PRINT Summer 2016


Machetes and knives found near the border of Rwanda, Goma, Zaire, 1994. Photo: Gilles Peress. © Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos.

AMONG THE MANY VIRTUES and vituperations that course through Ta-Nehisi Coates’s cri de coeur Between the World and Me, there exists a quieter argument about the importance of enunciation—poetry, dialogue, the act of writing—in interrogating one’s own humanity and learning to think like a humanist. “Poetry was the processing of my thoughts,” Coates writes, “until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.” He continues:

I had forgotten my own self-interrogations. . . . I was only beginning to learn to be wary of my own humanity, of my own hurt and anger—I didn’t yet realize that the boot on your neck is just as likely to make you delusional as it is to ennoble. . . . The art I was coming to love lived in this void, in the not yet knowable, in the pain, in the question. The older poets introduced me to artists who pulled their energy from the void. . . . The gnawing discomfort, the chaos, the intellectual vertigo was not an alarm. It was a beacon. . . . The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it was his own . . . 1

As a writer who speaks from the void and about it—just as W. E. B. DuBois spoke from within the veil and around it—Coates articulates a hermeneutic anxiety and a historical responsibility that lies at the heart of humanistic thought. Humanism derives its ethical energy as well as its political purpose from delving into a vertigo of ideas and events that are, too often, naught for our comfort, while humanists—writers, artists, philosophers—derive their inspiration from what is not yet known and hone their interpretational skills by dwelling in the realm of the question yet to be asked. The exercise of writing is a lesson in the art of thinking against the grain of inheritance and illusion, and the discipline of poetry is an experiment in thinking otherwise, in letting the language of alterity unsettle the sententiousness of the sovereignty of selfhood and nationhood. Edward Said never failed to remind us that the philological provenance of humanist discourse is as much about the care lavished on language—word by word—as it is concerned with the careful protection of human rights and human bodies. Humanist discourse—be it private or public—must endure and enunciate unsettled states of transition, moments when history seems to be in a hiatus, times at which the humanist hesitates or loses faith.

The void that emerges through the act of writing is not an evocative abstraction lost in the mists of metaphor. The void is, quite literally, the empty space of erasure and extermination: of missing persons, destroyed things, hidden histories, lost records, expropriated lands, murdered minorities. The humanist must graphically evoke such emptiness and erasure without filling these absences while remaining “wary of every dream and nation.” Voids-in-writing, Coates argues, signify “ the defining feature of being drafted into the black race [which] is the inescapable robbery of time.” In revisiting the violation and erasure of everyday existence, the writer as humanist attempts to revitalize the temporality and territoriality of what was once was soiled and sundered but must now be regrounded in a new spirit of neighborliness.

Reading Between the World and Me makes me increasingly aware that the protagonist of the narrative is neither the subjectivity of personhood, nor the identity of the citizen, but repeatedly and relentlessly the body—the black body, which, of course, immediately implicates the white body and interpellates the otherness of the body itself. In a similar vein, it could be said that the writerly persona of Frantz Fanon’s work is the “psycho-affective” body.2 The body is a writing instrument, an agent of inscription as intervention, caught in the restless agony between violence and security, surveillance and protection. The syntax of the body is a struggling sentence that attempts to make sense of living and writing in the void. There is, of course, a danger that the “body” may subsume incommensurable differences—psychic or social—whose representational force lies primarily in signifying conflicts of interests and contradictions within and across identities.

That said, the figure of the body-in-writing, or the beacon of the void-in-the-world, are signposts of our times that are remarkably open to humanistic translation across time and place. There is a political and pedagogical urgency in reading and writing the lethal “voids” that emerge in our local neighborhoods—Ferguson, Baltimore, San Bernardino—while setting our sights across the world. And this is not because the world is suddenly more “global” or because the nation is suddenly less sovereign. Both are egregious exaggerations. Writing the void across the world is significant because, as Coates puts it, “I saw that we were, in our own segregated body politic, cosmopolitans. The black diaspora was not just our own world but, in so many ways, the Western world itself.”3 It is from the position of such a cosmopolitanism that I want to turn to the writing of the void—the abyss of the language of humanism and the humanities—as it shadows the genocide in Rwanda.

