!p.!24).!!
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plural!conceptions!of!human!rights!emerge!in!practice!was!best!described!
through!a!framework!that!Sally!Engle!Merry!called!"vernacularization."
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! Yet!if!it!was!the!concept!of!vernacularization!that!provoked!the!most!
interest!over!those!three!days,!in!which!the!sounds!of!the!often-heated!
exchanges!reverberated!among!the!impressive!neo-English!Gothic!walls!of!South!
Hall!(now!called!Jeffries!Hall),!it!was!an!interest!that!bore!the!seeds!of!its!own!
undoing.!This!was!because,!as!will!become!clearer!in!the!course!of!this!chapter,!
the!concept!of!vernacularization!was!not!only!a!highly!innovative!analytical!tool!
for!parsing!the!subtleties!of!human!rights!practice;!as!it!turned!out,!it!could!also!
be!taken!as!an!argument!for!radically!reimagining!the!grounds!of!human!rights!
theory!itself,!an!argument,!moreover,!that!necessarily!implied!a!thoroughgoing!
critique!of!precisely!the!dominant!approaches!that!formed!the!intellectual!core!
of!the!Michigan!conference!(and!the!field!more!generally).!!
! In!contrast!to!the!original!invitation,!therefore,!it!was!not!surprising!that!
my!written!contribution!to!the!conference!proceedings!never!saw!the!light!of!
day;!in!fact,!I!never!heard!anything!from!the!organizers!again.!Multiple!inquiries!
regarding!publication!plans!were!met!with!silence;!even!a!short!thank!you!note!
failed!to!trigger!a!response.!Despite!the!initial!disappointment,!I!eventually!came!
to!regard!this!post-conference!exile!as!something!of!a!success:!the!
anthropological!approach!to!the!practice!of!human!rights,!and!specifically!the!
profound!implications!of!Merry's!vernacularization!framework,!must!have!
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!See,!e.g.,!Sally!Engle!Merry!(2006a),!"Transnational!Human!Rights!Activism:!Mapping!the!
Middle."!American!Anthropologist!(108)1:38-51;!Human!Rights!and!Gender!Violence:!
Translating!International!Law!into!Local!Justice!(Chicago:!University!of!Chicago!Press,!2006b).!!
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touched!a!nerve!among!the!arbiters!of!human!rights!scholarship.!Thus,!it!a!
delight!to!be!able!to!have!if!not!exactly!the!last!word,!then!at!least!another+word,!
on!the!question!of!how!Merry's!signal!concept!of!vernacularization!offers!not!
only!a!pioneering!approach!to!the!practice!of!human!rights,!but,!more!important,!
a!potentially!transformative!approach!to!the!future!of!human!rights!itself!as!the!
basis!for!global!justice.!
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!The!chapter!is!structured!in!the!following!way.!In!the!next!section,!I!
examine!the!concept!of!vernacularization!in!detail,!focusing!on!the!key!places!in!
which!Merry!introduces!it!and!explains!its!nuances.!As!will!be!seen,!some!of!the!
ways!in!which!I!eventually!adapt!vernacularization!represent!modes!of!
argument!and!forms!of!application!that!are!not!necessarily!explicit!in!the!original!
source!material.!Nevertheless,!it!is!important!to!emphasize!the!ways!in!which!
these!extensions!derive!from!Merry's!much!more!grounded!development!of!
vernacularization!as!both!an!ethnographic!category!and!conceptual!device,!one!
that!has!proven!to!be!enormously!influential!among!anthropologists!and!other!
qualitative!social!scientists!working!on!questions!of!normative!translation!and!
what!Merry!herself!and!a!colleague!have!more!recently!described!as!"human!
rights!transformation!in!practice."
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!Tine!Destrooper!and!Sally!Engle!Merry,!eds.!Human!Rights!Transformation!in!Practice!
(Philadelphia:!University!of!Pennsylvania!Press,!2018).!!
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!With!this!anchoring!in!the!concept!of!vernacularization!as!a!point!of!
departure,!the!chapter!then!moves!to!the!question!of!implications:!How!does!
Merry's!most!important!theory!of!human!rights!practice!change!the!ways!in!
which!human!rights!themselves—as!law,!as!politics,!as!moral!discourse,!as!
ideologyboth!can!and!should!be!understood?!Rather!than!proposing!an!
answer!to!this!question!in!the!abstract,!I!instead!show!how!the!far-reaching!
implications!of!vernacularization!have!already!been!revealed—even!if!indirectly,!
that!is,!without!necessarily!being!formally!acknowledged!as!suchin!the!work!of!
scholars!conducting!anthropological!research!on!the!practice!of!human!rights!in!
widely!divergent!contexts.!Here,!I!will!focus!on!three!compelling!case!studies:!
Shannon!Speed's!research!with!indigenous!communities!in!the!aftermath!of!the!
Zapatista!rebellion!against!the!Mexican!state;!Sarah!Holcombe's!study!of!efforts!
to!translate!the!Universal!Declaration!of!Human!Rights!(UDHR)!into!an!
Australian!Aboriginal!language!for!the!first!time;!and!Lynette!Chua's!fascinating!
and!difficult!research!among!LGBT!activists!in!Myanmar,!whose!commitment!to!
human!rights!took!shape!in!subtle!ways!that!had!little!to!do!with!either!legal!or!
political!change.!!
! And!finally,!the!chapter!concludes!by!using!these!expansive!accounts!of!
vernacularization!to!reflect!more!generally!on!the!future!of!human!rights,!a!
subject!that!has!become!a!topic!of!intense!debate!among!scholars,!practitioners,!
and!policy-makers!alike.!!I!will!argue!that!Merry's!concept!of!vernacularization!
offers!not!only!a!different!set!of!potential!answers!to!the!question!of!the!future!of!
human!rights,!but,!more!significant!still,!a!different!approach!altogether!to!the!
question,!one!that!is!grounded!in!the!unrealized!potential!of!human!rights!even!
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in!the!face!of!profound!contemporary!crises!such!as!climate!change,!economic!
inequality,!and!the!global!outbreak!of!new!infectious!diseases.!!
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Vernacularization+between+replication+and+hybridity!
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!Between!1999!and!2004,!Sally!Engle!Merry!directed!a!groundbreaking!
research!project!on!global!efforts!to!make!violence!against!women!a!central!
concern!of!human!rights!activism,!implementation,!and!monitoring.!Over!these!
five!years,!Merry!and!her!research!team!examined!the!different!forms!that!
women's!rights!mobilization!took!in!five!Asia-Pacific!locations:!Hawai'i,!Fiji,!
China,!India,!and!Hong!Kong.!In!addition,!Merry!conducted!research!at!the!center!
of!the!international!human!rights!system,!including!with!UN!agencies!and!treaty!
bodies!in!New!York!City!and!Geneva.!Different!sites!at!which!women's!rights!
were!put!into!practice!or!evaluated!included!city-level!women's!shelters;!NGO!
strategy!meetings;!national!policy!debates;!and!various!places!at!which!the!
global!system!to!monitor!compliance!with!the!Convention!on!the!Elimination!of!
All!Forms!of!Discrimination!Against!Women!(CEDAW)!conducted!its!work.!
