“Listening as a Way of Writing:” Cronistas and Narratives of Social Suffering

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Gabriela Polit, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, led the April 11th session of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. She discussed her latest book, Unwanted Witnesses. Journalists and Conflict in Contemporary Latin America, which “look[s] at the work done by journalists covering conflict” in Latin America and aims to “bring to the public eye what it takes to write a story of social suffering (i.e. migration, displacement, armed conflict, narcotrafficking, impunity, force disappearance, domestic violence, etc.) under extreme circumstances.”

Polit’s seminar discussion focused on the writing of cronistas, Latin American journalists who act as witnesses to the “quotidian” aspects of social events and conflicts. Polit suggests in Unwanted Witnesses that cronistas’ stories, also known as crónicas, are more concerned with personal narratives, small details, and aesthetics than other forms of journalism. She explained to Faculty Fellows that spending time with cronistas like Patricia Nieto and Marcela Turati caused her to see the cronista’s investment in reporting the personal and the quotidian as driven by a commitment to listen well to others, to understand “listening as a way of writing.”According to Polit, in the context of social suffering the cronista’s “listening to the words uttered by someone who has a need to be listened to and understood” has an “ethical quality.” Listening well produces an understanding between speaker and listener that allows the cronista to “transfor[m] stories of pain, trauma, and social suffering into stories of empathy, care, and affection that could eventually lead to political action.”

Polit told Faculty Fellows that Unwanted Witnesses makes journalists both its subject and one of its target audiences. By voicing the experiences of cronistas and examining the challenges they face when writing about their own and others’ suffering, Polit suggested that she hoped to give representation to those who risk their personal safety and mental health to represent victims of social conflict. Spending time with several cronistas, including one who was killed during the writing of Unwanted Witnesses, has made the prevalence and seriousness of violent threats to journalists all too clear to Polit. Thus, Polit has crafted Unwanted Witnesses to enable readers to better understand and appreciate cronistas’ journalistic techniques as well as the sacrifices they make to produce their work.

Polit pointed to Patricia Nieto’s Los escogidos, a book-length crónica about the practice of retrieving the bodies of people killed and dumped in the Río Magdalena as a result of armed conflict in Colombia, to provide Faculty Fellows with an example of cronistas’ experience of writing about trauma. In Unwanted Witnesses Polit describes Nieto’s struggle to write about traumatic events earlier in her career and indicates that for Nieto “writing becomes a process for healing a person after trauma.” Polit claims that Nieto “emphasizes the importance of the pursuit of beauty as an introspective journey, rather than the pragmatics of storytelling” in her journalism. Nieto merges journalistic and aesthetic writing in Los escogidos to craft a reflective and transformative account of social suffering, according to Polit. Nieto’s pursuit of beauty through aestheticized writing shapes personal and communal trauma into an “inner voice” through which victims may assert themselves to “claim reparation from the state.”

Faculty Fellows were moved by Polit’s description of cronistas’ experiences of trauma and violent retribution and responded by making connections between Polit’s research and the experiences of journalist and academic friends and colleagues. They pointed to resonances between her work on writing and trauma and the work of colleagues Gloria González-Lopez and Jamie Pennybaker. Fellows also reflected on Polit’s discussions of the functions of listening and representation in cronistas’ work. They considered why crónicas’ representations of injustice and traumatic experiences do not always lead to political action, and questioned whether the empathy evoked and conveyed by cronistas’ listening-based writing style makes readers more likely to work towards social change.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

An Argument for Narratives as Arguments: Subjective Knowledge, Indian Narrative, and Moral Learning

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Scott Stroud, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, led the March 7th meeting of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. Stroud posed the question of how narratives argue, which expanded into two related questions: whether narratives “can argue well for a point or position” and whether they can convey truths about the world in a way similar to that in which we think arguments convey truths. Stroud indicated that his interest in these questions stems from his concern with how we value narrative, suggesting that understanding how narratives argue and identifying standards for narrative argument will enhance our understanding of what narrative can and should do in the world.

Stroud’s partial answer to this question, discussed during the Faculty Fellows Seminar and laid out in greater detail in his 2008 essay, “Simulation, Subjective Knowledge, and the Cognitive Value of Literary Narrative” (Journal of Aesthetic Education), is that narratives can convey truths or knowledge about the world by providing readers opportunities to simulate narrated subjective experiences and in doing so expand our knowledge of what it is like to have experiences that the limits of our human would otherwise prevent us from obtaining. Stroud argues that simulated experiences “can be forces” pushing readers “toward identifying or not identifying with certain characters and their values,” and this identification can cause readers to appropriate “values and/or strategies” that appear good or advantageous in light of their narrative representation and may further our current “moral projects” or induce us to take on new ones (33,38). Stroud is careful to point out that though subjective knowledge may be a “means to” identification with characters and “moral learning,” moral learning does not necessarily follow from this subjective knowledge and this knowledge has “cognitive value” in and of itself because it enables “reflective thinking about some aspect of the world” (24).

