An Interdisciplinary Workshop on ‘Violence and Knowledge of the Senses’ in engagement with The Spectral Wound

ON 6th of December 2016, an interdisciplinary cohort of colleagues from different universities: Durham [Nayanika Mookherjee, Elisabeth Kirtsoglou, Paolo Fortis, Alex Flynn, Bob Simpson, Bob Layton, Michael Carrithers, Ben Hildred, Anthony Rizk, Felix Ringel (All from Anthropology), Divya Tolia-Kelly (Geography)], Newcastle (Anselma Gallinat, Political Science), Lancaster (Brian Black, Religious Studies), University College London (Prof. Christopher Pinney – an eminent visual anthropologist Johns Hopkins University (Prof. Veena Das – known by all for her work on Anthropology of violence came together for this workshop on Violence and Knowledge of the Senses in engagement with The Spectral Wound. Prof. Veena Das was part of Anthropology’s 70/50 Anniverssary celebrations at Durham.

Other colleagues who were interested n the workshop but could not participate due to prior commitments: Admir Jugo, Claudia Merli, Steve Lyon, Tom Widger (Anthropology), Ernesto Schwartz-Sydney Calkin (Geography), Geoffrey Scarre (Philosophy), Clare McGlynn (Law), Nicole Westmarland, (CRIVA/ASS), Justin Willis, Chery Leonardi (History), Jutta Bakonyi (SGIA), Abir Hamdar (Arabic studies) and Jennifer Terry (English).

In The Spectral Wound (Mookherjee 2015), the photographer Naibuddin Ahmed’s famous ‘that hair photograph’ of the birangona (meaning brave women, a term ascribed by the newly formed Bangladeshi government in 1971 to women who had been raped during the Bangladesh war of 1971) brings to the forth how violent events like wartime sexual violence is sensed beyond an interior and exterior experience. Felt as a bhoyonkor (horrific) sublime figure, the birangona in this photograph stands in as a ruptured being who can be subconsciously internalised and imagined as one marked only by the horror of the violence of rape. It is this inherent relationship between an event of violence and the knowledge of what the senses make of this violent encounter which informed this interdisciplinary workshop. Two keynotes were given by Profs Christopher Pinney (UCL) and Prof. Veena Das (Johns Hopkins University) along these lines. I also wanted to include and was in touch with the Durham Sexual Violence Group in this workshop. They were not available in the end due to maternity leaves.

This interdisciplinary workshop explored the inherent relationship between an event of violence and the knowledge of what the senses make of this violent encounter. Instead of understanding violence on its own and only as a physical manifestation, the workshop seeks to ask what is violence and what constitutes it? Is it determined by the knowledge of the senses or can it exist beyond the senses? By senses we refer to visual, embodied, sensual, fragmented, experiential non-literary ways of ‘knowing’ violence. What is the role of mediation, circulation, encoding in this understanding of violence and the senses? How is the nation imbricated between the violence and the knowledge of its senses? What is the significance of historical political-economic contextualizations, power and powerlessness, hierarchies and exclusions in these instances of making sense of violence? Overall the workshop sought to suggest new ways of interrogating violence through the knowledge of its senses by showcasing the ethnography of Spectral Wound in conversation with interdisciplinary scholarship present in Durham across departments.

Prof. Pinney in his keynote discussed Ariella Azoulay and brought to light the relationship between vision and flawed citizenship by discussing Palestinian photographs. Prof. Michael Carrithers sought to address resonance and presence through the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Dr Divya Tolia Kelly identified the disruptive character of performance art and made the powerful argument how the more we see the less we feel. Dr Alex Flynn expanded on the significatory potential of images in art exhibitions in Brazil. Dr. Elisabeth Kirtsoglou on embodiment and performed the Spectral Wound by crisscrossing two ethnographies. Dr Anselma Gallinat expanded on the visuality of Public memory work in East Germany. Dr Brian Black in talking through the epic Mahabharata and its aesthetic dimension expanded on initimate and spectacular violence and showed how violence is carried out through dialogue. Prof Veena Das gave a keynote on thinking as conceptual experience and how violent experiences are conceptualised.

All the presentations made complex contributions to the theorisation of visuality and violence. Hence the visual contribution to CVAC is multiple through the following intended outcomes:

  •  To start a network on Violence and Knowledge of the Senses including visual senses
  •  To showcase the various interdisciplinary research existing on this theme in Durham University including visualities.


    •  To foster academic and non-academic engagement with the Spectral Wound and its visual debates.
  •  In due course consider publishing a Special issue of a Journal/edited book which would include a visual component.
  •  I branded the event as a CVAC event.


Overall I am immensely grateful to CVAC for their support for food and tea and coffee for the workshop participants.


Dr Nayanika Mookherjee, February 2017


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