ASA10: The Interview – theory, practice, society

13th-16th April 2010, Queen's University Belfast, UK

Keynote/Opening address

After tragic violence: ethnography, transitional justice and ethical excess

Professor Allen Feldman, New York University

The historical and disciplinary trajectory of the ethnographic interview linked communication to social holism, an association which can be traced back to Dewey's concept of communication as pragmatic coordination, the linguistic holism of Edward Sapir, and to Robert Park's sociology of ritualized communicative transmission.  In political philosophy the notion of a social totality based on communicative inter-comprehension owes much to Aristotle's definition of 'man' as an animal endowed with the common anthropological capacity for logos which enables 'citizens' to discuss the just and the unjust  and the  Habermasian' model of interlocutory relations subject to public procedures of validation. Can we continue to presume shared holistic political worlds based on ahistorical and pre-political anthropological invariants and commonalities such as linguistic comprehension, rationalized legitimation, Rawlsian models of equity or even the full spectrum dominance of global mass communication?  What is the status of a communicative anthropological commons when neoliberal ‘humanitarian’ wars and economies calculate and enforce what counts as human and what does not?

What does it mean to speak, hear, write and gaze ‘ethnographically’ within contemporary political economies of linguistic, visual and sensory prosthetics, anesthesia and excommunication?   This historical moment requires a political genealogy of the ethnographic dialogic and its narratological performance that situates its current conditions of possibility in a continuum with, or as a counterpoint to, hegemonic forms of political mediation and communication/excommunication including among others: 1) torture-interrogation and related state forensics; 2) the testimonial/commemorative performances and ethics of the transitional justice project; 3) the archival production of anamnesis, dead memory and the museumification of the social.

To move past the Aristotlean-Habermasian anthropological-communicative foundation of the political would be to divorce the political from a normative anthropology and to identify anthropocentric communication as both majoritarian and therefore politically repressive. Political communication in the mode of disinformation, visual and acoustic intimidation is frequently mobilized to deny common worlds and to contest entitlements to redefine the common good. If the contestation of the ‘common’ is the origin of the political then there is no human-anthropological ‘we’ or communicative commons that disputes the political.  Rather the political inaugurates and reproduces the divide between the common  “we” and those uncommon silenced sovereignties beyond the anthropological “count” who are rendered incapable of attaining political status as communicating collectivities including that of humanity and whose communicative practices have no choice but to cohere into a boundary-bending Rancierian politics of the insensible.

Professor Allen Feldman teaches visual culture  at New York University, and is the author of Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland (U of Chicago P, 1991),  and numerous essays on political violence as visual and performance culture and on transitional justice including: “The Structuring Enemy  and Archival War” (PMLA 2009), “The Actuarial Gaze: From, 9/11 to Abu Ghraib" (Cultural Studies 2005), "Memory Theaters, Virtual Witnessing and the Trauma Aesthetic." (Biography 2004), “Strange Fruit: The South African Truth Commission and the Demonic Economies of Violence.” (Social Analysis 2003), "Violence and Vision: the Prosthetics and Aesthetics of Terror in Northern Ireland.”  (Public Culture, 1997), "On Cultural Anesthesia: From Desert Storm to Rodney King" (American Ethnologist, 1994) His forthcoming book is Archives of the Insensible: War, Terror, and Violence as Dead Memory (Duke UP, 2010).