Genres of Justice: A Conversation with Laurence Ralph

To cite this article: Laurence Ralph (2021) Genres of Justice: A Conversation with Laurence Ralph, Anthropology Now, 13:1, 100-105, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2021.1903574

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Laurence Ralph

This article comprises excerpts from a conversation between Lucas Bessire and Laurence Ralph about the state of anthropology and the world now. Our discussion was wide ranging and covered many topics and themes. These excerpts were edited for length and clarity.

LB: How would characterize the state of anthropology as a discipline? Where do you think we should go from here?

LR: I think we must begin with the premise that there is no “normal” to return to. Therefore, how do we imagine the world that we want without compromise? I think that is important because the current moment shows the failure of democracy. It shows the fictions of meritocracy and class privilege in the United States. In the U.S. today, for example, the present moment shows us that there are so many things, including the pandemic, that put one’s life in danger in a very literal sense.

LB: How do you see anthropology fitting into that project or aim of addressing current social problems?

LR: Anthropologists have been addressing societal concerns for a long time. I believe the strength of an anthropological perspective is that we can look to marginalized groups as indicators, not exceptions. Anthropologists have ways to do that methodologically. We are more likely to acknowledge how experiences of marginalization are not exceptional but widespread. We know that shared vulnerability is today’s status quo. And we know that marginalized groups have been experiencing the kind of premature death that is more common in the age of COVID for a long time. So we should have something to say about where we go as a society.

LB: What aspects of anthropology do you think are hindering that shared humanistic aim from being the main thrust of the discipline today?

LR: For me, the real value of anthropology lies in its grounded, ethical engagements with the world. What hinders us is when we get away from that. So what is hindering anthropologists is the same thing that is hindering most professions. It’s the same thing that is hindering the academy as a whole. People are preoccupied with incentives to ascend within a professional space that has become divorced from interactions with the real world. We, the professional class, are preoccupied with all the things that are supposed to indicate value—the laurels of recognition, the obsession with careerism, publishing in the right spaces, getting the right kinds of fellowships, etcetera. But we know those things do not actually indicate substantive value. But unlike most professions, our self-reflexive mode is inherent to our identity. So anthropologists should be equipped with the ability to navigate our profession in a way that doesn’t divorce us from the world.

I think that our profession breeds a kind of narcissism that tries to cover over aspects of its shameful past. There’s a direct relationship between individualism, careerism, the figure of the lone ethnographer and anthropology’s shameful past. To get out of that space, liter- ally and conceptually, means collaboration. It means working with people, displacing my authority and contributing to a collective effort. It means thinking and writing in ways beyond ethnographic monographs. I hope that leads other people to recognize the importance of cross-genre work and the impacts that other modes of engagement can have on the discipline.

LB: How deep does this run? It seems like this tension between our political engagements and our institutional constraints may be so profound that it causes progressive academic structures to mirror, in a certain sense, the structures of authoritarian hierarchy and elite privilege that many of us claim to fight against. Do you agree?

LR: Yes, but I don’t think it’s unique to anthropology. I think that mirroring happens to journalists, progressive documentarians, filmmakers and politicians. But I believe, as anthropologists, we must demand more. We should not be satisfied with the kind of restrictions and barriers that are comfortably in place in other capitalist professions and democratic institutions. I think we are in a new generational moment in many ways. For my parents’ generation, success was getting into the doors of higher education and entering the professional ranks as Black people in North America. In the process, they were exposed to trauma because of their presence, a trauma that could be so intense that they didn’t necessarily have the space to also re-think the institution at the same time. Now, generationally, we’re in a different space. That manifests as a tension between the projects of reform and fundamental transformation. If the older generation equated inclusion with reform, our generation is thinking of the limitations of reform and then transformation. I think this is happening across professions. It’s definitely happening within anthropology. Again, part of this is due to a generational privilege that my age group has. But it is also a generational responsibility.

LB: What do you see as the major promises and the challenges ahead for this transformational moment in anthropology?

LR: The biggest challenge is how to break the cycle by which people internalize institutional trauma and then reproduce it. For example, I don’t know anybody in our generation who didn’t have traumatic experiences as part of becoming a professional anthropologist. Whether it’s  plagiarism,  or a toxic form of performance that masquerades as debate, or being taught extractive ways of doing research, or just being harassed, belittled, tokenized and told that you’re not capable. I think these experiences are common, not the exception. We have to recognize that they are all part of an exploitative structure. The question then becomes: Now what? What are we supposed to do with that? I think a lot of people unintentionally reproduce this trauma without even realizing that they are reproducing it. Their understanding of the role of they play as professor or mentor is toxic. We have to question what those kinds of practices do to people, who they serve, and how they are violent. So again, our generation has a responsibility to rethink mentorship and collaboration. That’s not to say that good mentors didn’t exist before. But I don’t know anybody who didn’t have this experience with at least one of their mentors or their advisors.

