by Veena Das, et al.
University of California Press, 2001
Review by Rob Fisher, Ph.D. on Oct 16th 2001
Remaking the World is a remarkable book which emerges from
an ambitious project to 'examine anthropological questions on
the relation of violence to states, local communities, and individuals'
(p. vii). The authors are members of the Committee on Culture,
Health, and Human Development of the Social Science Research Council
based in New York. This volume is the third in a planned series;
volume one, Social Suffering (1997), focused primarily
on political violence and its impact on social adversity, looking
particularly at how culture and community shape individual responses
to terror and how bureaucracy often aggravates the problems it
seeks to alleviate. Volume two, Violence and Subjectivity
(2000), looked at the complex ways that social forces turn into
political violence, examining the way people, institutions, communities
often unwittingly contribute to collective violence.
Remaking the World continues the work of the previous volumes,
but changes the emphasis to try to show how communities 'cope'
with traumatic violence and other forms of social suffering. In
particular, the focus here is on the individual and the interpersonal
consequences of societal violence in all its forms, using comparative
ethnographies to provide concrete examples of the points being
made. There are six chapters, each dealing with how 'ordinary'
people from across the world are affected by and deal with the
violence which affects them on a daily basis. The word 'ordinary'
is important, coming from the previous volume where it was used
'as a site for understanding the nature of sociality in local
communities' (p. 2). In this volume, the authors substitute the
word 'ordinary' for a slightly different term - 'normal'. And
what they are doing here is, I think, quite right. When tragedy
or violence strike, people are shaken out of their normal routines,
the ways of living that provide daily security and stability;
and part of the effort involved in responding to violence or tragedy
is the attempt to 'get back to normal' (if that is indeed possible).
By focusing on how people make this effort, the authors have a
key to understanding how social violence affects people.
In order to understand the various ways in which people react
to social suffering and violence the chapters revolve around four
central issues. First, the relation between collective and individual
memory; second, the emergence of alternative public spaces for
recounting and telling the experience of what happened which has
been silenced by 'official' narratives; third, finding a voice
in the face of violence and tragedy; and fourth, finding the meaning
of healing and returning to everyday living. Responding to violence
and tragedy involves repairing relationships at all levels - family,
friends, neighborhood, and community. 'The recovery of the everyday,
resuming the task of living (and not only surviving), asks for
a renewed capability to address the future' (p. 4). Again, it
is easy to see what they doing - to get on with the task of living
is no easy thing; but it involves taking what has happened into
the very heart of who you are as a person and allowing it to become
integrated with the way you live and in relationship to the others
with whom you live. This isn't easy; it demands tremendous effort
- all the time; and my suspicion is that the authors are not always
aware of the sheer depths of hurt which have to overcome before
people can 'get back to normal'.
Indeed, I am not convinced that the prize championed by the authors
at the outset of this book - the return to and the recovery of
the 'ordinary' - is either possible or desirable. For example,
how is it possible to 'return to normal' when you have lost a
child? How can you recover or recognize the 'ordinary' when you
have watched your partner of 40 years degenerate and die of a
terminal illness? Life goes on - yes; but it is never the same
life and it is never 'normal' again. The event is carried within
yourself - and the art is how to live, daily, with that event
in the context of all the relationships we share with people.
Some days we manage the pain reasonably well; but other days the
pain is just as raw and angry as the day it first happened. The
world is a different place. And I do not think the authors pay
this sufficient attention.
Now take this thought beyond the context of the individual to
the level of a community. How does a Holocaust survivor recover
the ordinariness of life? The authors argue that 'while everyday
life may be seen as the site of the ordinary, this ordinariness
is itself recovered in the face of the most recalcitrant of tragedies:
it is the site of many buried memories and experiences' (p. 4).
Given my example, their wording is unfortunate. For a Holocaust
survivor, it is precisely what is buried in the ordinary that
makes the return to normality impossible - memories of what is
no longer there, the people who conspired (actively or through
indifference) and who are still there, make even the thought of
'normal' relationships strained. It is not 'recalcitrance' of
the tragedy which is the problem. It is the more human - who wants
to live in and with those who killed my family? And this can be
applied to contemporary scenarios - in Bosnia, Rwanda, Indonesia.
As the authors say, the polis - society - is based the capacity
to be able to speak for oneself, to be a voice in a community
of voices. But what they neglect - particularly in the example
I have used here - is what happens when the voices have been silenced.
How can the dead speak for themselves? How can those who have
been ethnically cleansed ever hope to recover the ordinary and
Fortunately the authors are alive to such concerns and aware of
the problems I am raising. And this is what makes this such a
remarkable book. The ethnographies which are used are perhaps
they only way possible of approaching these issues. They start
from the context of the ordinary - from where people are, and
then seek to expand and develop what is found there. I will use
only one chapter as an example - 'The Bomb's Womb? Women and the
Atom Bomb' by Maya Todeschini. Here you already have a national
and local history whereby women survivors of Hiroshima are 'officially'
designated as the 'dignified suffering mother'. This is a role
prescribed to them by the world, but in the process, such prescription
negates whole worlds of language and expression they might choose
for themselves. Questions of how they represent themselves in
public spaces compete with the sense they have of themselves as
individuals, as women, as mothers, who then stand in relationship
with others. What stories should they tell? And in what language
should they tell? This is where all the chapters in this volume
come into their own - because they take these tensions seriously.
This is a rare quality for any book - but in dealing with the
subject of social violence and suffering, it is an achievement
which deserves high commendation. The sufferer is never neglected;
the sufferer is never silenced; and the 'shadows that fall between
what is regarded as truth and what as fiction' are given full
The other chapters make equally compulsive reading, each paying
care and attention to detail, context, circumstance. I am grateful
that the authors recognize that 'it would appear that no glib
appeal to "our common humanity" can restore confidence
to inhabit each other's lives again'. But I am not so grateful
they immediately follow this sentiment up by saying: 'Instead
it is by first reformulating their notions of "normality"
as a changing norm, much as the experience of a disease changes
our expectations of health, that communities can respond to the
destruction of trust in their everyday lives' (p. 23). They are
right to suppose that acknowledgment of the pain of the victims
and the role of the perpetrators in causing that pain is a step
towards 'healing'. But again, what bothers me is that, just as
recovering from an illness leaves scars of one sort another on
or within the body, so the scars of social violence are left within
the people and communities who were traumatized by these events.
Acknowledging their pain is one thing; living with the scars -
sometimes painfully visible and public - is another.
The authors voice a laudable hope - that 'the three volumes will
be read as part of the same project of addressing social suffering,
violence, and the remaking of worlds - a quest which did not yield
any final destinations but pointed to some resting places, some
temporary closures, stories of hope and despair (p. 27). I agree
- and I think the trilogy deserves an extensive readership for
the quality of insight and sheer perceptiveness brought to bear
on questions which trouble us all. My hope is that there will
be a volume four - and that it will deal with those scars which
will not, or through the sheer violence of history, can never
now heal. Then, I think, the project will have dealt properly
with the remaking of worlds.
© 2001 Rob Fisher
Dr Rob Fisher runs Wickedness.net.
He lives in Britain.