Alessandra Gribaldo (2021), Unexpected Subjects: Intimate Partner Violence, Testimony, and the Law (Chicago: Hau Books), 148 pp., $20, ISBN: 9781912808304.
Unexpected Subjects is an excellent ethnographic reflection on the production of the legal figure of the victim, revealing the intrinsic violence of institutional devices created to sanction the validity of women's experiences of intimate partner violence. Using Italy as an illustrative case, anthropologist Alessandra Gribaldo has the ability to immerse the reader in court hearings, where the life experience of the plaintiff is subjected to scrutiny. This book makes a contribution to research in the fields of law, the state, gender and violence. Moreover, its impact can go beyond the academic sphere and be of use for practitioners and activists working for the elimination of gender-based violence.
‘You just have to tell us what happened’. This statement appears in the first ethnographic vignette that Gribaldo features in the book. This imperative, thrown to the plaintiff in the courtroom, epitomises the politics of truth-telling that this ethnography explores. First, this demand connects with concerns raised in chapter one about the fact that investigations into intimate partner violence hinge upon the victim's perception of violence, which is interpreted in the legal system under a neoliberal notion of free consent that disavows historical and social power relations. Second – as argued in chapter two – it refers to the obligation to ‘speak violence’ in an institutional setting, where the requirement that the violence be expressed verbally in order to be believed and condemned encounters a violent dissonance with the subjective experience of the violent acts suffered. Third, this imperative relates to the particularity, analysed in chapter three, that the testimony constitutes the only evidence in the juridical process, which leads to the judgement being placed on the victim and not on the perpetrator. Finally, this demand that the victim speak is also an appeal to trust the legal system. Throughout Gribaldo's book, this trust is shattered when, as readers, we attend to how women are revictimised in court while compelled to perform the role of the ‘authentic victim’, a figure tethered to contradictory expectations of legal professionals that give validity to certain emotions, particular behaviours and specific interpretations of their experience.
Unexpected voices and subjectivities emerge in chapter four, where Gribaldo presents the case of a woman whose performance disrupts the violent binaries victim/agent–truthful/manipulative that are applied in court in the process of reaching a verdict. This example also poses the epistemological question in the investigation of gender-based violence of the need to explore complexities, ambivalences and hesitations, which is the opposite to what is permitted by the legal system. The analysis of the legal field as a system of knowledge and power is also a claim in relation to knowledge creation. In the hearings, women have to narrate coherent stories in order to be recognised as producing valid knowledge. In this sense, the book contributes to the criticism raised by feminist scholars that, since the 1980s, have challenged patriarchal ways of knowing and have opened epistemic possibilities for thinking ‘otherwise’. The book also contributes to conflict and peace studies in the investigation of the configuration of victimhood, where testimonies are compelled to follow certain guidelines that do not correspond to ‘how bodies remember and recount violence messily and out of order’ (Krystalli 2019: 181). Gribaldo emphasises disruptions as part of her proposal for an anthropology of hesitations. The powerful potential of this epistemological stance is here only sketched. I hope we will discover further development of this approach in future work by the author.
This thought-provoking monograph concludes with a series of open questions relevant for both research and feminist activism. Some relate to a paramount concern explored in the book: the need to name and reveal violence without revictimising those who have suffered it. How beneficial is it for survivors of violence to speak out? Are there ways to manifest experiences of violence that could elude the pervasive logocentrism in the representation of violence? Taking up the invitation to reflect on these questions, I would consider the risk of reproducing in our research practices the violence of the request for narration that Gribaldo criticises. The methodology used for this book, as in other sensitive research, includes interviews with survivors of violence. Are these necessary? The book succeeds in moving the focus in the analysis of violence from the victim to the perpetrator. Fieldnotes taken in the hearings brilliantly convey the impediments that survivors of violence face to be able to raise their truth in their own words. It does not seem essential to place the survivor in another setting of elicitation, such as the space of interview. Are we assuming that the space of the interview liberates the words that are muffled in institutional settings? The interview space might challenge epistemic injustice, spark reflections and allow for different ways of expression. Or it might not. In this illuminating ethnography, such hesitations are part of what Gribaldo invites us to embrace for the ethical and epistemological improvement of the discipline, and of our practice when seeking to contribute to eschewing violence in our societies.
