Writing About Violence (Part I)

Writing is never easy. Writing ethnographically about people who perpetrate violence is exceptionally difficult. Not only does the ethnographer have to cautiously avoid slipping into what we call “pornographic’ representation, she (or he) must find a way to convey the humanity of people who do “inhuman” things, while also doing justice to the victims of their violence. Writing in the first person compounds these difficulties. How does one insert his or herself, as ethnographer, into such a narrative?

In writing up my research on prison rapes and murders, I struggle with the competing desires of wanting to present myself as a likeable protagonist and wanting to honestly relate the ways that my ethnographic practice cannot help but become entwined with the forms of violence that I study. I also worry that as I try to navigate between these two treacherous poles of representation, my writing will be either disastrously self-exculpating or unnecessarily self-flagellating.

One solution to this problem might be to consider the ethnographer in the stories I write about violence as a character, rather than a robust and authentic representation of me. But, would doing so necessitate writing the violent events of my fieldwork as fiction? And would turning into ethnographic fiction events that I experienced as being too-real (and as having too-real consequences) be just another way to avoid confronting their ethical ramifications?

A simpler solution would be to pretend that the violence I either witnessed or experienced in the field did not happen at all. I would not be the first to elide physical violence in my ethnographic writing. In fact, I’ve admittedly written much less about the violent events that were central to my fieldwork than I have about the forms of structural violence that have shaped the ethnographic contexts in which I study because I find doing so to be less fraught than writing about specific instances of physical aggression or pain. But blood, bullets, and torn flesh were so prevalent in my fieldwork, I would feel dishonest if I wrote them out of my work.

Another course I could steer in writing about my ethnographic encounters with perpetrators of violence would be to unequivocally position myself as observer rather than participant. But, to me, this would hearken back to the late nineteenth century, when ethnography was decidedly about “the other,” not about the complex relationships that entangle us with people we might—especially when acts of murder or torture are involved—prefer to refer to as “them.”

The choice I have made is to directly acknowledge both my discomfort with and my complicity in the violence that I study. The subsequent challenge I face is how to write this way without dipping into the egocentrism that, as my next post will discuss, sometimes plagues writing about ethnographic encounters with violence.

REFERENCES

Fassin, Didier. 2014 “True Life, Real Lives: Revisiting the Boundaries Between Ethnography and Fiction.” American Ethnologist 41(1): 40-55.

Nader, Laura. 2011. “Ethnography as Theory.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1(1): 211-219.

Taussig, Michael. 2010. “Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism: Another Theory of Magic.” Walter Benjamin’s Grave. University of Chicago Press, p. 121-156.

I am a cultural anthropologist and professional fact-checker. My research examines the causes and the consequences of youth violence in Brazil. Specifically, work is concerned with understanding how institutions and policies that have been created to curb youth violence can ramp-up its practice.

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