These unexamined notions of how the profession is supposed to operate are really major hindrances to transformation. Colleagues can become a barrier, you can be- come a barrier, I have become a barrier to myself. I’ve had to rethink how I teach. For example, I found that a lot of my teaching had been about policing students and grades because of the way students question my authority as a Black professor working in elite spaces. I was shielding myself through rules and elaborate rubrics so that there was no way students were going to question me. But I had to recognize that, in doing that, I was getting away from the teaching environment I ideally wanted to create because of what I had experienced before. It hindered me from being the kind of teacher I want to be. I want to create a space where everyone can learn collectively, but I was afraid of being taken advantage of. Our past can be a barrier to imagining a different kind of profession—a different kind of anthropology.

LB: What kind of graduate training could help break this cycle and ease the tensions between generations of scholars?

LR: I’ll be 40 next year. The generation just be- low us has a facility with social media that our generation typically does not have. With that

facility comes a temporality of critique that is instantaneous, off-the-cuff, and super public. What are the repercussions of that? I think a lot of people of my generation or older would say “It’s bad! It’s going to hinder their careers!” But that’s not necessarily true. And maybe what looks like critique is not actually critique. Maybe it’s more of an ephemeral response and a reaction that is mediated in a different way. Some might say it seems like “cancel culture,” but I don’t know if it is. Anthropologists teach grad students how to critique; we don’t teach grad students how to build. So that has something to do with it. Everybody knows Malinowski is fucked up. To get around it, we teach students to criticize him. This debate about canons is really a debate about how we teach critique. There is a question on the table about whether we need to do more or less of that. Maybe if we placed more effort in building future worlds, we wouldn’t be in an annihilation phase. Of course, some of our disciplinary conventions should be annihilated. But if that is the only available mode, and we do not have modes for creating and building, then we’re going to train people who are not equipped to create something themselves.

LB: At a moment when many people are drawing from that critical mode to call for burning parts of anthropology, what, if any- thing, do you think should be kept?

LR: I think we should keep our commitment to social problems, our groundedness and our focus on the ways certain events or processes unevenly impact people. We should keep a kind of reflexivity about how we go about doing this work. We should keep a focus on ethics. And that’s basically all I need for anthropology. I prefer to practice anthropology in a space where other people are working on a similar problematic, with a similar kind of ethical engagement. I like to imagine research projects in a collective space where I’m working with a community of people who are not all scholars. I like to feel like what we’re doing together can have an impact in the world. That is what I need from anthropology.

LB: It seems you’re doing two things to break these cycles, to activate an anthropological ethics of building something and to give us a way forward. One is through your work in collaborative ethnography and another is your genre work. What does the collaborative ethnographic dynamic do for you?

LR: For me, collaborative ethnography starts with a commitment to a specific social problem. No matter where I study the problem of police violence, for example, I know I’m not the only one invested in this issue. So I want to be in a space where a lot of different people are working towards the same goal. I enter the space by asking if they [community members] feel I have something to contribute. If they do feel that way, then we can work on a set of problems together. You know, I’ve entered spaces where people are like, “No, we don’t feel like you have anything to con- tribute. We got it.” So, I exited that space. In Chicago, for example, a lot of people have a particular association with researchers who are not necessarily from their community. I respect that. So that’s the first thing. And then, if a community of people do want to work with me, I have to figure out what I can do. With Renegade Dreams, when I started out, all I could do was hand out flyers for political rallies. That’s what I could do. And it changed over time. Eventually a research project might emerge out of what community members feel like I can do to help their efforts. If so, that project will be aligned in a particular way with what the people have been doing in that space. It might be aligned against certain orientations, but it will be informed by what people are actually doing. With the of gun violence and gang violence and police violence, I start by asking “What are people already doing to address the question?” And what I end up with is something collaborative because I’m not imposing my solution. I’m working with a host of people who are trying to find their own solutions.

LB: What does the ethnographic add to collaborative anthropology around problems like police violence?

