Monday, November 22, 2004

Elizabeth Dauphinee "Reflections on a past that is always present" - Maria Stoianova

Elizabeth Dauphinée. Reflections on a Past that is Always Present. (Doctoral Dissertation: York University, Toronto, 2004).

This dissertation, in the words of the author, is an effort at reflection, at a conversation, at humbling. The main character is a Serbian man by the name of Stojan Sokolovic; the place: Bosnia and the time: the years after 1992. Elizabeth reflects on the (im)possibility of representation, on the injustice inherent in any effort of containing the “other” within a familiar scheme of knowing. Her academic research in Bosnia uncovers for her not only the academic violence inherent in field work, that is, a violence sustaining above all else the discipline of political science, but also the very real perpetuation and dissemination by scholars of “appropriate” forms of discrimination, differentiation, and exclusion. She suggests that the desire to know ourselves is directly dependent on the ability of others to know us, on their unspoken willingness to recognize our claims to subjectivity and on their hospitality (though often ignored) toward a humanity that is homeless in its origins.

Elizabeth questions the authority of expert knowledge and uncovers the very practices by which it is acquired in field research: the mind-numbing interviews, the theoretical commitments, the tourist gaze that consumes, changes and normalizes the object of study; the crippled attempts to speak a foreign language, the ethics board reviewers’ stringent and dehumanizing requirements and the disciplining practices guiding the translation of first-hand “expertise” into articles, books, tenure. In order that one is positioned within the discipline of International Relations, she maintains, one has to find a place where to fit and align oneself within the scientific commitments of research. The very possibility of presenting the truth delivered from the mouth of the field researcher is exposed for its arbitrariness, its momentary and fluctuating nature, and in its instability. She juxtaposes imagining and seeing in attempts at reconstructing and organizing experiences into an orderly story, “because darkness is something Other” (12).

Academic writing is revealed as being overly committed to achieving the potential for knowledge, that is, scientific knowledge: “Knowledge manifests itself as a grasping – a groping – of perception, comprehension, repetition, a subsuming of the Other into a framework of intelligibility that orders alterity into a category of taxonomy” (29). Elizabeth’s ‘methodology’ is derived from a Levinasian responsibility to alterity she posits as ethically prior to any ontological commitment or certitude. For her, “Impressions are knowledge . . . the taste left in the mouth from a half-remembered conversation is knowledge . . . my grief and the grief that others have allowed me to see is knowledge . . . love and the ability to love is knowledge” (16). The idea of thinking past opens boundaries and does away with the concept of boundaries altogether, with the ontological certitude that is inherent in their protection, construction and imposition. The work of a field researcher, in order that it does not commit injustice towards its subjects, must understand itself as originating within economies of violence. That is, the researcher studying a Serbian man guilty of murder, too, is “an injurious one, a perpetrator” (14) who, nevertheless, cannot keep silent for silence is also a decision; it is complicity that allows for the perpetuation of physical, emotional and discursive violence.
Elizabeth turns to an ethics that is beyond the discipline of International Relations, an ethics that is drunk with a love grown sour from too much analysis, from too much positioning, from too many accusations. “That is a love that is not bankrupt of justice . . . It is a love that contemplates the possibility of forgiveness” (25). In an attempt to position herself as a subject ethically responsible to its others, Elizabeth calls for a responsibility to the guilty, to the murderer, to the monster who is also locked within a violence that knows him only as guilty, a murderer, a monster. “I am not burdened by my love of the innocent . . . The burden lay in the love of the guilty, in the love for the guilty. . . And this binds me in measure beyond measurement, because of my love, because of my lack of it, and because grief, like violence, is not a think that can be washed from the skin like salt” (26). Her search is not for an external generalizability of conclusions for spanning the central questions that define the discipline of International Relations lies the responsibility to see beyond ethnic conflict and the boundaries of the state, that is, beyond natural categories of opposition between a Self and an-Other, between the citizen and the foreigner, between the victim and the perpetrator. “I am responsible to speak to him, not of him, not about him, not for him, I am responsible not to silence him, but to regard him with silence – to stand in silence for the suffering he has caused and for the suffering caused still. I am obligated to silence before the perpetrator in the space that awaits justice. Silence accuses without formulating a narrative on the violence which struggles always to justify what is not justifiable – which is to say, itself” (199).

