CENTER AS PARA-SITE IN ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH PROJECTS
We intend this as a mode of integrating graduate student research projects into the purview of the Center , in the spirit of the above continuing projects. We invite graduate students engaged with ethnography at UCI and elsewhere to propose projects where the Center event can serve as a para-site within the design of specific research endeavors. This theme signals an experiment with method that is directed to the situation of apprentice ethnographers, and in turn stands for the Center's interest in graduate training and pedagogy as a strategic locus in which the entire research paradigm of ethnography is being reformed :
The Center As Para-site in Ethnographic Research Projects:
While the design and conduct of ethnographic research in anthropology is still largely individualistic, especially in the way that research is presented in the academy, many projects depend on complex relationships of partnership and collaboration, at several sites, and not just those narrowly conceived of as fieldwork. The binary here and there-ness of fieldwork is preserved in anthropology departments, despite the reality of fieldwork as movement in complex, unpredictable spatial and temporal frames. This is especially the case where ethnographers work at sites of knowledge production with others, who are patrons, partners, and subjects of research at the same time.
In the absence of formal norms of method covering these de facto and intellectually substantive relations of partnership and collaboration in many contemporary projects of fieldwork, we would like to encourage, where feasible, events in the Center that would blur the boundaries between the field site and the academic conference or seminar room. Might the seminar, conference, or workshop under the auspices of a Center event or program also be an integral, designed part of the fieldwork?--a hybrid between a research report, or reflection on research, and ethnographic research itself, in which events would be attended by a mix of participants from the academic community and from the community or network defined by fieldwork projects. We are terming this overlapping academic/fieldwork space in contemporary ethnographic projects a para-site.* It creates the space outside conventional notions of the field in fieldwork to enact and further certain relations of research essential to the intellectual or conceptual work that goes on inside such projects. It might focus on developing those relationships, which in our experience have always informally existed in many fieldwork projects, whereby the ethnographers finds subjects with whom he or she can test and develop ideas (these subjects have not been the classic key informants as such, but the found and often uncredited mentors or muses who correct mistakes, give advice, and pass on interpretations as they emerge).
We would like to sponsor and design Center events, workshops, mini-conferences, seminars, meetings simply-- that would further this dimension of fieldwork.
How para-sites might be created within particular fieldwork projects, how they might function as events of the Center-- these are matters for experiment which we invite you to think about in relation to your own projects.
If you are planning or have already undertaken research projects for which the Center event as para-site might play a useful and interesting role, we would very much like to hear from you. Please submit informal proposals one or two pages -- in line with this theme. The initial proposals should be a sketch of your ideas about how the Center might participate in your fieldwork. We hope to be able to fund one or two small events, a seminar, a workshop, a mini-conference over an academic year or two in connection with each selected ongoing research project. We would like the Center to support, if funding permits, three or four para-site experiments each year. Students whose projects are selected would be designated Associates of the Center.
*The usage is inspired by the concept for the 8th volume of Late Editions, the fin de siecle series of annuals, edited by George E. Marcus through the 1990s: Para-Sites: A Casebook Against Cynical Reason, Late Editions 8, Cultural Studies for the End of the Century. University of Chicago Press, 2000.
The Theoretical and the Practical: a Report on a Para-Site, 1/24/2009
Philip Grant, Graduate Student, Department of Anthropology, UCI
Approximately one year in the planning, passing through several hesitant iterations before finding some stability in its final form, on Saturday January 24th with the sponsorship of the Center for Ethnography I convened a para-site in order to discuss the concept of "secularism" with a group of my research interlocutors, broadly defined as "Iranian intellectuals", as well as with various interested faculty and graduate students from UCI. The event lasted a full morning, and indeed although it was necessary to draw a close to the discussion soon after 12.30, many present felt that fruitful avenues for conversation had just opened up and that the conversation would ideally be pursued much longer.
The general premise of the para-site was that Iranian intellectuals have an interest in elaborating concepts of the secular and secularism that are both informed by instances of these concepts in non-Iranian settings, and that emerge from and have practical results in terms of the contemporary Iranian world. At the same time, there has recently been a marked upsurge in interest in questions of the secular, secularism, the relationship of religion and the state, and what is sometimes termed "political theology" among academics in a variety of disciplines—including anthropology, comparative literature, philosophy, history—in the USA and elsewhere. In the wake of the rise to prominence of religiously-based political movements across the globe, the 9/11 attacks and the "war on terror", and ongoing controversies about the relations of religion and the state in places as varied as France, Turkey, Canada, India, and Burma, the current global situation is thus a fruitful place for renewed academic interest in secularism, often from a critical perspective. Yet neither the context nor the stakes involved in either the promotion or the rethinking of the secular are the same for academics based in, say, the United States, as they are for Iranian intellectuals and activists engaged in projects of social reform across the Iranian world.
