Introduction: Humanistic Approaches to Violence



    1. Department of Anthropology
      University of Wisconsin–Madison
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This issue derives from a panel session at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) meetings in 2006 that was sponsored by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. The topic of violence is central to our current social and cultural life as much as it is for those beyond the United States. The mediation of our political relations, economic entanglements, and cultural imagination through the exercise of violence has become an almost unremarkable feature of modern life. Certainly our own militarization since the events of September 11, 2001, as the needs of “homeland security” and an ever-expanding “war on terror” keep growing even with the advent of a new presidency suggest that we must think about violence as integral to the social and cultural life of modern society, and as a valued part of expressive culture. Some would suggest that it is no longer sufficient to imagine violence as the marginal and pathological expression of negative social and cultural value, but that it may be integral and inevitable in human social and cultural relationships (Whitehead 2007). The problem of whether, when, and how that may be true is precisely a measure of cultural difference, and anthropology has only just begun to engage this problem ethnographically, despite the prevalence of the phenomenon of violence. As Michael Harkin also argues in this issue with regard to the system of exchanges among Algonquians and colonists, much the same has been true in the interpretation of ethnohistorical evidence, and violence has been factored out of otherwise holistic ethnological depiction. The result of this culturological and uniform treatment of violence is also clearly illustrated by Bilinda Straight in this issue. As she argues, where such wholesale treatments have permitted violence to become part of the perceived ethnological order the effect is to imprison others in a form of cultural reductionism, such that individuals who are part of “violent cultures” are necessarily expressive of their cultural norms. Bilinda Straight writes:

These unidimensional representations can distract from the culpability of political elites and from the role of economic and political disenfranchisement in sustaining violence. They can also mask the ways in which some elites benefit from the propagation of cultural stereotypes even while deliberately engaging in manipulation of ethnic fault lines.

As Straight emphasizes, and as this issue highlights overall, such ubiquitous representations based on cultural stereotypes and endlessly recycled in the media, contribute to a global political order in which the violence of the marginalized is seen as “politically expedient, routine, and forgettable.”

Accordingly, the topic of the ethnography of violence is timely and was appropriate to the AAA theme of “dangerous ideas” in a number of ways. “Dangerous” because any attempt to challenge normative categories, even those embedded within anthropology, risk at best incomprehension and at worst vilification. Moreover, there are critical issues to be considered as to the relevance of ethnographic methods to the understanding of violence, because even to observe violent acts is already to be entailed in the cultural production of violence as culturally meaningful (Whitehead 2009). However, humanistic interpretations and approaches to violence have proved highly innovative and therefore of wider relevance to anthropology as a whole—particularly in the matter of ethnographic approaches to the issue. Emphasis on the meaningful and performative aspects of violence, the subjective experience of violence, and the ways in which perpetrators might be considered as cultural agents are all themes that have informed recent ethnographic approaches to violence. Many of those themes are therefore also reflected in the articles collected here, as well as the original panel contributions.

For example, as was shown in the papers given during the original panel by Ventura Perez and Andrew Darling, current archaeologically and ethnographically based presentations on cannibalism—a notoriously ideologically constructed exotic savagery—have been greatly improved by the example of humanistic approaches that produce more nuanced and contextualized interpretations of sacral manipulations of the human body (see also Whitehead 2008). Also, more widely, such approaches encourage a direct engagement with indigenous understandings of the anthropological and archaeological process—as in the case of current debates over Anasazi “cannibalism” and how that impedes Native American causes.