Importantly, the ‘other’ is a break in the cohesion of the world, a call to ethics at the border crossing. Elizabeth deconstructs the fluid, stable and immobile categories defining the main debates within International Relations, debates that understand identity to be based on past conceptions of itself only so that it can situate itself within present anti-historical commitments and political agenda. For her, deconstruction is useful precisely because “its very character is to avoid totalizing, exclusionary goals” (44) legitimizing the advancement of political goals. Deconstruction makes it impossible to decide who the victim and who the victimizer is, the relationship cannot be established a priori, it exists only in the moment of encounter.

Elizabeth draws an interesting analogy between fieldwork and tourism, uncovering a parallel between the prying gaze of the former into what are perceived as exotic and authentic worlds, and the latter’s claim to scientific authenticity and authority by virtue of having been there. That is, having the academic credentials to interview, the money to purchase a plane ticket and the right passport to enter the war zone does not change the fact that the academic as a witness reminds of the tourist, the consumer. BUT, the ‘other’ also has the force to resists so that witnessing goes hand in hand with being witnessed. The academic gaze is also the gaze of the institution: “the technology of the gaze allows for both the representation and the disciplining of the object of study, which no longer had anywhere to go to get out from under it” (63). Thus, the scholar as an expert is called to make sense of people, a place, a custom, a culture by containing them within an ontological straightjacket. The academic as a tourist understands the native always from the lens of Western engagement, through guidebooks, maps, agents and translation and thus, he essentializes, totalizes, consumes and represents the native as a spectacle, a thing. Additionally, the claim of having been there allows for the production of knowledge based on some sort of authoritative actual physical engagement and partaking with the Other. The tourist gaze is professionalized by academics; it is “a detached and superficial process” inventing places to suit its purpose and its research agenda. Adventure tourism, once turned into academic fieldwork, soon yields itself to being “war tourism,” a spectacle, “a quest for the extraordinary – for the extraordinarily exterior” (81).

Casting a critical eye on accepted practices of doing field research, Dauphinée suggests that any level of ethical sensitivity and responsibility necessarily leads to estrangement but that, precisely of this estrangement, the researcher is obliged to re-examine her role as an unproblematized middleman between theory and the real world. The self is always inherent and present between the lines of writing and mainstream scholarly research is disillusioned in thinking itself immune to subjectivity, partiality and disorder. “Meaning is fundamentally betrayed by the opacity, the undecidability, and the inscrutability of fixing meaning in time, space, and temperament” (102). Order, as suggested also by Zygmunt Bauman, is a myth. The researcher and the subject are engaged in a relationship of power precisely because the former has the ability to decide what shall be written and what will count as a legitimate narrative. Because only certain stories are chosen and only certain testimonies are represented, “things are vested with significance through the identification of their relationship with other things, events, people and places” (93).

Importantly, representation is bound in trust – and in its lack (118). Trusting that representations are true ignores the fact that they are, indeed, exchangeable for the realities which they claim to uncover. With this in mind, it is clear that a recognition and care for the pain of others obliges the researcher to understand justice outside the imperative of the written law. Justice is, on the other hand, reliant on the impossibility of making a decision, “undecidability points to the impossibility of decision without ordeal – without suffering – without that any number of possibilities may be chosen and may injure, or may be ignored and injure worse. . . . The moment of decision becomes a madness that has no anchoring rationality . . . and justice is always ‘to come’” (129-30). This is not to suggest that justice and representation are impossible, but that it is important to realize that there is love in violence and pain in happiness and that there is no one master narrative, that language is contingent and always oppressive but that, additionally, the choice to break the silence is a responsibility inherent in the human condition and in interacting with Others. Justice requires action and the pain of others, precisely because it weighs on us; it requires that theory recognize it as suffering clothed in human tears, sweat and blood. It is not enough for the researcher to recognize that “I am implicated in the power and power relations simply in the act of writing, and of representing” – it is imperative that one writes with whit self-accusation in mind, and write responsibly and well, though often from the politically bankrupt and ethically empty space that is sometimes the academic one.

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