Stroud also discussed his interest in how ancient Indian narratives argue using narratives nested within narratives (also known as embedded narratives) to suggest how narrative structures and strategies have been used to craft effective arguments. His 2017 essay, “Embedded Stories and the Use of Ambiguity in Ancient Indian Narratives: Selfshadowing in the Anugītā, (Journal of Narrative Theory)” elaborates on this idea by analyzing the way the Anugītā, a part of the ancient Indian epic, Mahābhārata, uses ambiguity generated through embedded narratives to persuade readers to “free [themselves] of the illusions of self and of its worldly desires” and understand that “people are not as disconnected or individuated as readers might think” (193). Stroud also explained that his current research for a book project on the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar, a dalit (“untouchable”) scholar, social reformer, and politician, induced him to consider the challenges of analyzing how autobiographical narratives like Ambedkar’s autobiographical writing argue, whether their inherently particular narratives can convey more general knowledge of the world, and to what extent these narratives engage in and enable “deception of self and other.”

In the lively discussion that followed Stroud’s presentation Faculty Fellows countered Stroud’s claims about narratives by arguing that narratives provide certain moving affective and cognitive experiences, but they do not necessarily engage in argument that seeks to persuade an audience of specific truths. Other Fellows (including Stroud) suggested that the fact that narratives in news media regularly persuade audiences to accept certain things as true (or try and fail to do so) indicates that narratives can be created to persuade and/or convey “truths” about the world with varying levels of effectiveness and ethical worth. Another Fellow suggested that certain literary narratives contain ambiguity that enables them to be understood and analyzed in a variety of well-reasoned and persuasive ways, and this multivalence complicates or resists readings that try to identify their arguments and/or evaluate how they argue.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

Black, Kinetic Counter-narrative: Dance Theater, Storytelling, and Racial Inequality

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Professor Charles O. Anderson, head of the UT dance program and producing artistic director of the B.F.A. dance company, Dance Repertory Theatre, led the February 21st meeting of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. Anderson described “(Re)current Unrest,” the performance project that was originally presented at Fusebox and is on tour this spring, as presenting “the self-acknowledged choice to be a Black body in rhythmic motion… the Black body reconfigured within spaces of white imagination… a site of projected fear, abhorred yet desired…the Black body as trope, strange fruit, postmodern, plural.” The samples of “(Re)current Unrest” that he performed for the seminar provided Faculty Fellows with a sense of the project’s intensity and how Anderson uses what he calls “kinetic storytelling” to convey a narrative through movement and “promote dance theater as a tool for social change/justice/activism.”

After explaining the Afrocentric framework within which he works, which is informed by seven aesthetic precepts of the Afrocentric tradition, including radical juxtaposition and wholism (the embrasure of something in its totality), Anderson began the performance part of his presentation by asking Faculty Fellows to stand loosely grouped in the middle of a mostly empty room with their hands over their hearts, as if preparing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He then donned a black hoodie and a mask depicting a hangman’s noose. As Steve Reich’s haunting Civil Rights Era composition, “It’s Gonna Rain,” played, Anderson stood just in front of (sometimes only inches away from) Faculty Fellows and engaged in kinetic storytelling by pounding his fist on his heart, laughing wildly, making sudden dramatic movements, putting his hands up as if being commanded to do so by police, and falling to his knees with arms out and masked face up. Anderson’s movements and vocalizations presented a dynamic, confrontational, and raw mixture of pain, anger, irony, and unrest within the context of a defining gesture of American patriotism, a combination that produced what Anderson describes as a kinetic “testimony” to historical and contemporary experiences of Black Americans in a society of persistent racial injustice and inequality that is necessarily a counter-narrative to the often white-centered hegemonic narratives of American culture.

Anderson explained that the choreography of “(Re)current Unrest” draws on Afrocentric conceptions of movement to foreground Black movement and experience while subverting the significance of movements associated with hegemonic American narratives and “high” culture, such as European-derived ballet traditions. Anderson views “(Re)current Unrest”’s subversive choreography as an opportunity both to expose the impact of cultural appropriation of Black creative acts and engage in “‘re-appropriation’” to “reclaim terms or artifacts previously used in ways that were disparaging of” Black Americans.