Similarly, not just ritual but also “religious” violence and the putative connections between religion and violence (Whitehead and Abufarha 2008), can be fruitfully explored by humanistic approaches. Part of the resolution of the problem of how violence can be engaged ethnographically, without contributing to that violence through its further representation, stems from the way in which ethnographic understanding allows for forms of cultural contextualization. Such contextualization may show how violence may be in one sense meaningful and valued, rather than inevitable, socially negative, and culturally destructive for the Western cultural order, as it is always construed. Specifically, this may happen through the ways in which the performative, poetic, and semiotic aspects of violence and its imagination are only revealed through close ethnographic engagement with the subjectivities of others. In this way Zucker's discussion in this issue of “matters of morality” among Cambodian villagers recalling the days of the Khmer Rouge, illustrates how the cultural “habitus” for violence is deeply intertwined with other aspects of moral life, and so how it is that violence (which all may condemn in the abstract) is intimately grounded in the moral calculations of everyday life. More widely recent work on state terror, terrorism, and suicide bombing, for example, all demonstrate the timeliness and relevance of ethnographic attention to such “dangerous ideas” (Aretxaga 2004; Strathern et al. 2005; Whitehead and Abufarha 2008). The ethical commitments that the ethnography of such violence implies also means that anthropological witnessing of ethnic and class-based struggles entailing both state terror and armed resistance or civil disobedience of various kinds are also critical areas of ethnographic research. Such research also speaks directly to recent controversies, as in the case of the Venezuelan Yanomamö and the AAA El Dorado Report (2002). This officially sanctioned inquiry examined professional responses to the publication of a series of accusations as to the unethical conduct of field work by anthropologists in the Venezuelan Amazon (see Tierney 2002). This professional cause célèbre underlined the serious professional issues academia and media representations raise through the way in which they can play into the outcomes of civil conflicts, development projects, and human rights campaigns.

Sorcery and Violent Imaginaries

Assault sorcery, witchcraft, and other forms of mystical violence are deployed in a wide variety of life contexts for many different purposes, and this makes “witchcraft” a fundamental and pervasive ethnographic reality in many regions of the world today. My own ethnographic focus in recent years has been on the dark shamanism of the Patamuna and Makushi of the Guyana Highlands, peoples who straddle the borders of Guyana with Venezuela and Brazil. The term kanaimà refers to a particular mode of assault sorcery that involves the ritual mutilation and killing of its victims. The term also can allude to a more diffuse idea of active spiritual malignancy that possesses the assassins and has existed from the beginning of time.

Kanaimà as an ethnographic issue is thus complex because it is a phenomenon that operates at a number of levels, referring simultaneously to the dynamics of the spirit world, physical aggression by individuals, the tensions and jealousies between villagers and family members, and the suspicions of distant enemies and outsiders. As a result one is simultaneously dealing with convincing case histories, wild rumors, considered attributions of blame, false accusations, ungrounded gossip, and justified suspicion. As Finnström shows in his chapter for this issue, “rumor” or “gossips,” are critical social vectors for the meaning and making of violence. The paradox of violence may be considered this way, that it is an imagined material physical harm and the product of what is imagined. But, as Finnström notes:

The rumors are stories that say something profound about lived entrapments and political asymmetries in Uganda and beyond. . . . So, rather than seeing rumors as the expression of some bizarre conspiracy of alienation, we need to acknowledge that people live with a seriously harsh wartime reality.

The circulation of stories and rumors in a society is in reality no different from what anthropology has often, as a result of failing to appreciate the dynamic and changing nature of oral literatures, called myth making. Like myth in anthropological theory, stories reach a subjective level within individuals in the midst of what may be unwelcome and bewildering events (“violence”), just as such stories also simultaneously refer to the social groups among whom they circulate. Such routes of knowledge or culturally recognized understanding may be part of the violence in the cultural order like any other aspect of social life.

The pervasive and profound discourse of kanaimà is a central ethnographic fact of the lives of the people of the Guyana Highlands. It both dramatizes the human condition and can appear to suggest its futility. It is a daily matter of conversation and appears closely to influence the decisions that people make through the vision it supplies of a cosmos filled with predatory gods and spirits whose violent hungers are sated on humans. The decision to go to the farm, to go with another or not, to carry a gun or not, to pass by the spirit abode of a famed killer or to walk by a longer route, thus appears to be woven into the texture of every day life. For those who participate in this discourse there are also the distant but steady rumors of killings that are discussed as possible proof of the malign nature of the cosmos and the enmity of others.

