Reading Beowulf in the Rubble of Grozny
Lecture by Eileen Joy
Given at “Breaking Down Barriers”, 1st Blackwell Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference
19-30 October 2009
Abstract: From December of 1994 through January 1995, and again in August 1996, Russia launched bombing campaigns against Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, as part of its war against Chechen separatists. The air raids and artillery bombardments were so devastating that, in one sense, the city of Grozny ceased to exist, leaving behind only wreckage and rubble, about 100,000 dead, and over half a million displaced persons. A siege of the city in a second war, from late 1999 through February of 2000, left Grozny, according to the United Nations, “the most destroyed city on Earth.” To see the photographs taken in Grozny during these times periods is to witness a zone of destruction so complete, that you think you must be looking at pictures of the cities fire-bombed in Germany and Japan at the end of World War II. And yet, when the city of Grozny vanished, it did so, for the most part, without the world’s notice of it. Aside from the attention Grozny received from a few committed and brave journalists and from certain human rights organizations, the plight of Grozny and its citizens never really seized the public imagination and could even be argued to form a kind of blank spot in the late twentieth-century historical memory; this is especially distressing when one understands that the Russian government took advantage of the climate of fear generated after the 9/11 attacks to engage in systematic “sweep” operations and nighttime raids that resulted in the “disappearance” (likely after torture and extrajudicial execution) of thousands of Chechens, many of whom have since turned up in mass, unmarked graves (perversely, some of the Chechen rebels—themselves caught up in fractious divisions—may have helped to facilitate these sweeps and murders). At the same time, Russia kept Grozny unreconstructed for almost a decade as a “lesson” to the Chechen rebels. Grozny has since been rebuilt, and at a frentic, almost manic pace, which only adds to the blankness of our memory of its former (and very recent) destruction.
At the same time that some of us might struggle to approach the situation, or scene, of a devastated and missing Gronzy as a site—now irrevocably past—that should have commanded our concerted moral attention, human rights discourses within the academy have been disturbed and somewhat dislodged by the weakening status of terms such as “the human” and “universalism.” Further, there has been a significant turn both to and beyond “the human” (or, the liberal humanist subject) in aesthetic, historical, sociological, theoretical, and more scientific studies—a turn which is often accompanied by a nod to post-histoire, or the “end of history.” This poses a great challenge to those of us concerned with the future of humanistic letters and with the human rights discourses founded upon those letters, especially when, as John Caputo has written, “one has lost one’s faith in grand récits,” and “being, presence, ousia, the transcendental signified, History, Man—the list goes on—have all become dreams.” As Caputo writes further, “we are in a fix, except that even to say ‘we’ is to get into a still deeper fix. We are in the fix that cannot say ‘we’,” and yet, “the obligation of me to you and both of us to others . . . is all around us, on every side, tugging at our sleeves, calling on us for a response.” We are situated, in other words, at a point of crisis with regard to how to formulate and put into effective practice international human rights, or any concept of justice, at a time when the category of “the human” itself (and “human dignity”) is viewed as primarily fictitious and increasingly questionable as a basis for rights and justice. But, the question has to be asked: was the category of “the human” ever stable to begin with? This raises the question of history, and deep history at that.