My own doctoral research is an inquiry into the potential emergence of both a secular sensibility and secularist political projects among post-revolutionary Iranian intellectuals, in which I am asking, among other things, how the secular emerges indirectly through the practices of groups involved in long-term projects of social transformation, how this particularly Iranian secular sensibility might be characterized, and what its relationship is with other versions of the secular or secularist projects elsewhere in the world. Although my interest in this subject, and in the role of intellectuals and activists in post-revolutionary Iranian society was first aroused when I was in Iran in 2005/6, my current research focuses more on the activities of Iranians resident in the two largest Iranian population centers outside Iran, Toronto and southern California. My interlocutors are therefore people who grew up in Iran, mainly coming of age after the 78/9 revolution, and who emigrated in recent years in order to seek professional opportunities or study in North America. While here they either continued or became involved for the first time in critical reflection and activism on the social situation in Iran. While aware of their situation living outside the country, they are nonetheless mainly focused on bringing about change inside Iran.
To this end I invited two separate sets of interlocutors to participate in the para-site. One was an individual, a political philosopher now based in Toronto where a few years ago he had organized a discussion group at the University of Toronto for Iranian students to discuss philosophical, political, and social issues. This thinker is an avowed liberal with a strong interest in dialogue among intellectuals of different traditions and who has recently himself been working on the problem of the secular. The second set of interlocutors consisted of activists from the Iranian women's movement, themselves based in southern California but with strong ties to activists inside the country. Following discussion with the participants, it was decided that the political philosopher would first present a paper on secularism, before I as moderator enabled a conversation between the various other participants.
This posed a challenge for the successful operation of the para-site. The danger was that the event would come to resemble an academic conference or seminar after all, precisely because one of the main participants was an academic accustomed to giving papers and taking charge of seminars. Even if his activities as a public intellectual certainly exceed a purely academic remit—he spent several years in Tehran hosting meetings and dialogues with a series of well-known Western thinkers—his characteristic mode of self-presentation is as a scholar and intellectual offering his opinions in a reasoned and rigorous fashion to a public seeking edification in the service of social reform and improvement. Yet the para-site is precisely designed so as not to be a conventional academic event, but an enterprise of shared conceptual labor in the form of, to borrow David Westbrook's phrase, "a staged conversation" between the different collaborators in an ethnographic project. The usual modes of theorizing and conceptual elaboration are supposed to be disrupted in the search for common ground between epistemic partners, resulting in a conceptualization that is above all valuable to the development of the ethnographic project being undertaken--in this case my dissertation research.
Thus while permitting the political philosopher to present his paper on secularism--a form of intellectual labor in any case deeply relevant to my dissertation project's interest in the practices of Iranian intellectuals—and whose content was itself highly stimulating—my role as moderator was to enable other participants, especially my interlocutors from the Iranian women's movement, to productively disrupt any movement towards the routinization of the event into an academic conference, while simultaneously allowing us all to derive some important insights from our discussions. To this end, one week prior to the para-site, I gave a presentation of my own to some of my interlocutors, outlining the major themes and arguments of my research, their relevance to my interlocutors as women's activists, and explaining the nature and purpose of the para-site—without, however, attempting to translate the expression itself into the Persian in which I gave my presentation. This turned out to be an extremely useful discussion, both in terms of explaining to my interlocutors some of the key concepts in which I was interested as part of my research, and in terms of generating questions which both inflected my approach to my research and which could be used as important starting-points for a conversation between the political philosopher and the women's activists at the time of the para-site.
In addition to my two sets of interlocutors, a number of the other para-site attendees—UCI faculty and graduate students—had also been briefed on the organization and aims of the event. These UCI attendees came from inside and outside the anthropology department, and included a variety of people whose own work related to secularism and political theology, and for some also to Iran. My understanding was that these UCI attendees could serve as interlocutors both for the political philosopher and for the activists, with a view to generating a conversation that would have at least three directions to it.