For the people of the Guyana Highlanders the practice of kanaimà involved criminal activity, and informants would include the families of victims, as well as avowed killers and practitioners. However, a constant theme in commentaries on such killings was the indifference and inattention of the Guyanese national government and police. In this context, the people felt that ethnographic forms of witnessing and reporting were relevant to their attempts in gain development resources and government infrastructure. At the same time this risked provoking a campaign of “Law and Order” being unleashed on the people of the Highlands, and such exercises in justice are themselves apt to become indiscriminately lethal. Given this situation kanaimà is somewhat accepted and endured as a mark of Amerindian autonomy even as it is energetically projected to an external audience. In this way it can easily be appreciated how the politics of ethnographic representation in Amazonia, as elsewhere, are complex and how the issues raised by the increasing “darkness in El Dorado” at that moment, because of the uproar over Tierney's book, weighed heavily in my own subsequent publications about kanaimà. In short, the issue of how representations of assault sorcery might be used beyond the anthropological community needs careful assessment, including a consideration of how anthropological representations might be used in the service of the state.

Western ideas about kanaimà sorcery, as with cannibalism more widely, cannot be taken as simply reflecting the results of an encounter with some objectively present form of native savagery or exoticism. Rather, our Western interest in the savagery of others, and in particular when it supposedly takes the form of cannibalism, clearly has served an ideological purpose in both politically justifying and morally enabling violent conquest and occupation of native South America. Nonetheless, this cultural proclivity on our part does not rule out forms of cultural practice by others that are truly challenging to interpret, in the sense that others do apparently give meaning and value to acts that we might abhor or simply deny to be “real.” This “lack of reality,” however, more often constitutes a misunderstanding on our part, and what we actually mean is that the “incomprehensible” act is one of savagery. Kanaimà perfectly instantiates such a category, for the term invokes for us strange and troubling acts. In both the colonial literature and native oral testimony, it refers to the particular kind of killing through the violent mutilation of the mouth and anus, into which are inserted various objects. The killers are then enjoined to return to the dead body of the victim in order to drink the juices of putrefaction.

But a moment's reflection on this ritual act should indicate that to witness physical violence is in itself extremely dangerous and necessarily entails complex ethical judgments as to how (and whether) such events can be described and need to be published. Yet it is equally clear that the only difference between my position as an anthropologist and that of missionaries, journalists, or tourists would be a willingness to take seriously that the identity of the killer belongs to a socially and culturally constructed reality. In both an intellectual and ethical sense, kanaimà are real social beings, who in the category of secret assassin are real, specific, and identifiable individuals.

Any possible observer necessarily becomes implicated as an unwilling or unwitting participant to such violence. The meanings and motivations to such violence are linked in turn to how such acts are interpreted. This would be the case, not just among the Patamuna, but within the wider national society of Guyana, and to an increasing degree the global community of consumers of anthropological text. This was demonstrated by the controversies round Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado volume that aimed to reveal the cynical and even criminal basis of the behavior of some ethnographers of the Yanomamö. The same situation is discussed by Straight in this issue with regard to the presentation of “traditional culture” in Kenya, a situation that raises critical issues for any anthropology that contemplates human violence, as it must. If violence is established culturally through acts of witnessing, then representations of such violence are not just about violence, but are actually part of its motivation. This need not imply that such violence demands ethnographic witness, as if it were otherwise unnoticed, rather it implies that such witnessing itself is never neutral.