University of Brighton
Krystalli, R. (2019), ‘Narrating Violence: Feminist Dilemmas and Approaches’, in L. Shepherd (ed.), Handbook on Gender and Violence (London: Edward Elgar Publishing), 173–188.
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Agnieszka Kościańska (2021), To See a Moose: The History of Polish Sex Education (New York: Berghahn).
There are two immediately noticeable qualities about To See a Moose that make it a little bit unusual. Firstly, this is part of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe's ‘European Anthropology in Translation’ series. Philip Palmer's 2021 translation into English follows the original 2017 Polish-language book, and it comes with a Foreword by Frances Pine. Kościańska's book seems an excellent choice for the series. It would be an exciting addition to both research bibliographies and university syllabi. Like all the best anthropology, it has the quality of both being acutely attuned to a fieldsite's specificities and speaking to broader, global, processes and questions.
Secondly, this seems a rare beast (a moose?) because it is an academic book that general publics will be interested in (as they already have been in Poland). It seems fair to assume that anthropology-cum-history has a broader general readership than anthropology. But, more than this, sex education is, for many people, a topic that elicits both strong political (and often religious) feeling and memories of what they were and were not taught themselves. The vantage point of adulthood challenges us to look back and see the sex education (or lack thereof) that we experienced as illustrative of the times and places where we grew up. Which laws? Which social movements? Which religion–state dynamics? What assumptions about a normative path with marriage and children (in that order) as its headlines?
The book is organised into ten chapters. These look at how sex education in Poland has changed over time while being organised through themes rather than by historical period. Chapter titles such as ‘Masturbation: Not Harmful, But . . . ’ and ‘“Come Get Your Acorns, Boys”: Sex Education in the Countryside’ are witty, but chapters themselves do not poke fun or minimise. I particularly appreciated how Kościańska highlights that sex education is not only in schools but, as she puts it, ‘[Both] Behind and Beyond the School Gates’. A capacious definition of sex education includes pornography, what happens at home, in the media, in gossip. Sex education also happens, in a roundabout way, in the courtroom. We learn from a historical perspective about legal judgements and public opinion on what constitutes rape, with a common thread being a survivor having to endure judgement of their sexual history in order to ascertain whether or not they ‘provoked’ their attacker. A refreshing 2011 document published by a women's organisation finally shifts focus to the perpetrator: ‘Don't rape. Don't be the one who does it’. (225).
Kościańska provides a tour of the nineteenth, twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The nineteenth century had been characterised by obsessions with marriage as a way of channelling inheritance and with the exploration of ‘deviance’ and ‘perversion’ The first Polish sex education class took place in 1904. Scanning the dates of the passages from handbooks and from letters written by anxious young people to sexologists is evocative: 1937, 1961, 1978, 1989, 2004. What were their lives like? How has the image of the child, the teenager, the young person, been shaped and reshaped during this period?
It's not that one place is more interesting or more apt to learn about sex education (writ broadly) than anywhere else, but I suspect that those who hear of this English-language edition of To See a Moose will think, ‘A study of sex education in Poland – oh yes, that makes sense's. Poland is often associated on the world stage with its enduring fealty to the Roman Catholic Church. Zooming out again, that Poland has known an uncommon number of changes in forms of governance – partitions, independence, war, state socialism, postsocialist democracy, EU accession – also poses profound questions about what the places are of sexuality, gender, and reproduction in struggles for power.
However, To See a Moose shows the differences between official scripts and lived experience. It does not reify Poland with lazy tropes. With its finely tuned and meticulous use of sources, it challenges those who might assume, for example, that urban areas are more progressive than rural ones. In ‘classless’ state socialist Poland, a teenager whose father is an engineer-technician writes to a girls’ magazine because worried about the long-term potential of her relationship with a painter and decorator's assistant. She reports that he ‘does not have a good reputation, he smokes cigarettes and gets up to mischief with the boys’ (Jackiewiczowa 1961, 28, cited in Kościańska 2021, 19).
A key category of data is the work of sex experts of various stripes. These experts on sex are also writers on sex, who make interesting aesthetic choices when they present their opinions. The 1993 conservative guide for young people, Before You Choose, was, as Kościańska points out, not really about choice unless the choice is having sex within the confines of a marriage. Extra- and pre-marital sex were blamed for the spread of HIV. Women were supposed to gift their virginity to their new husbands. Pre-marital sex, the unforgettable simile says, was so unsatisfying that it was ‘like tasting the raw pastry’ (Grabowski et al. 1993, 148 cited in Kościańska 2021, 99).