As it turned out, it was not possible to realize fully this original design. Following the political philosopher's presentation of a paper entitled "The Two Concepts of Secularism", I attempted to relate some of the themes of the paper to one of the flashpoints of the discussion I had had the previous weekend with my activist friends, raising the issue of translation—another central theme of my research—in this case of the translation of terms like "secular" and "laïc" into the Persian language and Iranian debates and struggles around religion and the state. However my intervention was insufficient to bring the activists present into the conversation. For most of the morning the form of the conversation was a question and answer session between the political philosopher and the attendees, with me and one or two others of those present aware of what was at stake trying to maneuver the discussion towards a more open and multi-directional format. That said, both the content and the form of the debate were fascinating and highly pertinent to my research, as well as to many of the attendees with their various divergent stakes in the discussion.
Content-wise the paper drew on the Indian and French examples in particular as being two separate and opposed concepts of secularism, the latter dependent on an exclusive, sovereign exercise of power, the former on an inclusive pluralism allowing for the spiritualization of politics through the re-injection of ethics into the political sphere. It then recommended the Indian model as more suitable as a solution to the aporias of contemporary Iranian politics. The current Iranian state might therefore be understood as operating more on the French model, with the Islamic Republic of Iran exercising a sovereign power that defines what is acceptable religiously and determines how this interpretation of religion should shape the public sphere and the practices of Iranian citizens.
Now while as a framework for thinking about secularism in Iran and elsewhere this was highly stimulating, the theses advanced were questioned from a variety of perspectives. Firstly, as being insufficiently attentive to the complications of the Indian case, to the perpetual crisis Indian secularism has experienced since the foundation of the Indian state, and to the aporias of Gandhian ethics; secondly, as being unable to give concrete content either to the terms "ethics" or "spiritualization", which were nonetheless key terms of the argument; thirdly, as insufficiently explaining how the Indian model could be made relevant to a very different Iranian context, and what resources existed in Iranian traditions that could be drawn on in order to construct an appropriate model for secularism in the country; and finally and most importantly, as paying insufficient attention to the practical modalities of bringing about a pluralist public sphere in the Iranian setting.
The final criticism is the most relevant from the point of view of my research, and provides an important link between the content of the discussion and its form. The activists have above all practical concerns; a political philosopher giving a paper considering secularism from a comparative perspective has first and foremost a theoretical concern. This is not to say that there is a stark divide between theory and practice, or that one set of interlocutors are only concerned with practice, the other only with theory. On the contrary: what the form of the para-site demonstrated was both the importance of the nexus of the two for any successful project of social transformation, and the failure of the discussion to articulate the two in any novel way. For the activists, as my session with them the previous week had demonstrated, a rigorous critical reflection on the situation in which their activism takes place is vital to the future development of their project. To this end, comparing Iran with India and seeking for alternative models of ethical and civic engagement is potentially of great value to them. At the same time, for the political philosopher, presenting his ideas on secularism is itself a practice, a practice which is part of an ongoing dialogue with thinkers and traditions of thought in diverse places, including India, Iran, Europe, and North America. From his perspective it might be argued that these practices are a vital part of bringing about social change and the realization of a more civil and pluralist public sphere, a project he is very much invested in. To this end, a dialogue between him as public intellectual, his fellow scholars and intellectuals as represented by the other academics in the room, and between Iranian citizens eager to hear his views on possible frameworks for future social change, is precisely the practical expression of his own theoretical convictions. Yet while the activists themselves took notes enthusiastically, asked some questions of their own, and engaged with his material in conversations between themselves and with me subsequent to the para-site, it was clear from these questions and their reactions afterward that the question-and-answer format was not best suited to the articulation of theorizing about the appropriate form of secularism for Iran and the implications and limitations of secularism for activists seeking to persuade their fellow citizens that their vision of social change was a valuable one. More practically-oriented questions, of the sort: How is secularism to come about? What will have to be done so that we live in a secular Iran?—were met not with responses that indicated, however broadly, what concrete responses to what situations might lead to the pluralization of the public sphere, but with responses prolonging the argumentation of the philosophical comparison of different secularisms and laicisms undertaken so deftly and provocatively in the paper.
