2005-06 Pembroke Seminar

"The Language of Victimization"
Carolyn J. Dean
Chesler-Mallow Senior Faculty Research Fellow, Pembroke Center

In 2005-06, the Pembroke Seminar will consider the multiple languages used to fashion the image and meaning of victimization in different historical and cultural contexts. We will presume that victimization means the violation of human dignity by the state or by extra-legal groups and explore why critics, policy makers, intellectuals, and historians legitimate the experiences of some victims more than others. How do victims figure their own victimization? How do perpetrators turn themselves into victims? When does the consciousness of being a perpetrator or a victim develop? Is the victim-perpetrator dichotomy distinctly modern or does it have a significant genealogy? We will be specifically interested in the aversion and discomfort generated by victims and their experiences as manifested in various historical contexts. Consider, most recently, the silence that prevailed about Jewish experience outside of Jewish communities in the wake of the Holocaust; the reduction of mass atrocities to primitivism and “tribal” struggles when they are complex historical developments, or popular attitudes toward claims for restitution by a variety of victim groups, including Korean women enslaved by the Japanese military and African-Americans seeking reparations for slavery. Why, we will ask, has the historian Jan Gross’s suggestion that we believe victims first and verify their claims later incited such debate? What are the ideological investments in belief and disbelief?

The seminar will concern itself with how the rhetorical construction of victims shapes cultural response and state policy as well as with debates about state policy itself. We will explore both written and visual constructions of victimization. Historians and other cultural critics have studied the instrumental dimension of claims to victimization: how claims win public attention or are repudiated. Others have used psychological theories about “stereotypes” or projection to explain why some groups become victims and why some inspire positive reactions or intensely negative ones. Anthropologists and historians of genocide have begun to ask about links between visual and narrative representations of difference and group violence. The seminar will examine and build upon these approaches and raise new questions that foreground issues of language and rhetoric. How does the image of the victim become figurally charged and by what historical and cultural processes? How does such rhetoric define the legitimacy of victims’ claims? For example, we might ask how modes of suffering and murder fashion images of victims and make their claims – to having suffered, for restitution and reparations – more or less viable. How have the facts of industrial murder in Nazi Germany led both to moral righteousness and ambivalence about Jewish suffering? Why do some forms of suffering command sympathy and others less so? How does the rhetoric of national reconciliation (say, after the Civil War in the United States) shape notions of deserving and undeserving victims?

How do we explain the emergence of a “victim’s culture” in the United States and Europe in the last thirty years? How have different groups interpreted the legacy of suffering that defines their identities, if only partially? Critics on both the left and the right, including conservatives and liberals in the American sense of the term, often argue that identity politics represents the perceived narcissism of minority groups’ claims to public recognition, their (over) investment in an identity linked to having been excluded, and the putative distortion of history and obsession with the memory their claims entail. Why has this negative narrative emerged, and why has it become so significant a way of understanding discrimination and its effects? How does this narrative – prevalent in Europe and the United States – relate to new constructions of dignity and human community after World War II? How is it connected to contemporary political conflicts and divisions in the postcolonial period and/or to the international campaigns on behalf of human rights? How important or different are narratives of victimization in nonwestern and colonial contexts where it is often majority populations who are collective victims?