! This!research!was!novel!for!a!number!of!different!reasons.!First,!it!broke!
new!ground!methodologically!as!a!study!in!the!anthropology!of!human!rights!
that!moved!beyond!existing!ethnographic!approaches,!which!focused!on!single!
research!sites!or!even!a!limited!number!of!research!sites!within!a!region!or!
country.!For!example,!during!my!doctoral!research!in!Bolivia!conducted!just!
before!Merry's!project!(1998-1999),!I!studied!the!ways!in!which!transnational!
human!rights!NGOS—working!through!their!national!partnersintroduced!the!
idea!of!"derechos!humanos"!to!peasant!communities!in!one!province!in!the!north!
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of!Potosí!Department!through!village!workshops,!support!for!a!local!legal!
services!center,!and!through!the!diffusion!of!informational!brochures,!which!
often!presented!human!rights!in!the!simplest!of!terms!without!reference!to!
either!international!or!national!legal!documents.
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! Although!I!visited!almost!40!small!communities!to!conduct!research!on!
the!impact!of!these!local!human!rights!projects,!the!scope!was!limited!to!one!
rural!province!in!one!region!in!one!country.!Yet!comparatively,!this!ethnographic!
research!project!was!relatively!expansive!for!the!time.!A!more!typical!orientation!
would!be!one!like!Richard!Wilson's!earlier!anthropological!study!of!the!South!
African's!Truth!and!Reconciliation!Commission!(TRC).!Although!his!research!
took!account!of!debates!and!processes!at!the!national!level,!the!primary!location!
for!his!ethnographic!study!was!the!TRC!itself,!where!he!observed!sessions,!
interviewed!participants,!and!analyzed!its!consequences!for!the!forging!of!post-
apartheid!South!African!society.
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!Merry's!anthropological!research!on!domestic!violence!as!a!human!rights!
violation,!however,!adopted!a!remarkably!different!approach.!Influenced!by!
leading-edge!anthropological!theorists!such!as!George!Marcus,!who!was!arguing!
at!the!time!that!scholars!should!reconsider!traditional!single-site!based!studies!
in!favor!of!"multisited"!ethnography,
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!Merry!developed!an!anthropological!
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!Mark!Goodale,!Dilemmas!of!Modernity:!Bolivian!Encounters!with!Law!and!Liberalism!(Stanford:!
Stanford!University!Press,!2008).!!
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!Richard!Wilson,!The!Politics!of!Truth!and!Reconciliation!in!South!Africa:!Legitimizing!the!Post-
Apartheid!State!(Cambridge:!Cambridge!University!Press,!2001).!!
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!See!George!Marcus,!Ethnography!through!Thick!and!Thin!(Princeton:!Princeton!University!
Press,!1998).!!
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methodology!for!the!project!that!she!described!as!"deterritorialized!
ethnography."
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!As!she!put!it,!this!approach!allows!the!anthropologist!to!
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study&placeless&phenomena&in&a&place,&to&find&small&interstices&in&global&processes&in&
which&critical&decisions&are&made,&to&track&the&information&flows&that&constitute&global&
discourses,&and&to&mark&the&points&at&which&competing&discourses&intersect&in&the&
myriad&links&between&global&and&local&conceptions&and&institutions.
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&
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! As!adapted!to!the!anthropology!of!human!rights,!deterritorialized!
ethnography!proved!to!be!revolutionary.!In!following!the!deterritorialized!
women's!rights!system,!the!methodology!allowed!Merry!to!"engage[!]!with!the!
fragments!of![the]!larger!system![while]!recogniz[ing]!that!the!system!is!neither!
coherent!nor!full!graspable."!Instead,!her!research!traced!the!women's!rights!
system!through!various!"disembodied!space[s]!of!social!life,"!that!paradoxically!
"exist[!]!in!various!spaces!but![were]!not!grounded!in!any!one!of!them!
[exclusively]."
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!Second,!the!use!of!this!innovative!research!methodology!to!examine!
important!"fragments"!of!the!women's!rights!system!across!the!decidedly!
variable!contexts!of!Hawai'i,!Fiji,!China,!India,!and!Hong!Kong!resulted!in!an!
unprecedented!comparative!ethnographic!dataset.!Set!against!vast!differences!in!
political!economy,!political!ideologies,!international!power,!kinship!structures,!
and!demographic!factors,!among!many!others,!Merry's!research!on!the!practice!
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!Merry,!2006b,!28-30.!!
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!Merry,!2006b,!29.!!
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!Ibid.!!
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of!women's!rights—understood!anthropologically—!documented!both!its!social!
and!normative!particularities!in!a!way!that!allowed!her!to!make!more!
generalizable!empirical!and!theoretical!claims!about!these!practices.!!
! And!finally,!in!making!these!broader!claims!based!on!a!five-year!
deterritorialized!ethnography!of!the!international!women's!rights!system,!Merry!
developed!a!theoretical!framework!that!would!prove!to!be!enduringly!
illuminating.!Although!other!human!rights!scholars!had!used!the!concept!of!
"vernacularization"!in!different!ways,!these!had!been!largely!rhetorical;!Merry!
was!the!first!anthropologist!to!see!the!value!in!adapting!the!sociolinguistic!
category!of!vernacularization!as!the!foundation!for!an!anthropological!theory!of!
the!practice!of!human!rights.
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!In!both!her!contribution!to!a!major!special!issue!
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!For!example,!in!an!important!edited!volume!on!"culture!and!rights,"!Rachel!Sieder!and!Jessica!
Witchell!(both!non-anthropologists)!write!that,!"[t]hroughout!the!world,!globalized!political!
values!such!as!human!rights!and!multiculturalism!are!increasingly!taken!up!and!vernacularized!
in!particular!social!contexts,!often!providing!important!leverage!for!opposition!movements!in!
their!struggles!to!extract!greater!concessions!from!national!states."!And,!somewhat!later!in!the!
chapter,!they!add,!"the!legal!context!is!now!characterized!by!inter-legality!and!the!mixing!of!
cultural!codes,!while!global!discourses!become!part!of!the!local!vernacular!and!constantly!
acquire!new!meanings."!Rachel!Sieder!and!Jessica!Witchell!(2001),!"Advancing!indigenous!claims!
through!the!law:!reflections!on!the!Guatemalan!peace!process."!In!Culture!and!Rights:!
Anthropological!Perspectives,!J.!Cowan,!M.-B.!Dembour,!and!R.!Wilson,!eds.!(Cambridge:!
Cambridge!University!Press,!204,!207).!In!her!own!contribution!to!the!volume,!Merry!does!not!
yet!use!the!concept!of!vernacularization,!and!nor!does!she!invoke!it!in!one!of!her!first!efforts!to!
analyze!the!results!of!the!five-year!study!of!the!women's!rights!movement,!an!article!published!
toward!the!end!of!the!project,!but!before!it!had!been!completed.!See!Sally!Engle!Merry!(2003),!
"Rights!Talk!and!the!Experience!of!Law:!Implementing!Women's!Human!Rights!to!Protection!
!
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on!human!rights!in!the!journal!American+Anthropologist,!and!in!the!book-length!
analysis!of!the!five-year!project!itself,!Merry!proposed!the!concept!of!
vernacularization!as!a!device!for!making!sense!of!the!interplay!between!
relatively!abstract!and!globalized!human!rights!norms!and!the!plural!forms!they!
take!in!the!messiness!of!actual!political!campaigns,!legal!struggles,!and!even!
individual!decisions.
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!