The aim of this review of the experience of the para-site is not to opt for one form of intellectual activity over another. Since, however, the para-site format is designed to help with conceptual elaboration, undertaken as a joint enterprise with ethnographic interlocutors, it is important to note that the great value of this failure to establish a nexus between theory and practice, or between two forms of intellectual practice, lies in the contribution it makes towards the articulation of concept and practice not simply in the context of post-revolutionary Iran, but in ethnographic terms too. The conclusion that I drew above all from the para-site was that any ethnographic inquiry into the conditions of possibility and the dynamics of emergence of an Iranian secularism must privilege the activities of the large numbers of civil society activists not for the most part engaged in sophisticated, professional theorizing, and not in fact explicitly devoted to bringing about a secular state or public sphere. It is through their practices—through the orientation of their action to worldly goals, justified in terms of ideas of human dignity and equality that are eclectic in their sources—that new ethical forms are coming into being. To this end, the political philosopher's references to Iranian civil society movements, especially the women's movement, as being signs of new pluralist political-ethical practices were helpful, even as it was not clear from his discourse how these could be articulated to his own theoretical vision. In a way, here where the more austere forms of theorizing reach their limits—unable to specify what sort of practical content politics as ethics or a spiritualized politics might have, or how politics can be transformed in this way—that ethnographic inquiry in collaboration with activists and intellectuals involved in bringing about this transformation begins, even as many of these activists in the Iranian context deliberately eschew the label "political", arguing for a non-oppositional, non-ideological civic or social activism instead. This does not rule out theorizing; on the contrary, it demands that theorizing be deeply rooted in and in dialogue with changing practices, a form of critical reflection upon them but just as importantly a reflection back upon them, a theory that both cognizes and acts upon the situation and is transformed by it, organically and synthetically.
While the para-site might be characterized as a failure given the difficulty of generating the multi-directional conversational form necessary to the articulation of theoretical-practical links, it was nonetheless invaluable from the point of view of learning how better to conceptualize the collection of emergent phenomena across the contemporary Iranian world to which I am tentatively giving the name "secularism". It also had many ancillary benefits, such as providing important insights into the staging of the role of the Iranian public intellectual, highly relevant to my dissertation's examination of Iranian intellectuals' practices. One sign of its success was the energy the participants still had at the end of the session, an appetite for discussion that spilled over into more informal discussions after the end of the formal meeting. Some of these discussions, both on the content and the form of the para-site, have been continued over e-mail, both among UCI anthropology and non-anthropology faculty and graduate students, and between the ethnographer and a number of the activists. At the present time I am seeking ways to i) continue this momentum through further informal conversations and e-mail exchanges; ii) use the questions raised by the para-site and by my talk the previous week as a starting-point for the deepening of para-ethnographic collaboration with the activists, possibly resulting in a further para-site or related event, involving them only, later on in my dissertation research.
Philip Grant – Para-Site 01/24/09 - Commentary
The Center for Ethnography at UCI has envisioned the para-site as a means by which to overcome the individualistic approach to ethnography that has been the tradition within anthropology since Malinowski set up his tent among the Trobrianders by promoting notions of collaboration and multi-sitedness, as well as questioning the arbitrary binary between the “there” of the field and the “here” of the university. The para-site is a staged encounter moderated by the researcher between her/his interlocutors and colleagues. The premise is that such an encounter could be an important, designed part of the fieldwork experience. Crucially, the para-site attempts to “blur the boundaries between the field site and the academic conference or seminar room.”
Phil staged a conversation between the activists he works with in Southern California from the 1 Million Signatures campaign, Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, and colleagues from UCI (anthropologists, philosophers, and Persian studies students). The 1 million Signatures Campaign is a non-ideological, non-political grassroots movement for gender equality in Iran. It is not associated with any religious or political group and is not trying to overthrow the government of Iran (which is something its detractors have accused it of). Dr. Jahanbegloo is one of the most famous contemporary Iranian intellectuals who currently works in Toronto. He has written extensively on the question of secularism. Phil explicitly stated that the point of this encounter was to encourage a conversation about secularism and intellectual activism in Iran and elsewhere.
Dr. Jahanbegloo discussed his work on secularism, particularly in his book “Two Concepts of Secularism” (a direct reference to Isaiah Berlin's “Two Concepts of Liberty”). As he explained, his project is not to promote an ideology of secularism, but rather a critique of the theological-political, i.e. the theological foundation of republican political formations. Also important is the recognition and investigation of the conjuncture between secularism and sovereignty. He raised the question, “How can secularity be understood in an empathetic relationship to religion without being exclusive?”