In this context, ethnographic witnessing has a wider cultural role not just for ourselves in the West, constructing our discourses of “savagery” and “sorcery,” but also for others as an aspect of their interest in securing a recognized slot in the so-called savage ethnoscape of global victims and perpetrators. Violent acts may embody complex aspects of symbolism that relate to both order and disorder in a given social context, and it is these symbolic aspects that give violence its many potential meanings in the formation of the cultural imaginary. When atrocity or murder occurs it feeds into the world of the iconic imagination. Imagination transcends reality and its rational articulation, but in doing so it can bring further violent realities into being. As Haanstad also emphasizes, the significance of this linkage between “imagination” and “reality” should not be underestimated because of “not only the symbolic meaning generated by acts of violence but also its hyperreal, desensitizing, and dissociative effects.” This dissociative generation of meaning is thus very evident from earlier times, in Euro-American regimes of torture, when simply to be shown the instruments of torment was often sufficient to produce the required confession of heresy or apostasy. So, even today, simply to be shown the aftermath of “terrorism” invites each citizen to rehearse their complex political commitments to “freedom” and “democracy,” which in turn sustain those regimes of political power that locate the terrorist threat at the very gates of society and identify its threat to political stability and economic prosperity.

In many popular and conventional presentations of indigenous or “tribal” life, the overt message is to the effect that the lives being witnessed are subject to the kinds of arbitrary violence and terror that Western liberal democracy has elsewhere banished from our everyday existence. The article by Casey High in this issue nicely draws out the contours of one such recent case: that of the Amazonian Huaorani and the film End of the Spear. As High in this issue indicates:

a historical convergence of missionary and Huaorani visions of past violence . . . reveals how indigenous Amazonian ideas are often part of a shared history in which colonialism and North American missionaries have an important place. . . . The ideological project of Christian martyrdom, promoted by missionaries, their various books, and the recent film, constitutes a useful ethnographic object through which we might better understand the historical relationships between Huaorani and North American notions of violence.

Of course, other kinds of trope are also used in many popular films and TV programming that suggest a more positive aspect to the lives of others—their harmony with nature and the beauty and satisfaction derived from tradition and custom—but even here the implicit meaning of the representation is that it is an anachronistic route to human happiness and contentment.

This mode of representation, and the imagination of the subjectivities of others that it entails, is particularly evident in the treatment of topics such as sorcery and witchcraft, and other televised dioramas of “traditional” violence, such as initiation ceremonies, mystical practices of self-mutilation or pain endurance, and so forth. No less important here is the whole panopticon of tourist pleasure sometimes, as Robb's chapter shows, predicated on exactly the perception of the violence and misery of others. The “dark tourism” that Robb discusses with regard to Brazil may involve both the viewing of sites of violent practice, such as the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, no less than it may involve prurient interest or engagement in others forms of structural violence, such as sex tourism. Among the most difficult things for us culturally to admit is the sexualized nature of violence—whether that violence is socially legitimate or not. Such cultural conjunction, nonetheless, is as clearly prominent in the cultural production of contemporary Western cultures—be that in the realm of commercial film and entertainment or in the torture camp of Abu-Ghraib—as it may be in other cultures worldwide. It is not the prevalence or the importance of the phenomenon that is problematic for us to acknowledge, so much as the professional challenge of deploying anthropological methods to understand such issues. However, an emphasis on how such lives as those of the Algonquians, Patamuna, Huaroni, Kikuyu, or favelados of Rio de Janeiro are immured in superstition and fear obscures the fact that we too live in a state of constant fear and terror. The apparatus of “security” keeps active a sense of pervasive fear in public consciousness through such devices as government-issued threat levels, civic exercises in preparedness for attack or disaster, and nightly news bulletins and TV dramas; and also these are all examples of a peculiarly Western form of the rumor and gossip analyzed in Finnström's article on Uganda. By the same token, as Haanstad suggests in this issue: “The perpetrators, victims, and witnesses of such encounters can be viewed not only as interpreters of particular cultural temporal systems, but also as actively manipulating space–time and socially constructed reality.”