! It!is!important!to!emphasize!the!fact!that!Merry!induced!the!concept!of!
vernacularization!in!its!dual!sensesas!explanatory!model!and!as!a!normative!
theory!of!human!rights!practice—from!what!amounted!to!a!profusion!of!
ethnographic!data!on!the!women's!rights!system.!That!is,!vernacularization!
provides!a!means!for!both!explaining!the!complexities!of!human!rights!practices!
that!she!observed!over!five!years!in!the!various!research!sites!and!reflecting!
more!generally!about!the!normative!relationship!between!human!rights!practice!
and!the!broader!prospects!for!human!rights!as!"one!of!the!key!ideas!of!
!
from!Violence."!Human!Rights!Quarterly!(25)2:343-381.!In!a!2005!article!analyzing!data!from!
Hong!Kong,!by!contrast,!Merry!(with!colleague!and!research!assistant!Rachel!Stern)!makes!the!
link!between!human!rights!and!"vernacular!forms!of!globalization,"!but!this!concept!has!still!not!
matured!into!the!major!theoretical!framework!that!it!would!soon!become.!See!Sally!Engle!Merry!
and!Rachel!E.!Stern!(2005),!"The!Female!Inheritance!Movement!in!Hong!Kong:!Theorizing!the!
Local/Global!Interface."!Current!Anthropology!(46)3:387-409.!
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!Merry!2006a,!2006b.!I!was!the!editor!of!the!2006!American*Anthropologist!special!issue!in!
which!Merry!2006a!appears,!a!collection!whose!different!articles!examined!"anthropology!and!
human!rights!in!a!new!key."!!
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contemporary!world-making."
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!As!an!explanatory!model,!Merry!found!that!the!
norms!of!the!women's!rights!systemwhich!takes!both!international!and!
transnational!forms!at!the!largest!scales—must!be!translated!in!different!ways!
by!different!kinds!of!actors,!but!that!those!occupying!what!she!called!"middle"!
positions!play!a!particularly!important!role.
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!!
!For!example,!she!describes!the!functioning!of!the!nari+adalats,!or!women's!
courts,!that!were!established!in!India!during!the!mid-1990s!to!give!women!a!new!
resource!to!protect!themselves!against!the!chronic!social!problem!of!domestic!
violence.!The!staff!members!of!the!courts!functioned!as!intermediaries!between!
the!global!and!national!levels,!which!proposed!the!courts!as!a!way!to!give!
practical!form!to!women's!rights!norms!as!defined!by!CEDAW!and!Indian!
national!legislation,!and!the!local!villagersboth!women!and!men—who!were!
being!encouraged!to!make!use!of!these!new!institutions.!In!the!processes!of!
vernacularization!that!marked!the!interface!between!global!and!national!
institutions!and!the!local!villagers,!staff!members!were!required!to!draw!on!
work!experiences,!cultural!expectations,!and!human!rights!training!in!mediating!
the!flows!of!understanding!(and!misunderstanding)!between!these!different!
legal,!political,!cultural,!and!moral!worlds.!!
!Moreover,!in!analyzing!these!processes!of!vernacularization,!in!"mapping!
the!middle,"!as!she!described!it,!Merry!found!that!what!resulted!could!be!placed!
!
12
!Ulf!Hannerz,!"'Human!rights'!has!become!one!of!the!key!ideas!of!contemporary!world-making."!
In!The!Practice!of!Human!Rights:!Tracking!Law!Between!the!Global!and!the!Local,!M.!Goodale!and!
S.!E.!Merry,!eds.!(Cambridge:!Cambridge!University!Press,!2007,!Fourth!cover).!!
13
!Merry,!2006a.!!
!
13!
on!a!spectrum!based!on!the!extent!to!which!the!act!of!translation!changed!the!
form!and!content!of!the!norms!themselves.!At!one!end!of!the!spectrum,!
"replication,"!the!process!of!vernacularization!leaves!the!global!human!rights!
norms!largely!intact;!the!local!adaptation!is!"superficial!and!primarily!
decorative."
14
!At!the!other!end!of!the!spectrum,!"hybridity,"!vernacularization!
results!in!various!degrees!of!normative!change,!including,!at!the!outer!limits,!
changes!to!the!meaning!of!norms!in!practice!that!profoundly!alter!their!received!
content.!Nevertheless,!as!Merry's!research!also!demonstrated,!most!effects!of!
norm!translation!in!practice!will!fall!somewhere!between!these!two!poles.!Even!
more,!the!same!process!of!vernacularization,!viewed!historically,!will!vary!over!
time!in!relation!to!its!effects!on!the!underlying!human!rights!norms,!at!times!
involving!greater!degrees!of!replication!and!at!times!greater!degrees!of!
hybridity.!!
! But!more!generally,!what!Merry's!descriptive!model!suggests!is!that!these!
diverse!processes!of!vernacularization!are!inescapable;!there!is!no!way!to!
envision!the!implementation!of!human!rights!in!practice!that!doesn't!imply!
vernacularization.!This!fact!leads!immediately!to!two!astonishing!consequences.!
First,!at!the!level!of!policy-making,!the!inevitability!of!vernacularization!in!all!of!
its!actual!diversity!and!situational!particularity!means!that!the!globalization!of!
long-settled!human!rights!norms,!the!diffusion!of!human!rights!across!the!world!
like!oil!spreading!out!across!water,!is!impossible!to!achieve!in!practice!and!
should!therefore!likely!be!abandoned!as!a!goaleven!an!ideal!one—for!human!
rights!institutions!and!activists.!!
!
14
!2006a,!44.!!
!
14!
! And!second,!at!the!level!of!normative!content,!the!dynamic!effects!of!
vernacularization,!the!constantly!shifting!movement!along!the!spectrum!
between!replication!and!hybridity,!imply!that!the!actual!meaning!of!human!
rights!norms!can!never!be!fixed!in!practice,!that!their!normative!content!will!
remain!open,!contested,!a!beginning!rather!than!an!end.!More!theoretically,!we!
can!say!that!human!rights!norms!are!bound!to!be!part!of!an!open!and!porous!
system!in!which!their!meanings!are!always!in!a!state!of!becoming,!through!
negotiation,!resistance,!and!reformulation.!Put!another!way,!we!can!say!that
perhaps!contrary!to!the!(self-)image!of!the!international!human!rights!system—
human!rights!do!not!exist!within!(or!themselves!constitute)!a!closed!
"autopoietic"!system!in!which!the!meaning!of!a!particular!norm!is!established!
only!in!reference!to!the!meaning!of!other!norms!in!a!kind!of!never-ending,!self-
reproducing!normative!feedback!loop.
15
!In!other!words,!extrapolating!from!
Merry's!concept!of!vernacularization,!we!must!acknowledge!that!the!
international!human!rights!system!will!never!become,!unlike,!apparently,!
biological!systems,!an!"endless!dance!of!internal!correlations!in!a!closed!network!
of!interacting!elements."
16
!
! To!make!this!point!more!concretely,!take!Article!1!of!CEDAW,!the!legal!
foundation!for!the!international!women's!rights!system!that!was!at!the!heart!of!
Merry's!research.!The!convention!recognizes!that!freedom!from!"all!forms!of!
!
15
!See!Gunther!Teubner,!ed.,!Autopoietic!Law:!A!New!Approach!to!Law!and!Society!(Berlin:!De!
Gruyter,!1987).!!
16
!Humberto!R.!Maturana,!Erkennen:!Die!Organisation!und!Verkörperung!von!Wirklichkeit!
