By Cary Speck

Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others is perhaps the most important piece of theory included in the new iteration of the course. One of the earliest readings on the new syllabus, Sontag’s 2006 cultural critique of war photography, asks how violence is perceived by way of film, and how these representations mold our understanding of others’ suffering. Though Sontag’s focus is photographs, not graphic novels, the questions she poses are absolutely relevant to anthropologists’ ethnographic work. Originally published without any images, Regarding the Pain of Others asks readers to consider whether a “culture of spectatorship” has hardened us to photos of others pain. Is this violence undercut, Sontag asks, by its documentation, or is it instead normalized? How does documenting violence distance sufferers from viewers, and how might we use these images to help the depicted without exoticizing their pain or fostering morbid voyeurism? By thus broaching the topic of representation at the start of the semester rather than address it ad hoc at the end of the term, I believe students are better prepared to engage not only with subsequent case studies of violence but also with representations of the Other and “cultures of spectatorship” in ethnography more generally. Sontag’s proposed remediation to the problem of desensitizing imagery—contextualizing visual representations with extensive, fine-grained writing—should sound somewhat familiar to ethnographers.

Such multimodal combinations of image and essay are particularly prominent in the work of Joe Sacco, another key figure in the revised syllabus. Chris Hedges and Joseph Sacco’s Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is a mixed-media piece of journalism, fusing Chris Hedges’s op-ed writing with Sacco’s ethnographic vignettes of five “sacrifice zones” in the United States. From Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to Camden, New Jersey, to Wall Street, New York, Hedges and Sacco document the manifold ways indirect violence, poverty, and willful neglect reverberate in America (Hedges and Sacco 2014).

Though Hedges and Sacco do not directly engage with violence studies, the symptoms and sufferers of structural violence are at the forefront of their work. Unlike Watchmen’s dystopian New York, where violence is as much spectacle as cautionary tale, the structural violence Moore and Hedges portray is rooted in reality, situated in cities students at the University of Massachusetts have most certainly heard of if not visited themselves. Also, unlike the photographs Sontag critiques, Sacco’s comics are carefully inked and composed, portraying interviewees as dynamic subjects, not abject sufferers or hapless victims. Depicted in their homes and communities, their testimonies afford them a measure of self-representation alongside Sacco’s interpretive illustration.

I suggest that incorporating such multimodal nonfiction humanizes sufferers more than it exoticizes them. Using such works in violence studies classes instead of comic books still prompts students to grapple with questions of representation, yet does so without relegating structural violence to the realm of fiction. Providing true-to-life case studies enhances student learning at the same time it sidesteps possibly trivializing social violence by framing it as entertainment or spectacle.

Finally, the fortuitous publication of Brad Evans and Sean Wilson’s Portraits of Violence in January 2017 allowed perhaps the most seamless synthesis of theory and image in the revised course. Consisting of ten short visual adaptations of the work of Agamben, Arendt, Fanon, and others, Evans and Wilson’s text provides visual counterparts to many of the original readings students were asked to parse in the old class. By including these illustrated facsimiles alongside their original articles, students can now read “between” texts, comparing excerpts from The Wretched of the Earth with Evans and Wilson’s visual summary of Fanon’s argument (Evans and Wilson 2016). While such cross-referencing can certainly help students better understand foundational thinkers, this reading between the lines also implicitly prompts them to assess how ideas change in translation. Asking students how Evans and Wilson’s inclusion of explicit photos in their adaptation of Sontag, for instance, provides a counterpoint for students to return to and puzzle over in later weeks, prompting conversations about responsible representation and the power of images vis-à-vis textural description.

Citing Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, Brad Evans notes that the spectacle of violence too often becomes a substitute for the human empowerment it cries out for (Evans and Giroux 2015, ix) I have argued that braiding together graphic nonfiction with social theory inhibits such morbid fatalism and fosters students’ earlier recognition of the stakes of ethnographic representation. As Dr. Galman and others here have noted, ethnographic novels evoke “emotions and worldviews” that might otherwise go unrecognized or unmentioned if communicated in purely textual or verbal forms (Galman 2009). I argue they can also prompt students to think more critically and flexibly to broaden their definitions of what “counts” as cultural representation and cultural violence. To remain legible and relevant—to matter—anthropology classes must meet students where they are and must engage with them in culturally responsive and responsible ways. By presenting graphic nonfiction alongside social theory, I believe anthropologists can enhance students’ engagement with ethnographic materials, cultivate critical thinking, and better prepare them to recognize the cultural violence and inequity all cultural representations can mask.

Evans, Brad, and Henry A. Giroux. 2015. Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Evans, Brad, and Sean Wilson. 2016. Portraits of Violence: An Illustrated History of Radical Thinking. Oxford: New Internationalist.
Hedges, Chris, and Joseph Sacco. 2014. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. New York: Hachette Book Group.
Galman, Sally Campbell. 2009. “The Truthful Messenger: Visual Methods and Representation in Qualitative Research in Education.” Qualitative Research 9 (2): 197–217.
Sontag, Susan. 2006. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador