A Question of Politics, not Agency

My as work has an anthropologist in Brazil has drawn me into an historically layered matrix of racial, class-based, and gendered violence that I did not sufficiently understand when I entered the field. I am still working to understand it now. In my previous post I described how, when an off duty police officer held a gun to my temple, he made it impossible for me to claim that I stood fully outside that matrix because I was a light-skinned foreigner. Still, I could not claim that I stood fully within the matrix because I was an anthropologist. The threat I faced was an exceptional moment in my life; such moments were likely to become quotidian to the three little boys who knelt with me in the cane.

In writing about the event, my goal was to foreground the matrix in which the violent encounter I described unfolded and to think through my liminal place within it. While I do assume responsibility for making the event I described possible, I am more interested in examining the larger structures and forces that create the conditions in which violence occurs than I am concerned with assigning individual blame for particular acts of violence.

Admittedly, it would have been expedient to cast myself as an innocent victim of an “other’s” violence. But to me, the more productive question to ask is: How have innocence and complicity become intertwined in a context where murder is too often understood to be an acceptable response to perceived disrespect?


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.

One thought on “A Question of Politics, not Agency

  1. These are important questions. They evoke memories of Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic, which includes, along with much else, an explanation of the arcane language still used in the US Congress to avoid giving direct offense. When that language was in formation, gentlemen still fought duels. I think of The Godfather, both book and movie, and The Sopranos.

    Once again I remember the scene in the hardboiled thriller Double Deuce by Robert Parker, in which the two heroes, Spenser and his dark shadow Hawk confront a gang of teen-aged drug dealers in a Boston ghetto housing complex. There is a fight. Spenser and Hawk win; they are, in effect, superheroes. Then Spenser asks Hawk, who grew up in a place like this ghetto, why the gang stood and fought them. They knew we were going to win, he says. Hawk’s reply is one of the most poignant pieces of social analysis I have ever read. We all need respect, he says. Some of us get it for what we own, some of us get it for what we know. But what if you don’t own anything or know anything that anyone else cares about. If you don’t fight, you are nothing. Zero.

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