Nowhere is this manipulation of the perceptions of violence more evident—but hardly remarked on—than in the meanings of the televised contrasts between savage and violent others and our pacific and sophisticated selves. These contrasts are not just linked to an implicit endorsement of a “Western way” but also to the effacement of our own social and cultural capacities for violence, with a resulting enfeeblement of the individual in anticipation or in the face of the exercise of violence. As a result, we all sit entranced by the sights and sounds of “terrorist violence”—the twisted piles of metal and rubble, the wailing of women, the shouting of men, and the shots of telltale blood pools. These stock shots become the visual icons of violence that forcefully represent to the Western witness the terrorist perpetrators' barbarity, but mask our own counterviolence so that it may appear to be appropriate and proper for the defeat of the terrorist perpetrators of such acts. We also learn that we should be dependent on the military and police professionals of violence to achieve those ends.

Ethnographic witnessing of sorcery or other forms of “traditional” or “tribal” violence thus plays an important role in the Western imaginary of violence, and, as the Tierney controversy showed, the ramifications of representing the violence of our cultural others cannot be limited to the academy alone but also have the potential to become facts in the world. In turn, Western-based representations and imaginaries may feed the mimetic violence of development and political order throughout the non-Western world. News or rumors, like tourism, are mobile and so always fleeing beyond the grasp of a locally situated ethnography; and this shows how we must also deal with discursive practice and lived experience, not to document an abstract social fact called “violence” but to show how this relational quality of sociocultural interaction is evident, made manifest, and enacted in people's lives. The traditions of human-centered scholarship are thus advantageously poised to give voice to such mobile contexts of existence. But the prominence of the exercise of violence within those very societies that most highly value our Western notion of the “human” and espouse most strongly the value that violence is somehow “inhuman,” suggest that this paradox may yet require further rethinking of the anthropological project and its ethnographic methodology. This is the contemporary quandary of our engagements in the lives of others (Whitehead 2009).

Conclusion—Ethnography and Torture

As with other disciplines that interact with people, our society is only publicly comfortable with certain kinds of inquiry—broadly those that do not entail deception and physical or mental harm—and for which the Human Subjects Review Panel–IRB functions as a form of licensing. But as the public debate over the torture practices of our own government showed us, we can easily revise those preferred parameters if the urgency and need is thought to be sufficiently pressing. As with the case of the Tuscaloosa Experiment or the MK-Ultra program, we do not need the excuse of active war to countenance all kinds of special or extraordinary governmental actions. So too, as with torture, the purpose of ethnography is the gathering of information, data, and knowledge of others, both enemies and allies. How then can we remain certain that ethnographic interrogation is different from military torture?

There is a real danger, resulting from massively budgeted attempts by the military and security services networks to recruit anthropologists, that we are witnessing an epistemological convergence between torture and ethnography. This cannot be lightly dismissed as was shown with some of the rhetorical attacks by professional academic anthropologists on Patrick Tierney's critique of knowledge seeking gone awry in the Amazon. As the critics of Tierney made clear in weighing the possible collateral damage of hard-nosed, hard-charging ethnographic investigation, what is thought to be at stake is our right to know things, even though our means of knowing them can be contested. This may be the case even in which such knowledge is purposefully kept hidden (kinship), is only talked about with pain (memories of war, killings, witchcraft), or where there is a cultural silence and “knowledge” that is as yet unarticulated (personal motives, life-histories, collective purposes). It is relevant to note then that the AAA in fact rescinded the report that it had commissioned on the matter, apparently signaling an inability to resolve the professional quandary as to the priority of “indigenous” human rights over “Western” scientific rights. As the anthropologist Pierre Clastres writes in his memoir of fieldwork in Paraguay:

This was what made the Atchei savages: their savagery was formed of silence; it was a distressing sign of their last freedom, and I too wanted to deprive them of it. I had to bargain with death; with patience and cunning, using a little bribery. . . . I had to break through the . . . passive resistance, interfere with their freedom, and make them talk. [Clastres 1998:97, emphasis added]

