Truth Commissions as a Scene of Violence: Catharsis, Trauma & Impossible Justice


We would like to welcome you to the first of our Critical Approaches to law seminars at Oxford Brookes University. Juliet Rogers of the University of Melbourne will present a paper (abstract below) on the 22nd of Feb (next Tuesday) at 5pm in the Music Room in Headington Hill Hall. We hope to see you there.

Abstract: Truth commissions have become a global stock-in-trade for nations wanting to promote the promise of unity and stability after social and political conflict. The (usually new) legal order promises to get to the truth and to offer a forum for catharsis, mourning and sometimes, justice. Truth commissions are billed as vehicles to help the nation ‘depart from the past’. ‘wipe the slate clean’ or ‘begin again.’ These commissions are largely said to deal with facts. In the telling of stories of pain and oppression they promise catharsis for the listener, for the speaker and sometimes for the nation, through the excavation of a lost narrative. Trauma and truth, however, are often antagonistic, and speech rarely fulfills its promise as a vehicle to relieve the pain of the past, particularly in a legal context. In this paper I will discuss the difficult relation between truth telling and the relief of trauma, and consider the problems of employing speech in legal forums as a mode of catharsis.

Further, because speech, in psychoanalytic terms, is always imagined as a demand, I will consider speech acts – in examples from South Africa and Australia – as forms of economic exchange in which an impossible demand is framed in the languages of law. That demand is often called justice, or for some, reconciliation.

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