JEAN-BAPTISTE MUNYANKORE, a teacher of the humanities in the Nyamata region of Rwanda, speaks:

What happened in Nyamata, in the churches, in the marshes and the hills, are the supernatural doings of ordinary people. . . . The headmaster and the school inspector [struck] blows with their own hands. . . . A priest, the magistrate, the assistant chief of police, a doctor, killed with their own hands. . . . These learned people were calm, and they rolled up their sleeves to get a firm grip on a machete. So for people like me who have taught the Humanities their life long, criminals such as these are a terrible mystery.4

I was startled by this stark and unforgiving mention of the humanities in the midst of an account of such internecine and intimate evil. It would have felt quite different if I had come upon a mention of “human rights” or “humanitarian intervention” in the context of genocide, but the connection between teaching and killing, between the humanities and violence, left me adrift. Was there anything more to be said about that “terrible mystery” that connects culture and barbarism after Auschwitz and Adorno?

That it could happen in the midst of the philosophical traditions, the arts, and the enlightening sciences says more than just that these failed to take hold of and change the people. All culture after Auschwitz, including its urgent critique, is rubbish. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric . . . and this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.5

At first I took Munyankore to be echoing Adorno in a general way, mourning the disappearance of the formation humaniste that had been established in Rwanda for more than a century by Catholic Mission schools like the famous Groupe Scolaire d’Astrida. La pédagogie des pères blancs—biblical works interspersed with Latin and French classical “excerpts”—was made available to princely Tutsis and some Hutus of the upper castes. Then I decided to pull Munyankore out from under Adorno’s long shadow. The differences between Weimar Germany and Second Republic Rwanda were anyway too large to bridge. And yet the force of circumstance and comparison, however limited, created an echo chamber in my mind. For Adorno, the price of Auschwitz is to turn poetry into a dumb hostage and a silent witness; is there a similar concern among Rwandans regarding the allusive and subtle magic of language? Has culture betrayed them for not keeping the barbarians from the gates? In the turmoil of Rwandan society, which was both on trial and in transition, was there any possibility of a reflection on the corruption of language and the redemption of discourse?

In a conflict charged with the tensions of a “politics of identity and ethnicity”—with the torsion of sameness and difference—it was the rhetoric element that played a part in sounding the death knell of genocide, bringing Munyankore, the teacher of the humanities, face-to-face with the “terrible mystery” of the death of humanity. For Rwandan intellectuals, the burden of the blame lies in figurative language as the agent of the irredeemable mayhem of violence. The phrase rhetoric element comes from the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission report, in which rhetoric is listed as a major structural cause of the genocide alongside other factors such as “extreme poverty and scarcity of resources, population increase, and unemployment,”6 land conflicts, the failure of the UN Security Council, and the poor management of refugee camps in Tanzania. The report’s understanding of rhetoric goes beyond the notion of writing as a second-order activity of recording and representing, scribbled in the margins of history.

The rhetoric element becomes a policy issue as crucial to the remaking of citizenship as legal identity, or the protection of individual and group rights in the reconstitution of civil society. What gives rhetoric its acknowledged agency—not unlike Giambattista Vico’s verumfactum relation—is the commission’s serious and sophisticated understanding of the layered and disjunctive temporalities that constitute the “meaning” of any historical event. Whereas causes such as poverty, the lack of human security, and land conflicts have longer, corrosive time lines, the rhetorical elements of media propaganda constitute shorter time lines of imminence and emergency that galvanize long-standing socioeconomic problems into rapid-fire, affective responses that lead to violence. Throughout the NURC report, the rhetorical factor provides a space of critical reflection. It allows for the careful epistemological braiding of phenomenology, economics, and politics so that, in the words of the report, unequal distribution of public wealth and existential fear work together to create what the report describes as “the psycho-political phenomena of demonization and dehumanization.”7

Remains of a child refugee outside the parish church of Nyarubuye, Rwanda, 1994. Photo: Gilles Peress. © Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos.

THE DEATH-DEALING, verminous abuse hurled at Tutsis has been heard too often. “The Tutsis are ‘Inyenzi’ [cockroaches] or ‘Inzoka’ [snakes],” Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines broadcasters repeated, day and night, with a pallbearer’s punctuality. “The graves are only half-full; who will help us fill them?” But that is not the whole story of the rhetoric element as the archive tells it. In the book Leave None to Tell the Story (1999), the late Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch carefully documents the frequent—and fatal—uses of the rhetoric element. I will describe only one of several deliberately crafted rhetorical strategies widely used in anti-Tutsi propaganda: “Accusation in a mirror,” as it is called, is a form of projective inversion used to create a suspended, yet recurrent, form of anxiety by attributing to the Tutsi false and fabricated anti-Hutu massacres and desecrations. Accusation in a mirror is a deadly accurate metaphor for reality: Your accuser, who has falsely identified you as the perpetrator of the crime, points at you accusingly from “the other side.”

