Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Princess Diana in AfricaI had the good fortune this week to read a wonderful book proposal about development work, and more specifically the "desire for development," particularly among white women in the North.

The focus is on Canadian aid workers in sub-Saharan Africa, and the ways in which their investment in their work (and even their resistance) enables their self-constitution as moral subjects. The manuscript includes the following marvellous quotation about the ways in which the assumption of global difference constructs and confirms a sense of moral purpose in Canada above all:
A Canadian today knows herself or himself as someone who comes from the nicest place on earth, as someone from a peacekeeping nation, and as a modest, self-deprecating individual who is able to gently teach Third World Others about civility. (Sherene Razack, Dark Threats and White Knights 9)
This is another approach to the problems I've mentioned before inherent in the self-proclaimed mission to teach "global citizenship".

The manuscript also notes something that surprised me, but probably shouldn't have, that "there are likely more expatriate development workers operating in Africa at this point than there were ever colonialists in the era of empire" (cf R L Stirrat, "Cultures of Consultancy," Critique of Anthropology 20.1 [2000]: 31-46).

Saturday, September 16, 2006

last301 links

Some internet resources on rights and Latin America. I'll be adding to this as time goes by.

s0metim3s has an extraordinarily useful collection of links, mostly theoretical, on rights. See also her essay "The Barbed End of Human Rights".

All the major human rights organizations have websites: such as Amnesty International (who have their own collection of links) and Human Rights Watch (see their page on the Americas). See also for instance the European Human Rights Centre.

Some Declarations of Rights...

On Latin America in general, a good starting point is the Latin American Network Information Center; they also have a page on Human Rights in Latin America.

The OAS has an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

On the sidebar I have links to two blogs that, together, do a pretty good job of covering news on the region as it's reported week by week: Latin America News Review and The Latin Americanist.

I also have a few country-specific blogs there: Blog from Bolivia, Tim's El Salvador blog, and Look for me in the Whirlwind (this last, from Venezuela). But there are lots of other blogs from or about particular countries. You can use Technorati to look for, say, blogs about Argentina or Mexico.

(Technorati also lists many blogs that claim to be concerned with human rights; it'd be nice if you could search for blogs that are tagged both human rights and Latin America, but that doesn't seem to be possible.)

From Georgetown University, an excellent project on Comparative Constitutional Studies, with the text of all the various Constitutions of the Americas.

Many of the Latin American truth commissions have published their work online. Argentina's Nunca más is a particularly useful site, with lots of testimonios. (The testimonios are in Spanish, but the published report is also available in English.) Check out too Guatemala's Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification, whose conclusions and recommendations are available. Then for instance there's Peru's Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


Bridges of Madison County posterOn the face of it, The Bridges of Madison County is a study in psychology: an Iowa housewife, Francesca, dies; among her effects her children discover the key to a closely-held secret, a brief but passionate love affair several decades previously.

Her secret is presented as the key to understanding this woman. Her diaries open up to her children another side to their mother, revealing her to be more than the mere inhabitant of a social role. Yet, within the logic of the secret itself (told in flashback) there is the question as to why she didn't take the chance to escape, to wander the world with the exotic National Geographic photographer who has entered her life and showed how everything might have been otherwise.

So, first: why? And then: why not?

The notion that the film is psychological is emphasized by its format: almost a chamber piece with the bulk of the screen time taken up by the two characters of Francesca (brilliantly portrayed by Meryl Streep) and the photographer, Robert (Clint Eastwood). We are brought to these two subjectivities, one perhaps still only just burgeoning, at a moment of intensity.

But precisely this extreme focus, on these two people over just four days, already starts to give the lie to any psychological realism. We never get any sense, for instance, as to why the episode should have held such importance for Robert, whose character remains a cipher: he stands, rather abstractly, for exoticism and transience; otherwise, there is almost nothing to him. Nor, in the end, do we really see any deeper into Francesca's motivations: yes, we can understand that she might feel isolated and adrift in rural Iowa, but why really is she there in the first place? What holds her to her husband?

Streep and EastwoodStreep give Francesca an interesting gesture, repeated so often it becomes a tic, a habit: she is endlessly putting her hand to her face, usually to half turn away. It is as though hiding behind her raised hand are inner depths that constantly elude us--and also Francesca herself, so deeply has she repressed her passions. But why insist on some depth beneath the gesture? Why not see the gesture itself as part of an affective mechanism, fully imbued with Francesca's desire.

The gesture of hand to face is complicated by a further gesture that Francesca (almost) makes near the film's end: rather than hand to face, now hand to (car door handle) as, in a crucial moment, she faces the choice of leaving her husband, his car, his life, and joining Robert who is in the truck up front, stopped at traffic lights in the rain. Hand to handle. Hand to handle. It starts to turn. But then the lights change and, after a pause, Robert heads off; Francesca stays, now putting hand to face again.

Hand - face - hand - handle: this minimal mechanism constitutes the film.

We might add, though, various lines of movement and change, along and beside which the mechanism operates: above all, the road leading to Francesca's isolated farmhouse, a road full of ups and downs, twists and turns, such that (as Robert finds when he first turns up on it), it's easy to get lost on it. The road brings Robert to her; it also takes her husband and children away, though then brings them back, while Francesca gazes again up the track hoping that Robert will reappear.

The road also leads (eventually) to a bridge, or rather a series of bridges, the eponymous covered bridges of Madison Country. Points of transition where the mechanism of transition (the crossing itself) is hidden: a black box in which what's to be found at the other side, or even whether one emerges out the other side at all, remains something of a surprise; these are sites of situations, of (possible) events. Will she cross? Won't she cross?

And yet the bridges hide nothing: there's no secret heart, (again) no psychological depth. Just a minimal series of gestures, a diagram with serried bifurcations, which may or may not prompt one body to take flight with another.

Friday, September 01, 2006


[The first in a series...]

Are, then, rights--that cherished shibboleth of progressive liberalism--beyond redemption? Gilles Deleuze seems to think so, calling rights "softheaded thinking" and "a party line for intellectuals, and for odious intellectuals, and for intellectuals without any ideas of their own" ("On Human Rights").

If we were to salvage rights, then on what grounds? The most frequently cited might be the tactical use of rights discourse, perhaps particularly as a mode of appealing beyond given territorial boundaries. So (say) a beseiged minority in a third world state (though why not also a first world one?) appeals to the UN charter of rights as a tactic within a local, punctual struggle. Rights then as a line of flight?

Perhaps more interestingly, surely we should also see rights, or the various declarations within which rights are defined and announced (however "self-evident[ly]," as with the US Constitution), as surfaces of inscription, sites within which the current balance of forces in a given struggle is marked? As such, though the danger is that the state of play is thereby reified and miscrecognized (always a temptation with rights: to see them as immutable and transhistorical), at the same time it might be worth considering how that act of inscription functions to complicate and feed back upon the struggle itself.