(Braunschweig/Wiesbaden:!Friedr.!Vieweg!&!Sohn,!1982,!28).!!
!
15!
discrimination!against!women"!is!a!human!right!to!be!enshrined!in!and!enforced!
through!law,!educational!reform,!social!change,!and!"all![other]!appropriate!
measures"!the!state!deems!necessary!in!order!to!honor!both!the!spirt!and!letter!
of!the!treaty.!But!what,!exactly,!is!meant!by!"discrimination"?!At!first,!the!
definition!in!Article!1!would!seem!to!be!highly!specific,!indeed,!closed:!!
!
[A]ny!distinction,!exclusion!or!restriction!made!on!the!basis!of!sex!which!has!the!
effect!or!purpose!of!impairing!or!nullifying!the!recognition,!enjoyment!or!
exercise!by!women,!irrespective!of!their!marital!status,!on!a!basis!of!equality!of!
men!and!women,!of!human!rights!and!fundamental!freedoms!in!the!political,!
economic,!social,!cultural,!civil!or!any!other!field.!
!
!Yet!as!Merry's!research!convincingly!reveals,!this!definition!must!enter!
the!swirl!of!human!rights!practice,!in!which!each!element!is!subject!to!the!
discursive!vicissitudes!of!vernacularization,!the!dynamic!interplay!of!factors!that!
ultimately!gives!meaning!to!every!substantive!part!of!the!norm—"distinction,"!
"sex,"!"impairing!or!nullifying,"!"enjoyment!or!exercise,"!"marital!status,"!etc.—
meanings!that,!moreover,!remain!open,!contingent,!even!ambiguous.!The!result!
is!an!international!human!rights!"system"—if,!indeed,!it!makes!any!sense!to!
continue!thinking!of!it!as!a!systemin!which!key!texts,!from!the!UDHR!to!
CEDAW,!along!with!their!national!counterparts,!at!best!serve!as!connotative!
normative!reference!points,!catalysts!for!diverse!forms!of!mobilization!whose!
outcomes!will!often!bear!little!relation!to!the!catalysts!themselves.!From!this!
perspective,!"human!rights!implementation"!or!even!"human!rights!activism"!
must!be!understood!in!radically!different!ways.!!
!
16!
!But!if!the!consequences!of!vernacularization!can!also!be!taken!as!a!wider!
critique,!in!the!way!they!reveal!the!ultimate!impossibility!of!forging!a!world!
order!based!in!a!common!global!understanding!of!the!form!and!content!of!
universal!human!rights,!they!also!point!in!a!number!of!positive,!even!potentially!
transformative,!directions.!In!the!next!section,!I!examine!the!ways!in!which!the!
potentially!transformative!side!of!vernacularization!has!been!demonstrated—
even!if!implicitly—in!the!work!of!other!ethnographers!of!human!rights!whose!
research!likewise!took!place!at!the!uncertain!interfaces!of!human!rights!practice.!!
!
Vernacularization+as+potentia,+ethno-epistemology,+and+empowerment+
!
!In!pivoting!to!a!more!prospective!discussion!of!vernacularization!as!a!key!
component!of!a!reformulated!approach!to!human!rights,!I!turn!now!to!three!
noteworthy!case!studies.!Each!study!illustrates!different!ways!in!which!the!
vernacularization!of!human!rights!in!practice!offers!the!possibility!of!envisioning!
new!forms!through!which!the!original!ambitions!of!the!postwar!human!rights!
project!might!be!preserved,!even!deepened,!as!an!ongoing!framework,!or!logic,!
for!justice-seeking!in!all!of!its!diverse!senses.
17
!In!making!the!argument!for!
!
17
!In!this,!the!argument!I!make!here!differs!from!that!of!scholars!who!believe!that!it!is!precisely!
the!ambitions!of!the!postwar!human!rights!projectas!it!has!evolved!through!the!decadesthat!
are!the!problem.!For!example,!Samuel!Moyn!views!the!trajectory!of!the!international!human!
rights!system!as!one!marked!by!increasingly!"downsized!ambition,"!in!which!goals!were!
progressively!limited!(notably!around!social!and!economic!rights)!that!made!it!very!difficult!
institutionally!to!mobilize!human!rights!as!an!effective!response!to!the!devastating!long-term!
!
17!
vernacularization!as!one!among!several!pillars!of!an!alternative!approach,!it!is!
important!to!underscore!the!extent!to!which!this!argument!reflects!a!
commitment!to!human!rights!as!the!normative!basis!for!progressive!action!at!all!
levels,!from!the!development!of!green!energy!technologies!as!a!response!to!
climate!change!to!the!insistence!on!redistributive!and!either!non-capitalist,!or!
significantly!restructured!capitalist,!economics!as!a!response!to!pervasive!global!
economic!inequality!and!long-term!resource!depletion.
18
!
! The!three!ethnographic!studies!took!place!at!different!periods,!both!in!
relation!to!the!development!of!the!concept!of!vernacularization!and!in!relation!to!
the!unfolding!history!of!human!rights.!Shannon!Speed!conducted!research!in!
Chiapas!for!nearly!a!decade!in!the!aftermath!of!the!1994!Zapatista!uprising!
against!the!Mexican!state.!Over!these!nine!years,!Speed's!work!among!the!
indigenous!communities!that!were!at!the!center!of!the!rebellion!against!the!state!
began!as!a!member!of!a!U.S.-based!human!rights!observation!and!
accompaniment!organization!and!ended!as!an!activist-anthropologist!committed!
to!both!the!production!of!knowledge!about!human!and!indigenous!rights!within!
the!conflict!and!to!the!protection!of!the!communities!in!Chiapas!that!had!suffered!
most!from!state!repression.
19
!At!a!broader!level,!Speed's!research!and!activism!
took!place!during!a!time!in!which!human!and!indigenous!rights!were!becoming!
!
effects!of!neoliberal!capitalism.!Samuel!Moyn,!Not!Enough:!Human!Rights!in!an!Unequal!World!
(Cambridge:!The!Belknap!Press!of!Harvard!University!Press,!2018).!See!also!chapter's!conclusion.!!
18
!See!Mark!Goodale,!Reinventing!Human!Rights!(Stanford:!Stanford!University!Press,!
forthcoming).!!
19
!Shannon!Speed,!Rights!in!Rebellion:!Indigenous!Struggle!and!Human!Rights!in!Chiapas!
(Stanford:!Stanford!University!Press,!2008).!!
!
18!
increasingly!pervasive!in!both!global!politics!and!within!local!struggles;!indeed,!
at!the!end!of!the!first!post-Cold!War!decade!of!optimistic!ascendency,!UN!
Secretary-General!Kofi!Annan!could!declare!confidently!that!the!world!had!
entered!the!"Age!of!Human!Rights."
20
!
!Yet!when!Sarah!Holcombe!began!her!research!with!Australian!Aboriginal!
communities!as!part!of!a!long-term!project!to!translate!the!UDHR!into!a!native!
Australian!language,!the!global!human!rights!landscape!had!shifted!dramatically!
from!the!halcyon!days!of!the!"Age!of!Human!Rights."
21
!Holcombe's!work!took!
place!both!after!the!attacks!of!September!11,!2001!set!in!motion!the!forces!of!
surveillance!governance,!neo-Realpolitik,!and!"forever!war,"
22
!and!the!global!
financial!crisis!of!2007-2008!had!given!impetus!to!the!strengthening!of!
formations!such!as!the!G-20,!which!came!to!replace!as!a!center!of!power!
equallybut!differently—problematic!institutions!such!as!the!UN!Security!