India, according to Dr. Jahanbegloo, provides a useful model for the cohabitation of domains of faith and reason, based in mutual respect and reciprocity, in negotiation, not assimilation. Secularism in the context of the Indian political sphere refers to the ability to carry on the affairs of the state without religious interference, keeping religious and political life separate. However, this is not to say that religious life is not recognized and respected by the state. It is a fundamentally different conception of secularism than the French notion of laïcité, which some might regard as a model of radical secularism. In India, secularism is not simply a disregard for religion, but rather a celebration of diversity. The role of the state is to protect religious communities (although, the relative success of this duty is questionable given India's history of sectarian violence). As Gandhi said, spirituality is not the problem, organized religion and politics are. The notion of spiritualizing politics implies bringing an ethics into politics, which Dr. Jahanbegloo indicated was the role of the intellectual. In this sense, secularism becomes a code of (moral) conduct in politics.
The idea of secularization has long been the prisoner of semantic definitions and presented as an ideological project. It has been associated with some of the most brutal dictatorships in the history of the Middle East and with the destruction of civil society in the region. Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Reza Shah in Iran developed secularism modeled on French republicanism because they were worried about the political power of religious groups. The opposition between secularized civil society and the conception of the Islamic state is becoming more and more entrenched in contemporary political discourse. Today, we are witnessing the politicizing of religion, which is very different from a project of spiritualizing politics.
Dr. Jahanbegloo also spoke of a “temporalized civil society,” wherein intellectuals become the protagonists of secularization in Iran. This situation depends on a state of culture as a non-religious phenomenon. Religion, the state, and civil society would have to occupy complementary (and perhaps conflicting?) spaces. Models for the future of Iran could embrace India's non-sectarian attitude, the idea being not assimilation, but associative conciliation.
Is the role of the intellectual in Iran simply to bring ethics into politics, or can the intellectual effectively act as political activist, a la Marx's age-old prescription in Theses on Feuerbach? This seems to me to be a question that necessarily invokes the political stakes raised by Marx in The 18th Brumaire, and by Gramsci, specifically the question of how authoritarian political formations come to power on the backs of those whose interests they do not serve (the French and Italian peasantry, the urban poor in Tehran, etc.). How can the intellectual effect social change and also avoid accusations of vanguardism? In my conversation with Elham Mireshghi after the para-site, she raised the important point about the geographic dispersion of intellectual activism in Iran. If one travels outside of Tehran, or even outside of smaller cities like Isfahan or Shiraz, how effective can activist campaigns be that originate from Tehran's intellectual milieu, or from the Iranian diaspora? It seems to me that the 1 Million Signatures campaign is an effective, pragmatic movement that unites the intellectual-as-activist with (for lack of a better word) the “common” folk. Yet, how is the campaign received in Iran versus the diaspora, and in Tehran versus the countryside? As Elham pointed out, can any such movement really bring about change until there is a widespread cultural shift toward equality and tolerance, and if so, how might that shift be precipitated?
The Center As Para-site in Ethnographic Research Projects Workshop Proposal
November 4, 2006
To the extent that successful field collaborations are founded on a sense of shared engagement-- the notion that anthropological ethnographer and collaborating informant are all in something together-- there is always something tenuous about the spirit of collaborative goodwill. It seems the relationship can break down in so many ways; for example, if you think I’m not doing enough to uphold my end of the bargain, or if you suspect I’ll bastardize the knowledge that you entrusted me with, or if you think I’ll leave you hanging once I have what I need, or if we both do everything that we promised and discover that our knowledges are irrelevant to each other. Whenever we experience a sharpened sense of just how irreconcilably unlike our agendas are--a difference that encompasses conflicts in knowledge’s uses, modes, forms, and manners of representation and distribution-- the conditions are set for breakdown. This concern has profoundly informed the evolving contours of my project. As I have put myself side by side with my collaborating informants, I have wondered how to go about reconfiguring this sense of “us anthropologists” and “you mitigation practitioners”, and the divide between “what we do” and “what they do”, what is same and what is different.