Some months later, as if in retaliation, the Hutus would act out the violence they had scripted earlier. Stories would be widely disseminated, such as the claim, made in September 1991, by La Médaille Nyiramacibiri, that the Tutsis intended “to clean up Rwanda by throwing the Hutu in the Nyabarongo River.” Almost a year later, Léon Mugesera, a notorious university professor turned political leader turned génocidaire—with a Ph.D. from Canada—ordered the Interahamwe death squads to exterminate the Tutsis by massacring them in that very river, using the very same words. This double rhetorical strategy of a falsely projected fear about Hutu security and its fabricated paranoia now pivots around a trigger-like time lapse, one year later, to find its true Tutsi target. The death machine is thrown out of control. One of Mugesera’s erstwhile academic colleagues wrote an open letter accusing him of “[having done] much textual analysis in his work, [so that he] certainly understood exactly what he was doing with his use of coarse language,”8 and of deliberately misusing traditional Rwandan folk proverbs such as “Know that the person whose throat you do not cut now will be the one who will cut yours.”

The NURC report aligns itself with both a humanist pedagogy and an ethical philosophy that are simple and moving. Avishai Margalit says it in one sentence: “Moral political theory should start with negative politics, the politics that informs us how to tackle evil before it tells us how to pursue the good.” And Judith N. Shklar formulates it as “putting cruelty first.” By taking the violence of the rhetoric element as its starting point, the report follows Margalit’s injunction to follow the via negativa and arrives at a new understanding of the “figurative” strategy of demonization and dehumanization.

My reading of the report provides a disturbing, alternate understanding of the form and function of Tutsi-Hutu bipolarity and implications for “ethnic” violence. The report argues that “the bi-polar world of Hutu and Tutsi” (as the conflict’s most brilliant historian, Mahmood Mamdani, describes it) has always been stalked by a virtual, yet vicious, third party. The phobic, phantasmatic “Other” —a close relative to Carl Schmitt’s concept of the enemy—is a rhetorical figure projected onto interethnic relations as an accusation in a mirror. The bipolar world of the Hutus and Tutsis was mediated by the paranoiac figure of the enemy who could be summoned as a surrogate “third” figure to wreak havoc on friends, families, and neighbors. The enemy of either group could be turned into an evil mirror image at will. As such, the politics of “existential fear,” to quote the report, exists everywhere and nowhere. “Deadly otherness . . . is not rational but that does not prevent it from being functional in society.”9

The NURC report continues, “The rhetoric element is a preferred medium of identity-based . . . violence in the four countries.” Even during the progress of the genocide, the “enigma of ethnicity” persisted in the disguise of Schmitt’s enemy. Lee Ann Fujii writes: “By determining how the script for genocide would be interpreted and performed, leaders . . . became the final arbiters of ethnicity in their communities. . . . In this way the performance of genocide was ultimately [as much] about power, not [only] putative identity.”10 The tension between the rigidity of ethnic bipolarity continually being reinforced—and then undone by the contingency of fear and death—is what makes victims and witnesses waver in their judgment, question their memories and experiences, and remain tormented in their disavowals. Listen to Marie-Louise, a neighbor to Jean-Baptiste Munyankore:

I listen to acquaintances discuss the massacres. And I still understand nothing about anything. . . . They were obsessed enough to burn our photo albums . . . so that not even the dead would have the chance of having once existed. As for me I can see the sole reason for this genocidal hatred lies in ethnic belonging. . . . But the origin of the hatred is still well concealed for me.11

For a teacher of the humanities like Munyankore, these testimonies raise important questions that resonate all too profoundly with our contemporary moment. What does obsessive, excessive violence—“not even the dead would have the chance of having once existed”—reveal about the nature of power? Each act of witnessing contains elements of a material, historical explanation, and yet every testimony claims to stand benighted and bewildered before the “terrible mystery.”