Clastres stresses the profound significance of Atchei-Guayaki silence in the face of ethnographic inquiry, seeing it as the foundation of their continuing autonomy, “health,” and “freedom”:

The society of the Atchei . . . was so healthy that it could not enter into a dialogue with me, with another world. And for this reason the Atchei accepted gifts that they had not asked for and rejected my attempts at conversation because they were strong enough not to need it; we would begin to talk only when they got sick. [Clastres 1998:97]

Indeed, we do have a cultural terror of the silence of the “savage other,” a silence that torture if not ethnography must rupture. For this silence, this absence of explanation on their part, signaling an absence of rationality, is part of what is terrifying about terrorists.

In Western cultural tradition, our desire to speak and to be heard stems from the Enlightenment understanding of the cultural and historical foundations of our Cartesian notions about individual existence—to think (i.e., to speak) is to be human (Whitehead 2009). As a result, the absence of speech, or its failure to become intelligible (a literal “barbarism”), means that silence potentially operates as a form of terror and resistance. Silence threatens our ideas about the humanity of being and may even suggest nonbeing, or “inhumanity.” Silence is also a sign of death, but perhaps also the prelude to rebirth. There is also the monk's vow of silence, that leads to spiritual rebirth, the rehabilitating silence enforced on prisoners, and also the silence of the anthropologist, who becomes culturally silent through removal to other places, and whose return is marked by almost excessive “narrativity.” The establishment of professional ethnographic credentials therefore takes place through the unsilencing of the now “researched” other (Mentore 2004).

Terror becomes the silence of the resistant other. Ethnographers on their part overcome the silence of the resistant other by narration. As with torture, the results of ethnography are always ethically problematic, notwithstanding the ethnographers' appeal that they are justified by the requirements of professional academic research and scientific knowledge. As Derek Freeman (1999) showed in reevaluating Margaret Mead's breaking of the Samoan silence, or with Napoleon Chignon's avowedly deceptive tactics for learning Yanomamö kinship relations—as criticized along with other practices in the Tierney book, the broader significance of the ethnographic question as a token of power relations means that the inquisitional process of inquiry, in both torture and ethnography, can never produce the kinds of knowledge we culturally desire. At the heart of darkness there is only a silence, for the core of the other seems unspeakable, untranslatable.

The ontological horror–shock of silent screams is the quintessence of what terrorism is designed to achieve—as on September 11, 2001, as with suicide bombers, as with ethnic cleansers, and with serial killers. But also it is the very ineffability of such actions that legitimates our violent response, our need to make the perpetrators also gasp in shock and awe. But they are also silent because there is, in our view, nothing they could say, in the sense of justification. If we are speechless with horror, then why should they be allowed to speak?

Professionally, the response of some anthropologists has been precisely to seek collaborative and overtly dialogical forms of ethnographic engagement. In which case it is the interest and attitudes of those studied as much as the questions that drive doctorates and advanced research programs that will come into play. Whether or not the “knowledge” so generated has value on the academic market is a different question, because the fundability of particular kinds of research obviously influences professional choices and career success. So the key question becomes whether or not these kinds of collaborative methodological practices are sufficient to avoid the practice of ethnography as a violation, if not a violence to others. As Pierre Clastres reflected on the historical silence of the Atchei:

I remembered what Alfred Métraux had said to me not long before: “For us to be able to study a primitive society it must already be starting to disintegrate.”[Clastres 1998:96]

It is also then necessary to ask if such methodological practices disable the kind of colonial purposes that both anthropology and the societies in which it is practiced have long shared. In both cases the answer is “yes.” Collaboration and dialogue allow space for the mutual agreement of knowledge goals. This methodological practice also breaks with the idea of “knowledge” as philosophically restricted to Western forms of understanding and interpretation.