My engagement with works by George Marcus, Doug Holmes, Bert Westbrook, and Chris Kelty have attracted me to the notion of the “imaginary”-- an account of the contemporary, and possibilities for the sorts of counter-narratives that can respond to it-- as a posited point of convergence between various sorts of fugitive knowledges. What intrigues me is not the fact that anthropology and mitigation share the same imaginary (they do not), nor the fact that their respective sets of imaginaries may overlap in certain places (they might, but so what?), nor the notion that we imagine ourselves to have similarly-oriented imaginaries (we are joined by an idea about an idea?), nor the idea that the squishiness of unarticulated imaginaries allows us to get along because we assume that we are doing similarly good things (we are all too cynical for that). I’m interested in another convergence. On the one hand, some intellectually curious, reflexive practitioners of mitigation desire to have their imaginaries articulated; on the other, some anthropologists muse about how the discipline can generate its own knowledge by staging imaginaries, and their concomitant possibilities for fugitive knowledges, within an ethnographic frame. As I’ve continued thinking along these lines, I’ve envisioned a dissertation that takes the form of a critical co-articulation of mitigation’s imaginaries. I would make explicit mitigation’s knowledge practices as their implications fan out into a broader epistemological horizon, but I would also use anthropology’s critical edge to point out the limits of these knowledge practices along every step of the way. As such, the dissertation would stand as an artifact of anthropological knowledge-- an ethnographic staging of a kind that has never been done before (I think)-- but also as an artifact of the field, a deliberate polemic to elicit responses and set the conditions for further collaborations.
With all this in mind, I outline here what a para-site activity would look like:
1) I post on the CEP website (www.capitalethnographyproject.com) the article by Scharlette and my write-up in the Champion, as well as two video clips. This is footage from a case that Scharlette and I have been working on. I also post this on the site:
The legal scholar David Westbrook argues that the capitalist world order operates according to a logic that ‘does not express many things important to being human.’ He holds ethnography out to be an ‘antidiscipline’, an academic sanctuary for fugitive knowledges that would resist the impoverished grammar of the globalized market. Death penalty mitigation-- the thickly contextual biography of a defendant’s life, offered to counteract a sentence of death-- comprises one such set of knowledges.
As a disciplinary refuge for wayward knowledges, can ethnography conspire with its fellow fugitives in subverting the dominant world order? ‘Methods of Humanization’ brings three leading capital defense advocates together with members of UCI’s Center for Ethnography in a discussion about possibilities for the co-articulation of fugitive knowledges. This event provides a forum of reflection in which engaged academics and advocates attempt to gauge the limits of ‘humanization’ as a workable imaginary in contemporary times.
2) I open with introductions, describe the structure of our discussion.
3) We show the video clips, and each of our interlocutors talk about them-- what led them to capture this particular footage, the kinds of questions it raises for their investigation, etc. Video should be good to capture the audience’s attention.
4) Two of our anthropologists respond. Leo Chavez would be a good first responder (he’s done work on capital cases) and Susan Coutin a good follow-up. They give some initial reactions to the clips, how they would have responded to that data if they explicitly embraced the purposes of mitigation, and what our interlocutors comments reveal about the knowledge-generating practices of mitigation.
5 Open up the discussion to anthropologists/audience members to hear their reactions to the clips. I think our anthropologists will love the exercise of trying to think of the same footage in different ways. This should lead into a freewheeling exchange between all.
7) You (if you’re willing!) give some reflexive commentary on what happened in the morning, focusing on notions of method. I’ll give some reflexive commentary, focusing on humanization as an aspect of the mitigation imaginary.
8) Open up the discussion to interlocutors and audience members.
9) I give closing remarks.
Another possibility for the video clips would be to show footage of an interview that I conducted in the Ukraine. This might be a good way to go, because everyone can criticize me, and no one will feel threatened. In fact, to see what various folks approve/disapprove of in my line of questioning, and to what extent people agree or disagree about it, will be fascinating to discern the various knowledge practices at play.
If this all works out right, then the mitigation folks will see this as a useful commentary on the limits of their practice as they currently do it, as well as a good opportunity to see how anthropologists think. Anthropologists will be taken, I think, by this opportunity to rethink a longstanding foundational trope of our discipline (humanity) and to compare it with advocacies constitutions of what seems to be the same notion. And I, as dissertation writer, get to see a miniature staging of the co-articulated imaginary plus anthropological critique that I want to turn into my final work.
