How do stories about violence assign and delimit possible subject positions, embodying conceptions of gender, race, class and nation? How have cultural analysts conceptualized the link between violence and narrative, and what can be learned from thinking in terms of "communicable cartographies"? Charles Briggs, the Alan Dundes Distinguished Professor of Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley, pursues these questions in an essay in the August 2007 issue of Cultural Anthropology.
Briggs’s account begins in a jail, where he tries to talk a young woman accused of infanticide into providing a narrative that could soften charges against her. The woman refused to cooperate, distancing herself "from the politics of truth embraced by the state and activists alike, using a politics of silence, doubt, and forgetting—and a radical reformulating of modes of speaking about violence—in challenging her assigned subject positions of monster, victim, embodiment of racial inferiority, martyr, and cause ćel`ebre." With time, Briggs realized the radicalism of the woman’s stance, and its implications for both social theory and advocacy.
Stories about violence – whether narrated by police, reporters, judges, activist working on behalf of the accused, or anthropologist – work, according to Briggs, because of "communicable cartographies." Operating as a mode of symbolic domination, communicable cartographies create subject positions and organize them on moral maps, severely limiting the range of possible, thinkable responses.
"Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations between Narrative and Violence" analyzes narratives about infanticide in Venezuela, showing how "constructions of discourse about violence create a very limited range of subject positions, generate standardized scripts for persons interpellated in each slot, and make it difficult to advance counternarratives, thereby inscribing the legitimacy of state institutions during a period (the 1990s) when the nation-state project seemed to be collapsing." The essay critically reviews the literature on violence and narrative, engaging the work of Teresa Caldeira, Veena Das, Michael Taussig, E. Valentine Daniel and Liisa Malkki, among others.
What does this mean for cultural analysts? Briggs deftly and passionately argues for increased consideration of communicability, which is "so deeply imbricated with the phenomena we study and so automatic, insignificant, and mechanical that it only seems to warrant attention when our idealized cartographies seem to get hijacked or obstructed."