I found letters from young people to sex experts particularly moving. These were young people who worried about their sexuality, who were unsure if they should have sex, who were experiencing unrequited love, who were pregnant without wanting to be so. Some of these went back as far as the 1950s, and I wondered how their lives had unfolded. Had they been able to have the sorts of sex and relationships they wanted? What kind of change had they witnessed in their lifetimes?
What older generations owe to younger generations is a question of perpetual anthropological significance, and one of the things I took away from Kościańska's book (and what she argues throughout the book and then emphatically in the conclusion) is that working for openness and empathy in sex education (and in the broader culture around gender and sexuality) is truly a way of a society caring for their youth.
University of Edinburgh
Andrea Matošević (2021), Almost, but Not Quite Bored in Pula: An Anthropological Study of the Tapija Phenomenon in Northwest Croatia (Oxford: Berghahn Books).
This is a book about a city (Pula, Croatia) and a particular way of being that is conjured by that city (called “tapija”). Not unlike the way ennui is readily associated with Paris, Matošević introduces tapija to the reader as the distinctive affect evoked by Pula's social and material environment. We are told that tapija does not exist elsewhere, even in Pula's suburbs. The analysis of tapija that unfolds in Almost, but Not Quite Bored in Pula offers a theoretically sophisticated discussion of how a city is inhabited by its residents and illustrates how that relationship can change over time.
While the concept of tapija shares resonance with the proximate and more familiar notions of boredom and ennui, Matošević grounds tapija's distinctiveness in its orality. Unlike boredom, Matošević explains that tapija lacks a thick literature to conceptually anchor this mental state. Its vernacular quality gives tapija a fluid character that allows for broad shifts in meaning without compromising its legibility. Depending on the situation, tapija can refer, for example, to: a deficient quality of individuals, situations, moods, and times of year; a playful criticism of one's surroundings; a critique of the person claiming tapija; a source of discomfort; and a comforting respite. Tapija's conceptual instability, and the degree of contextualisation needed to follow its meaning, is precisely what makes tapija so interesting to think about anthropologically.
The city of Pula, Matošević explains, sets the condition of possibility for experiencing tapija. Pula is located on the Southern tip of the Istrian peninsula. It is a major port city, military centre, and historically a site of industry and manufacturing. In the latter part of the twentieth century, amidst industrial decline, Pula restyled itself as a centre of culture and tourism. Along with housing a large public university, Pula also hosts popular film and book festivals during its busy summer tourism season. The ebbs and flows of a port city that brings together a heady mix of foreign travellers, authors, filmmakers, scholars and their critical consumers in part of the year, but not others, creates residents predisposed to experience tapija as well as seasonal rhythms that trigger it.
As Matošević elaborates, the dictionary definition for tapija is a word of Turkish origin meaning a property deed that must be court certified (10). The term's bureaucratically banal roots hint at its vernacular evolution. Methodologically, Matošević plots tapija's shifting meanings through a generational analysis. He interviews Pula residents born between the 1950s and the early 2000s about their experience with and use of tapija. Across his interviews, Matošević finds that tapija consistently connotes a discerning subject – a person who has been endowed by their city with the high level of cultural capital and a cosmopolitan sensibility that renders them difficult to fully please or properly impress (23). Matošević then attributes subtler shifts in meaning to changes in the life of the city. While older generations use tapija to issue a critique of something, someone, or some moment, the term has become more closely associated with boredom among younger generations. The older generation's sense of not being fully impressed with what there is to do has given way among younger residents to a seasonal lack of things to do as the steady stimulation offered by the city's summer festivals and tourism recedes into the comparatively under-stimulated winter months. The seasonality of tapija calls to mind the boredom described in other European cities whose economies and social life are similarly oriented towards the effervescence of summer tourism (see Frederiksen 2013).
Matošević largely theorises tapija through the better developed literature on boredom. Like boredom, Matošević describes tapija as a reaction to the life conditions of the city. In its negative formulation, tapija is a comment upon a perceived insufficiency or lack in the city's offerings. Yet tapija also has a positive formulation that allows city residents to understand their tapija as an indicator of the discerning tastes and refinement that their city's cultural offerings have bestowed upon them. While largely described as a negative mental state, tapija emerges in the end as a point of pride. Municipal leaders, Matošević indicates, even grounded Pula's bid to become Europe's 2020 Capital of Culture in large part in the city's distinctive malaise.