Methods of Humanization: “Para-site” Report
On the face of it, the practice of death penalty mitigation appears to be quite ethnographic as a matter of method. Here is the participation, there is the observation. Interviews are conducted, archives pored through, informant networks established. Strands of thought begin to weave themselves through unlikely places, and fieldwork becomes recursive. Notes accumulate. The ends of defense advocates may differ from those of academic anthropology, but the tools of data collection seem more or less the same.
What can anthropological method, and the data that it produces, become when the folks you study do very much what you do? In my project, I approach these similarities as opportunities for a kind of interaction that recognizes mitigation’s practitioners to be more than informants, mere sources of data. This methodological orientation that I share with mitigation’s practitioners—premised on the idea that data collection is heavily empirical, and that in general the more forms it takes on, the better—becomes rich ground for critical dialogue. This is a different sort of field engagement. As interlocutors, we use these points of affinity as springboards to elaborate on ideas that are interesting to us, and to generate new ones. Some of this collaboration may inspire thoughts that advance academic knowledge production. Other parts of it might offer insights that speak directly to legal strategy itself, or perhaps to self-understandings about advocacy’s own processes.
Throughout the course of my fieldwork, this dialogue has been cobbled together, piecemeal, through hit-and-miss improvisations—my participation in casework, reflective memos that triggered email exchanges, one-on-one interviews, deliberately provocative presentations on culture to various audiences, informal chats with attorneys on the ride to jail. The “para-site” was a chance to incorporate into my fieldwork a space of exchange, one that was less piecemeal, more formal, and at least somewhat designed. I would get to see how practitioners respond to a setting in which the goals and practices of capital defense had to be articulated, and not assumed. And I would learn what it is about mitigation, if anything, that intrigues academics and makes them want to learn more about it, from a vantage point informed by their own various commitments and concerns.
The first challenge was to enlist participants from the advocacy community. They had to be curious, intellectually generous, and brave.
The first person to agree was Scharlette Holdman—the recognized guru of mitigation as it is now practiced, the executive director of the nonprofit organization that is my primary fieldsite, and an anthropologist who trained under Colin Turnbull, to boot. Through her, my early fieldwork benefited from steady input from three individuals: Russ Stetler, the federal government’s point person for all things mitigation-related; George Woods, a psychiatrist and testifying expert; and Ben Wolff, a law student who had worked as a defense investigator and victim liaison. All attended the event.
The other participants were advocates whom I had met during the course of my research. I had done casework with Jackie Walsh, a lawyer from Seattle who takes seriously creative approaches to mitigation. Denny LeBoeuf formerly headed an organization in New Orleans that brings habeas corpus challenges to death convictions. And Judy Clarke was counsel in Ted Kaczynski’s trial, in which the defense effectively investigated and portrayed his mental illness to achieve a life sentence.
The event was titled Methods of Humanization: Death Penalty Mitigation and Ethnography as Antidiscipline. In promotional materials, I set up the dialogue with a quote from the legal scholar David Westbrook. As he sees it, the capitalist world order operates according to a logic that “does not express many things important to being human.” He holds ethnography out to be an “antidiscipline,” an academic sanctuary for fugitive knowledges that would resist the impoverished grammar of the globalized market. Mitigation is one of them. But I suggested that mitigation, too, is an antidiscipline in its own right, an incubator of advocative potential for knowledges that would subvert the dominant grammar from within. Ethnography might be one of these.
I wanted to explore the concept of humanization as something relevant to both ethnography and mitigation. Everyone needed to have a stake in the dialogue. The main danger, it seemed to me, was that once everyone got together in the same room, there would be nothing to talk about—that advocates would reject ideas that appeared too theoretical or impractical, and that academics would bristle at the bastardization or dumbing-down of their knowledge. The notion of the human, I thought, seemed good for all of us to chew on. It is worked into the anthropos of anthropology just as it is into the social of the social history, and yet it is not such a term of art for either camp that anyone would feel too territorial about it. With respect to the focus on method, I hoped this would afford a point of departure based on concrete action—what we do—that could segue into a discussion about the human, and its purchase as a working idea in different arenas.
I started with some introductory remarks about the conceptual design of the dialogue. To get the discussion rolling, I played three videoclips from casework that I have been involved in as part of my field research. These were snippets of an interview that I conducted with the client’s father in Ukraine. I asked the legal advocates to comment on these clips, elaborating on what was interesting about the footage, what further questions and investigative measures it prompted them to consider, and why they were relevant in the work of humanization. I then asked Leo Chavez and Roxanne Varzi from the anthropology department to offer their thoughts on the clips as they saw fit.