If the distancing mechanisms of industrial technology and rural killing fields mark the Holocaust, then the genocide in Rwanda, in Mamdani’s phrase, was “very much an intimate affair.”12 It was banal in the temporal sense of a sudden and radical disordering of the ordinary and the evisceration of quotidian life: The Interahamwe death squads worked roughly nine-to-five days, called away from their carnage by a bell or a pistol shot; their killing machines were agricultural implements that belonged to the banality of everyday labor. But the Rwandan tragedy was also banal in the archaic meaning of the word that relates to customary and communal life: It was a genocide of neighbors and neighborliness. As a member of the Rwandan Patriotic Front explains, “In Germany, the Jews were taken out of their residences, moved to distant, faraway locations, and killed there, almost anonymously. In Rwanda, the government prepared the population . . . [but] your neighbors killed you.”10

In my view, the bipolar identities of ethnicity and racialization do not adequately acknowledge that other essential form of customary power and conflict: the concept of the neighbor. If the enemy is the phantasmatic other of destruction, its other face is the neighbor. Just as often as individuals and groups identify each other as Hutus and Tutsis, they name each other “neighbor.” “Neighborliness” is the affective and domestic address of customary power, and as a neighborhood it also serves to define a legal and ethical jurisdiction. Neighborliness defines these relations in war and peace. As a mode of appellation, neighbor belongs neither to Hutu nor Tutsi: It is a relational identity that moves between ethnicities, registering the unstable, differential tension between “ethnicity” and “race” while acknowledging the territorial and ethical proximity of Hutu and Tutsi in the villages of Nyamata. The neighbor is the hybrid relation that is both the horror and the hope of Nyamata.

What might seem like a terrible symmetry in the neighborly relation should not let us forget for a moment that, neighbors or not, there were victims and génocidaires, the dead and the quick, the right and the wrong of it. What is paradoxical is that within this profound asymmetry there survives an impulse of affiliation—indeed, an identification—that, after the genocide, drove a great number of Hutu and Tutsi away from the UN-sponsored Truth and Reconciliation Commission and drew them to congregate around the gacaca, or “grass mat” courts. The African Rights Report on the gacaca trials, “Confessing to Genocide,” conspicuously locates the subject of truth and testimony on the site of the moral, memorial, and political knowledge of neighborliness—its spatial networks, its customary laws, its diurnal temporality of routines, its memory of neighborly negotiations, its epistemological and enunciative practices of orality and conviviality. Although the new codifications and procedures of the gacaca trials have adopted a great deal from international law, truth commissions, and Western jurisprudence, in many respects “truth” remains a dialogic legal and moral practice in which neighbors play the role of the Greek chorus. Legal professor Noah Weisbord’s eyewitness report suggests that because the aim of gacacais reconciliation, and not adjudication—itself a neighborly ethic and hermeneutic—the individual parties to the dispute in these small, tight-knit communities depend on popular participation. “Traditional gacaca is about the thoughts, feelings and relationships of particular people in groups, not the violation of abstract rules. . . . The gacaca process is a part of community life, not an exceptional event elevated by special dress, buildings, institutions and procedures. The transmission of tradition takes place in daily life, so no one can enjoy the privileged role of scribe or repository, thereby becoming a source.”14 The memory of truth, and the very possibility of reconciliation, depends on the mnemonic repetition of murdered neighbors’ names and places, in order to reestablish a memorial jurisdiction of custom and kinship (rather than abstract rules): “I shot them all. I knew nearly all of them. They were: Callixte and Mbonigaba . . . Josephine brought by Frederic . . . a child of Nyakazungu. . . . Finally an old woman, Anastasie brought by Bernard and Martin . . .”15

Despite their vastly different fates, both the génocidaires and the survivors of their violence display a sustained sense of the value of the commonplace, of the ordinariness of things. The destruction of the ordinary plumbs the depths of evil, and at the same time, the survival of the ordinary provides a measure of moral and social recovery. Indeed, the banality of what is held in common—the schoolhouse, the hospital, and the church; goats, sheep, and cows; urwagwa (banana beer), Primus beer, and machetes—becomes the most intimate and imminent instrument of evil. Yet years after the genocide, it is this intimate instrument of a shared community of fate that enables the Rwandans to rebuild their lives. “Amongst ourselves we never grow tired of talking about this post-genocide state of things. We talk to one another about the moments we went through, we swap explanations, we tease one another.”16

Photo album found at a massacre site, Nyamata, Rwanda, 1994. Photo: Gilles Peress. © Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos.