Accessibly written and theoretically engaged, Almost, But Not Quite Bored in Pula offers an insightful look into the mental life of an understudied metropolis. This fascinating study will be important reading for scholars of urban and cultural studies for years to come.
Saint Louis University
Frederiksen, M. D. (2013), Young Men, Time, and Boredom in the Republic of Georgia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press).
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Aleksandra Pavićević (2021), Funerary Practices in Serbia (Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited), 200 pp., ISBN 978-1787691827.
Funerary Practices in Serbia is a book by Aleksandra Pavićević, a Serbian anthropologist who is one of the leading experts and a well-known name when it comes to topics of processes and phenomena of death, especially in the Balkans. As in her previous books, the main topics are death, burials, cemeteries, rituals, and their legislation in Serbia. The author mostly focuses on the descriptions of the practices and the rules surrounding the process of death, especially as it concerns specific regions of the country. The mainstay of the book is about contemporary questions and protocols, but it also does a good job starting with an overview of the history of mortuary policies in the Serbian region. This introductory part helps the reader understand how today's standards formed, while also familiarising those without knowledge of Serbia's culture and history.
Pavićević did exhaustive research of the legal and regulatory questions surrounding mortuary rites – thus, the largest part of the book is focused on descriptions and protocols of that nature. This includes all the explanations of laws and regulations concerning the burials themselves, as well as cemeteries, different procedures for different variations, cremations, and so on. It is notable how the author painstakingly traces all the burial procedure details. One whole chapter is concerned about paying for the funeral, something which is unavoidably part of the process, yet often overlooked when anthropologists describe practices and procedures.
As Serbia is demographically quite diverse, beliefs and folk religion practices (as the author elaborates especially in the third chapter), it is impossible to define one definitive system of burial. Pavićević describes what the laws and procedures state, how they changed and evolved, how they differ in rural and urban areas, and how the traditions of various regions and areas differ. Parts of the book go in detail about current and past differences when it comes to mortuary customs between members of different religions who live in Serbia – mostly Orthodox and Catholic Christians, Jews and Muslims. Folk religions, beliefs and traditions are very present even today, and they in return affect the regulated practices enacted by the government. Many of the established ways are different on paper and in practice; for example, the book details how private cemeteries are forbidden by Serbian law and that private burials outside of cemetery grounds have been outlawed for some time. Yet in reality, people still bury their loved ones in private family cemeteries. With innovations developed during the twentieth century (one of them being cremations, as discussed in the final chapter) and the development of bigger cities (bringing with it more complex cemeteries), the composure of ritual, influences and processes becomes more complex. This, however, is what adds to its anthropological value and makes the content of this book, focused on all of that, captivating, even for a non-specialist.
Despite this, the seventh chapter tries to depict a typical funeral ritual in Serbia. It describes the entire chain of events – the immediate aftermath of the death, the funeral, and the social gatherings and customs that follow the funeral. These are elaborated in detail, with many particularities that make the whole process fascinating and rich with research material. The research does not focus on the analysis and anthropological explanations of the rituals, rather it offers very rich and elaborate descriptions of practices and introduction to the background of the society in which they blossomed. The author describes it all in detail, pointing out important aspects and possible differentiation between the models, but does not get into her own reflections much. This part mostly serves as a synopsis to ethnographic material of the matter, which would especially be useful to someone who is only getting into the subject.
Because of this, the book should not be seen as the typical anthropological analysis of a subject. It is more a review of the customs, methods and traditions, with the focus on the regulatory parts of the process and the full examination of the defined procedures. Because of its style, as well as the full history of the traditions and customs offered, Funerary Practices in Serbia can also serve as an introduction to general topic of death and burial in the country to those who do not know much about subject. The book introduces the main processes and customs along with the legal framework, giving the future researcher a great starting point for further questions and research. The book shows what might be all the main systems and characteristic of the practices, gives space to the varieties that show up in it, while also offering relevant cultural and historical background. These characteristics are what makes it great for those not acquainted with the subjects and topics, including students. Yet, the details and the variety that the book covers is something that will help those who already possess some knowledge develop their research further, pointing them to the main questions and notifying them of all the elements of the regulations, practices and differentiation that appear when it comes to death rituals in Serbia.
The text is the result of work under the contract 451–03–9/2021–14/200163, signed in 2021. and completely financed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development.