Theses Doctoral

The Day After Tomorrow: Waiting for the Future in Contemporary Rwanda

Nsabimana, Natacha

This dissertation argues that the operating temporal logic at the core of the state sanctioned models of forgiveness and reconciliation is a view of the past as apocalyptic in the future. The past as an apocalyptic imaginary hovers over the present like a ghost threatening repetition. In this political conception of the past, it is not simply a matter of chronology i.e. genocide and its aftermath. Rather, in the injunction to overcome the past through continuous remembrance, the past is made agentive in the present. This animation of the past in the present renders it continually dangerous lest it return as the future: the present must be continually mobilized, watchful and cautious so that the violent past does not return as the future. This temporal logic is reflected in the juridical demand for apologies and pardons, as mandated by the Rwandan state. The state attempts to control both ends of the equation: it demands collective catharsis on the grounds that without it Rwanda cannot overcome its past, but it simultaneously fixes in advance, and by law, the outcome of catharsis: forgiveness and reconciliation.
Using fieldwork, individual and group interviews conducted in labour camps for perpetrators (Travaux d'Intérêt Général) as well as participant observation in 'unity' associations (cooperatives), this dissertation demonstrates how this model for apologies and reconciliation collapses under the weight of the internal contradiction of both demanding catharsis and controlling its result: the necessity for reconciliation. Individuals publicly perform a demonstration of affect that they circumvent and push against in their everyday experiences away from the audience. When the performances themselves fail—as they do on occasion—the language of ‘trauma’ (in the case of the victim) and ‘genocide denial’ (in the case of the perpetrators) is mobilized in order to secure the impossible demand to perform private feelings in public ceremonies wherein the meaning of such performances is juridically defined in advance.
The result, I argue, are public scenes of unity, in which individuals perform a socially shared code of acting in public that they often push against away from an audience. In their lives, Rwandans constantly wrestle with this past and its traces in the everyday, sometimes in accordance to the public narrative of reconciling but also in opposition to it. There is in other words messiness on the ground, which suggests that the predominant models for thinking about post-conflict spaces along the binaries reconciliation or violence miss this complexity.
I propose, the notion of an afterlife of violence as a conceptual tool. This allows us to move away from the possibility of resolvability and redemptive narratives and instead opens up the possibility of irresolvabilty: that of living with tension.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Mamdani, Mahmood
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 20, 2017