The prominent feature of the morning discussion was how seductive the ends of legal advocacy seemed to be. Primarily, we spoke either about how mitigation might be done better, or what anthropology and its concepts could or could not offer to the strategic goals of mitigation. Humanization was an endeavor that mitigation was presumed to do; it was accepted as a good in itself. To me, the tenor of the dialogue began to shift when Bill Maurer suggested that humanization, as it manifests in legal advocacy, seems to involve three ideas: first, the notion of building up, whereby context is continually added to make information unwieldy; second, the notion of stripping down, whereby irrelevancies are taken away to arrive at some human essence; and finally, the various tools and conceptual vocabularies that are employed to achieve either the first or the second or some mixture of the two, and that muddle all of the above in strategic fashion. This set up Denny LeBoeuf’s observation that muddling is, in fact, good for advocacy, because it discourages trigger-happy strategizing. In her view, this enables mitigation investigations to more properly take on the character of nonjudgmental reception.
Gabriele Schwab’s concluding remarks for the morning emphasized the virtues of fuzziness as a means of advocacy. If we cannot distinguish between what is mitigable and what is not, can there ever be a moral death penalty? What does it mean for humanity that humanization and pathologization seem to bleed into each other so easily? When we talk about individuals and cultures and power relations and events, how can we ever draw the line to decide who to put on trial? Unclarity was very much on our minds as we broke for lunch. We returned. I showed video footage from work on another case (these clips featured hop fields in Washington state). And discussion turned to what, exactly, the substance and procedure of mitigation entailed such that muddling could take on such provocative effect.
George Marcus asked some questions about the nuts and bolts of mitigation within the framework of law. Russ Stetler explained that capital trials are divided into a guilt/innocence phase and a sentencing phase. According to legal doctrine, mitigation applies to the latter, after the defendant has been found guilty of a crime eligible for the death penalty. The better advocates attempt to incorporate mitigating considerations in the earlier stages of a trial, in a practice that they call “frontloading.” Maurer would later point out that that this element of anticipation has a certain parallel with ethnography: both produce stores of knowledge that seem to exceed what is necessary for immediate concerns, but this knowledge reserve somehow becomes important for responding to unexpected developments down the line. We explored various issues during the second part of the day—Simon Cole’s observations about expertise and reflexivity, Woods’ comments on the desirable “knottiness” of mitigating knowledge, Marcus’ thoughts about the place of ethnography as mediating “high” theory and “local” discourse—but for the purposes of my project, it was this parallel that was perhaps the key insight of the day.
Implications for research
For me, the event crystallized quite dramatically how I, as an academic ethnographer, could access a knowledge practice whose mechanics of method appear so similar to anthropology’s own. This methodological similarity arises from a shared stance of anticipation. We share a certain cynicism about ourselves. Our present theories and concerns, we suspect, may later turn out not to be as serviceable as we thought. We thus hold on to a generous view of what is potentially relevant, gobbling up data—rapaciously, unapologetically, empirically—to store in already-pregnant caches of peripheral memory.
From this recognition of the disposition to “frontload,” it is a short step to ask what it is that our respective knowledge practices do with these hordes of data. Maurer took this step in his concluding comments of the day. Much of the work of mitigation, he said, takes effect through the production of perspectival shifts—something that academic anthropology does all the time. We use the considerable stores of knowledge at our disposal to repackage information, frame discourses in innovative ways, and draw uncanny connections that intrigue, dazzle (as the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern would put it), and thereby engage.
Engagement, of course, is one of the things that advocacy endeavors to do, and so it is that the “para-site” event helped to bring into focus the nub of my research: the need to understand advocacy in the practice of mitigation by elucidating the relationship between frontloading and frame-shifting. To be effective as advocacy, mitigation’s knowledge employs certain frames that intrigue, dazzle, and persuade. The task of my project is to account for why mitigation’s knowledge is effective as advocacy. Thus, I will employ not the same frames of mitigation strategy, but different frames of anthropological analysis—frames that surpise, dazzle, and explain. By incorporating the structured space of a consciously staged dialogue into the middle of fieldwork, I have been able to clarify the central question of my dissertation: to provide an account of Life, Frontloaded: Anticipation and Advocacy in Death Penalty Mitigation.