A vigorous discussion followed Anderson’s performance, including his posing the following challenging question: what is the significance of the fact that he was the only Blackperson in the room? Anderson clarified that he wasn’t criticizing specific individuals or the selection process for the seminar, but thought it important for all Fellows to keep in mind that the intellectual community fostered by the seminar is constituted as a primarily white space.  Seminar members were powerfully affected by the performance. Some pointed out that not only their minds but their bodies were affected by watching as the dancer moved among them. Among other responses, Fellows  noted that the chest pounding Anderson employed also signifies emotional pain and distress in Korean culture; wondered what, given the prevalence of cultural appropriation, actually counts as an original work; and asked why Anderson describes “(Re)current Unrest” as a transmedia narrative. In response to the question about originality, Anderson pointed out that originality functions quite differently in the Afrocentric tradition, which values work that captures an “original experience” and emphasizes ongoing communal creativity that assumes the influence of preceding sources within the tradition. He also explained that he classifies his project as transmedia because it relies on multiple kinds of media to tell its story, including a website through which other dancers post videos of their own related projects, thereby extending the project’s dialogue and expanding its narrative.

For more about “(Re)current Unrest,” see Sight Lines’s interview of Anderson, “Dance Staying Woke: Anderson’s Choreography Bears Witness.”

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.


Citation, Authority, and Narrative: Livy and the Implications of Strategic Source Presentation

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, Associate Professor of Classics, led discussion at the February 14th meeting of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar by presenting her research on Titus Livius (also known as Livy), a Roman historian writing from about 31 B.C. to 14 A.D., and his poetic and strategically political citations in his 142-book history of Rome (of which only 35 books survive), Ab Urbe Condita (meaning “from the foundation of the city,”). Haimson Lushkov’s current project (which continues some of the themes of her recent book, Magistracy and the Historiography of the Roman Republic: Politics in Prose) explores how Livy’s narrative style “uses complex literary mechanism[s] in order to give shape to” the story it “tells about the Roman past,” and analyzes how the Roman historian “presents his sources” to tell certain kinds of historical stories.

Haimson Lushkov indicated that her project contributes to a transition in the discipline of Classics from seeing Livy as an “unthinking moralistic historian” to seeing him as a politically savvy narrative craftsman. In both her presentation and her 2013 essay, “Citation and the Dynamics of Tradition in Livy’s AUC” (Histos, vol. 7), Haimson Lushkov pointed out that Livy cites other Roman historians to “construct a literary tradition and historiographical background” and “positio[n]…himself and his sources relative to a collective tradition” in a way that lends his work authority within that tradition. This analysis of Livy’s citation practices foregrounds that the production of authority is an important function of citation, and Haimson Lushkov encouraged the seminar to reflect on how authority created through controlled and strategic presentation of sources influences our understanding of narratives.

Haimson Lushkov observed that Livy’s citation reveals how he sees his own work’s position within a literary and historical tradition. She related this use of citations to the use of citations by present-day academics, suggesting that how and what we cite reveal the “stories of our academic selves and our commitments.” Haimson Lushkov also drew connections between Livy’s citation and our contemporary information environment, suggesting that just as the information and narratives in Ab Urbe Condita are curated based on Livy’s interests and agenda despite his implied objectivity and authority, so too are the information and narratives curated by social media and tech corporations to appeal to us and/or further various interests and agendas despite the fact that we are told we can find objective and authoritative information on just about anything online.

Faculty Fellows responded to Haimson Lushkov’s project by discussing their own approaches to citation and noting how those approaches are influenced by their beliefs, commitments, and the expectations of their field. The seminar’s discussion moved from addressing the rigorous citation required in the medical field and the high stakes of making a flawed study authoritative through widespread citation to discussing citations as a product of Western civilization in contrast, for example, to the Afrocentric tradition. Haimson Lushkov responded to the latter point by mentioning that the field of Classics is now wrestling with its Eurocentric traditions, and especially with their appropriation by extreme right-wing positions, despite what we know about the rich cultural and racial diversity of the ancient world and its later students and scholars. Faculty Fellows’ responses suggested that examining Livy’s approach to citation within the Roman historical tradition caused them to reflect on the relationship between citation and authority in academia, in particular, how features of academic publishing and writing such as the peer review system and citation indexes influence which sources get labelled as authoritative. From there the seminar moved into a wide-ranging discussion of fact and fiction, truth and rumor, and appropriation and creativity. This broader discussion foreshadowed some of the topics that have been addressed in the first Distinguished Public Lecture organized by the seminar, Dr. Emily Greenwood’s March 13th lecture on “Philology and Reparation: Resisting Anti-Human Errors in ‘Great’ Books.”

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

Official Blog of the Humanities Institute at the University of Texas at Austin