LR: Ethnography lets me stitch together different scales and contexts and make different kinds of comparisons across time and space. It gives me ways to talk about how people in that space are navigating each other and carving out their own space. The NGO might be at odds with the juvenile detention center, which is at odds with gang, which is at odds with the police. But I’m talking to people who are in all of those institutions. And I’m talking about why they are at odds, and where they’re at odds and, therefore, why the solutions that they’re proposing sometimes fall flat. That is part of what ethnography can contribute to a given set of problems.

LB: Is it fair to say that you stay close to the full dimensions of people’s lived experience within these complicated frameworks of problem and intervention? Would you also say that you’re showing how most of the big problems of the contemporary can’t be solved using the existing categories that the intervention and the problem are often framed around?

LR: Yes, a lot of times the official categories do not make sense. They need to be exploded and reconstituted. People often ask me to ex- plain the difference between sociology and anthropology. To me, it comes down to this. Oftentimes with sociology, the category is taken for granted and mobilized as if it re- ally exists. What I’m doing most of the time is showing why that category is suspect, and why it actually doesn’t exist in the way that people think it does, and why we need new categories. For example, I’m opening up the recognized category of the gang—I explain why what they call a gang is not actually a gang, and so on. But I am also saying there’s this other category that people in the community or even scholars don’t recognize: a “renegade,” someone alienated from the gang for a particular reason. Once we recognize that category, we can understand what renegades think and feel and do. The category is constituted by the analysis, rather than the other way around.

LB: You work across genres, from conventional ethnography and literary fiction to animated films. How does this anticategorical impulse of your ethically engaged scholar- ship relate to the ways that you are pushing ethnographic genres?

LR: When I come to a project, I want the representations of it to reflect its presence and experience in the field. The material dictates the form. The experience of doing ethnographic work holds a particular type of feeling and a particular kind of tone. I never presume that I know how to write a book. I start with what is happening, what the research experience feels like. I don’t know at the beginning whether it is going to take the form of a book or what that book will be like. Then, there is the question of the audience. That affects the genre, too. The “Torture Letters” short film is animated because it was meant for public school students in Chicago around this initiative to teach about the history of police torture. I knew my book couldn’t do that work, so I wanted to do something else. The limitation of the torture book, for me, was the emotional aspect that I didn’t feel I could actually convey through words. Maybe somebody could, but I couldn’t. Realist documentary had similar limits. I found I could only access the emotional dimensions through animation. For me, animation is very conceptual because I’m a visual thinker. If I write “the idea came to me like a bolt of lightning,” it is just a simile. But in animation, I can show the idea arriving in a flash and moving into my mind. I can convey a more immediate emotional impact as well. That’s what I was going for with the film. I’m also doing a graphic novel right now and it’s the same thing. There is something about writing visually that is directly related to how I experience the ethnographic encounter. It’s intuitive for me to translate the experience and anthropological ideas visually, particularly when I’m trying to reach nonanthropologists.

LB: What does animation do that live action or fiction cannot do for the ethnographic form?

LR: I didn’t want to fictionalize the torture material. The characters in the Torture Letters, that film, are real characters. The film represents what they actually said to me in interviews. I believe that it is important for the film to be factual, particularly because for so long, police torture in Chicago was denied. The municipal government said it didn’t happen. The film borrows from fiction in the sense that fiction can be an important way of getting at truth. But what actually happened was not fic tional, and I wanted to make that clear.

LB: One of the remarkable things about the short is how it combines poetic, abstract, allegorical imagery with brutal reportage. What distinguishes an ethnographic animation project from other more common kinds of animated projects?

LR: In the U.S., animation is ostensibly focused on children or on raunchy humor for adults, even though adults actually watch much of the child-focused work. Oftentimes animation has the performative effect of making the adult remember some “essential truth” that they’ve known since childhood. This is something that the adult doesn’t have to think about. It is something that the person knows and takes for granted. And I am not doing that.

I had two audiences in mind, 1) people who didn’t know much about police violence and 2) Black youth in Chicago, who saw the police everywhere they went. I didn’t want to tell the first group that they should relate to Black people who live in heavily policed communities. I wanted them to feel a connection. Animation has a way of connecting us by allowing us to return to our childhood innocence. I tried to get the audience in that place where they could relate to a child. Then I wanted to show them that some children grow up endangered. I thought maybe that could trigger an empathic connection. For my audience of Black teenagers, who lived this reality, I just wanted to validate their experience. To let them know that they are not alone. It’s the film I wish I had when I was a teenager. But I knew I wouldn’t have watched it back then if it was a realist documentary. So animation was vital.

Laurence Ralph is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University and the Director of Center on Transnational Policing. He is the author of Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2014) and Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence (University of Chicago Press, 2020).

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