Culture and Conflict: The Poetics of Violent Practice

Advanced Seminar

April 28–May 2, 2002

This year’s second Advanced Seminar, “Culture and Conflict: The Poetics of Violent Practice,” took place April 28-May 2, 2002. Two discussants joined the eight participants whose papers examined violent practice in a range of cultures including those of West Africa, the Khmer Rouge, Rwanda, the Basque region of Spain, and the United States. Neil Whitehead, who chaired the seminar, described the purpose of the seminar as “seeking an understanding of violence as a cultural expression.”

Anthropologists have tended to treat violence as evidence of the “breakdown” or “end limit” of culture, generally regarding violent acts as meaningless and “without sense or reason.” Whitehead suggested that such a perspective leaves violence under-theorized, “assuming its senselessness requires no theorization or interpretation.” However, ethnographic research makes clear that within specific cultures, violent acts are expressions of cultural codes imbued with great meaning for both perpetrator and victim. “Rather than being at the margins of culture,” posited Whitehead, “perhaps violence is at the center of culture.”

By conjoining the concepts of violence and culture, the seminar intended to “trouble our notions of both concepts,” and seek new ways to comprehend and interpret violent practice. “Unless the perpetrator’s view is part of our own understanding,” Whitehead observed, “how to address the sources of violence will escape us.” The seminar examined various aspects of state violence, legitimate and illegitimate forms of violence, and the impact of anticipatory violence on daily life.

For anthropology to fully understand the cultural impacts of modernization and globalization, Whitehead said, innovative research on violence is vitally important. “It is in the marginal spaces of the global ethnoscape that violence becomes a form of cultural affirmation and expression in the face of a loss of ‘tradition’ and a dislocation of ethnicity.”

Neil L. Whitehead, Chair Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Madison On The Poetics of Violence
Begoña Aretxaga Department of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin Before the Law: The Narrative of the Unconscious in Basque Political Violence
Veena Das Discussant, Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University
Stephen Ellis Afrika-studiecentrum, Netherlands Culture and Violence: Some Reflections on West African Wars
Dr. Kenneth M. George Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Madison Violence, Culture, and the Indonesian Public Sphere: Some Ethnographic Tasks
Alex Hinton Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University The Poetics of Genocidal Practice: Violence under the Khmer Rouge
Pradeep Jeganathan Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota Anthropology, Nationalist Thought, Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, and an Uncertain Descent into the Ordinary
Mark Seltzer Department of English, University of California, Los Angeles True Crime
Christopher Taylor Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama Rwandan Sacred Kingship
Kay B. Warren Discussant, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University

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