PERHAPS THE MOST SALUTARY INSTANCE in which brutality becomes the starting point for attempting to conceive of an ethically sound political community is to be found in Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “right to have rights.” Arendt traces the origins of this idea to the brutish, teeming lives of the stateless between the wars and after the Nazi ascendancy. “We became aware of the existence of the right to have rights,” she writes, “only when millions of people emerged who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation.”17 The relevance of Arendt’s argument here lies in her insight into the global as a structure of contradiction and ambivalence. There is no outside to the global system, Arendt suggests. Whatever alienates global interdependence, or annihilates cosmopolitan values, must be seen to be an effect of the internal dialectic—a demonic dynamic—of the global condition itself. “Deadly danger to any [global] civilization is no longer likely to come from without,” Arendt writes. “The danger is that a global universally interrelated civilization may produce barbarians from its own midst by forcing millions of people into conditions which, despite all appearances, are the conditions of savages.”18 What kind of monstrous birthplace is this when barbarism emerges from the sack of civility?

In “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” her beautifully wrought meditation on “the banality of evil” (dedicated to W. H. Auden), Arendt argues, “Conscience appears as an afterthought. . . . What causes a man to fear it is the anticipation of the presence of a witness who awaits him only if and when he goes home.”19 The future-looking nature of global memory—which is neither redemptive nor tragic—is both an “afterthought” (the projection of traumatized past) and an “anticipation” (a restorative future). The moral witness is caught in a double time frame of memory, surviving the testimony of the past while striving to possess the freedoms of the future. This complex temporal layering of memory consists, one might say, of a past that refuses to die, confronted by a future that will not wait to be born.

THE AMERICA I started with is as far from Rwanda as they both are from the Mediterranean. And yet between the intransigent past and the impatient future, there emerges a moment that reminds me of Coates’s haunting line: “The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments.” There is also a resounding echo between Coates’s belief that black lives are robbed of the very moments that make up a lifetime, and Arendt’s censure of European nations that robbed millions of people—their own citizens—of the time of their lives, and condemned them to savagery or worse. Such orphaned echoes do not make good history or conclusive arguments, but there is a purpose, as Walter Benjamin once said, in interspersing the homogeneity of the epoch with the ruins of the present.

It is within these ruins that Ghaith, a Syrian refugee, ekes out an existence—surviving in a timeless void between life and death. The savagery to which he is condemned robs him of a time he can only measure in the disproportion between certain death and the slim chance of another life, and it is with his words that I want to close:

I made it, while thousands of others didn’t. Some died on the way, some died in Syria. Every day, you hear about people drowning. Just think about how much every Syrian is suffering inside Syria to endure the suffering of this trip. . . . In Greece, someone asked me, “Why take the chance?” I said, “In Syria, there’s a hundred-percent chance that you’re going to die. If the chance of making it to Europe is even one percent, then that means there is a one-percent chance of your leading an actual life.”20

Homi K. Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the humanities in the English department at Harvard University.


1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 50–53.

2. Homi K. Bhabha, “Framing Fanon,” foreword to Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), xviii–xix.

3. Coates, Between the World and Me, 43.

4. Jean-Baptiste Munyakore, quoted in Jean Hatzfeld, Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide—The Survivors Speak, trans. Gerry Feehily (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2008), 50.

5. Theodor Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” in Prisms, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen and Samuel Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982), 34.

6. Anastase Shyaka, The Rwandan Conflict: Origin, Development, Exit Strategies (Kigali, Rwanda: National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, 2006), 27.

7. Ibid., 32.

8. Alison Des Forges, “Leave None to Tell the Story”: Genocide in Rwanda (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999),

9. Shyaka, The Rwandan Conflict, 13.

10. Lee Ann Fujii, Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda (Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), 126.

11. Marie-Louise Kagoyire, quoted in Hatzfeld, Into the Quick of Life, 93.

12. Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 6–7.

13. Ibid., 7.

14. Noah Weisbord, “The Crime of Aggression” (doctor of juridical science thesis, Harvard Law School, 2011), 82–84.

15. African Rights, Confessing to Genocide: Responses to Rwanda’s Genocide Law (Kigali, Rwanda: African Rights, 2000), 78–79.

16. Kagoyire, quoted in Hatzfeld, Into the Quick of Life, 94.

17. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken, 1951), 296.

18. Ibid., 302.

19. Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture,” Social Research 38, no. 3 (Autumn 1971): 444.

20. Nicholas Schmidle, “Ten Borders,” New Yorker, October 26, 2015,