Council.
23
!In!any!event,!Holcombe's!ethnographic!and!linguistic!study!was!
conducted!well!after!the!post-Cold!War!"Age!of!Human!Rights"!had!come!to!a!
close,!to!be!replaced!by!a!period!in!which!human!rights!apparently!suffered!a!
!
20
!Kofi!Annan!(2000),!"The!Age!of!Human!Rights."!Project!Syndicate,!http://www.project-
syndicate.org/commentary/the-age-of-human-rights?barrier=true.!!
21
!Sarah!Holcombe,!Remote!Freedoms:!Politics,!Personhood!and!Human!Rights!in!Aboriginal!
Central!Australia!(Stanford:!Stanford!University!Press,!2018).!!
22
!See!Dexter!Filkins,!The!Forever!War!(New!York:!Vintage,!2008).!!
23
!See!Goodale,!Reinventing!Human!Rights.!!
!
19!
"rise!and!fall"!and!then!continued!on!in!law!and!politics!through!a!dark!and!
uncertain!"endtimes."
24
!!
!Finally,!Lynette!Chua's!difficult!and!even!dangerous!ethnographic!
research!among!LGBT!human!rights!activists!in!Myanmar!took!place!somewhat!
later,!when!the!wider!backlash!against!human!rights—especially!by!left-leaning!
intellectuals!in!the!Global!North!who!had!felt!betrayed!by!the!failures!of!human!
rights!as!a!replacement!for!socialism!in!the!post-Cold!War
25
gave!way!to!a!less!
pessimistically!critical!and!more!reflective!period!in!the!history!(and!
historiography)!of!human!rights.!Here,!human!rights!scholars!and!practitioners!
alike!revisited!many!of!the!basic!assumptions!about!the!origins!of!human!rights,!
their!relationship!to!cultural!diversity,!and!their!effectiveness!in!practice!and,!
perhaps!surprisingly,!found!"evidence!for!hope"!and!a!more!optimistic!narrative!
about!the!"reconstruction!of!global!values."
26
!It!is!this!latest!(and!current)!period!
of!critical!possibilitywhich!I!have!described!elsewhere!as!"human!rights!
!
24
!Lori!Allen,!The!Rise!and!Fall!of!Human!Rights:!Cynicism!and!Politics!in!Occupied!Palestine!
(Stanford:!Stanford!University!Press,!2013);!Stephen!Hopgood,!The!Endtimes!of!Human!Rights!
(Ithaca:!Cornell!University!Press,!2013).!!
25
!See!Mark!Goodale!(2013),!"Human!Rights!After!the!Post-Cold!War."!In!Human!Rights!at!the!
Crossroads,!M.!Goodale,!ed.!(New!York:!Oxford!University!Press,!1-28).!!
26
!Kathryn!Sikkink!(2017),!Evidence!for!Hope:!Making!Human!Rights!Work!in!the!21st!Century!
(Princeton:!Princeton!University!Press);!Steven!L.!B.!Jensen!(2016),!The!Making!of!International!
Human!Rights:!The!1960s,!Decolonization,!and!the!Reconstruction!of!Global!Values!(New!York:!
Cambridge!University!Press).!!
!
20!
liminality!3.0"
27
that!allows!us!to!evaluate!the!three!case!studies,!and!thus!
reconsider!the!transformative!potential!of!vernacularization,!in!a!different!light.!!
!During!her!research!in!Chiapas,!Speed!studied!the!ways!in!which!
indigenous!communities!refashioned!the!concept!of!human!rights!as!part!of!
collective!struggles!with!the!Mexican!state.!Against!a!background!in!which!the!
"revolutionary"!Mexican!government!had!alternately!abandoned!the!indigenous!
communities!of!Chiapas,!and!turned!the!repressive!forces!of!the!state!against!
them!during!periods!of!resistance,!Speed!found!that!indigenous!people!
developed!novel!political!structures!based!on!equally!novel!and!culturally-
embedded!theories!of!human!rights.!!
!In!2003,!the!Zapatistas!created!five!regional!Juntas+de+Buen+Goberino,!or!
Good!Governance!Councils,!that!gave!force!to!these!regionally-circulating!
accounts!of!human!rights.!As!Speed!explains,!what!made!these!alternative!
formulations!of!human!rights!among!the!communities!so!innovative!was!in!the!
way!"human!rights"!were!detached!from!their!origins!in!international!treaties,!
national!legislation,!and,!ultimately,!the!history!of!liberal!philosophy.!According!
to!the!Zapatista!activists,!human!rights!were!not!natural!entitlements;!they!did!
not!understand!them!as!something!coextensive!with!a!collective!humanity.!
Instead,!human!rights!were!reformulated!as!a!form!of!social!and!political!power,!
a!form!of!power,!moreover,!that!only!came!into!being!when!it!was!being!
exercised!by!community!members!through!social!struggle.
28
!!
!
27
!Mark!Goodale!(2020),!"Human!Rights!Liminality!3.0."!Inference!(5)2!(citation*to*follow).!!
28
!Speed,!Rights!in!Rebellion,!156-157.!!
!
21!
! For!my!purposes,!Speed's!research!contributes!two!essential!elements!to!
the!wider!argument!for!the!transformative!potential!of!vernacularization.!First,!
her!study!shows!how!vernacularization!can!take!place!primarily,!and!most!
importantly,!at!the!local!level,!that!is,!among!the!people!and!communities!that!
Merry!describes!as!the!"targets"!for!human!rights!implementation!and!
activism.
29
!Although!various!actors,!including!grassroots!NGO!workers!(like!
Speed,!during!her!first!years!in!Chiapas),!government!officials,!and!transnational!
rights!institutions,!did!act!as!the!kinds!of!intermediaries!that!occupied!the!core!of!
Merry's!research,!here!it!was!the!Zapatista!community!members!themselves!who!
made!human!rights!in!the!vernacular.
30
!
! And!second,!the!refashioning!of!human!rights!as!an!organic!theory!of!
collective!power!allows!us!to!appreciate!the!full!creative!potential!of!the!
vernacularization!process.!In!explaining!the!Zapatista!conception!of!human!
rights-as-power,!Speed!draws!from!the!social!theory!of!Antonio!Negri,!who!
adapted!Spinoza's!distinction!between!potestas!(Power)!and!potentia!(power)!in!
order!to!guard!a!good,!indeed!vital,!place!for!power!(potentia)!as!"creative!
!
29
!Merry,!2006b,!134.!!
30
!Of!the!three!case!studies!here,!it!is!only!Speed's!that!does!not!specifically!invoke!Merry's!
concept!of!vernacularization,!which!(as!we!have!seen)!had!not!been!fully!diffused!in!publications!
by!the!time!Speed's!own!study!was!being!published.!However,!Speed!does!develop!a!theoretical!
approach!that!is!fully!consistent!with!the!concept!of!vernacularization.!As!she!puts!it,!"I!argue!
that!local!mobilizations!of!the!globalized!discourse!of!human!rights!are!products!of![a]!complex!
dialogic!interaction.!The!appropriation!by!local!groups!of!global!discourses!is!not!an!acritical!and!
mechanical!process,!but!a!dialogic!and!creative!one,!in!which!'local'!people!participate!actively,!
bringing!in!their!local!histories,!understandings,!and!goals."!Speed,!Rights!in!Rebellion,!33.!!
