witnessing

To address violence discounted by dominant structures of apprehension is necessarily to engage the culturally variable issue of who counts as a witness. Contests over what counts as violence are intimately entangled with conflicts over who bears the social authority of witness, which entails much more than simply seeing or not seeing.

Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

I’ve been reading the above-quoted book as research for my dissertation. I’m working on a chapter that looks at how Indian authors write about environmental issues in fiction. In the broader context of my dissertation’s argument, I’m thinking about how these authors represent the natural environment as a sort of archive–a repository of historical and contemporary evidence for the non-dominant histories that are (sometimes intentionally) excluded from institutional archives.

Institutional archives are always exclusive. In fact, Derrida argues in Archive Fever that while the primary function of archives is preservation of memory, they are also always sites of forgetting; for everything that is preserved and saved for posterity, other things are lost, left-out, broadly forgotten. This is how we come to have unilateral views of history. This is how we, culturally, come to think of History, with a capital H, as something incontrovertible. We conflate history with the past, as if the stories we tell about the past are accurate descriptions of what happened rather than a cobbling together of a limited picture based on what is preserved in archives.

This isn’t to say that there’s anything particularly bad or wrong with archives. Obviously it would be impossible for any archive to collect everything. The problem is that the exclusive practices of archivists in the past often disproportionately–many times entirely–omitted the voices and perspectives of people and entire cultures who simply didn’t count as valid witnesses to governments and academic institutions. In colonial archives, for example, keeping records, documents, and other materials from indigenous populations was not a priority. For postcolonial scholars, those archives are as notable for what’s missing as they are for what is present. In the United States, the same is true in regard to Native Americans and slaves, many groups of undesirable immigrants (such as the Chinese, Irish, and Polish) as well as the dispensable poor whose labor industrialized this nation.  The witness of these people typically did not count in the construction of archives.

This question of witnessing and who counts as a witness is at the heart of the stories my selected authors tell. The poor, powerless people and the voiceless non-humans (plants and animals) all bear witness to histories that are discounted by structures of authority. So when they cry out about social injustice and environmental devastation, their lack of standing invalidates their testimony. Their experiences don’t matter, because as Arundhati Roy writes in The God of Small Things, “only what counts counts.” Environmental damage, which as Rob Nixon points out always has a disproportionately devastating affect on the poor, is ignored because someone profits from the industrial causes of that damage.

As I’m reading this and thinking about my postcolonial novels, I am also struck by how the problem of witnessing and who counts as a witness continues to be a problem in America in this moment. While archivists are typically more diligent now about collecting materials from diverse and underrepresented groups, our national discourse hasn’t caught up. I keep thinking of the tendency of some people to claim that others are too sensitive and too easily offended whenever they register discomfort over artistic representations, tweets, callous speeches, etc. In those cases, what is really being said is that the offended, the sensitive, are not valid witnesses. Their expressions pain or discomfort don’t count. They are not, in other words, considered to be authorities of their own experiences.

The same problem is at stake when African Americans and other people of color protest racial injustice in this country. When both individuals and structures of authority in this country dismiss those concerns, the message is that those protesters don’t count, their witness doesn’t count, their experiences aren’t valid. The witness of white people and of the powerful counts as ultimately authoritative. When white people say, “I’ve never seen that kind of racism, so surely it doesn’t happen,” that’s a statement about witnessing. The white witness carries an authoritative weight that invalidates the witness of other races.

Maybe one of the clearest examples of that kind of invalidation right now is happening at Standing Rock. Native American residents of that reservation protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that has the effect of disrupting the past–by disturbing sacred sites and burial grounds–and the future through potential pipeline leaks contaminating water sources. But the validity of their witness has been discounted by the corporation building the pipeline, by state legislators, by national leaders, and even to some extent by the press, whose coverage of the conflict has been minimal. Their concerns, which are primarily about water contamination, don’t register as valid. However, the pipeline was originally planned to go through a different route that was ultimately rejected, in part, because it would be too close to Bismarck’s water supply. At some point, then, someone in a position of authority decided not to risk contaminating the water of the city. The witness of that person’s concerns for water safety counted. But as the President signed an executive order today supporting the resumption of pipeline construction, it is clear that the same witness of safety concerns from the Standing Rock Souix doesn’t count.

I hope that the pipeline isn’t allowed to continue. It seems unlikely, but I hope it anyway. For hundreds of years, white Americans and government authorities have discounted the witness of Native Americans. We have dismissed not only their voices, but their very right to life. Our histories fail to register that the actions the US government took against Native populations would be labeled genocide if it happened somewhere else. We fail to recognize that our historical and contemporary treatment of Native Americans is imperialistic. We shrug our shoulders at a historical witness that competes with the heroic narrative of manifest destiny.

We have an opportunity now to do better. We have an opportunity to acknowledge the authority of the Native American witness. I hope we will.

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