Issue Number Zero: Prototyping Prototyping

A prototype para-site event: death penalty mitigation

[This exhibit relates to the “Parasites” project discussed by George Marcus. –ed.]

The first Para-site event at the Center for Ethnography at UC Irvine occurred on November 5,2006. Jesse Cheng, an advanced graduate student, studied a movement among activist lawyers to mitigate the death penalty in capital cases. A practicing lawyer himself, Cheng worked with them and in other directions that their activities suggest to study the operations of the death penalty through the para-ethnographic, descriptive-analytic work that the mitigation lawyers produce in their advocacy . He conducted his own investigation through the forms of their investigation. This is the analogous space of the classic ‘native point of view’, but without a compass in traditional ethnographic practices to do this kind of research that requires collaborative conceptual work. This work needs a context, a space, a set of expectations and norms, better than the opportunistic conversations that occur in just ‘hanging out’. The para-site experiment is intended to be a surrogate for these needs of contemporary research that are certainly anticipated in practice but still without norms and forms of method. It encourages addressing issues of design before a concept of design has reinvented the expectations of pedagogy in anthropological training. Undoubtedly, the para-site will take different shapes and participations between the field and the conference room in other dissertation projects. But in all cases, it is a response to the imperative to materialize collaborative forms in contemporary ethnographic research.
The following is the reaction I sent to Jesse Cheng after his event. It deals with how a form for epistemic collaboration in contemporary fieldwork might be located and clarified through the holding of a para-site event ; and how such a para-site needs a ‘third’ –a common object or a specific community of reception to address—here high-minded debates about the death penalty—as the basis for the complicit solidarity on which collaboration might be created in contemporary contexts of research, full of causes and activist motivations:


That was a great first para-site effort…Just a couple of personal observations:
For me, the key to exploring ‘reflexive knowledge’ ethnographically among expertises and ‘projects’ of various sorts in the world, like death penalty mitigation, is to locate/discover where and how it is constituted para-ethnographically, so to speak–to find a ‘form’ amidst practices of your subjects and counterparts in ethnographic research. In our session, this moment materialized after lunch, when Russ[one of the mitigation experts] revealed in response to my question that all of this elaborate research that such experts do in arguing the penalty phase of cases is built into the advocacy process as a ‘front-loaded’ phenomenon in a situation of anticipation. And then at the end, Bill [Maurer, anthropologist at UCI attending the event] crucially associated this ‘space’ of legal research and representation with the formulation of the nature of contemporary ethnography itself as anticipatory. So this is a space of both ‘fact-finding” and the imaginary, depending upon the development of reflexive knowledge. The question remains of what the role of the ethnographer/ fieldworker is in this ‘found’ space of para-ethnography. To describe it?, to analyze it ?, to partner with it? to encourage the development of it? to pass it on, represent it elsewhere by some sort of mediation…?
And this gets to some of the remarks of the final discussion of the event about what the stakes for anthropology are in research like this–for its own disciplinary project– and not part of helping to strategize, where the anthropologist participant might be perceived by the mitigation experts in the role of consultant (this is your ‘participant observation’ role, your ‘blending in’ identity in this kind of research). What is in this research for anthropologists themselves when they, in their own disciplinary discussions, have not really created a context to receive it as part of a significant problem that they have defined ? Well, my current solution to this problem of anthropologists themselves making something of topics that they themselves have not developed is that work in anthropology like yours has to be designed with a ‘third’ primary area of reception for ethnography in mind– that is, neither the community of anthropologists who are not prepared to discuss such work deeply, nor the subjects themselves who have their own purposes and interests in developing your work with you. So what is this ‘third’ arena of reception in which your work should have impact? —that is a key problem and integral responsibility of conducting ethnographic research today. It is as much a problem of ethnographic analysis as describing the work of your subjects—the mitigation lawyers—itself. It could blur into anthropology as activism, but I consider it first and foremost a theoretical and analytic problem of ethnography itself.
Well, in your case, I evoked high-minded, often high literati discourse on capital punishment that usually has no subtle knowledge of ethnographic objects/subjects (with the reflexive knowledge work that goes on in fieldwork), but cumulatively is really important in influencing broad public change in social thought about issues such as capital punishment. I think that if your work is to have effect, it has a real contribution to make at this level of high literati policy debate, and it is an explicit task of design in your project to consider this realm of reception—as itself another, ‘third’ site for ethnographic understanding.
So ethnography in its production is inherently dialogic where the key partners to dialogue are often not just the ‘natives’. This means the very conception and design of projects of ethnographic critique should incorporate a deeply understood (itself ethnographic in nature?) dimension of intended reception outside the scene and interests of fieldwork itself… In this mode, the ethnographer sees the function of his work as mediation in very specific politics or topology of knowledge that incorporates anticipated reception.”