!
22!
activity!or!force!of!constitution"!that!can!be!mobilized!against!various!forms!of!
sovereign!violence,!which!are!expressions!of!Power!(that!is,+potestas).
31
!As!Speed!
explains,!"[t]his!distinction![between!potestas!and!potentia]!echoed!in!
[Subcomandante]!Marco's!famous!statement,!'We!the!Zapatistas!want!to!exercise!
power,!not!take!it."
32
!
! In!a!very!different!cultural!and!political!context,!Sarah!Holcombe's!
research!likewise!reveals!the!transformative!implications!of!vernacularization,!
or!what!she!describes!as!its!"emancipatory!potential."
33
!Holcombe's!work!is!
based!in!long-term!engagements!of!different!kinds—academic,!activist,!policy!
consultationwith!the!Anangu!people,!an!Aboriginal!population!that!lives!in!a!
part!of!Central!Australia!that!is!considered!"very!remote"!by!the!national!
statistics!agency.
34
!Holcombe's!study!of!the!Anangu's!relationship!with!human!
rights!activism!takes!place!at!two!levels.!!
! At!one!level,!she!examines!the!troubled!history!within!which!the!Anangu,!
like!all!other!Australian!Aboriginal!populations,!had!little!to!show!from!decades!
of!ambivalent!national!mobilization!around!rights!as!a!governmental!response!to!
colonial!and!neocolonial!violence!against!Australia's!native!peoples.!As!
Holcombe!argues,!from!the!problematic!implementation!of!the!1976!Aboriginal!
Land!Rights!Act,!to!the!conservative!assault!on!indigenous!rights!by!members!of!
the!Australian!Human!Rights!Commission!during!the!coalition!government!of!
!
31
!Speed,!Rights!in!Rebellion,!168.!!
32
!Ibid.!!
33
!Holcombe,!Remote!Freedoms,!37.!!
34
!Holcombe,!Remote!Freedoms,!26.!!
!
23!
Tony!Abbott!(2013-2015),!the!use!of!rightscitizenship,!land,!human,!
indigenous—had!manifestly!failed!Australia's!Aboriginal!peoples!as!a!national!
legal!or!political!framework.
35
!
!But!at!another!level,!Holcombe's!research!reveals!a!very!different!
orientation!to!what!she!calls!"indigenous!rights!as!human!rights"!among!the!
Anangu.!In!the!course!of!her!ethnographic!study,!Holcombe!participated!in!an!
ambitious!project!to!translate!the!UDHR!into!Pintupi-Lurijta,!the!language!
spoken!by!the!Anangu.!As!part!of!an!interdisciplinary!team!of!researchers!and!
translators,!including!native!Pintupi-Lurijta!speakers,!Holcombe!was!able!to!
explore!multiple!forms!of!vernacularization!not!only!as!translation,!but!as!
something!else—what!she!describes!as!a!"dialogical!process[!]!of!
interpretation."
36
!This!was!a!process!of!deep!semiotic!mediation!in!which!
articles!of!the!UDHR!became!categories!in!which!colonialism,!racism,!cultural!
marginalization,!and!social!suffering!were!confronted!with!the!subversive!
!
35
!For!example,!Australia!was!one!of!the!four!settler!colonial!countries!to!vote!against!the!UN!
Declaration!on!the!Rights!of!Indigenous!Peoples!(UN-DRIP)!in!2007!(along!with!Canada,!New!
Zealand,!and!the!United!States).!Although!Australia!later!endorsed!the!legally!non-binding!
declaration!in!2009,!the!position!of!the!country's!Human!Rights!Commission!toward!indigenous!
rights!during!the!Abbott!government!was!indicative,!according!to!Holcombe,!of!a!much!longer!
national!orientation!that!ranged!from!ambivalent!to!dismissive!to!openly!hostile.!Holcombe!
quotes!a!commissioner!during!this!period,!who!insisted!that!only!the!"traditional!human!rights"!
of!Western!liberalism!should!be!protected!under!law,!since!"Australia!and!other!Anglosphere!
nations!were!built!on!a!liberal!approach."!The!indigenous!rights!of!UN-DRIP,!by!contrast,!should!
be!rejected,!according!to!this!same!commissioner,!since!they!are!part!of!an!"international!treat[y]!
infused!with!the!objectives!of!the!socialist!tradition."!Holcombe,!Remote!Freedoms,!19-20.!
36
!Holcombe,!Remote!Freedoms,!35.!
!
24!
alterity!of!indigenous!cosmovisions,!in!which!the!UDHR!was!rendered!into!a!
polyvalent!document!that!was!capable!of!accommodating!what!Marisol!de!la!
Cadena!and!Mario!Blaser!have!called!a!"world!of!many!worlds."
37
!!
!On!the!one!hand,!the!team!had!to!make!decisions!about!how!to!translate!
passages!from!the!UDHR!in!ways!that!resonated!with!the!linguistic,!cultural,!and!
moral!understandings!of!native!Pintupi-Lurijta!speakers.!For!example,!there!was!
a!difficulty!in!giving!translinguistic!meaning!to!the!keyword!waltja,!which!
"specifies!a!sense!of!belonging!together!or!shared!identity"!for!the!Anangu,!yet!in!
ways!that!code!"decided!inequalities!within!Anangu!families,![for!example,]!
between!ages!and!gender."!Despite!this,!waltja!was!used!in!the!translation!of!
Article!1!of!the!UDHR,!which!holds!(in!part)!that!"[a]ll!human!beings!are!born!
free!and!equal!in!dignity!and!rights."!The!back!translated!passage,!in!which!
waltja!is!used!specifically!to!translate!the!"free"!in!"free!and!equal"!reads,!"[a]ll!
the!many!different!people!are!living!together!well,!as!though!they!are!all!
family."
38
!!
! In!other!words,!a!Pintupi-Lurijta!word/concept!that!embeds!what!from!
an!"Anglosphere"!and!liberal!philosophical!perspective!would!be!considered!an!
obstacle!to!freedomstructural!social!inequalitywas!found!to!be!the!best!way!
to!express!what!it!means!to!be!"free"!for!the!Anangu.!This!same!process!of!
discursive!juxtaposition!was!undertaken!for!all!the!foundational!concepts!and!
phrases!in!the!UDHR,!including,!obviously,!"human!rights"!itself.!Without!
!
37
!Marisol!de!la!Cadena!and!Mario!Blaser,!eds.,!A!World!of!Many!Worlds!(Durham:!Duke!
University!Press,!2018).!!
38
!Holcombe,!Remote!Freedoms,!48-49.!
!
25!
anything!approaching!a!concise!equivalent!in!Pintupi-Lurijta,!the!translation!
team!settled!on!an!expansive!phrasing!for!"human!rights"!that!was!expository!
rather!than!definitional:!"All!of!us!should!be!equal.!Being!peaceful,!reconciled!
and!without!spite,!we!should!be!living!together!all!as!family.!We!should!be!kind!
to!people!with!respect!and!understanding."
39
!
! But!on!the!other!hand,!beyond!the!important!realization!that!
vernacularization!implies!much!more!than!simply!normative!translation,!
