A number of critics and commentators have contended that there is no such thing as “meaningless violence” and hence the perpetrator warrants studying, as discussed at a conference last week. Organised by the wonderful Dr Clare Bielby at WISE, University of Hull (and supported by Technische Universität Dresden and the German History Society), the conference was entitled ‘The Perpetrator Self: Violence, Gender and Emotion in Conflict and Culture in the Long Twentieth Century’. Though this blog site is first and foremost aimed at documenting my current focus group work (those posts are coming soon, I promise!), this is an opportunity to look at further research work, both in the field of American Studies and beyond. I need to thank Clare for pushing me beyond my comfort zone. Indeed, there is always a temptation for area studies academics, to fail to look beyond their immediate geographical remit, at the risk of missing valuable opportunities to draw points of comparison and contrast with other texts and contexts that may enrich our own ideas and fields.
As asked in the opening comments, if we don’t seek to understand violence, how can we ever seek to handle or manage it? What are the implications of seeking to understand the perpetrator? The conference organisers sought to push delegates beyond straightforward interpretations of violence, asking them to consider what may be the emotions or affects that violence is bound up with (whether positive or negative), and whether the violent perpetrator can “easily” be gendered. Certainly, taking emotion and gender into account in perpetrator studies in a sustained way is missing. Along both emotional and gendered lines, in what ways might we understand violence as something productive (for the self), rather than just a destructive force?
I was interested to learn the etymology of the word “perpetrator”; taken from the Latin perpetrare, “to perform, to accomplish”. If we are to discuss the “performance” of violence, then surely – as was raised in the opening hours of the conference – we need to consider simultaneously the role of the audience. Coincidentally, this fit with my own paper in which I included a consideration for how a series of violent books may (sometimes problematically) be consumed. I explored a trilogy by UK born Shaun Attwood, who was arrested in the US for drug-dealing. The so-called English Shaun Trilogy (2010-2014) details his life as a raver, inside jail, and once sentenced in prison. Attwood certainly boasts attributes pertaining to “classic” American prison authors, embracing reading and self-education as a means of redemption, and putting forward commentary on the problems with the system and the state. And yet his status as an “outsider” offers a fascinating pedestal from which to detail the frisson of violent prison exploits. The narrator offers sensationalist descriptions of aggressive episodes; as his publisher must surely be aware, (American) violence sells! Including materials garnered from an interview I conducted with the smart and savvy Attwood, I sought to explore the cultural constructions of violence in his books and the politics of violent representation.
Sitting on a panel entitled “Social Violence” (the others included State-Sanctioned Violence, Revolutionary Violence, Exhibiting Violence), I learnt from Professor Sarah Colvin about the field of Narrative Criminology. A growing field, according to Oxford Bibliographies Narrative Criminology’s cross-discipline approach considers the relationship between stories and crime, “that is, the narrative itself, as opposed to the events and circumstances reported in the narrative, is taken to be the immediate cause of offending”.[i] I anticipate that this domain will aid me greatly as I develop the paper into a longer article and I look forward to reading more. Furthermore, I believe that a good conference will – in addition to generating a hefty amazon bill – inspire teaching as well as research. I was captivated by “Hearts and Minds: the Interrogation Project”, a virtual reality 3D artwork based on interviews of American soldiers, conducted by Dr. John Tsukayama.[ii] Originating as a PhD thesis with the graphics added later, the voiceover details uncomfortable stories of “ordinary” American soldiers conducting torture post-9/11, and the PTSD they subsequently suffered. Given that I incorporate discussions of Abu Ghraib / Guantanamo Bay into my American Prison Culture module in a week on “War-time Imprisonment”, as does my colleague Barnaby Haran on his American Photography module, I do hope we can perhaps seek to bring this memorable project to our students in future. I thank all those from whom I learnt so much throughout the course of the two days of conference.
[i] Lois Presser, “Narrative Criminology,” Oxford Bibliographies Online: http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195396607/obo-9780195396607-0171.xml [Accessed 21/9/15].
[ii] See various websites connected to the project, including: http://www.uib.no/en/discipline/digitalculture/85820/interrogating-torture; http://astro.temple.edu/~rcoover/HeartsAndMinds/index.html; http://astro.temple.edu/~rcoover/HeartsAndMinds/Hearts-Description2015.pdf [all accessed 21/9/15].