When is Justice Done?

From the Series: Justice

Photo by Ben Sutherland, licensed under CC BY.

As part of our campus programming for the centennial of the Russian Revolution, a historian colleague and I have been teaching an undergraduate course called “A Century of Revolutions: From Black Lives Matter to 1917.” Since day one, the question that most drives (and frustrates) the students is whether a given revolution was a success or failure. My colleague and I have struggled with how to get the students out of that binary. We want them to see the ripple effects, spaces of possibility, and yes, disappointments of political transformation. Of course, it’s easier said than done. Lately, we too are stuck oscillating between hope and despair. Dwelling with our students’ frustrations, however, has helped to focus us on a specific paradox of revolutions. Students are quick to grasp injustice—its contours, its affective registers, and increasingly (we hope) its structural dimensions. But justice remains much more elusive. They have come prepared with a vocabulary to name, and hence recognize, injustice. But they lack a clear framework for recognizing when justice has been done.

It is in light of this disconnect that I have come to see how justice and injustice are not opposites. Rather, these concepts are configured around fundamentally different temporalities, ethics, and affects. More often than not, injustice has a finalizable quality. Formulations of injustice are perfective actions: people suffer, are tortured, humiliated, wrongly convicted, dispossessed. It is true that our popular and analytic vocabulary has grown more sophisticated for capturing the particularly heinous qualities of structural injustice and the ongoing and repeated nature of wrongs. Nonetheless, the status of injustice as completed (if repeatable) remains nameable. Shared signs of injustice allow us to orient toward each other by way of a common object. In the process, we create an affectively charged experience of mutual recognition. We learn to recognize acts of injustice and we recognize other people recognizing them as well.

It is thus intelligible for me to ask my students: did (an) injustice take place? Whatever the social and contextual specificity of this process, we can call on increasingly shared transnational registers: rights frameworks; global activist memes and hashtags; standardized, mass-mediated visual representations. These allow differently positioned people to orient toward, and participate in naming, instances of human and nonhuman degradation as injustice. The experience of naming injustice remains contested. But the semiotic technologies for indexing injustice usually operate through a temporal arc through which we imagine “finalizability.” Naming an instance of injustice entails picking out a discrete, shareable reference from a stream of ongoing possibilities. While not exhaustive, naming retroactively brings sense to that which seems senseless. The specificity of the act of naming can be productive of a sense of action and agency.

Justice, however, operates through a different temporal scheme and thus invites a less readily shareable set of signs and relationalities. The act of naming justice refers forward: justice, after all, ought to endure. Yet in orienting toward the future, justice leaves open all that we have not named, have not done. It is telling that justice is often accompanied by adjectives: social justice, restorative justice, transitional justice, victor’s justice. These modifiers often correspond to institutions that designate the pathways and infrastructures through which we calibrate what material form justice might take. Such adjectival qualities also frame how we assess the ethical dimensions of justice. Thus, the quality of justice and the affective intensities it invites are inseparable from the qualities of the evidence that justice has been done.

In this way, justice takes a specific form as our hopes and aspirations may exceed that specificity. In other words, justice is both fixed in time and place, and animated by a fantasy that, in order to be “real,” it ought to transcend that time and place. Like the paradox of universal human rights t expressed in specific instances, justice implies both a desire for infinite universalizability and its absolute impossibility in practice (Dembour 2001; Goodale 2006). In order for justice to be done, it must be justice somewhere. It is thus necessarily not everywhere. It remains always unfinished in this excess. No wonder it is often so disappointing!

It is in this sense that justice and injustice are not opposites. They bundle profoundly different temporal, material, and affective modalities. This disconnect is the source of a pragmatic political problem. Consider, for example, the way that social movements, legal actors, NGOs, artists, and others in the business of social change engage with very different fields of play when expressing evidence of injustice and justice. As other scholars have noted, the temporality of revolutionary and protest movements creates affectively charged encounters that are productive of new political possibilities (Ringel 2012; Lazar 2014; Mittermaier 2014; Bonilla 2015). The shared experience of agency in such moments becomes the object of metapragmatic reflexivity (Greenberg 2012). In this way, reflection on the collective experience of action is central to the infrastructure of protest itself. Protests, particularly those designated revolutionary protests, generate frameworks through which people can anchor their experience of “doing something.” But action is not justice, and it is here that the question of was it a success? often trips us up as scholars, students, and activists.

The anxiety of unfinalizability contributes to the judicialization of politics in the post–Cold War period (Comaroff and Comaroff 2007). For increasingly global activist movements and ideologies of transnational human rights, legal architecture creates a shared way to recognize signs of justice being done—however unsatisfyingly (Clarke 2009; Tate 2013; Merry 2016). Ideological investments in the fixity of legal documents are sites where the desire for finalizability is played out (Riles 2007; Hetherington 2011; Hull 2012). Because legal logics are fundamentally shot through with time, judicialized justice can be mapped along a linear trajectory: the possibility of a deferred and future moment of justice stretches endlessly into a mappable and knowable future (Valverde 2015; Greenberg 2017). The messiness of multidimensional action is scaled and squeezed to fit the chronotopic imaginaries of late liberalism. In this way, the temporalities of justice and law go hand in hand with the violence of abandonment (Povinelli 2011).

As anthropologists, we know that the fantasy of finalizability is just that. And the ways in which the logics of law enact their own unjust violence and exclusion are also clear. But this does not undo the powerful ways in which a promise of finalizability aligns with affective experiences of agency and action for many of our interlocutors inside and outside the academy. Indeed, the affective experience of critical inquiry often takes the forms of the finalizability of shared naming. Like the question of success or failure, a project of mutual orientation toward an object of critique can both be powerful and open us up to disappointment.

Increasingly, it seems to me that the opposite of justice is not injustice, but despair. It also occurs to me that perhaps our expectations of success need to change. How can we create critical and activist semiotics that let us experience the possibility of incremental hope, agency, and messy future action through shared signs of justice? If we assume that injustice and justice are two sides of the same coin, we are stuck flipping that coin over and over again, while being trapped in the binary terms that define the scope of possible change. Can we work the temporal unevenness of these terms to open up space for apprehending the relationships between injustice and justice in different ways? Can we refashion this material-affective-semiotic framework as an ethical and political project? Can we delink action from success, and thus unhook political transformation from despair? Perhaps this project also requires an honest reckoning with contemporary scholarly investments in certain kinds of critique over others. At some point, as scholars, we may have to accept that justice can be done, and even sometimes undone, without being finished.


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