Holcombe!discovered!that!the!process!itself!was!equally!important.!In!other!
words,!the!local!legitimacy!of!the!eventual!translation!of!the!UDHR!into!Pintupi-
Lurijta!was!not!only!a!question!of!sociolinguistic!meaning;!it!was!also!related!to!
how!the!research!team!went!about!its!work,!that!is,!how!it!learned.!Rather!than!
assuming!that!discussion!or!debate!about!something!can!be!measured!against!a!
universal!standard!(of!rationality,!for!example),!the!UDHR!translation!project!
adopted!an!ethno-epistemological!approach!in!which!ways!of!knowing!
themselves!must!also!be!subject!to!the!"dialogical!process!of!interpretation."!!
! As!Holcombe!explains,!quoting!the!longtime!anthropologist!of!Aboriginal!
Central!Australia!Fred!Myers,!"[i]n!the![Anangu]!view,!the!concepts!'thinking,'!
'understanding'!and!hearing!are!expressed!by!a!single!termkulininpa,!which!
means!literally!'to!hear.'"
40
!This!meant!that!the!vernacularization!process!was!
not!dependent!on,!for!example,!expert!intermediaries!or!legal!or!cultural!
!
39
!The!exposition!(rather!than!definition,!which!was!considered!impossible)!of!"human!rights"!in!
Pintupi-Lurijta!is!Tjutakulampa*ngaranyi*liipula*nyinanytjaku*mingarrtjuwiya,*kalypakalypa*
tjungurringkula*walytjarringula*nyinanytjaku.*Pina*yalytjurarringkula*kaangkurrinytjaku.!
Holcombe,!Remote!Freedoms,!50.!!
40
!Holcombe,!Remote!Freedoms,!51.!!
!
26!
specialists.!Instead,!it!was!a!fundamentally!social!process!through!which!
knowledge!was!created!by!a!particular!kind!of!dialogic!interaction,!one!in!which!
interlocuters!strove!to!hear!one!another,!in!which!"listening!and!talking!
together"!(kulirra+tjungungku+wangkanyi)!was!the!basis!on!which!a!culturally-
thick!and!discursively!polyvalent!account!of!"human!rights"!might!emerge.
41
!
!Finally,!Lynette!Chua's!powerful!ethnography!of!human!rights!activism!
among!queer!Burmese!before,!during,!and!after!Myanmar's!post-2011!political!
transition!offers!yet!another!testimony!to!the!ways!in!which!making!human!
rights!in!the!vernacular!points!to!an!alternative!future!for!human!rights,!a!
vernacular!future.
42
!Chua's!research!took!place!during!a!period!of!fraught!
liminality!in!Burmese!history,!when!the!country's!military!regime!agreed!to!
political!reforms,!the!release!of!pro-democracy!activist!Aung!San!Suu!Kyi!from!
house!arrest,!and!the!loosening!of!a!number!of!social!restrictions,!including!those!
that!regulated!the!work!of!both!national!and!foreign!NGOs.!In!2013!and!2014,!
several!LGBT!rights!organizations,!which!had!been!running!operations!from!exile!
bases!in!Thailand,!returned!to!Myanmar!and!began!a!quiet,!nationwide!campaign!
of!social!mobilization!and!human!rights!activism!among!Myanmar's!largely!
closeted!LGBT!population.
43
!
!
41
!Ibid.!!
42
!See!Mark!Goodale!(2018),!"Our!Vernacular!Futures."!In!Human!Rights!Transformation!in!
Practice,!T.!Destrooper!and!S.!E.!Merry,!eds.!(Philadelphia:!University!of!Pennsylvania!Press,!251-
262).!!
43
!As!Chua!explains,!during!their!years!in!exile,!the!Burmese!LGBT!organizations!would!
sometimes!ask!members!to!smuggle!human!rights!documents!and!literature!back!into!Myanmar!
at!great!risk!to!the!activist-couriers,!who!would!mix!the!materials!"with!dirty!underwear!to!
!
27!
!These!early!years!in!which!a!nascent!LGBT!human!rights!movement!took!
root!in!Myanmar!were!arduous!and!spent!by!activists!conducting!grassroots!
mobilization!largely!at!the!margins!of!both!social!and!political!life.!As!Chua!
describes!these!methods:!!
!
Working&out&of&their&headquarters&in&Yangon,&[the&LGBT&activists]&continued&to&expand&
the&reach&of&their&movement&and&practice.&They&boarded&buses&and&visited&new&towns&
on&advocacy&trips.&Ahead&of&their&visits,&they&asked&friends&and&acquaintances&about&
informal&social&networks&and&popular&hangouts&for&queer&Burmese&at&their&destinations.&
They&tried&to&arrive&one&day&in&advance&and&find&queer&Burmese&at&those&places&to&invite&
them&to&the&meeting.&For&remote&small&towns&where&residents&had&little&or&no&access&to&
the&Internet,&this&was&an&effective&method&of&outreach&and&recruitment.
44
&
!
!The!modesty!of!these!initial!moves!was!a!response!to!the!fact!that!LGBT!
Burmese!confronted!a!triple!vulnerability.!First,!LGBT!people!in!Myanmar!were!
stigmatized!for!religious!reasons.!As!Chua!explains,!according!to!Burmese!
Buddhist!beliefsin!which!karma!(good!or!bad!acts!in!a!current!life)!influences!
the!form!of!a!subsequent!rebirth—LGBT!sexual!orientation!was!seen!as!a!
punishment!for!"having!committed!sexual!transgressions!in!past!lives."!Second,!
Burmese!society!is!marked!by!a!pronounced!gender!hierarchy!that!privileges!
!
discourage!customs!officers!from!rummaging!deeper."!Lynette!Chua,!The!Politics!of!Love!in!
Myanmar:!LGBT!Mobilization!and!Human!Rights!as!a!Way!of!Life!(Stanford:!Stanford!University!
Press,!60).!!
44
!Chua,!The!Politics!of!Love!in!Myanmar,!61-62!(the!verb!tense!has!been!changed!from!the!
present!to!the!past!throughout!this!quotation).!
!
28!
both!men!and!heteronormativity.!This!means!that!LGBT!Burmese!have!
traditionally!suffered!from!the!full!range!of!discrimination!and!social!violence,!
including!persecution!by!the!police,!bullying!and!harassment!in!schools,!sexual!
attacks,!and!open!discrimination!in!employment.!And!third,!despite!the!political!
opening!in!Myanmar!after!2011,!the!longer-term!prospects!for!civil!society!
remained!unclear.!This!meant!that!LGBT!human!rights!activists!undertook!their!
work!under!the!ever-present!threat!of!a!return!of!state!repression.
45
!!
!The!result!of!these!precarious!conditions!was!that!human!rights!activism!
among!the!Burmese!LGBT!community!was!not!directed!toward!legal!or!political!
reforms!by!the!state,!or!even!the!transformation!of!attitudes!within!Burmese!
society.!Instead,!the!making!of!human!rights!in!the!vernacular!became!a!project!
of!personal!empowerment,!a!means!through!which!Burmese!LGBT!people!could!
"rediscover"!themselves!with!pride!and!without!"self-hate,!shame,!and!fear."
46
!
Human!rights!became!a!framework!that!both!refashioned!personhood!for!
Burmese!LGBT!activists!and!structured!a!new!sense!of!collective!belonging!
among!the!LGBT!community.!!
!In!this!way,!vernacularization!led!to!the!creation!of!a!new!mode!of!self-
orientation!among!LGBT!people!in!Myanmar,!one!in!which!human!rights!was!
understood,!first!and!foremost,!as!a!"way!of!life."!Chua's!ethnographic!account!of!
these!innovative!shifts!teaches!us,!among!other!things,!that!the!vernacularization!
of!human!rights!can!have!potentially!far-reaching!consequences!that!are!
!
45
!Chua,!The!Politics!of!Love!in!Myanmar,!6-7.!!
46
!See!Ronald!Niezen,!The!Rediscovered!Self:!Indigenous!Identity!and!Cultural!Justice!(Montreal!
and!Kingston:!McGill-Queen's!University!Press,!2009);!Chua,!The!Politics!of!Love!in!Myanmar,!7.!!
!
29!
nevertheless!difficult!to!observe,!let!alone!measure,!since!they!don't!involve!legal!
processes,!political!campaigns,!or!the!other!social!and!legal!contexts!in!which!
human!rights!form!the!basis!of!formal!justice-seeking.!!
!
Conclusion:+Ethics,+anthropology,+and+the+future+of+human+rights+
!
!If!it!is!true,!as!I!have!suggested!above,!that!the!future!of!human!rights!no!
longer!looks!as!grim!as!it!might!have!even!a!few!years!ago,!then!the!foregoing!
demonstrates!the!ways!in!which!vernacularization!as!both!concept!and!practice!
can!play!an!important,!indeed!fundamental,!role!in!shaping!this!future.!Despite!
key!nuances,!much!of!the!debate!over!human!rights!has!taken!place!against!an!
explicit!or!implicit!concern!with!effectiveness:!Do!human!rights!actually!work!as!
the!primary!legal,!political,!or!social!grounding!for!responses!to!the!most!
pressing!contemporary!problems?!It!is!not!surprising!that!the!answers!to!this!
question!within!the!scholarly!literature!are!varied,!but!two!have!proven!to!be!
particularly!influential,!not!the!least!because!they!stand!in!such!stark!contrast!to!
each!other.!!
!On!one!side,!the!political!scientist!Kathryn!Sikkink!has!argued!that!human!
rights!have!proven!to!be!remarkably!effective,!especially!in!both!reducing!
impunity!for!mass!violations!and!for!bringing!justicelargely!through!criminal!
trialsto!victims!of!oppressive!political!regimes.!Sikkink!has!also!been!a!
consistent!and!high-profile!advocate!for!the!proposition!that!human!rights!
normal!should!be!considered!universal!since!they!emerged!through!a!process!of!
!
30!
global!consensus-building!in!which!the!countries!of!regions!like!Latin!America!
played!a!crucial!part.
47
!!
! But!from!a!very!different!direction,!the!legal!historian!Samuel!Moyn!has!
argued!that!human!rightsespecially!economic,!social,!and!cultural!rights—
suffer!from!historical!and!structural!weaknesses!that!make!them!an!ineffective!
tool,!even!in!ideal!circumstances,!for!responding!to!the!most!serious!threats,!
especially!economic!inequality.
48
!According!to!Moyn,!postwar!human!rights!
underwent!a!devasting!transformation!when!international!policy-makers!agreed!
to!adopt!them!as!a!normative!justification!for!global!strategies!to!reduce!poverty.!
The!lasting!consequence!of!this!historical!shift,!as!Moyn!sees!it,!was!that!the!
grand!scheme!of!human!rights!was!reduced!and!eventually!absorbed!into!
programs!that!worked!incrementally!toward!the!provision!of!minimum!levels!of!
adequate!food,!water,!education,!and!political!participation,!especially!in!parts!
the!world!where!these!minimum!"sufficiencies"!were!far!from!assured.!!
!The!problem,!according!to!Moyn,!was!that!in!reconfiguring!human!rights!
as!one!among!several!rationales!for!guaranteeing!basic!minimums!of!provision!
and!treatment,!the!international!system!cut!human!rights!free!from!its!original!
objectives:!equality,!justice,!peace!in!the!world,!and!the!other!"highest!
aspiration[s]!of!the!common!people,"!as!the!Preamble!to!the!UDHR!puts!it.!!
!
47
!Kathryn!Sikkink!(2017),!Evidence!for!Hope:!Making!Human!Rights!Work!in!the!21st!Century!
(Princeton:!Princeton!University!Press).!!
48
!Samuel!Moyn,!Not!Enough:!Human!Rights!in!an!Unequal!World!(Cambridge:!The!Belknap!Press!
of!Harvard!University!Press,!2018).!
!
31!
!Without!taking!a!position!with!respect!to!these!two!opposing!
orientations,!what!is!important!for!my!purposes!here!is!actually!what!they!have!
in!common.!Both!evaluate!the!future!of!human!rights!in!relation!to!what!from!an!
anthropological!perspective!would!be!considered!a!narrow!conception!of!human!
rights.!This!is!partly!a!function!of!differences!in!disciplinary!methodology.!But!
even!more,!it!reflects!the!obvious!importance!of!human!rights!treaties,!
international!monitoring!bodies,!transnational!"activists!without!borders,"!
regional!and!international!legal!fora,!and!political!claims!and!policies!based!on!
human!rights.
49
!!
!Yet!as!we!have!seen!in!this!chapter,!there!is!an!entirely!different!"world!of!
many!worlds"!in!which!human!rights!are!conceptualized!and!mobilized!in!ways!
and!in!places!that!go!far!beyond!the!boundaries!of!the!international!human!
rights!system.!These!are!the!worlds!in!which!human!rights!are!made+in!the!
vernacular!and!this!is!the!essential,!potentially!transformative!point.!To!take!
these!worlds!seriously,!not!as!places!where!human!rights!as!such!are!translated!
or!made!relevant!in!local!contexts,!but!as!places!where!human!rights!themselves!
are!forged,!is!to!reimagine!radically!both!what!human!rights!are,!and!even!more,!
what!they!should!be.!!
! Whether!as!a!form!of!power!(Speed),!or!a!proposition!for!a!different!kind!
of!moral!learning!(Holcombe),!or!as!a!framework!for!personal!empowerment!
!
49
!It!should!be!emphasized!that!these!dominant!sites,!actors,!and!texts!of!human!rights!have!also!
been!the!subject!of!anthropological!research.!See,!e.g.,!Ronald!Niezen!and!Maria!Sapignoli,!eds.,!
Palaces!of!Hope:!The!Anthropology!of!Global!Organizations!(Cambridge:!Cambridge!University!
Press,!2017).!!
!
32!
(Chua),!among!many!others!that!could!be!invoked,!the!extensive!ethnographic!
record!of!human!rights!made!in!the!vernacular!demands!not!just!an!appreciation!
for!how!the!practice!of!human!rights!has!been!fed!by!a!seemingly!endless!
capacity!for!normative!creativity,!especially!among!marginalized!populations!for!
whom!such!capacity!remains!among!the!most!precious!of!resources.!Even!more,!
the!realities!of!human!rights!vernacularization!demand!a!reconsideration!of!
where!human!rights!are!produced!and!who!is!best!placed!to!articulate!their!
meanings.!!
!This,!in!the!end,!is!as!much!an!ethical!as!an!epistemological!conclusion,!
and!it!is!the!reason!vernacularization!should!be!understood!not!only!as!an!
anthropological!account!of!the!practice!of!human!rights,!but!as!an!
anthropological!ethics,!a!way!of!justifyingeven!privileginga!future!for!human!
rights!animated!by!the!values!of!pluralism,!contingency,!and!translocal!(though!
not!necessarily!universal)!solidarity.!!
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